Setting One’s Face

Apollo 13

“Setting One’s Face”
Luke 9:51-62
Todd Buegler
June 25 & 26, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who sets his face towards us! Amen.

The most terrifying thing that a NASA astronaut can hear are the initials: L.O.S. They stand for “Loss of Signal.” I read an interview with Jim Lovell. You might recognize the name: Lovell was an astronaut, first in the Gemini, and then in the Apollo space programs. He was on Apollo 8, and then was the commander of the infamous Apollo 13 mission, which experienced an explosion in space and barely survived their journey home. Remember Tom Hanks in the movie, Apollo 13? Jim Lovell was the character he played.

In the interview, Lovell said that the most terrifying moments of a journey to the moon wasn’t, as one might expect, the launch, where the astronauts basically sit in a small, metal container, attached to the top of a giant explosive and ride it into space. Nor is it the landing, where their spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, heats to thousands of degrees and then plummets into the ocean, relying on parachutes to slow it down.

No, the most terrifying moment is L.O.S. It’s that time when the ship, orbiting the moon, turns around the back side of the moon, out of the line-of-sight of the earth, and for up to 45 minutes, there is no communication with Mission Control. “If something happens, we have no contact, no support, and no help,” said Lovell. “And if something catastrophic happens, NASA, and our friends and family, would never know what had happened to us. We’re just totally alone.” 10 times on his Apollo 8 mission, the crew experienced LOS. And each time, after 45 minutes of silence, when the small and fragile spacecraft rounded the moon and turned its nose (and its antenna) towards the earth, they heard static, and then the words “Apollo, this is Houston” when they reached A.O.S, or “Acquisition of Signal,” and there was a huge sigh of relief.

We live in a society where we can’t abide L.O.S; Loss of Signal…that is, being disconnected. That’s why we are so dependent on our phones, our iPads, and our computers. That’s why we Facebook, and Tweet, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and so on, and so on…

I remember two summers ago, when Nathan and I had just come out of a short trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where you are completely “unplugged.” We were sitting next to the car, having just loaded our stuff in for the drive home when I saw a small group with just 2 canoes come in to the dock from a trip.. A woman climbed out her canoe, dropped her bags, took off her life jacket, pulled her phone out of a pocket and immediately walked up to the top of a nearby hill, standing there, staring at her screen and turning in a slow circle…searching for service. Nope. Sorry lady, L.O.S.

Our Gospel reading for today is an interesting one, and in some ways, a very difficult one for us to work through. And it represents a transition point in the story of Jesus and the disciples. Up until Luke 9, Jesus has been doing his teaching, preaching and healing. But here, something changes, and Jesus and his wandering band of disciples set off in a new direction. And it happens right at the beginning of our reading. It’s a small, seemingly insignificant sentence, but it is critical. It says, ”When the days drew near for him to be taken up, (Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. Jesus turned. He turned and faced Jerusalem. AOS: Acquisition of Signal. Or perhaps even more accurately, “Acquisition of Mission.”

I think the phrase “Jesus set his face to Jerusalem” is an interesting phrase. It doesn’t just mean to just hang a right, and move in a different direction. To “Set your face” toward something implies a total commitment. If you set your face toward something, you are determined; you are resolute. You are “all in.” To borrow a phrase from the movie “Apollo 13,” “Failure is not an option.”

The writer of Luke’s Gospel is telling us that by Jesus setting his face towards Jerusalem, he was totally committing himself to his mission. He was determined, resolute and had some urgency. What was his mission? He turned his face toward Jerusalem, because he knew that it was there he would be betrayed. He knew that it was there he would go to the cross. He knew that there, he would die, and he knew that there, he would be resurrected. That was his mission. He knew that for the prophecy to be fulfilled, for the gifts of grace and forgiveness to be made real, he would need to die and be resurrected. And so he set his face.

And then, there is a really curious, and a kind of a hard exchange between Jesus and his followers. Someone promises, “Jesus, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus replies that while even the foxes and birds have homes, “the Son of Man has no where to rest his head.” Ok… Jesus then turns to someone else and says, “follow me.” That person replies, “I will, but first I have to bury my Father.” And Jesus says “Let the dead bury their own dead. But as for you, come and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” And then a 3rd person says “I will follow you, but first, let me go and say good-bye to my family.” And Jesus says “no one who looks back instead of looking forward is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Wow. At first read, that sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it? Don’t say goodbye to your family? Don’t even bury your father? Not exactly the warm and fuzzy Jesus that we would all prefer.

But this all makes more sense to us if we think more about Jesus’ mission and his context.

If Jesus is turning his face towards Jerusalem, that means that he knows he is beginning his long journey towards the cross. And that means he knows that he isn’t too terribly far from leaving his disciples on their own. Part of his intent is to prepare his followers for what is to come. Beginning with this new “turn” towards Jerusalem, Jesus is teaching discipleship…what it is to be a disciple, a Jesus follower, and what it is for us to be church.

The root of what Jesus is trying to teach is that to be a disciple of Jesus is to set our face toward Him and to follow, just follow, and to not be afraid of the journey.

Think about it: Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. There he will be falsely accused, unjustly tried, cruelly treated, and brutally executed. Of all the Gospel writers, Luke in particular stresses Jesus’ profound innocence and the pure injustice of what happens to him. Which means that Jesus’ response to the chaos, limitation, and vulnerability of this world is not to deny it or try to control it or defeat it, but rather to embrace it…even to the point of death.

Jesus willingly walks into what he knows is his own death, and he does it because he has a mission to fulfill; because he knows that following death will be resurrection, and with resurrection comes, forgiveness and new life for all of God’s people…all of God’s people.

Jesus’ lesson then, is that as his disciples, we should likewise set our faces towards Him, and follow. And we recognize that to follow Jesus isn’t always a comfortable, easy thing. Sometimes it requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires making difficult choices and setting aside what is easy, for what is right.

And like the disciples before us, sometimes it requires stepping into the messy, the difficult and the challenging.

We live in a messy, difficult and challenging world right now. There is tension and polarization politically, socially, economically, racially. And I believe that what God wants us to learn today from our Gospel is that we, as Jesus-followers, might need to turn and set our face towards Him, and step right into the mess.

I believe our faith has something to say to a world that is broken and in pain. And to be honest, the response of the Christian church in the last 50 years has been to make like a turtle, to withdraw our hands, our feet and our heads and to hunker down, as if the storm will pass.

I wish. The storm will not pass on its own. There is clearly too much evil in the world for that to happen.

  • Issues around race are creating conflict in our culture. Jesus is teaching us here that as people of faith, we need not to avoid this conflict, but to step into it, and to be a voice of justice, and reconciliation.
  • Issues around human sexuality divide people. Jesus is teaching us here that as people of faith, we need to step into these conversations and be a voice of love and grace instead of judgment and hate.
  • Issues around crime and violence are in the news headlines every day. Jesus is teaching us here that as people of faith, we need to stand up to protect the helpless, and to be peacemakers.

Just as Jesus turned and set his face towards Jerusalem, he calls us to turn and set our face towards him, and to set out on our journey…a journey that takes us through the midst of all of these issues, all of this conflict. And in the midst of these things we face, we are the voice of God’s hope, love and grace. We make a difference. Our voices make a difference!

And we can do this without fear. Because Jesus promises that we are not alone in this.

My dear friends, Jesus’ cross and resurrection isn’t some abstract idea. It is about God’s promise to enter into our chaos and fear, stand with us through all that frightens us, remind us that God will not abandon us, and bring us to life on the other side. The antidote to fear, Jesus shows us, isn’t power or weapons or security, it’s courage, compassion, and trust.

And remember that once Jesus reached Jerusalem, once he reached the cross, he again turned and set his face. This time, he sets his face toward us. His mission is love, and we are the objects of that mission.

Let us turn, and set our face towards Jesus.  Let us have faith, and let’s go.

Thanks be to God!


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