He Set His Face
Saint Luke 9:51-56
There came a time—a point in our Lord’s earthly life and ministry—when Jesus, as we heard Saint Luke say in tonight’s third reading, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In the four Gospel accounts, only Luke uses this phrase, “he set his face,” which, in itself, is rather curious, for it’s a Hebrew expression and Saint Luke wrote his Gospel for a primarily Gentile audience. In fact, it’s believed that Saint Luke himself was a Gentile. So where did he come up with this Hebrew expression? Likely it came from Saint Paul, who was a co-worker with the evangelist Saint Luke, and who describes himself as a being “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” In fact, it’s believed that Saint Luke is something of a ghostwriter when it comes to both his Gospel account and the Book of Acts, writing both on behalf of the apostle Saint Paul.
In any case, saying that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” is significant, for it relays the understanding that Jesus was fully resolved and determined to go to Jerusalem, that is, to the cross and His suffering, death, and resurrection. Furthermore, the phrase, “he set his face,” indicates that His resolution to do this—his strength to do this—comes from God His Father who sent Him, for we hear the prophet Isaiah making use of these same words when speaking of the source of his strength in the face of adversity. He says, “But the Lord God helps me, therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.”
During this season of Lent in our Wednesday evening services, we will be following our Lord Jesus on His way to Jerusalem and the cross from this point where He “set his face to go.” We will consider how we, too, in our Christian lives set our faces toward the cross that we have been given to bear, and how we have our strength for this from God our heavenly Father, who, by His grace, has called us to this life of faith, and from His Son, who has “born our griefs and carried our sorrows,” and from the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, who continues to breathe life into us through the Gospel of Christ.
Now, immediately after telling us that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” Saint Luke says that Jesus “sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Again the Gospel writer uses this phrase. But why would this turn the people against Jesus? Why would setting His face toward Jerusalem be the cause for their rejection of Him? I doubt that our Lord’s steadfast determination to carry out the work His Father sent Him to do had caused Him to act rudely toward them, or do anything to offend them. Rather, the Hebrew expression is used again in connection with the villager’s poor reception to tell us that this is indicative of how things will proceed as Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem and the cross. For our Lord and His disciples, the first dark clouds of a storm that is coming have begun to gather—a storm that would reach the full intensity of its terrible fury at the cross on Good Friday. And then, on the third day, the skies would clear and the sun would shine again, for on the third day, Christ would be raised from the dead.
Jesus had told His disciples that this time was coming, when the clouds would gather and they would be walking with Him through the valley of the shadow of death, but they had not believed Him. They had not even wanted to consider, as He told them, that, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” Peter had declared to Jesus. And even when Jesus takes Peter, along with James and John, up onto a high mountain to demonstrate dramatically to them that His glory is not of this world, but for this world, they still don’t get it. And because they don’t get it—because they can’t accept what Jesus tells them is most assuredly on the way—the rejection from the villagers toward Jesus confounds them and fills them with righteous anger toward the Samaritans, so much so that James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
We’re told that Jesus rebukes His disciples for their wrath-filled suggestion and then moves on to another village. Some variant texts, perhaps added later as commentary, have Jesus saying to the brothers, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them,” implying that their judgmental attitude is inspired by the devil, much as it had been with Peter when he objected to what Jesus had said about His suffering, death, and resurrection. While Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem, trusting in His Father’s goodness and mercy, the disciples seem to have none of that trust … not yet. They can’t see past the mounting darkness to the light at the end—the light that will come because Jesus promises it, saying to them that the Son of Man will be raised up on the third day. And though the disciples may stumble and fall, as they did with their anger toward the Samaritans, and as they will when Christ comes to His cross, Jesus will keep them and sustain them. He will forgive them their transgressions and lack of faith.
For you in your lives of faith, dear friends, the shadow of the cross is with you. And not just for a mere season—not just for a time, or times within the span of your life. Because of Jesus and His cross, your entire life, from baptism to the grave, is a passing through the valley of the shadow of death. As we sang on Sunday, you walk in danger all the way, but even so, you can confidently say, as does the Psalmist, “I will fear no evil,” because Jesus has passed this way before us. He knows the way; He knows where the still, poisonous waters of sin lie and He leads you beside them in paths of righteousness, to pass by the still waters in safety. With the rod and the staff of His Word, He guides and protects you, and you are comforted. And as you follow Him through this valley—this sin-darkened world in which we pass as pilgrims and sojourners on our way to the house of the Lord, where we will dwell forever—our dear Lord Jesus makes you to lie down in the green pastures of His Church. Here He gives you real food and real drink to sustain you along the way; He gives you His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins. You need this forgiveness; you cannot hope to endure the journey without it, for like the disciples you stumble along the way. You sin, and so you need Jesus to lift you up from your iniquity and set your face again toward faith’s goal, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” our Saviour, to whom, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, be all honour, glory, and praise, now and forever. Amen.