Old Testament Reading 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Epistle Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Gospel Reading: Luke 9:51-62
Sermon: “But First… ”
Many of you likely know about the show M*A*S*H, which stands for Mobile Army Surgical hospital. Its set in Korea during the Korean War and centers on the sometimes serious, often times lunatic lives of the personnel in the camp. It’s been in reruns for years now. I’ve seen every single show more than one and I will still watch an episode now and then. One of my favorite shows is the one where an unexploded bomb lands in the compound with most of the body and tail fins sticking up ominously from the dirt – and its ticking away! After frantic calls, they figure out it might be an American bomb from the CIA, but they are unwilling to tell anybody what it is.
A set of disarming instructions end up being relayed to Hawkeye (played by Alan Alda) by bull horn, step by step. Carefully he is instructed to loosen a huge bolt in the back, and remove the fin assembly. This exposes a set of colored wires. The instruction says to carefully cut the blue wire, which Hawkeye does – and then goes on to say – But first… remove the fuse. Everybody dives for cover and the bomb promptly discharges a cloud of leaflets advising the reader to give up – they can’t win!
First things first indeed! This is the theme of today’s Gospel reading from Luke. We join this story at a critical moment in Jesus’ ministry. His time in Galilee is finished and Jesus makes a determined decision to begin the long journey to Jerusalem and the cross. This is an overriding priority for him. He knows it will end in his death, but he understands also that it is his Heavenly Father’s plan for the salvation of all who will believe. Nothing – Absolutely nothing will prevent him from accomplishing the the wondrous, gracious act of redemption that was the reason for his incarnation in the first place. As John writes – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son…” (John 3:16)
His disciples focus is elsewhere though. They are fresh from experiencing dozens of spectacular miracles – Healings, Feeding of multitudes with a little boy’s lunch and the calming of the sea with just a word, Jesus’ shinning glory on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah. So when they face rejection in Samaria (which they considered to be a land of heretics and half-breds, by the way, judgement is the first thing on their minds. Already, Jesus’ earlier instruction to simply shake the dust of a place which will not accept them, off their feet is forgotten. Jesus is horrified at their suggestion that the town be subject to wrathful fires from Heaven and instead simply steers them to a more accepting village. That impulse to be angry at rejection; their bent toward righteous indignation is something that we can understand. Hopefully not something we approve of, but it understandable. But while they are on the way to that other village that the story does become hard for us to understand.
They encounter several on the road who wish to come and join them, but Jesus is strangely discouraging. The first one enthusiastically says “I will follow you wherever you go!” But Jesus answers “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus himself invites a second with his normal call “Follow me.” The fellow begs a delay saying “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
And Jesus gives what seems a very harsh reply saying: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Finally a third one says “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” But Jesus again gives a seemingly harsh reply: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Jesus seems to feel just as hostile to that “But first…” as Hawkeye was about the out of order instructions when working on that ticking bomb.
You might remember other call stories in the Bible. How Jesus’ first disciples immediately left their nets and their boat by the lakeshore when Jesus said “come and follow me.” Perhaps you recall what Elisha did when Elijah threw his mantle over his shoulders as he was plowing a field with a pair of oxen. He was granted permission to kiss his family goodbye, but on the other hand – talk about burning your bridges – Elisha slaughtered the oxen he was ploughing with and used the wood of the Plow and Yokes to cook the meat, then fed the people before he left with Elijah – there was no going back from that!
Commitment is the first principle I see in Jesus’ strange answers. He is on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. Just a few verses before in this same chapter of Luke Jesus had told his disciples: (Luke 9:22-24 NIV) “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” In view of those words, Jesus’ response to the first one moment of enthusiasm makes as little more sense: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus was warning the man that this was not a easy road was was on.
Urgency is another principle at work here as well. Luke gives us few clues as to how long the trip to Jerusalem took, but the pace is steady and will not wait. Jesus has specific goals and people and places to touch on the way, but the end is never in question. We might not like to hear Jesus say that God must be first in our lives, but he does say so… many times and in many ways. I think that’s because he knows us so well. Jesus knows that there are so many seemingly good things in our lives that keep us from the best.
Back in Chapter 8 of Luke Jesus had applied that principle of First things first to his own family: (Luke 8:19-21 NIV)  Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd.  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”  He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” Its not that he didn’t love his mother and siblings, it’s that he was about his Heavenly Fathers work and that was top priority. After the crowd was taught, I’m sure his family was welcomed even if they didn’t really understand him yet. In the sermon on the Mount Jesus taught that we are to first seek the Kingdom of God and all the other priorities in life will come into their proper place in the light of that one thing. There is to be no, but first…
I love the passion that Elisha exhibits in our Old Testament reading today. It is time for Elijah, his mentor to be taken up to heaven in the whirlwind, accompanied by the fiery chariot. Elisha is determined not to miss a moment. He passionately loves his mentor and craves the relationship he has with God. He will not be deterred or discouraged. How grateful he must have been to understand that God was powerfully with him as he returned back over the Jordan River and it rolled back as it was struck with Elijah’s cloak. Elijah’s mission was now his mission. Elijah’s passion for God was his as well.
That is what Jesus was looking for in those prospective disciples. Ones who would be determined to see and learn all they could. Still it hurts to hear Jesus answer our ‘But firsts…’ with the solemn warning “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Still, we know that God has always chosen to work through imperfect people. God servants have always had their moments and failures, so please don’t think so have to be perfect to serve God. These stories pertain to a particular moment in history where Jesus was physically present on the earth – preaching and teaching for a short time only. Priorities were acute. Still today though, Jesus would have us know that following him needs first place in our lives.
So lets be honest with ourselves for just a moment. What around us is important enough to keep us from the love of God so perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ our Lord? Well… nothing when you say it that way preacher, but… But what? We have lives to live? Children to raise? A mortgage or rent to pay? Careers to build? Pleasures to pursue? So many calls on our attention and passions. To all these things, Jesus says (Matthew 6:25-27,31-33 NIV)  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life ?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
First things first.