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Ash Wednesday Sermon | Ash Moments | Luke 9:51-62

The quality of this audio isn’t the best, because it was recorded on a device sitting out in the open space, rather than taken straight from the sound board. It is better than no recording at all and I am grateful for it.

Text: Luke 9:51-62

Here’s a link to the book I reference in the sermon. Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul by David Goetz.

A few years ago I took my kids on a camping trip with our church up to Mt. Charleston.
It was the mountain just outside of Las Vegas, the place we would go to escape the 120 degree summer heat.

We were up there for the whole weekend, so I decided that we should do something really special.

“OK, kids. Do you want to go for a real hike today?”

“Yeah!”

“Alright, let’s do the Bristlecone trail.”

“Yeah, Dad’s the greatest!”

We got a bunch of us from church together, and we were driven up to the trailhead and dropped off. The idea was that we would hike the trail and it would end up right by our campground.

Sweet.

So, we started off and everybody was having a great time. The kids were young, so they had all kinds of energy.

Did I mention that this was on a mountain?

Did I mention that the trail was at about 9,000 feet?

Oh, and did I mention that it was six miles long, and that it went up before it ever came down.
About half way through the hike is when I officially earned my “bad-Dad badge” for this camping trip.

My kids were so mad at me for making them come on this hike. If they had been big enough they probably would have thrown me over the edge.

We had to have a little pow-pow.

“Look guys, I no this is hard, but here’s the reality. We have no cell service and it is actually shorter to keep going than it is to go back. There is no turning back. We have to press forward.”

I’m not going to lie. The rest of that hike was not the best father-child bonding experience for us. It was hard. It was sometimes boring. But, we had to press forward if we were going to get to camp with the others.

We are on a Journey with Jesus.

Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent. It is the time of year where we reconnect, as a community, to the Journey of following Jesus and what that really means.

Our theme this year is No Turning Back.

It comes from this text in Luke 9 where Jesus crosses that point in the journey where he looks at his kids and says, this is it, there’s no turning back.

We see this in the text we read in Luke. It is Luke 9:51-62.

Here we see Jesus having one of those moments with his disciples. Honestly, this moment, right here in Luke 9:51, is one of those epic moments in the entire sweep of the story that we have been looking at since Genesis back in September. It is one of those moments where the music goes, bum-bum-bum and the camera zooms in on Jesus eyes.

“he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus is on a journey and he invites his disciples to follow him to Jerusalem.

The theme comes from verse 62.

Jesus said,

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Does that sound a little harsh to you?

It does, doesn’t it? When we hear that phrase “isn’t fit for the kingdom” it sounds like they’re not good enough; as if they don’t measure up to God’s standards.

I don’t think that is exactly what Jesus meant there. The word literally means “not useful.”

Let’s look at what Jesus is saying. He’s using the metaphor of a farmer plowing the field. If your goal is to plow the field then you want to make straight furrows, right? You put both hands on the plow, cluck you teeth at the horse, and keep your eyes straight ahead.

What happens if you start looking back over your shoulder? You start to veer off to the side and you mess up the rows. That’s not very useful for the purpose of plowing.

If Jesus were to teach this lesson today he might say,

“no one who gets in a car to drive down the road and stares at the rear view mirror is going to stay on the road.”

The question for us today is this,

“Which direction will you look? Are you looking through the windshield, or are you fixed on the rear view mirror?”

One of the greatest challenges of being a follower of Jesus is that there are all kinds of really good things in life that clamber for our attention and for our allegiance.

They are good things, but they are things that can tend to keep us focused on the rear view mirror, to hold onto things that, in the end, don’t last anyway.

I read a great book last week called “Death by Suburb” It was written by David Goetz.

It is easy to read and very playful, but it also packs a punch. He identifies several things in the American Suburban culture that can get us distracted from what is really real. From following Jesus in the Kingdom of God.

He lists things like building up our own security, seeking status symbols in our homes and cars.

Finding our identity at work.

He says that we seek immortality symbols. We try to achieve success and upward mobility through our work, our political standing, and through our children. We are willing to sacrifice anything to make sure our children never miss an opportunity to be on a traveling sports team or be a tournament.

These are things that keep us looking in the rear view mirror, trying to protect what we have and hold onto the things that make us feel safe and important.

This is not just a suburban thing.

This is exactly what our text is telling us in Luke. This is a human thing. In this passage we see four basic things that tends to cling to us, that tempts us to stay looking into the rear view mirror.

The first thing that can hold us back and keep us looking in the rear view mirror is our need for safety and security.

We see this in verses 57-58. Someone said to Jesus, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” “Oh, really? I don’t have a home or any possessions. Will you follow me to point of having nothing?”

The second thing that can hold us back is cultural traditions.

We see this in verses 59-60. Jesus said to one person, “follow me.” And the person said, “let me bury my father first.” Jesus said, “let the dead bury the dead.”

This one needs a little explanation.

Here’s what I think is going on. In that day the Jews had built a custom that when the father dies the oldest son had to bury his body in a tomb and then do nothing but mourn for twelve months.

Then, at the end of the twelve months, the son was to take the bones and bury them in an ossuary next to the bones of the ancestors. Twelve months. This practice was established as a way to honor the parents, but it was never part of the original law.

I think Jesus is saying to this man, “Sometimes you have to be willing to break with cultural traditions in order to truly follow the way of God’s Kingdom. Your father is buried and you honored him. Now, come and follow me.

Then we see the third thing that can keep us looking in the rear view mirror.

We see it in verse 61. One would-be disciple says, “just let me go say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus says that sometimes our family allegiances can keep us looking back.

I like what Craddock says,

“‎The radicality of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships. Jesus never said to choose him over the devil but to choose him over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have been freed from possession and worship of family and have found the distance necessary to love them.”

This list in Luke is the first century version of the immortality symbols that Goetz talked about.

Goetz says that the antidote to these immortality symbols is to seek mortality symbols. A spiritual practice is to purposefully find things in our life that remind us how fragile life really is; how mortal we really are.

That’s really the heart of the journey with Jesus.

Just a few verses earlier in Luke 9, Jesus said to his disciples, Luke 9:23–24 (NRSV)

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Until you are able to die to things that are holding you down, you will not be able to move forward.

We need “Ash Moments” in our life on a regular basis.

You know what I mean? We need things in our life that remind us that we are mortal, that life is fragile, and that only the love of God is what matters. Moments that remind us that eventually all the stuff in our lives, even the good stuff, will be reduced to ashes.

Goetz tells about his Ash moment. He was a writer and caught up in the advancement of his career. He was assigned to do an interview with a woman named Joni Erickson Tada. As a teenager she dove into a lake and broke her neck on the bottom and has been a parapalegic ever since. She has an amazing story about how she has learned to draw and paint using her mouth.

So, Goetz gets to her studio and he is so excited and wants to impress her that he hands her a copy of his magazine. She looks at him and says, “Mr. Goetz, I’m a paragpalegic. I can’t take your magazine.” Joni’s assistant brought out some coffee and Joni asked him to bring it to her lips so she could drink. That’s when everything started to burn away around him and he started looking through the front window.

Sometimes those “Ash Moments” are thrust upon us.

Those moments when Mike Schaaf stands on your doorstep on a Saturday morning and says, “Jay Lang died last night.” Then your whole world stops, everything you thought was important and on your to do list goes right in the fire, and you try to be the love of God for a hurting family.

Those moments when your mother tells you that after 39 years of marriage she is leaving your father and your whole family identity is unraveled in a moment.

Those moments when the doctor says your son has Asperger’s Syndrome, or Cerebal Palsy, or Downs Syndrome, and your hope of finding immortality through the mainstream success of your offspring is suddenly and forever altered.

In those moments the things in the rear view mirror turn to ashes.

The journey of Lent is an opportunity to not wait around for those “Ash Moments” to sneak up on us.

Lent is a time when we embrace our mortality, and by the grace of God look through the front windshield to see where Jesus is leading us.

Jesus is leading us ultimately to Easter.

Life in the Kingdom is just that, it is life, it is freedom, it is true joy and peace. But, it is the kind of freedom that can only come when everything around us is turned to ashes. When we realize that we cling to our immortality symbols.

Through these weeks of Lent we will be looking at the parables that Jesus taught along the way.

These parables are designed to show us what the Kingdom is. They help us to see what needs to die, what needs to be burned away and cleared out of our rear view mirror.

In a few moments, when you come forward to receive the ashes on your forehead, these words will be spoken to you, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are not depressing words, these are words of life. As a community we come to confess our sins, to ask God to burn away all the junk that distracts us from being the loving community that God calls us to be.

Let us look forward, because there really is no turning back.

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