counting the days: on the way today, tomorrow and the next day

Luke 13:31-35

I love the details in a Scriptural text
that reach out and grab you.
And you can’t always immediately figure out why they matter—
if they’re necessarily important at all,
but once you’ve noticed, you can’t let them go
or they don’t let you go.

It doesn’t always translate well to preaching
because some such details that absolutely fascinate me, for example,
leave you absolutely cold,
or end up not meaning anything—
or anything close to justifying the interest they stirred,
and leave you wondering, “What was up with him this week?”

And there were several things that wouldn’t let go of me this week!

First, is the question, where are we, in our text?
When we read our gospel story this morning,
where is it set?
And we’re not actually sure. We can’t answer that.
It takes place within what is commonly called
Luke’s travel narrative that stretches from Luke 9:51
through the eighteenth or nineteenth chapter—
encompassing those stories set between the time Jesus, up in Galilee,
set his face to Jerusalem,
to when he laments over the city immediately preceding the triumphal entry,
and the image is of the inexorable journey from the north to the south—
from the Sea of Galilee to the cross of Jerusalem.

So traditionally, the story of our text
is located still somewhere in Galilee.
Jesus is made aware of death threats—
Pharisees warn him of Herod’s intent to kill him—
Herod, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea,
whose seat of power was in Tiberias,
on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee—
the man, we already know, who killed John the Baptist,
another child of promise and miracle.
So the story set in Galilee makes sense, right?
We’re well into the travel narrative,
but we’re still closer to the beginning than the end.
Though some do argue for a setting in Perea, Herod’s southern territory,
east of Jerusalem, east of the Jordan River.

But at one point, during all this travel,
and not near the end of this travel narrative—
nearer the beginning, actually before our text, back in Luke 10,
there’s one of those details we can’t afford to skip over.
Jesus is, we read, at the house of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-39),
which according to John’s gospel was in Bethany
on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives—
right outside Jerusalem (John 11). Hmmm.
Oh, and the parallel account of this story we’re reading in Luke,
in Matthew (Matthew 23:37-39), is set in Jerusalem. Hmmm.
And remember Pilate will end up sending Jesus to Herod
in Jerusalem (Luke 23:7). Hmmm.

So it could be, and I would suggest it might well have been,
that our story unfolded on the Mount of Olives—
that he was back and forth more than traditional readings
of the travel narrative suggest—
and that receiving the warning from the Pharisees and lamenting over Jerusalem,
Jesus was actually looking down over the city of Jerusalem.

Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ warning,
“Go and tell that fox for me ….”
Okay, now maybe when we hear fox we think cunning creature.
But coming from the Old Testament imagery,
it would have been an insult to identify someone with the pest
that ruins vineyards (Song of Songs, 2:15).
And in the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew texts
the translators chose fox (in Greek) to translate jackal (in Hebrew).
as scavengers of ruined cities (Ezekiel 13:4)
who ate the dead (Psalm 63:10).

“Go and tell that pest of a death eater for me,
‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures
today and tomorrow,
and on the third day I finish my work.”

Now what does he mean by that?
Casting out demons and performing cures? No, not that part.
That part was his work—what he was called to do.
We might say something more like,
“Listen, I am living the love and working the will of God
today and tomorrow …,” but what does he mean
“and on the third day I finish my work”?

Now at one level, literally, it could mean,
“I’m right here for the next three days.
come and get me if you want.”
Almost a confrontive in your face dare ….
Except we know, he’s not going to finish his work in three days.
At another level though, the third day, you know—you know!
has nothing to do with how many days we’re talking about,
but represents the perfect day—the culmination of days.
“Tell that fox what I’m doing and will continue to do—
what I was called to do—until that work is completed,
and he will not scare me off.”
And at yet a third level, we’re left wondering,
exactly when does Jesus finish his work anyway?
When he’s killed? Some would say that,
but it’s precisely on the third day he’s resurrected,
and wouldn’t you say his work then continues?
You have the Emmaus road story here in Luke (Luke 24:13-35)—
Jesus still on the way, and then all of Acts.
“Tell that death eater and any other death eater,
that even death won’t be able to swallow me or end my work.”
And in this gospel, after the resurrection, Jesus ascends from,
well how ’bout that? from Bethany (Luke 24:50-51). Hmmm.
And is the work of Jesus complete even now?
I would say no.

Then Jesus goes on,
“Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day
I must be on my way ….”
And so here’s the other detail that wouldn’t let me go.
Today, tomorrow and the next day—
apparent repetition, right? of today, tomorrow, and on the third day.
But are they the same?
Because if they are, it sure sounds like he’s saying
two different things about the same time span, doesn’t it?
I have to be about my work,
then I have to be on my way—
except it’s the same days.
Today, tomorrow and the next day or the third day.
Unless being on the way was doing his work—
his work as the way of God
that is the fulfillment of all days.

“And I must be on my way,” Jesus goes on,
“because it is impossible for a prophet
to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
Now the traditional reading
is “I’ve got to get myself to Jerusalem so I can be killed.”
I really don’t like that.

Yes, we know, we encounter death in life—more than we know.
That’s truth and that’s risk.
And we each decide what to do in each encounter.
Do we run from death? Do we face it?
Do we overcome it? If so, how?
And in the end, in its fullness, it awaits us all.
That’s part of Lenten and Holy Week liturgy—
to make sure no one thinks you can just arrive at Easter.
Resurrection doesn’t—can’t happen without death, right?
And that’s the momentum of Luke’s travel narrative—
the trajectory to the cross …
or is it?

For if Jesus was in fact in Jerusalem,
his words could be read a very different way:
“I need to leave Jerusalem.
I need to leave this city that needs me so
because it won’t accept me—
and because it’s not time for me to die yet.
It’s not the third day yet,
and I’m still on the way.”

It’s a powerful affirmation,
Jesus didn’t come to die.
If he had, why not just get it over with?
Could have happened right there.
Right then. Herod evidently wanted to kill him.
But Jesus came to live and teach and tell stories
and heal people—to open eyes,
and get the silent people to singing,
and the left aside people to dancing.
Jesus came to live amongst us
and to live amongst us in the way of God—
in the way of life and life so abundant.

That’s what I love.
We start thinking simply about where a story happens
and what particular three days are referenced because there’s some ambiguity,
and we tug at the details until we’re reevaluating the life of Jesus—
until we’re saying Jesus didn’t come to die,
but came to live in such a way as to confront death with life.

And Jesus goes on to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,
the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
But was Jerusalem the city that killed the prophets?
Well, some of them.
Uriah was killed in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 26:20-23).
Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20-22).
According to Josephus, Manasseh killed prophets on a daily basis
(2 Kings 21:16; 24:4), including, according to legend, Isaiah.
But plenty of prophets were killed elsewhere.
Jeremiah reportedly killed in Egypt, Ezekiel in Babylonia
(Richard B. Vinson, Luke in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2008] 472).
And Jesus would have known that.
Jesus, after all, had such high regard for John as a prophet.
Earlier in the gospel, “Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John:
‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? …
A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet’” (Luke 7:24b-26).
And John wasn’t killed in Jerusalem (John 7:24-35?).

“How often have I desired to gather your children together
as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Common Old Testament imagery of God’s protection
(Deuteronomy 32:10-14; Psalm 17:8; 57:1; 61:4).
There’s a transition! And exactly what I would do.
Identify those who kill prophets—who would want to kill me
and embrace them!
How often have I desired to gather you killers of prophets together,
you who threaten those who come in the name of God,
how long have I longed to confront death with life—
to embrace your love of death, your fear, and love it all away—
to mother you with my love, but you won’t let me.
Amazing Jesus. Love your enemy.
Forgive them, they know not what they do.
He means it.

Jesus goes on, “See, your house is left to you.
And I tell you, you will not see me
until the time comes when you say,
‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
In Matthew, in the parallel story, Jesus says,
“see your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:38),
and there it is clearly a statement of judgment or of consequence.
Here, at least at one level, and especially if Jesus is right outside the city,
it’s more of an “Okay, so I’m leaving you to it—
leaving it to you.
And you won’t see me (because I won’t be here),
until you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”—
in other words, until Palm Sunday, the so-called triumphal entry—
when Jesus literally comes back and people literally say,
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
It’s Jesus embracing the commissioning he gave the twelve,
“Wherever they do not welcome you,
as you are leaving that town
shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5).
“I’m out of here.”
But also and again, at another level, we might hear him saying,
“You won’t see me (your eyes won’t be open, you’ll be blind),
you won’t be able to see me,
until you say and until you mean, blessed is the one who comes
in the name of God.” And you won’t see me until you look for me.

Entering Jericho, Jesus encountered a blind man
and asked him what he wanted him to do for him.
“Lord let me see,” said he, and Jesus cured him (Luke 18:35-43).
What do you want me to do for you, Jerusalem?
Because you still don’t want to see, do you?

And the scary truth is that people do not see Jesus.
Jerusalem did not see Jesus; some of us don’t see Jesus.
In fact, many, I would suggest, who talk about Jesus
an awful lot, don’t see him.
Don’t see him longing to gather our cities together—
our urban downtowns and our suburbs,
those highly educated and those less so,
our churches and synagogues and mosques,
our public and our private schools,
our houseless populations and our homeless ones—
gather us all together as family
in the transformative reality of love.

On the one hand, the time frame Jesus introduced
with today, tomorrow until the third day
encompasses the full scope of Jesus’ work and ministry
that’s still not fulfilled. Because our cities are still divided.
Because injustice is acceptable. Because there is not peace on earth.

So how in the world do we get to the third day?
By remaining on the way of God today, tomorrow and the next day.
It’s the AA insight.
You don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture.
I think we do underestimate just how hard the challenge of our calling is.
I mean we’re just called to participate in the redemption of all creation,
that’s all!

But today—today, I can look for God.
Today, I can look for Jesus—the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
Today, I can pray; today, I can read Scripture.
But remember, a couple of weeks ago,
the challenge was not to spend a life preparing to live a life.

The challenge was not to one day look back on a life
spent preparing for the way of God, but never getting on it.

So today, I can tell a child a Scripture story
not for Scripture’s sake, not for heaven’s sake, but for living’s sake—
that child’s, mine, yours, and God knows who else’s.
Today, I can offer a word of praise; today, I can offer a word of hope.
Today, I can feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
Today, I can consider someone else’s need along with my wants.
Today, I can initiate grace in response to someone’s need.
Today, I can embrace someone I wouldn’t think to.

Today, I can affirm, not in general—in abstract,
“Oh, sure, I’m a Christian.”
But so much more specifically—so much more meaningfully,
“Today, I will live as Christ.”

And the very specific question to consider is:
today, how will I confront death with life?
Literally for some—how do I physically die with assurance?
But within our culture of death, how do I today confront despair with hope?
Amidst the pervasive fear and anger, how do I live with joy today?
Amidst all the blame, today, how do I live with grace?
Amidst all the violence, how am I today marked by love?
Amidst the greed and the materialism, how is my spirit clean today?
Amidst denigration, today, how do I build up?

Interesting to think of even Jesus negotiating life
less with the ease of perfection than the commitment of discipline.
On his way to Jerusalem wondering how to live in the way of God today?
How to walk in the way of God through this encounter?
This confrontation? This experience? This opportunity? This threat?

And somehow transformation will happen—
transformation of my world,
and transformation of me.
And tomorrow I may do more than I can today.

Until I can face even death and not be swallowed.

Our friend Henry Mugabe in Zimbabwe
posted a quote on facebook the other day.
Some of you may have seen it. I was struck by it.
“It’s not about being the best.
it’s about being better today than you were yesterday.”

So today, yes. Better than yesterday.
And then there’s tomorrow.
Just and always today and tomorrow.

On the way of God in and through the world—
today and tomorrow. Until there’s the third day

And we will sing because we won’t be able to not sing,
“Holy, holy, holy,” and “Blessed be the tie that binds,”
and “Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”—
on that third day.
It’s coming.
It’s not here.
Amen and amen.

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