My niece Amy and I have a game that we play. I call it tickle training. When we play I have Amy stand close to me and raise her arms above her head. Then I hold my hand up in a claw and slowly move ever so closer to her side. Amy is extremely ticklish so I don’t know why she ever consents to playing the game, but bless her heart, she tries so hard to stand there as my hands inch in closer and closer for the tickle, but she just can’t do it. Before I can even touch her, her strength of will caves in and she runs away giggling so hard that I might as well have been tickling her the whole time.
Amy and I have had plenty of tickle matches in the past, so she knows what is in store for her. She can feel it before it even happens and in the end, the knowledge of what she is about to endure is simply too overwhelming and being unable to overcome it she runs.
Our text this evening tells us how Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” From here until the end of Luke, Jesus is all about the business of heading towards Jerusalem. He is on a beeline for it even though he knows exactly what awaits him there – suffering, rejection and death. Yet he does not run away nor does he cower in fear rather he set his face to meet his destiny.
And once Jesus set his face toward his final destination, there was no stopping him. When Jews traveled to Jerusalem from where he was, typically they would circumvent Samaria – such was their distaste for it – but Jesus went right on through. It was the quickest path to where he was going.
Jesus’ focus on his mission was also evident in how he addressed those who had interest in following him. When one said he would follow Jesus wherever he would go, Jesus told him that the Son of Man had no place to lay down his head. Jesus had no place of rest or residence to call his own. Such comforts would only serve as a temptation to stay his mission as he journeyed on his way to the cross.
Another person asked to be given time to first bid goodbye to those at home before following Jesus. To him Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” One who doesn’t look straight ahead when plowing the field is going to have furrows leading everywhere but straight. Jesus would not look back. He could not look back.
For Jesus, acceptance, family ties, and worldly cares could not stand in the way of his pursuit for his crown – of thorns. But what could possibly inspire Jesus to be so resolute?
In a few moments we are going to partake in an ancient rite of the church – the Imposition of Ashes. When you come forward, some ashes will be smudged on your forehead and the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return,” will be spoken. The rite is a stark reminder that we are mortal creatures all with the same end in sight – death. Despite all our medical advances, despite healthier life styles and an abundance of food the death rate in the world remains – one death for every life. “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They are the words of judgment God spoke to Adam after he and Eve rebelled against God and tonight they are spoken to us as well.
But the smudge made upon our foreheads isn’t just any smudge. The ashes are put upon our foreheads in the sign of the cross – the same cross that Jesus went to with all the purpose of heaven behind him. What could possibly inspire Jesus to be so resolute? It was the will of the Father, the endowment of the Holy Spirit and his own love for you all joined together for the purpose of saving a lost and desperate creation. The cross placed upon our foreheads is a sign and confession of our faith in the one who redeemed us upon the cross.
The sign of the cross made in ash reminds us of how we were sealed with the Cross of Christ and marked as his at our baptism. The cross reminds us that in our baptism we were joined with Christ in his death.
The ashes and the cross together remind us that while we will still suffer death on this earth, death will not have the final word. In our baptism, not only were we joined with Christ in his death, but we were also joined with him in his resurrection. His victory will be ours as well. In the cross placed upon our foreheads Christ tells us once again, “You are my beloved child.”