Don’t Look Back

For the first “Theological Thursday” of the year, I wanted to include an excerpt from Moderator Patrick Malphrus’ Synod Emphasis.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has not a place to lay his head.’ To another, he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Yet another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home’” (Luke 9:57-61, ESV).

Jesus and His disciples are going along the road. Which road? Well, if you were to rewind and read verse 51 you’d find that pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry where it says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’re on that road. The road to Jesus’ suffering and death, but also glory. And Jesus went along this road for you, Christian.

But nevertheless, Jesus and his disciples are making their way down the road, and first, someone comes to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Did this man, who we do not know, know where Jesus was going? I think not. Or at least I doubt he knew why Jesus was going to Jerusalem.

Even so, Jesus replied as he did, saying that foxes have dens, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has not a place to lay his head. Fascinatingly enough, it’s not by mistake that if you were to rewind even further in Luke 9, you’d find the disciples arguing over who would be greatest in the Kingdom. Well, needless to say, the man did not, after all, follow where Jesus went.

The passage continues by saying that as they went along, instead of someone coming to Jesus, Jesus went to someone and said, “Follow me.” This man used the excuse of having to bury his father, to which Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their own. You go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.” Still, another came, proclaiming a desire to follow Christ, and said he, indeed, would follow Jesus. But that he had to first go and say goodbye to his family.

And Jesus’ reply to that man in verse 62 is our theme for the year. “Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'” And, so, not for the first time, Jesus used agricultural imagery to convey a very important message. A message and a warning that we should all pay very close attention to.

In times of planting or harvest, farming doesn’t wait, you see. When you start something, you finish it. And if problems surface along the way. If a machine breaks down. If an animal wanders off. If a storm blows in. Or, if everything freezes solid, and you end up having to haul water to the animals, with farming you have to make a way.

While the machinery has changed, and while yields have drastically increased, the principle remains the same as it did when Jesus first said these words in our passage, and the warning remains true that the one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back isn’t fit for the kingdom of God. But in all these things we should be encouraged.

In spite of the difficulties we face as a denomination. In spite of the fact that we’re tempted to conclude that the field to which we’ve been called is nothing but rocks and thistles, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 9 also remains true—the harvest is plentiful, indeed. Will we be workers? Having put our hand to the plow, will we look back?

Let’s be honest. We are tempted to look back. I don’t know about all of my fellow pastors, but for me, COVID really was a time like no other. We pastors had to reinvent the way we do ministry, become social media pros, computer scientists, and sound technicians. We weren’t allowed into hospitals. e couldn’t be in our peoples’ homes. And because of all of that change, quarantine was no vacation for us.

Yes, we’re tempted to look back. And elders, you’ve been tempted, too. Are tempted, in fact. Tempted to be passive and just “let the preacher do it”, and as a result, not fulfill your vows.

But instead of despair, let our hearts be filled with delight at the challenges we face. Not because we must relish the necessary work, this is hard stuff, after all.

But even so, let us delight in the fact that God is good, and that by His hand we have the opportunity to be laborers. We have the assurance that God is sovereign and that his command to us is sure. That if we seek His Kingdom first, and His righteousness, that all other things will be added to us.

Let us also look upon each other as co-laborers in the field, not opponents. There’s work to be done and the more we work together, the quicker our work is accomplished, and the better it is done.

Instead of fighting or accusing, let us love one another and realize that while we may be tempted to bicker and argue and draw lines of territory or whatever else may happen at Synod, the world outside doesn’t know we have retirement plan problems. Our children don’t care that we’re considering restructuring.

The society around us that is wondering and wandering and groping in darkness needs to see the light of Jesus, and this must be our motivation for why we do what we do. Is it easy? No. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles away from the cornfield.” If theology is just an idea or philosophy to you, then church seems easy, too.

Putting your hand to the plow is never easy. But I’ve learned from my people that loving the work makes all the difference. Fathers and brothers, let us love our work. And let us remember that whether you are a pastor who has taken vows, or an elder who has taken vows, it’s all the same. In doing so you have put your hand to the plow.

Don’t look back.

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