a sermon on Luke 10:1-20
uring the 1980s when I was a theological student in Toronto, there was a man who would stand out on Yonge Street on Saturday afternoons, holding a sign that called people to repent, for the kingdom of God was drawing close; the judgement of God was about to descend. The sign was hand-lettered in black felt pen on cardboard, and was just about as battered as the man who carried it. If you paused, he’d thrust a tract into your hands, but his eyes seemed always focused somewhere else. He came across as being determined and urgent, yet frayed and worn by his work of being a voice crying out in that wilderness of the Yonge Street strip bars and porn shops. I suspect in the decades since he has died and found his peace, but there may be another who has stepped in to take his place.
I don’t doubt for a minute the sincerity of these street-corner prophets, even if many of them are haunted by the demons of some mental illness or perhaps by the memories of some earlier personal disaster. Maybe that man out on Yonge Street had spent years drinking away his sanity in those strip clubs or shooting heroin in the alleyways out back. Maybe he just wanted to see if he couldn’t stop some other poor soul from going too far down that same road. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!” Woe to you, Toronto and Las Vegas and Amsterdam. You do not want to be found down here, in these places, when the fiery judgment comes.
But is that what Jesus has in view, when he sends out the seventy messengers as “lambs in the midst of wolves,” bringing a word of peace to the homes that receive them, and proclaiming the presence of the kingdom of God to the towns that welcome them?
These seventy are to be forerunners, moving through towns and territories where Jesus himself will soon go. To be sure, their task is urgent. They are instructed to go out in vulnerability – that’s the line about being “sheep among wolves” – and to set aside things like their religious dietary scruples (“eat what is set before you”) for the sake of this important work of being heralds and harvesters. They are to speak their message, to bless with peace, to offer healing to the sick; all signs of the inbreaking reign of God.
But they are not on a Gospel crusade designed to convert individuals or to save this person or that person from the ancient world’s version of Yonge Street, so much as they are called to be heralds of Jesus’ message to a whole people. In his commentary on Luke, G.B. Caird highlights this in a most helpful way:
The judgment of Jesus is pronounced against whole towns and cities, which implies that he is now looking for a corporate rather than an individual response to the gospel message. He has come to recall Israel to her true vocation as the holy people of God, and the cities of Israel must choose between his way of humble, self-denying service and the other way of defiant and contemptuous nationalism.
Jesus’ warnings of judgment are not, then, prescriptive so much as they are descriptive, by which I mean that he is not saying that this people of Israel will be punished by God for doing such-and-such, but rather that to continue on their current course will surely end in disaster.
If these cities and communities don’t embrace the peace which the seventy bring to them, and if they don’t turn their hopes and aspirations away from the sort of nationalism that is so tempting during a time of military occupation, it will all come crashing down upon them. And it will crash down on them not because God is unmercifully punishing them, but because that is the way things will play out under Roman military power. In Jesus, there is a window of opportunity open in front of them – see, in his name, people are healed, people are freed from their spiritual captivities – and it is something that for all of their might and power the Romans simply cannot understand, much less defeat.
When the seventy come back to Jesus with their various mission reports, they are delighted: “The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” To which he responds with a phrase of poetic grip to rival John Milton: “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”
“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” The work you did in my name, here on this earth, is of cosmic and universal significance. If ever the accuser – which is the meaning of the name “Satan” – had a claim on humanity, it is being undone through me in the context of this time, this place, this people, this particular life.
Which, I suppose, is what lies at the heart of the line “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” From here, the events will unfold toward Jerusalem, toward the agony of Gethsemane and a broken body hanging on the cross of Golgotha. Jesus does not merely send them out as lambs in the midst of wolves; he is the lamb, devoured by wolves that believe that they know the best way to run the world.
But they don’t. Whether Pilate and his imperial troops, Herod and his appallingly hollow vision of kingship, or the Jerusalem leadership convinced that collusion with the enemy is the way to manufacture social balance, they don’t have a clue. For the Lamb of God has a deeper authority than they can fathom. And the enemy – the accuser – has already fallen like lightening… even if it can’t bear to admit that.
Of course, the seventy missionaries are as prone to illusion as anyone else, and so Jesus speaks to them a very particular word. In response to their delight that they’ve had some success in their work, he says to them,
I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’ (Luke 10:19-20)
“I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions” – again, a kind of poetic speech worthy of Milton, suggesting not a magical immunity to venom but rather the grace to not be shackled by the evil that destroys and distorts our humanity. But “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” Don’t get too puffed up about how effective you’ve been, and don’t kid yourselves into thinking that it had anything to do with your own skills and capabilities. Don’t dream of placing yourself on some pedestal or of imagining that you might be some kind of a hero here. “But rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Rejoice that you caught a whiff of the scent of the reign of God. Delight in being a part of who I am. Take your joy in being a lamb of this flock. In the midst of the deep social, military and spiritual crisis that was the Israel of Jesus’ time, the mandate to find joy in the status of being beloved lambs and children of the reign of God was made clear.
Maybe that is part of why my memory of that man out on Yonge Street burns so clearly. In this life, he seemed to have so little in which to find joy and delight. In the urgency of his mission, he seemed tired, worn, broken.
And maybe that is part of what is at stake for us, too. To know joy, even in a world that can seem as close to derailing as was the world of Jesus’ day. To know joy, and then to get about our work of living the reign of God in a world that can seem destined to tear its own self to bits. The reign of God has come close to us – is in our very midst – and we are invited to be a part of that; to live into that in the here and now, in whatever seemingly small ways we can; in the words of St Augustine, “to sing alleluia, and keep on walking.” Amen.