“Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
I thought of this image the other day when I was in the pool and pushing myself toward those last eight or ten laps. I told someone once that I wonder what my face must look like as I am driving myself back and forth when I really just want to stop. I imagine Jesus’ face looking somewhat the same—fierce and determined with maybe a little weariness and pain underneath.
To “set one’s face” toward something is a Jewish idiom. It means he became entirely focused on going to Jerusalem, whatever the cost or consequences. It’s the “pivot moment” in Luke, when Jesus no longer wanders around the countryside healing, teaching, exorcising demons, but decides to go toward what he knows will be a difficult and potentially tragic end. While it isn’t literally talking about his face, I suspect one could get a hint of what was going on in his heart, soul and mind just by looking at him. It may be part of why the Samaritans didn’t make an effort to welcome him; they could tell he wouldn’t be staying.
The things Jesus says next seem pretty harsh. But I think one way of understanding them is to consider that this may be one of those times when we say to others the thing we most need to hear ourselves. Jesus needed to remind himself that “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” When he snaps at those who just want a chance to make proper good-byes to their families, he may have been scolding himself as much as them, not to put it off any longer. The man who said he’d follow Jesus after he’d buried his father may not have been asking for a few days; he may have been saying he needed to wait until after his father died. “Yes, Jesus, I’ll follow you—but not yet.” He wanted to wait and live in the old system a while longer. He wanted to wait until the past was well and truly dead before he dared to live into a future that looked very different.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” You can’t plow a straight line if you’re not looking where you’re going. The kingdom of God is not behind you.
The kingdom of God is not behind us, not in our past. The kingdom of God is not something we’ve lost—it’s something yet to be found. The kingdom of God is not just what happens to us when we die; it’s something that Jesus looked for and longed for in his lifetime. We are asked to put our energy into seeking the kingdom of God in this lifetime, in this place. It won’t be fully realized, no, but it may keep growing up through the cracks.
But how do we stay focused on the kingdom when there is so much distracting us? How do we keep our eyes looking ahead when it sometimes seems like it would just be so much easier to be nostalgic for the past?
First by reminding ourselves that God isn’t interested in how things used to be, God is interested in what things can become, if we are faithful and follow God’s lead. God’s kingdom is pushing in, growing through the cracks in this broken world. We can choose to plow a clear path, or we can spend our time clinging to what used to be.
Paul uses an image of “the fruit of the Spirit”—notice that it’s a singular noun, not a plural one—to describe how the kingdom grows up in our midst when we make room for it.
It starts with love, agape, that particular kind of love is willing to sacrifice oneself for another. That love that is at the heart of our relationship with one another and with God. That is the first sign that the Spirit is growing in your soul. Love that opens the door of your heart to all kinds of people you might previously have excluded. Love that was the essence of Jesus Christ. Love that is the taproot of the Spirit, but can’t grow without the Spirit’s help—yes, it’s a paradox. Love that is not just emotion, but an act of will. Love is what helps you choose to weed out the bad stuff, so that all the rest of the fruit of the Spirit can grow in the best soil possible.
Next comes Joy. Not simply happiness. Joy is that ability to find something for which to be thankful, even in the worst situations. At the heart of joy is gratitude for the present moment and God’s presence in it. Joy is what comes when we see that even though the present situation is not the way we would like it to be, there is still something for which to give thanks to God. Joy allows us to see beyond the present moment to all that can be. Joy keeps us from falling into despair.
Peace, as Paul is using it here, is not simply the lack of violence or war. It is akin to shalom: that state of wholeness and balance that has no space for violence or war. A way of being in the world in which violence is not simply absent, but non-existent. It is the fruit that reminds us that the Spirit wants us to live in community with the rest of the household of God.
So it’s no surprise that next on our list comes patience. Life in community is not easy! The Greek word says it all: makrothymia, literally “long-tempered.” Not easily angered. Merciful, forgiving. Having a long fuse. The opposite of vengeful. It is most often used to describe an attribute of God: long-suffering, slow to anger. There is a good dose of humility in it, in the best sense of the word. When patience starts to grow in a person, you know that the Holy Spirit has really taken root. Patience is not about being a doormat, and taking every bit of abuse that comes along. It is, however, recognizing that we are all works-in-progress, and being willing to trust in God’s timing to set things right.
That inner patience is manifested as outer kindness. Kindness is not “niceness.” I have known plenty of people who think they are being “nice” when in fact they are being silently vicious. And I know people who have been able to say really hard, truth-telling statements that would seem highly critical, but are said with such gentleness and love that the listener is transformed. Kindness doesn’t deny the truth of a situation; kindness doesn’t require us to keep quiet when we see injustice; kindness doesn’t require us to lie in order to keep the peace. Kindness is grounded in honesty, humility and love, and it has a power to transform that “nice” will never have. Kindness has the courage to look straight into the worst situations, name the truth, and then sit there with it until something good has grown out of it.
Out of patience and kindness grows generosity. Generosity is not just about what we do with our material possessions. Generosity is an attitude of the heart, an openness to giving and receiving all the blessings God has bestowed upon us. Generosity is not so much about giving as it is about sharing—it’s a communal activity. It’s not just about giving our blessings to those we think need them: it’s also about being honest enough to recognize that we are in need of some of the blessings they bring, as well. None of us is complete in ourselves. Generosity requires humility to acknowledge the places where we need the blessings others bring, as well as the graciousness to offer our own blessings to others. Generosity is sharing. And sharing goes both ways—giving and receiving.
Such vulnerability requires an incredible amount of trust: trust in each other, in ourselves, in God. This word trust in Greek is pistis, faithfulness, in today’s list. In some sense, it is about allegiance—knowing to whom or what you belong, and having such absolute faith in the object of your allegiance that you know it will never fail you. For Paul, the only One capable of living up to such trust is God. As fruit of the Spirit, faithfulness is the sign that you put your complete trust in GOD—not in money, or prestige, or external Law, or earthly power. It’s about risking everything on your belief that whatever happens, good or bad, God will not abandon you.
This leads to gentleness, a word that kind of means humility, kind of means obedience, kind of means modesty. It’s about submitting one’s own will to the will of God. Going wherever God calls you. Jesus is the embodiment of such a virtue, setting his own desires, his own drive for self-preservation, aside in order to fulfill the purpose for which God created him. Gentleness is FAR from weakness. In fact, I think it lands at this point in the list because you need to have a really sturdy, well-established “Spirit plant” before you can be strong enough to bear gentleness for the Spirit.
And finally, self-control, which can only be properly exercised once the self is entirely focused on the will of God. It is self-control that is not self-interested. It is freedom to be able to do whatever God asks of us, whenever God asks it, and not stop and count the cost. It is the ability to say NO now to anything which would prevent us from being able to say YES to God later. It is that state of being so grounded in the Holy Spirit that you can set your hand to whatever plow God puts before you, and never even consider looking back. This is Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem, knowing what is about to come, but trusting that all will be well.
The challenge is that we have to let God be in control. We can’t control the rate of growth, we can’t control how the fruit we bear will be used. All we can do is keep tending the soil, choosing to pull out the weeds, choosing to feed the soil only those things that make it more fertile for the Spirit to do its work. We shouldn’t compare our own soul-plant to anyone else’s; we shouldn’t be discouraged because I’m growing “peace” while someone else is already growing “self-control.” Instead, we should rejoice that God is growing such a good harvest in all of us. But remember: God is not doing this work in us solely for our benefit.
God is doing this work for the good of the world, so that the seeds of the Spirit spread all across the face of the earth until the kingdom of God is in full bloom. The kingdom of God is not behind us. It is still waiting to burst forth with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Will you follow Jesus and allow the Spirit to grow in you? Will you “set your face” toward the kingdom—because the kingdom of God is not behind us!—or will you decide to stay focused on the brokenness and despair, decide to be one of those who stays behind, waiting to bury the past?