St. John's, Centreville
March 17, 2019
Lent 2 C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are in our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
In our Old Testament reading from Genesis this morning, we hear the story of Abram questioning God. Abram and Sarai, whose names are later changed to Abraham and Sarah, are advanced in age and have no children, no heirs to carry on the family name. Abram has trusted God and has done what God has asked him to do. God and Abram's relationship had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God promises, Abram believes. God commands, Abram obeys. But when we get to today's reading, the relationship changes a bit. Abram starts asking questions. He questions God about the fact that he and Sarai now in their old age and are still childless. He questions God about the land that God has said Abram will possess. He wants a little more information about how God is going to fulfill his promises.
Abram wants a sign of these promises. He already has a covenant with God but with Abrams' doubt and anxiety, the covenant needs to be confirmed. So in a dream, God renews the covenant with Abram. Animals are rounded up and cut in two. An ancient ceremony is described in which a smoking pot and a flaming torch pass between the pieces of the sacrificial animals. The act symbolizes that God and Abram are partners in a covenant. "On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abram saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates." So God confirms his promise that Abram will have offspring and they will be given a new land.
Although Abram has questions and perhaps some doubts, he still trusts in God. He has faith in God that, what God has promised, God will deliver.
In our gospel lesson, we have quite the opposite. Jesus has been preaching the gospel and many of those in Jerusalem, particularly the rulers, do not want to hear it. They see Jesus as a threat, a threat to their power, a threat to their authority, a threat to their way of life. The rulers like to be on the top of the social ladder, looking down on everyone else. They like to be honored and praised for the positions they hold and they do not want to lose that.
Jesus threatens to take all that away. Jesus teaches that the last shall be first and the first last. And they don't want to hear that. It is interesting that it is some Pharisees who come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. The Pharisees did not like Jesus and had talked among themselves about how to get rid of him. So why are they warning Jesus about Herod's wanting to kill him? One scholar suggests that the warning from the Pharisees might have been a political strategy of Herod. Herod knew that many people loved Jesus as he had cared for them, healed them and fed them. If Jesus was harmed, the people could revolt. So Herod tries to scare Jesus away from Jerusalem by having the Pharisees tell him of Herod's plan to kill him. Then they don't have to deal with him. By calling Herod a fox, Jesus may not only have been voicing his distrust of Herod but also revealing his knowledge that there may be some kind of alliance between the Pharisees and Herod.
But Jesus was not to be deterred. He tells the Pharisees in a straightforward way that he will not back away from the work that God sent him to do. He will not leave just because he has been threatened.
Following this declaration to the Pharisees comes one of the most heart-wrenching verses: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." You can almost hear his voice breaking with emotion, his heart aching for these people of Jerusalem that he loved. Why wouldn't they listen to the prophets who were sent by God? Why wouldn't they listen to him and his disciples? They were headed down a path of destruction. Why wouldn't they listen and turn their lives around? Because some would rather accept the status quo than try to change, to go against the social norm.
Jesus wants to protect his children as a hen protects her brood. If the hen's chicks are threatened, she will gather them all under her spread out wings, to protect them, and possibly lose her life to the predator. The metaphor of the fox and the hen is clear. Jesus the hen with wings spread wide in love and compassion, will suffer the fate of a hen meeting the fox in the farmyard. The hen offers her life to save the lives of her chicks. The fox will win against the hen, for now at least. Herod will succeed in having Jesus killed. But we know that on the third day, Jesus will rise from the dead and ascend into heaven, bearing our sins and our sorrows.
Throughout the gospel of Luke, we see Jesus embracing those who were cast out. Shepherds were seen as dishonest, on the fringe of society, not to be trusted. Yet they play a central part in the story of Jesus' birth. Young Mary, a peasant girl, is chosen to bear the Son of God. In Luke, Jesus tells of a prodigal son who is welcomed home by a father whose love is extravagant and all-embracing. In Luke, Jesus tells of a good Samaritan whose act of compassion saved a man's life, at a time when people thought that the only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. And even as he is dying, Jesus reaches out to the thief on the cross next to him and promises him eternal life.
The compassion, all-embracing, welcoming Jesus is loved and followed by many who were on the margins of society - poor, ignored, those having no power, no respect. He is loved by those who have been healed by him - physically, mentally, emotionally - those whose lives have been changed, turned around, made whole, transformed..
Throughout his earthly life, Jesus transformed the lives of countless people, only a few of whom we hear about in the gospels. And many became his followers. But those who were already on the top rungs of society didn't want to change their lives, didn't want a new way of living, a call to love one another and respect the dignity of every human being. The Pharisees, the keepers of the law, didn't like the fact that Jesus ignored some of the many laws. He healed on the Sabbath, he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he upset the way things had always been.
Jesus brought the kingdom of God within the reach of Jerusalem and they were not interested. Consider the contrast: Jesus has disciples; Herod has soldiers. Jesus serves; Herod rules. Jesus prays for his enemies; Herod kills his. But the people were too afraid or too unwilling or too lazy to accept the love of Jesus and reject the tyranny of Herod. They made their choice. And Jesus has made his. He would continue on the road to Jerusalem and to his death.
During this season of Lent, we are asked to journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and to the cross. It's not an easy journey, for him or for us. What path will we take - the easy one that just rides the coattails of our me-first culture, or the one that might lead us through deserts and over rocks and up mountains and into valleys where we will learn to struggle and grow and define ourselves as children of God and learn what it means to serve others before self? We can choose either path. But only one leads to joy and celebration and peace and resurrection. Which path will you choose? Amen.