Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

On the Road to Jerusalem

Lessons for the 2nd Sunday in Lent: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; 
Philippians 3:17 – 4:1; Luke 13:31-35.  Click here for full texts.

“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!”
Luke 13:34 (from the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday in Lent)

A strange way to speak of a city, isn’t it?  And a doubly strange way to speak of Jerusalem, or so it seems to us.

In the minds of Jesus’ hearers, Jerusalem is the city on earth where God and humans meet, and the Temple in Jerusalem is the very place where that meeting happens.  From the days following their Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites believed that their God – the God who promised Abraham and Sarah children in their old age – dwelt with His people.

Now if their God dwells with them, they reasoned, then He must be somewhere.  During the years in the desert they fashioned an elaborate box, carried with poles and surmounted with golden seraphim (the six-winged angels who surround the throne of God).  In the box were the tablets with the 10 Commandments, a dish with manna and Aaron’s staff.  They called it the Ark of the Covenant, and they believed that God resided there.  Wherever they camped, they set up an elaborate tent, called a tabernacle, and in that tent they kept the Ark.

After they entered the Promised Land, in the days of the Judges who ruled Israel before there were kings, the Ark and the Tabernacle followed the people.  At one point the Philistines captured the Ark, and later King David recovered it and brought it to his new capital, Jerusalem.  From King Solomon’s time the Ark was in the innermost sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem.  When the Babylonians destroyed the Temple 586 B.C. the Ark vanished from history, and it was said that God’s glory departed from Jerusalem.

After their return from captivity in Babylon, the Israelites rebuilt Jerusalem, and began construction of a second Temple, which they saw as the place where God met His people.  Jerusalem once more was God’s Holy City.  This meant it was important for Jewish believers to visit Jerusalem, especially on the holy feast days, and most especially on Passover, when the people remembered their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

But there was another side to the whole saga of Jerusalem.  Holy City it was, and to this day still is for practicing Jews, but in addition to being the seat of the Jewish religion, Jerusalem was also the seat of government.  Whether governed by Jewish kings, or by foreign occupiers, Jerusalem was where decisions were made: those that benefitted the people, but also those that oppressed them.  When kings behaved badly, it was to Jerusalem that God sent prophets to warn them to mend their ways or face the consequences.  Kings in those days had absolute power, and in every era those with absolute power do not take kindly to strange holy men coming to court and telling them to change their ways, especially if they claim God’s authority.  The king might well have such a messenger beaten, imprisoned or even executed, and many suffered these fates.  Thus, Jerusalem was known not only as the city where God and humankind meet, but also as the city that kills the messengers who come bearing God’s words of correction.

This was doubly true under the Romans.

Herod was a petty little tin horn king, less powerful than his father, whom we met in the Christmas story, but like his father kept in power by the Romans, who always preferred to use local talent to make their rule seem more palatable. 

So, returning to our reading, when some of the supportive Pharisees, came to Jesus warning that Herod wanted to kill him, the message had to be taken seriously. Jesus, however, sent word to Herod that he was already on the road to Jerusalem (outside Herod’s Galilean kingdom), because that’s where a prophet ought to die. 

He’d spoken this way before.  When Peter confessed him as Messiah, Jesus immediately began to teach them that being Messiah was something different from what they expected – that his calling was to confront the earthly powers of evil, and in the process die.  Peter objected, telling him that it must not be so, and Jesus rebuked, Peter, telling him that he was giving voice to the same tempter’s arguments he’d heard in the wilderness.  From that day on, the teaching of Jesus was salted with images and hints about this strange way of being Messiah, and so this morning we find him speaking of a hen caring for her chicks.

Knowing that his confrontation must happen in Jerusalem, loving the city as any Jew at any time did and does, Jesus sees with utter clarity that the way things are going, Jerusalem is headed for destruction by the Romans (it happened in 70 A.D.).  But he also knows what this means for his people.  It will result in the loss of the homeland, and the people will be dispersed throughout much of the world.  So, speaking both of the city, and of the people, he grieves and speaks once more of his own destiny:

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Hens zealously guard their young, often by gathering them and sheltering them with their wings.  Chicken growers observe this when there are hawks in the neighborhood – it not only hides the chicks, but also makes it much harder for the hawk, which would have to literally go through the much bigger hen to get at the chicks.  Some times in the wake of a fire on a farm, persons combing through the aftermath come upon a hen burned to death, but the chicks she sheltered under her wings are alive.  This, Jesus says, is what he wanted to do for all the people, indeed for Jerusalem itself.

He is telling his followers, and that includes us, that he stands with us in the trials and disasters of life, if we are but willing to let him.  Note that last and only condition: in our reading, “Jerusalem” followed the world’s way, and was not willing for him to gather her children.  In other words, there is a choice.

In Paul’s words to the Philippians, our calling is to live by Christ’s example, remembering that our citizenship is in heaven, and from there we expect a savior who will transform our minds, our hearts and ultimately our very lives, bringing us through the fires of life’s trials safe, our lives redeemed, inheritors of a new life in a renewed and remade world.  But first, the road to Jerusalem, and on that road we walk with Jesus.

Perhaps the message to us, living miles and centuries from this moment in scripture, is that as we face life, we always have an important choice.  We can, of course, assert our independence, sing a few verses of “My Way” and deal with life’s challenges making it up as we go along.  That choice gratifies our love of independence, of not being beholden to anyone; of thinking we are the masters of our fate, the captains of our souls.

Or, we can recognize that God never meant for us to go it alone, that God made us to rely on others, and preeminently to rely upon Him.  God sends companions into our life, to help bear the load and carry the burdens, and in their gifts we are being prepared to accept the love, the protection and the renewed life offered by God, whose love is so much more than that of even our nearest and dearest family and friends.  It’s not so much that God requires us to come as chicks flocking to a hen, as that we can come in that way – no conditions, save that we acknowledge our need and our dependency upon Him to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

But wait, how can we trust that God will do that for us?  That’s where Abraham and Sarah enter the picture: their willingness to trust that this strange God who called them away from their lifelong home and country was used by God to inaugurate a new family, and set in motion His plan to put the world right.  Abraham trusted, and even though he didn’t live to see the full plan in completion, God was able to use his trust, and begin the work of redemption.

Paul also trusted the God of Abraham, and was able to bear the struggles of his ministry, mindful that while in Jesus we see the beginning of the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, we too are called to live in trust that while the work is yet uncompleted, it is the same God who can be trusted to finally carry out His purposes.

Which brings us to our own time.  Like Abraham we wonder how God can use people like us, with all our limitations, all our rebellions, to advance his purposes.  And like Paul, we don’t see clearly how history is moving in the right direction.  So our choice is the same as that faced by those giants.  Seeing in part what God has already done through Abraham, in Jesus Christ, with Paul and the other Apostles, we get to choose whether or not to throw our lot in with them, to trust God’s purposes, even in the face of fear and doubt, and add our own chapter to the story that will not be complete this side of the Kingdom.  Lent is a time when we can look at these things up close, examine our own place in the story God is telling, and choose once again to be a part of it.  May that be our choice, and may God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Howard MacMullen
© February 2013

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