A sermon for Tuesday of Holy Week: 1 Cor. 1:18-31, “The Foolishness of the Cross”

18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

Holy week goes on.  We remember the last days of our Lord, and anticipate both his death on the cross and his glorious resurrection.  If we stop and think about it, it is a strange thing to come together and celebrate the suffering and death of God.  One of our Bishops, Will Willimon out of Alabama, has written, “One of the dangers of being in church as often as I am is that it all starts to make sense.”   In other words, we who go to church, who pray, who search the Scriptures and partake of the Lord’s Supper, are in danger.  The danger is assuming that all the puzzle pieces fit, that all this gospel stuff really and truly makes perfect sense.  If we lose a sense of mystery, a sense of strangeness about this faith that has laid claim on our lives, we should also worry that we may have lost the true message and ministry of God in Christ Jesus.
Mystery is at the heart of our faith.  Has anyone read The Shack?  We recently did it as a group study at my church.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, The Shack is a book that deals heavily with the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Now it is fiction, but it deals seriously with the relationship among the three persons, how they relate to one another.  Many of us who read this together discovered that thinking about the Holy Trinity really made our brains hurt!  How can one be also three? How can  we believe in the three “persons” of the to which Scripture witnesses are still together one, and only one, God Almighty.  In our group we went around and around this question, and at some point we simply agreed to get comfortable with not understanding.  The Trinity is not a doctrine that we hold because it is logical, or because it is easily explained, but simply because this is how God has been revealed to us.  This means we cannot downplay the mystery or smooth the rough edges of the Trinitarian relationship without being untrue to God at a very basic level.
It is equally mysterious and odd that God would choose to initiate the salvation of the world on a cross.  Paul tells his church at Corinth that Jesus’ crucifixion  was  a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.  While Christians know the cross as “the power of God,” the world scoffs and laughs.
In reading this passage, though, I found myself wondering: do we Christians treat the cross as foolishness? Whether we mean to or not, whether we are conscious of it, do we fail to proclaim the cross of Jesus?  I think it happens more than we want to admit.  I think that we are tempted to do this in two ways: we avoid it when possible, and when we are at last confronted with the cross, we sometimes dilute its power and message.
First: we avoid the cross.  On one level, this is natural and understandable.  I doubt that Jesus would have had to teach his disciples to “Take up your cross and follow me” unless they did not have their own hesitation.  The cross means suffering, humiliation, pain, and death.  It is not natural for us to run to it; only the Spirit of the living God to help us to embrace that cross in faith, hope, and love.
But on another level I think we tend to do it intentionally.  Let me put it this way: if you wake up one morning and decide you want to be a successful preacher, or write Christian books that will sell a million dollars and make lots of money, you only need to follow one piece of advice.  Do you want to know what it is? It’s very simple, now.  Deceptively simple.  Here goes: avoid talking about the cross at all costs.  As one scholar put it, “The cross was a lousy marketing tool in first-century Palestine, and it is for us today.”  The kind of Christianity that people want to hear, the kind that sells books and packs stadiums, has very little to do with the cross.  Oh, they will talk about Jesus.  They will talk a lot about Jesus.  But it is never the Jesus we meet during Holy Week, the Jesus with stripes on his back and a crown of thorns on his head.
The Jesus that sells is the Jesus that preaches success and blessing, health and wealth, the Jesus that gives us five simple steps to better living, the Jesus who promises to give us nice things if we work hard, smile a lot, and think positive.  That’s the Jesus we see so often on TV and in popular books, a Jesus with a three-piece suit and a smile, but never a cross.  As American Christians, we eat this up.  It has hardly a pinch of gospel to it, and not one splinter of the cross, but by golly, it sells.  And so, we avoid the cross when we can.
The other danger is that, when we do encounter the cross, it is a cross that does not look at all like the cross of Jesus.  For instance, when did Christians begin to take the cross so lightly that it became a fashion accessory?  When does it mean when someone like Madonna can wear a diamond-encrusted cross and no one thinks a thing of it?  We would think it very strange if someone put emeralds on a miniature noose and hung it around their neck.  Likewise, we would probably do a double-take if we noticed somebody with a gold lapel pin in the shape of an electric chair.  And yet we never think twice about seeing the Roman cross, a tool of empire, the form of punishment reserved for the worst criminals and traitors, as simple decoration.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about.  I have a love-hate relationship with the local Hobby Lobby where I live now.  Anybody every been to a Hobby Lobby?  OK, well for those who haven’t, Hobby Lobby is a craft store on Christian steroids.  It is like a giant Michael’s or A.C. Moore; people flock there to buy everything from fabric to scrap booking materials.  They also have a lot of home decorations, everything from furniture to paintings and every kind of knick-knack you can imagine.
Now, they have a lot of Christianity-themed items.  I should say that I have a lot of respect for the owners of Hobby Lobby; it is a very openly Christian business and they are closed on Sunday.  And the store is a cool place to shop; I’ve bought some neat prints and other things for my home there.  All that is great.  But there’s just one thing I can’t get over: their selection of crosses.
Hobby Lobby has a huge selection of decorative crosses.  I don’t even know how to describe all the various kinds of crosses they have.  There are crosses with the Lord’s Prayer on them; crosses with favorite Bible verses; crosses with patriotic quotes; just about anything you can imagine.  Some of them are downright strange.  You can‘t make this up, folks: I was there a couple of weeks ago, and they had an antique-looking, Western-themed cross with a longhorn’s skull on it.  What does that even mean?
But those aren’t the ones that bother me.  The crosses that bother me are the cute ones.  Do you know what I’m talking about?  Crosses with pastels and flowers; ‘Precious Moments’ crosses; crosses that don’t look anything like they have anything to do with the suffering and death of Jesus.  One time, they even had a cross in pink Leopard print.
A cute cross, a pretty cross, is no cross of Christ.  It may look good on a wall, but we should get over the illusion that these have anything to do with Jesus’ passion.  The cross means pain and death, and there is no getting around this.  As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard put it, “Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed.  It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not shun the cross, nor pretty it up and make it easier to bear.  As our Lenten journey nears completion and we draw near the Easter victory, the cross that Christ asks us to take up is a cross like his: ragged, blood-stained, and fatal.  It is the cross of a savior who asks us to do nothing but die to ourselves. To the world such a cross is ridiculous, utter foolishness, but to us, as Saint Paul says, it is the power of God.
Tony Campolo tells a story about a man who walked up and down the streets of downtown Philadelphia wearing a sandwich-board style sign over his shoulders.  On the front of the sign was written, “I am a fool for Christ.”  As you might imagine, many who approached him would snicker and laugh at the man as they drew near.  But they all became silent as they continued to walk past him and read the other side of the board: “whose fool are you?”
Easter approaches.  The world is busy buying chocolate bunnies and dying eggs.  But in various places, Jesus’ disciples gather in his holy Church to remember that the new life promised at Easter is not possible without this foolish, rugged old thing called a cross.  We can be wise in the world’s eyes, or fools for the sake of Christ and his cross.  Whose fool are you?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church

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Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church.  I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.

As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding.   I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election.  I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:

As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)

To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless.  At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful.  At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.

But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church.  I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists.  Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.

Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault.  We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people.  If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained.  Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service.  Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.

P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.

A Simple Question On Health Care

From Yahoo News:

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.

Let’s leave aside the question of requiring the purchase of insurance; we would rather have a coercive government than a free citizenry, because freedom requires something of us.  Fine.  Besides, many states, like mine, already require all drivers to have basic car insurance, and so this isn’t a huge leap.

Helping families with incomes of $88K buy insurance?  If I’m not mistaken, that is almost triple the poverty rate.  It is well over double what I make, and well into middle class.  Why do these families need subsidies to buy health insurance?  Many of these families can afford new cars, flat-screen tv’s, and regular sushi dinners.  Why the hell should the government pay for part of their insurance when someone of that income bracket, generally, CAN afford health care and simply CHOOSES not to have it?

Abortion is a whole separate issue. I’m honestly not sure if this bill allows for government funded abortion or not, honestly.    My own inclination is to side with the Catholic Bishops over Nancy Pelosi.  But why did this debate only revolve around abortion?  Let’s start with this: a government that won’t allow us to make “bad” choices is a government bordering – at minimum – on the despotic.  Welcome to the land of change.

The Pope on Sex, the Historical Jesus, and (maybe) Obama

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What does it look like when the head of the Roman Catholic Church, the man in Saint Peter’s seat, is also one of the most profound and prolific systematic theologians of our age?  It looks like now.  That is precisely the situation with Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.  I’m not a Catholic, but you don’t have to be to appreciate his work.  Ratzinger has gotten an unfair reputation for being a pit bull, but in reality this is a liberal reaction to his being a faithful Catholic.  He was, for years, the head of the CDF, the theological watchdog of the RCC; but in his writing we see him as a servant of his Lord and his Lord’s Church.  I’ve previously highlighted some comments from his excellent little book Eschatology, which is well worth your read.  I’m currently working my way through his Introduction to Christianity, which is an extended meditation on the Apostle’s Creed.  Some highlights:

On Sex…

…the apparent liberation of love and its conversation into a matter of impulse mean the delivery of man to the autonomous powers of sex and Eros, to whose merciless slavery he falls victim just when he is under the illusion that he has freed himself.  When he eludes God, the gods put out their hands to grasp him. (114)

What prose! What wonderful use of irony, and how true!  Watch TV for ten minutes and tell me that the whole generation under 40 is not under the hands of “sex and Eros” under the guise of “liberated” love.  Seeking to free ourselves,we have, like Icarus, been too care-free and are in danger of falling to our deaths.

On  the “Historical” Jesus…

For my part I must confess that, quite apart from the Christian faith and simply from my acquaintance with history, I find it preferable and easier to believe that God became man than that such a conglomeration of hypotheses represents the truth. (215)

This is Ratzinger’s take on the thrust of historical Jesus research, which purports to explain how a failed Messiah, Jesus, was gradually transformed into the Christ of faith that the modern, rationalist mind can neither comprehend nor tolerate.  The more I read and reflect on the phenomenon, the more I loathe the whole historical Jesus project.  As Ratzinger points out, one cannot neatly separate the man Jesus from the office of Christ, the figure of history from the Son who is worshiped in faith.  His conclusion shows the absurdity of this “quest” with great humor and precision.

On Obama (?)…

Hope would become utopianism if its goal were only man’s own product. (242)

This is not entirely fair.  I admit this up front; this book was written well before Obama was even a presidential candidate.  Here he is speaking of how Christian faith looks out in hope  – not simply thinking back to a fantastic origin – but forward to a blessed future for the whole cosmos.  We have hope because of what God has revealed in Jesus Christ, not because of our own capacities, ideas, and projects.

That said, I connected this with Obama because of the clever and effective use by his staff of the word ‘hope’.  I’m not surprised that an increasingly secularized, de-Christianed country went for this.  If Marx and his followers have taught us anything, it is that people want hope by the bushel, just leave God out of it.  (Marx has, at his core, an eschatology much like Christianity: the view of a perfect future of peace and justice.  Unfortunately for Marx, the materialist, bereft of God, must accomplish this future of his own accord.)

I was, and continue to be disturbed, however, that so many Christians bought into the President’s rhetoric of ‘hope’.  We witnessed a political usurpation – a hijacking – of a theological virtue, and many of us simply cheered without a second thought.  But as Ratzinger rightly points out, ‘hope’ without reference to Jesus Christ is a void; it is no hope at all; it can only tend towards the meaningless entropy of utopian fantasy.

Liberal Christians excoriated the Christian Right for taking religious cues for their visions of “family values” and morality, and in general, for blurring the lines between politics and faith.  But liberal Christians have seemed unable to stop themselves from making the exact same play now that it is their turn to call the shots.  Alas, more sweet irony.

Enough ranting.  Read some Ratzinger…you’ll be glad you did.

Follow Up: Wallis on Beck

I don’t often agree with Jim Wallis – he is too much of a run-of-the-mill liberal Baptist for my liking – but it’s worth letting him have his say on the Glenn Beck statement I recently commented on.  Agree or not, Wallis is a passionate, intelligent man who practices what he preaches.  Literally.  As for Glenn Beck, well, let’s hope he catches severe laryngitis very soon.

See Rev. Wallis’ comments here.

Wallis is right: justice is at the heart of the gospel, of all the Biblical witness.  But there is both distributive justice and retributive justice.  For one, few of us have room in our political philosophies for both (most of us pick one).  For another, the distributive justice envisioned in the prophets and in the Kingdom have little bearing on how or if the power of the state should be used to those ends.  For those of us who are suspicious of both the power of the state and its ability to do anything effectively, the way that the church should effect distributive justice is through the church, and not the heavy hand of Caesar.

I can’t stand Glenn Beck because…

….sometimes I have to hate myself a little bit for agreeing with him in even the smallest way. Case in point: I have to agree with him in disliking the terms “economic justice” and “social justice.”  But in his equation of this idea with Nazism and Communism, and his advising people to leave churches that teach and preach this, I cannot find words strong enough to condemn his virulent comments.

I’ve covered this territory before, but I’m guessing all the Beck-hate will garner a lot of new traffic thanks to a provocative title (yes, this means you).  Face the facts: no one can define what “social justice” or “economic justice” means.  This doesn’t mean they are super-secret “code words” for totalitarianism, though they are generally associated with people of a leftist persuasion.  Both terms describe various schemes for distributive justice.  Some conservative commentators have pointed out that anyone government powerful enough to establish a perfect state of “social” justice would be unjust by the sheer fact of its magnitude, coercion, and requisite violation of the private sphere of life.  In other words, if advocates of social justice had their way, the policies the would require to fulfill their vision would likely run roughshod over the rights of many others – particularly property rights – in pursuit of their ends.

This does not mean mean advocates of distributive justice are all totalitarians in our midst.  It is simply an undefined bit of language that some on the left use to denote a whole host of attitudes with no single definition.  On the right, an equivalently problematic and undefined phrase might be “family values.”  In my experience, most people who advocate social justice are good-hearted souls who want to help people, particularly the poor and oppressed (however defined).  If they are guilty of not thinking through all the presuppositions of their language, well, that makes them anything but special.

But Glenn, you’re a carbuncle on the face of American conservatism.  I wish you were in a less unsavory place, like the buttocks or armpit where no one would see you, but the fact is your brand of populist nonsense is front and center on the airwaves.  The sad part is, this is coming from someone who has watched his share of Fox News – so don’t go calling me a Commie.  You desperately need a lobotomy or a kick in the pants, maybe both.

We have enough people leaving churches.  Our modern suspicion of all institutions, traditions, and authorities, is taking care of that.  There are good reasons to leave churches – we all know this.  But social justice? Really?  Was it that slow of a news day?

Do us all a favor: crawl into a hole, shut your mouth, read the Bible until you have enough humility to realize it should stay shut permanently, and find something useful to do with your time that does not involve infecting American politics with your bleating lunacy.

On being Christian in a postmodern context

I want to highlight a recently (re-)posted article by Joseph Bottum at First Things.  He reflects on being Christian in light of both modern and postmodern sensibilities.  I admit that philosophy is not a strong point of mine, and I will need another couple of readings to really digest this, but it is worth your time.  Here is a sample:

Of course believers are tempted, when they hear postmodern deconstructions of modernity, to argue in support of modernity. After all, believers share with modern nonbelievers a trust in the reality of truth. They affirm the efficacy of human action, the movement of history towards a goal, the possibility of moral and aesthetic judgments. But believers share with postmoderns the recognition that truth rests on a faith that has itself been the sole subject of the long attack of modern times. The most foolish thing believers could do is to make concessions now to a modernity that is already bankrupt (and that despises them anyway) and thus to make themselves subject to a second attack—the attack of the postmodern on the modern. Faithful believers are not responsible for the emptiness of modernity. They struggled against it for as long as they could, and they must not give in now. They must not, at this late date, become scientific, bureaucratic, and technological; skeptical, self-conscious, and self-mocking.

Would John Wesley Watch Jon Stewart?

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Examining John Wesley for contemporary answers is a difficult task.  He was a highly-educated member of the upper crust of British society, who became known for preaching, teaching, and generally ministering to the dregs of society.  He defended the British empire to the hilt (citing 1 Peter 2:17′s admonition to “fear God, honor the emperor” when considering the question of the American revoltion; yet near the end of his life he supported the anti-slavery work of Wilberforce and his allies.  He was a moral elitist, expecting extreme piety from his followers, but wrote and preached of a God of grace and love.

This was not a one-dimensional man.  Much like Jesus, contemporary interpretations of Wesley tend to tell us more about the interpreters than the subject of study.

Wesley’s disciples are a diverse lot; if all you knew about Methodists’ political beliefs came from the General Board of Church and Society, you would think we were a left-of-center gang.  But Methodists and other Wesleyans run the gamut, from left to center to right, to those with Anabaptist sympathies (think followers of Hauerwas) who don’t give a damn about politics in the usual sense.  This political variance is also liturgical; walk into UMC or AME Church on a Sunday morning, and you could think you are in a Catholic, Southern Baptist, or charismatic church.  Because our Bishops and Discipline do not regulate our worship in any meaningful way (despite the presence of an excellent Book of Worship), you really never know what you are going to get going into any church in the Wesleyan tradition, and especially in the UMC.  But I digress.

Was Wesley a radical?  Many pastors and other theologians since the 1960′s (and with renewed vigor following the Bush/Obama turn) have tried to make Wesley into a champion for any host of social causes.  We love our “prophetic” religion so long as “prophetic” easily translates into the categories of contemporary politics; “speaking truth to power” is a phrase so vastly overused by puerile master’s students it should cause one’s bile to rise.  In fact, many seem to think that being “prophetic” just means being “against,” against what is established, against anything and everything – but especially politics and politicians. Many Methodists fall into this pseudo-theology quite happily.  But was Wesley much of a radical? Like my entire generation, would he go gaga for the reflections of Jon “I’m a comedian so I can say whatever I want and claim nobody should take me seriously even though half of young people get all their news from me” Stewart?

Researching last week’s sermon gave me pause.  Consider this reflection on Luke 13:32, in which Jesus calls the corrupt Herod a “fox”:

32. ‘And he said, Go and tell that fox’ – With great propriety so called, for his subtilty and cowardice. ….But let us carefully distinguish between those things wherein Christ is our pattern, and those which were peculiar to his office. His extraordinary office justified him in using that severity of language, when speaking of wicked princes, and corrupt teachers, to which we have no call; and by which we should only bring scandal on religion, and ruin on ourselves, while we irritated rather than convinced or reformed those whom we so indecently rebuked. (Emphasis added)

Thinking about the lack of decent discourse in American politics today, I found Wesley profoundly helpful.  As Christians, even at our most prophetic, our goal should be to “convince or reform” those with whom we disagree, not simply make them a mockery.  The hatemongering we saw for years in response to W’s presidency, and now with Obama, should be enough for anyone to see to need for Wesley’s approach to how we speak of and to our ‘princes’.  Was Wesley a radical? Look at the man’s portrait! (Translation: probably not.)  Would Wesley drool for the observations of Jon Stewart?  Doubtful.  But he should give us pause as pastors, theologians, and – dare I say! – bloggers.  Christ certainly had business rebuking, mocking, and talking down to rulers and authorities.  Is that our vocation?

Luke 13:31-35: “The Fox and the Hen” (Lent 2)

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Has anyone ever given you suspicious advice? Maybe someone who you know doesn’t like you, or who just doesn’t know you well at all, tries to give you advice like you are the best of friends. Should you take their advice, or not? With some people, you never know their real motivations. With others, experience teaches us not to take them at their word.
Our passage from Luke today opens with some advice from a strange source. Some Pharisees come up to Jesus and seem concerned. The approach Jesus and tell him, “You should get out of here, Herod wants to kill you.” No surprise here. This was the Herod we heard about around Christmas, the King that had slaughtered thousands of babies trying to prevent the birth of the Messiah. From all the Gospel accounts, we know that Herod, this coward, this puppet ruler who oppresses his own people on behalf of Rome, is no friend of Jesus. It couldn’t have been a surprise to Jesus that Herod was plotting against him. But why would the Pharisees warn Jesus?
This is really suspicious advice. The Pharisees, the Jewish teachers of law, community leaders, actively opposed the ministry of Jesus. They were scared of his miracles. Perplexed at his teachings. Most of all, they were angry – angry and shocked – that so many people were drawn to this carpenter turned Rabbi. So it should strike us as odd that in our passage today we see Pharisees of all people trying to warn Jesus of danger.
But if you look at the context of this passage I think we get an idea about where this odd warning comes from. Just before this in chapter 13 of Luke’s gospel, Jesus was teaching about salvation. He tells the people to enter through what he calls “the narrow door,” that not all who wish to enter will be able to. He concludes this teaching by saying, “Some who are last will be first, and some who are first will be last.” In other words, not everyone you expect will receive God’s mercy. It’s a scary passage for anyone. It had to be frightening for the Pharisees, the professional religious folks. No good Jew would have doubted their status in God’s kingdom, and surely none of the Pharisees questioned their own place in God’s eyes.
From the gospels, we can be sure that the Pharisees kept a close eye on Jesus as he taught. He frequently interacts with them throughout his ministry. They weren’t disciples, but they were certainly interested. You’ve heard that old advice that says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer?“ Well, the Pharisees followed that. They saw Jesus as their enemy, and though they didn’t like him, they didn’t ignore him. And so they were close by when Jesus said, “Some of those who are first will be last.”
It can’t be an accident that their warning comes right after this. How convenient! “You Pharisees and other leaders – some of you will be last one day!” And now, all of a sudden, the Pharisees discover some concern for Jesus’ safety?! No…no, that is just a little too convenient. I’m sure Jesus saw through it – we can almost hear him thinking, “Yeah, right!”
Jesus isn’t impressed with the false concern of Pharisees, and he isn’t frightened by Herod’s anger either. He even challenges the Pharisees to take a message back to Herod. He tells them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’” Jesus wants Herod to know that his threats will not deter his mission. Jesus is on a journey towards Jerusalem, a journey to the cross, but it is not his time yet. His Father in Heaven will decide that and the Holy Spirit will guide him, but he will not be frightened into submission by a petty king. Eugene Peterson translates his response this way: “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now…I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick.”
“Go and tell that Fox!” This isn’t a gentle, meek and mild Jesus. This isn’t a Jesus who floats on the clouds and does nothing but whisper nice things to us. Luke shows us that Jesus had an edge to him, maybe he was even a little bit of a rebel. I suppose he’d have to be to openly mock a powerful figure who was trying to have him killed. “Go and tell that fox,” he says. Why does Jesus call Herod a fox? Did Herod have red fur and a bushy tail? No. A fox had a reputation for cunning, for sneakiness, and trickery. Today, we might say, “a weasel.” Throughout most of human history foxes have been regarded as clever creatures – animals that the wise farmer would not turn their back on for an instant.
We see this reflected in many stories that have been handed down to us over the centuries, especially in some of Aesop’s fables. The fox was actually one of his favorite characters. Here is an example:
A fox one day fell into a deep well and could not find a way to escape. A goat, who happened to be extremely thirsty, came to the same well and, seeing the Fox, asked if the water was good. Concealing his sad plight under a happy facade, the Fox heaped praise upon the water, saying it was excellent beyond measure, and encouraging the goat to descend and try it for himself. The Goat, thinking only of his thirst, thoughtlessly jumped down. As he began to drink, the Fox informed him of the difficulty they were both in and suggested a scheme for their common escape. “If,” said he, “you will place your front feet on the wall and bend your head, I will run up your back and escape, and will help you out afterwards.” The Goat readily agreed and the Fox leaped upon his back. Steadying himself with the Goat’s horns, he safely reached the mouth of the well and made off as fast as he could. As he was running away, the Goat yelled him for breaking his promise; the fox turned around and cried out, “You foolish old fellow! If you had as many brains in your head as you have hairs in your beard, you would never have gone down before you had inspected the way up, nor have exposed yourself to dangers from which you had no means of escape.” The moral of the story: look before you leap.
“Look before you leap.” Know what you are getting yourself into and know who you are dealing with. Don’t trust a fox. They are tricky, dishonest and dangerous. Jesus knows who Herod is, and he lets everyone know that this deceiver will not stand in the way of the work the Father has given him. He will continue his work of healing and preaching, proclaiming the Kingdom, until the third day, and then he will be on his way to Jerusalem. As we continue on our own Lenten journey towards Easter, we see this as a foreshadowing of the three days Jesus would spend in the tomb.
After Jesus sends this message, he begins a lament for Jerusalem, a prayer of mourning and sadness. Here Jerusalem stands for all of Israel, for God’s people whom He desires. Jesus sounds a word of both hope and warning. He calls Jerusalem, “The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Here Jesus is looking back to prophets like Uriah and Zechariah, sent by God but killed in God’s holy city. This is a word of judgment that changes to a message of Jesus’ longing for his people. He continues, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Many of us probably aren’t used to female images for God. Those of us who have been reading The Shack together have gotten used to it, that’s part of what is interesting about the book: many of us have found out that most of our images and ideas about God are very, very male-oriented. But we forget that the Bible does show feminine images for God also. Here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen gathering her children under her wings. Earlier he called Herod a fox; a conniving, selfish, untrustworthy beast. Now he likens himself to a nurturing mother hen.
Hens are known to be protective. I heard a story from a friend who comes from a family of farmers. He tells a story about the day that the hen house burned down on his grandpa’s place just down the road. His dad arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and the grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire’s heat, her neck limp. The grandfather bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen’s four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hens wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them.
That is the story of Jesus. Jesus is that mother hen who would rather die than see its children suffer in agony. Jesus longs to gather his beloved under his wings to protect them; but here he says that Jerusalem is not willing. This city that kills prophets, these people are still beloved, but they are unwilling.
The story is not over yet though. Jesus says, “You will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” This is almost exactly the chant that the people will give, waving palm branches as he enters Jerusalem in the coming days. Jesus has called Jerusalem the city that kills prophets, and he is going there anyway. He knows that Herod and Pilate and many other foxes await; many want him dead, but they will not get their wish until the appointed time. And even as the foxes plot his death, Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem. He goes to Jerusalem unafraid, as the hen who protected her children in the fire – pure, selfless, love, enduring pain and suffering, for those he loves. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. He wants to be our Lord and our Savior. As the mother hen enveloped her young under her wings, Jesus will hang with arms outstretched, saving all who are willing to receive his mercy. For now, let us follow. Let us take up our crosses and walk with him until the appointed time. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.