Category Archives: Liturgical Year

Repentance with Thomas a’ Kempis

From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.
From an 18th century copy of the Imitation of Christ. Courtesy of the Bridwell Library.

“I would rather experience repentance in my soul than know how to define it.” -Thomas a’ Kempis

The most beloved book by Christians, other than the Bible, is a short devotional work by a 15th century monk named Thomas a’ Kempis called Imitation of Christ.  a’ Kempis is no saint or Doctor of the Church; as best as we can tell, he was a humble monk from a now-defunct order who just happened to leave us some of the most profound and stirring insights into the spiritual life every put on paper.  He was a favorite of Therese of Lisieux, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, and Thomas Merton, just to name a few.  And during this season of Lent, who better to guide us on the practice of repentance? Let us give the wise monk a hearing once more:

“The only true liberty or honest joy is in fearing God with a good conscience. Blessed is the man who can set aside all the sources of distraction and perfectly recollect himself in holy repentance. Blessed is he who shuns all that soils and weighs down his conscience…Always keep an eye on yourself and be more willing to correct yourself than your dearest friends.” (Ch. 21, “Repentance of the Heart”)

A few thoughts:

  • How radically pre-modern it is to claim that liberty resides in fearing God! Modern libertarians would shun such a notion of freedom.
  • Repentance is a “recollection” of the self. Like the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner is one who returns to their true home to be restored in the arms of the loving Father.
  • Repentance requires setting aside distraction? Dear God, my iPhone and my iPad have both been flashing alerts at me in the 10 minutes I’ve been writing.  Few acts of  renunciation are more difficult in 2015 than living lives which are not constantly drowning in distraction.
  • More willing to correct myself than others?? But it’s so easy to despise my neighbors’ speck or splinter, and to ignore the log in my own eye!

Repentance is, of course, a daily need and not merely a seasonal occurrence.  For half a millennium, there have been few better guides than Thomas a’ Kempis.  He would be the first to say this obvious conclusion: the point is not to know how to define repentance, not to read great works about repentance, but to do it.

Source: ‘a Kempis, Thomas. The Imitation of Christ (New York: Vintage Books 1998), 30.

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Get Your Ash in Church: One Blizzard Does Not A Diaspora Make (#AshesAtHome)

A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of heaven.  Why settle for less than the real thing?
A tempting, convenient substitute for the Bread of Heaven. Why settle for less than the real thing?

A friend of mine once told me a horror story from his ordination interviews that has stuck with me.  Between the actual interviews and learning their fate from the committee, the would-be ordinands were invited to a time of worship and Holy Communion.  A problem was discovered, though: someone had forgotten to get the Welch’s and bread.  No worries, though, it was pointed out that there were still muffins and cola in the break room.  Some hapless ordained UMC pastor then proceeded to retrieve, and then celebrate, communion with a gaggle of nascent elders and deacons using snack food.  Only a few brave souls abstained from the spectacle.  Can you imagine? The most holy of mysteries transformed into the contents of a fifth-grader’s lunchbox.  Horrifying.

But wait! some will object.  If you were on the mission field, and no wine or juice and no conventional bread were available, you’d have to just use what was there! Can’t God’s Spirit inhabit a poppy-seed muffin just as easily as a loaf of  King’s Hawaiian Bread? Why limit what God can do?

We’ve all had that argument at some point.  Some unfortunate youth pastors will even lead “communion” using soda and Doritos just to prove the point.  The logic is thus: extreme circumstances call for unusual measures.  And if such measures are acceptable in extreme circumstances, then why not make them normative?

This is the logic behind a liturgical innovation recently unleashed upon an unsuspecting church: “Ashes At Home.”  The idea is simple: Can’t make it to church? Use this liturgy alone or with your family.  After all, Israel is a worshiping community that has often had to hold its most significant gatherings not at Temple or synagogue but at home:

“Of course, the ideal mode of prayer is to be physically together, but necessary separation due to illness, work, political exile or even weather should not squelch the prayers of the faithful.  

Israel has also taught us that sharing in common prayers and festivals binds us together. To be Jewish means to pray the prayers of Israel, no matter where you are. During World War II, the Jews in concentration camps prayed the same prayers as the Jews in New York. Rabbis in Jerusalem share the same prayer as laity in Moscow. Praying the prayers of the faith binds Israel together.”

Of course, there is more to Ash Wednesday than just “prayers.”  I don’t know of any Christians who would argue that prayers can or should only be done in church.  But, following the lead of the prophet Joel, Ash Wednesday is a time of communal repentance, not just individual or familial spiritual experience:

12“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. (Joel 2:12-16, RSV)
As Taylor Watson Burton-Edwards points out, Joel knows what our Ash Wednesday service signifies: that repentance is too important to do alone.  The innovators go on to ground this practice in another unassailable fact, namely, our common experience of the invisible church:

“We all have experienced this. We have watched the Holy Spirit hover over the elements in hospital rooms as we pray in that space, ‘Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.’

We have felt the Spirit of Pentecost bind us together as we have prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people of a different language, and yet prayed with one heart and mind.”

ASH WEDNESDAYAs any chaplain will tell you, there are liturgical rites that occur in a hospital room that are not parallel any other context – and always as an extension of the church to the hospital room, not a substitute.  Like the hypothetical mission field, it is an unusual circumstance offered to normalize a new practice (and doesn’t communion, which requires a clergy person representing the church, make for an especially bad example here?).  And Pentecost? Well, if the argument is that the gathering of the community is somehow secondary, that we can do just as well alone or in our homes what is done in the assembly, than the Spirit who was poured out on the assembly at Pentecost seems to be precisely the wrong evidence to muster.

The 2015 snowpocalypse is hardly a situation as extreme as the Diaspora or the concentration camp.  Moreover, there is more to the Ash Wednesday service than mere prayers, which can be done by anyone, in any place, at any time.  A snowstorm does not warrant trading an act of communal repentance for my living room.  The solution, actually, is much simpler: just offer the ashes the First Sunday of Lent.  That’s what I will be doing.  Since we could not be together on Wednesday, we will dedicate part of our first gathering of Lent to repent and to remind each other of our need for a community in which repentance is made possible.  One blizzard does not a Diaspora make.  Unusual circumstances are no reason to invent something out of whole cloth, particularly when a much simpler solution is right in front of us.

So don’t settle for a saccharine substitute from the convenience of your living room.  Get your ash in church.  I’ll see you there Sunday.  And best of all, we’ll have a whole community of penitent, praying Christians on hand for the occasion.  Discipleship is difficult work.  God, in His grace,  doesn’t intend us to do it alone.  It takes a church.  Thanks be to God.

Disappointed in Bethlehem: Then and Now

The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.  Courtesy Wikipedia.
The birthplace of Jesus, as it appears today inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Courtesy Wikipedia.

The Christmas season is upon us.  Of course, the world thinks Christmas is already over; a few more sales and the shelves will be making way for Valentine’s Day.  For many folks, Christmas is a disappointment: we don’t get the gifts we want or don’t get to see all the people we want.  On a more serious note, many of us have Christmases whose joy is broken by addiction, grief, anger, or loss.  Christmas comes around each year but no joy ever does.

I take comfort in knowing Bethlehem has always been a disappointment.  Jews, captive under Roman rule, were disappointed when the Messiah turned out to be a humble baby born to a carpenter’s family, rather than the royal conqueror they had expected.  Pagans were disappointed to hear this little sect, based on a supposed miracle in Bethlehem, was pathetic enough to worship a peasant who came from no place special and died in humiliation on a cross.

Today, Bethlehem is still a disappointment.  I’ve visited the Church of the Nativity twice, and both times – though grateful for the experience – I was struck by the ugliness of the place and, especially, the rudeness of the resident monks.  I resonate with Annie Dillard’s observation:

“Any patch of ground anywhere smacks more of God’s presence on earth, to me, than did this marble grotto. The ugliness of the blunt and bumpy silver start impressed me. The bathetic pomp of the heavy, tasseled brocades, the marble, the censers hanging from chains, the embroidered antependium, the aspergillum, the crosiers the ornate lamps – some human’s idea of elegance – bespoke grand comedy, too, that God put with it. And why should he not? Things here on earth get a whole lot worse than bad taste.”

I am often disappointed by what we do with Bethlehem.  Even the church, whose life is based on that dingy miracle outside of Jerusalem, too often turns Bethlehem into something cute, something tame and touching and saccharin.  But the Incarnation – that’s the name we give to God’s invasion of the world in Bethlehem – was never meant to be.

So perhaps Bethlehem has always been a disappointment, and might always will be.  There is hardly a fitting response to such a strange happening.  We do our best with smoky marble and kitschy plays, but our best is still ugly.

Thankfully, God hangs with us anyway – with all those who are disappointed in, and all those who add to the disappointment of – this place, this miracle, this mystery that is Bethlehem.  Dillard concludes her above observation with this line from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav:

“Every day, the glory is ready to emerge from its debasement.”

May the true glory of Bethlehem be manifest in us and in our communities, and may God continue to bear with us – every day.

watch for the light

Source: “Bethlehem,” by Annie Dillard, in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (New York: Orbis 2001), 220.

The King Who Seeks

Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.
Bette Middler backstage at the 1990 Grammy Awards. Photo by Alan Light.

A couple of years ago, I heard the song “From a Distance” for the first time.  Though made popular by Bette Middler, my introduction was a live performance from a local celebrity during a fundraising breakfast for a community charity.   While many around me seemed to be deeply moved by the lyrics, I was less than impressed.

I did not recognize the deity whose praises were being sung. It certainly was not the God of Israel and the Church, who loves with passion and compassion, whose fierce determination to be with His people is written all over the pages of Scripture.  Our God is no distant monarch, nor, as Al Pacino’s diabolical title character charges in The Devil’s Advocate, an “absentee landlord.”

John Stott suggests as much when he writes,

“Many people visualize a God who sits comfortably on a distant throne, remote, aloof, uninterested, and indifferent to the needs of mortals, until, it may be, they can badger him into taking action on their behalf. Such a view is wholly false.  The Bible reveals a God who, long before it even occurs to man to turn to him, while man is still lost in darkness and sunk in sin, takes the initiative, rises from his throne, lays aside his glory, and stoops to seek until he finds them.” (Basic Christianity, 11.)

Arminians refer to this seeking, initiative-taking love of God as prevenient grace.  Like the father who runs out to greet the prodigal son in Luke 15, our Christ is a king who seeks and saves, who loves with abandon, never content to be at  a distance.  With Christ the King Sunday upon us, let us remember why we have reason to celebrate an incarnate “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Thanks be to the God, who was come near us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

Image

For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Holy Saturday, Failure, and Seth Godin

When it looked like Jesus has failed, he was actually on a rescue mission. From a 15th century Italian master, courtesy of http://www.geopolicraticus.wordpress.com.

“…but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews
and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called,
both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom
of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
-1 Cor. 1:23-25

“Only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes
the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the
crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and as foolishness.
Today the church…must return to the crucified Christ in order
to show the world the freedom he offers.”
-Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

According to Frederick Buechner, the resurrection means that “the worst thing is never the last thing.” In Christ’s victory at Easter, sin and death are destroyed, their power is gone, and we are freed in Christ to live new lives that boldly testify to the risen savior. Paul tells his young protege, Timothy, “God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7) As Christians we must discipline ourselves to fail well.

I was lucky enough to see Seth Godin give a talk at High Point University recently. Godin is a writer and entrepreneur who has some insight on failure that Christians should take to heart. In a blog post titled “How to Fail” he writes:

“There are some significant misunderstandings about failure…
All of us fail. Successful people fail often, and, worth noting, learn more from that failure than everyone else. Two habits that don’t help:
• Getting good at avoiding blame and casting doubt
• Not signing up for visible and important projects” (1)

Godin pushes us to see that if we aren’t failing, we aren’t trying hard enough. If we are only doing “sure things,” if we are only traveling well-worn paths that we think are guaranteed to work, then odds are we aren’t jumping in with both feet. Like Edison discovering 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb, we make often make breakthroughs only after failing a lot. Like Godin says, successful people fail along with everyone else, but they learn from it more than everyone else, too.

As Christians, we know what God can do with an apparent failure. The cross is still a stumbling block and foolishness to the world because it is shocking that death has been conquered by death, that the moment when it looked like God had failed became the place of God’s greatest triumph.  Drawing on images from 1st Peter, Christians have long pondered how Jesus spent Holy Saturday, and prayerfully considered that Jesus was in fact in the realm of the dead reaching out to the righteous in Sheol.

To live in light of the resurrection means that we, too, are free to fail, free to risk, because we know that our efforts are not in vain. We know that we work for a Kingdom that will come, regardless of our faults and failures. We work for a savior who can do marvelous things with shaky disciples and a few loaves of bread.

Thanks be to God.

The Cross is Not About You

Pay attention to enough old revival songs, and eventually the individualism of so much “Jesus n’ Me” theology will wear your patience thin.  N.T. Wright is an evangelical Anglican (a rare breed indeed) who gets that the Good News is not just about “my salvation,” and I continue to learn a great deal from him.

As Good Friday approaches, in which we meditate on the cross and consider all that Christ endured to effect our reconciliation with God, I found these words a helpful reminder that the cross is not merely the news about something done for me, but also a vocation that is to impact how we as Christians approach life and ministry and mission each day.  The cross is personal but also political, it is individual and communal.  Like the entirety of the Biblical revelation, it is first about who God is, and only secondarily about me.

I hope this blesses you in some way as it did me, and I would heartily suggest you add this volume to your current reading list.

The cross is the surest, truest and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God; the more we learn about the cross in all its historical and theological dimensions, the more we discover about the One in whose image we are made and hence about our own vocation to be the cross-bearing people, the people in whose lives and service the living God is to be made known…we do not – we dare not – simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job.  The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, but be cross-shaped through and through.”

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 94-95

TS Eliot and Advent

In the lectionary readings for Advent, we look forward to Jesus’  birth by reflecting on the prophecies of his return.  The first coming and the second coming are shown to be two acts in the same play, two chapters in the same story.  Beginnings and endings have relationships that often go unnoticed.  In my sermon this Sunday, I am drawing some inspiration from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.  I am reminded of CS Lewis, who points out that the Father, who exists outside of time, must have seen the crucifixion present in the incarnation and birth of the Son.  It follows that the 2nd coming, then, was imagined even at the first.  In His beginning is our end.  As I will tell the saints on Sunday, get ready!

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.

Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,

Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,

Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.

Houses live and die; there is a time for building

And a time for living and for generation

And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane

And to shake the wainscot where thefield-mouse trots

And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

(TS. Eliot, “East Coker” in Four Quartets)

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

https://i0.wp.com/fast1.onesite.com/my.telegraph.co.uk/user/kingboy/a7a5ed6be7c9f086a05e1c21ce8f94e6.jpg

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.