Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13:31-35
I’m sure most of you are aware that the Cathedral of Notre Dame is celebrating 850 years of ministry. That’s a long time! Part of the celebration involves the installation of nine new bells. These are not hand-bells. These are massive bells, the largest is Marie which will hang in the South Tower with Emmanuel, the 19 ton granddaddy! Kim and I took some time this week to go and see them and if you haven’t already done so, you must go straight away to take a look. They will be on display in the nave of the Cathedral only until the end of this month. What impressed me so much was the artistic extras that were part of the design of these massive bells. A cross, or the outline of Paris skyline, or branches and leaves made from some of the casting imperfections. This artwork is on display now, but of course will not be seen by the public for centuries once they are put into place in the massive towers of the cathedral…
It occurs to me that this season of Lent is in many ways a time to reflect on that which others may not see in our lives. We know that God does not care about appearances, but God sees the heart… Lent is a time to reflect on what is in our heart, and the depth of our sin and brokenness. We fast and pray so that we may reflect more deeply on our deepest hungers, and the grace of God that will fill and sustain us through the time we have in this life.
But Lent is not a time for personal reflection only. There is the discipline of giving alms. Fasting and praying is a personal discipline, but traditionally has been connected with compassion for our neighbors. In other words, we may fast from rich foods not just to slim down, but rather so we will have more money to give to the poor. There is a social justice component to our personal devotions. You’ve heard it said that the Latin word pietas is the root for two English words: piety and pity. In fact, the Christian life is like a bird with two wings: piety and pity (or compassion). Both wings are required to enjoy the freedom of heavenly flight.
Luke begins today’s gospel lesson with the words “At that very hour…” Timing matters, and it’s important to see today’s lesson in the context of Jesus’ prophetic teaching as he goes “through one town and village after another” urging people to “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many will try to enter and will not be able…There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (13:14-30). And here our text begins: “At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus], ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”
Don’t for a minute think the Pharisees cared for Jesus. They were afraid of Jesus and wanted him to fear Herod and leave the region. This is Herod Antipas, by the way. He was one of Herod the Great’s four sons, who after Herod’s death were given a quarter of the area Herod the Great had ruled. Antipas was called a Tetrarch because he only ruled one fourth of the area that his father did. He was given Galilee, which is the northern part of Israel, and also Perea, which was the land across the Jordan river. This is important to note, as Herod Antipas was ruling in Galilee, which is where most of Jesus’ teaching ministry takes place on his way to Jerusalem. Note also Jesus never entered Tiberius, Antipas’capital city in Galilee. He knew Herod wanted him dead, and so was staying clear of a real threat to his larger mission.
Jesus sends a provocative message back to Herod that he will stick to his own agenda, thank you very much! “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” (13:32-33). It’s clear that Jesus is not intimidated by Herod, even though, you’ll remember, it was Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded. Quite the contrary, Jesus knows Herod Antipas is not a threat. Jesus knows where he is going, and he knows what he has to do. Notice the three day reference here. “On the third day I finish my work…”
Jesus here foreshadows his “work” on the cross. Luke knows that his listeners will know that Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. Jesus knew it when he lamented, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” Things really haven’t changed much, have they? You know the expression: Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger? The word Prophet is “pro-phetes” in the Greek, which literally means “for-speaks”, or “one who speaks for…” In other words, the prophets are the unenviable chaps called to speak for God and for those whom God cares about. And what was God always speaking through the prophets, and who does God care about? God was always speaking a word of repentance to his people. He wanted them to turn from their self-righteous and unjust ways. He wanted them to turn from their religious obsessions and be more concerned with the poor, the outcast and the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. It was the prophet Uriah whom King Jehoiakim struck down and threw in a common grave (Jeremiah 26:33). Jeremiah himself was left to die in a muddy cistern after speaking words of discouragement (38:4-6). Zechariah was also scorned by the Jerusalem elite. Isaiah was not loved for railing against the religious leaders of Jerusalem in his day…
It is interesting that the eagle was the bird that the Roman legions used as their symbol, but Jesus here does not take up a battle symbol. He refers to a hen, a chicken. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The irony would not be lost on a Jewish audience. In fact, the image of a hen gathering her children under her wing might be a way that Jesus is hinting at the coming of his Kingdom, a new creation that will be initiated by supreme self-giving love. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 is interesting: The Holy Spirit brooded over the waters, and creation happened! Jesus here is brooding over Jerusalem. He laments over its excesses and the suffering he will have to endure to bring forth new life for the city… In fact, the only way that Jerusalem will experience new life is by God’s grace, this precious gift of God’s self-giving love…
Which brings us to the first reading about God’s covenant with Abram. Here also is a story about grace. Remember the story of Abram’s call? First, God speaks. Nothing is there, no relationship between God and Abram, until God speaks. It is God’s initiative, God’s intrusive word that creates the conditions for relationship. First God speaks a word of reassuring promise (15:1). A great family, a family through which all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, shall come from Abram. But Abram responds by expressing his doubts about the situation of childless-ness (15:2-3). How in the world can the promise be fulfilled in one who is so old, so barren of hope for the future? The Lord responds to Abram’s misgivings with a specific promise and reassurance about his descendants (15:4-5). God doesn’t tell Abram how this will occur, what biology shall be overcome, what details must be fulfilled. The Lord paints Abram a reassuring picture of a future, a future with a family as numerous as the stars of heaven. And in response to that word…Abram responds in belief. And then comes the most amazing sentence for me in all the Hebrew Scriptures: “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In other words, because Abram believed God, God credited Abram with righteousness. Because of his faith in God’s promises, God considered Abram OK, good, just, right before God. That is a testimony to God’s grace, and Paul picks up on this in Romans…
This is how God works: Completely unrelated to our merit, God calls, promising to use our lives for God’s purposes. The recipient of the call usually expresses fear or anxiety, but then there is divine reassurance. Then comes a reminder of the promises of God. But what is amazing about this story is that God actually takes an oath to Abram. The rather strange butchering of the three year old heifer, goat and ram goes back to an old ritual. In ancient times, when people cut a deal, they literally cut animals in half and then walked between the pieces of the carcass, saying, “Let it be done to me if I do not keep my promise with you!” Do you see?? God is saying to Abram, I’m willing to be slaughtered if my promise to you is not fulfilled!! Incredible!!
Strangely, Abram falls asleep as he waits for God, and we read “a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him”(15:12). Indeed, sometimes we experience some of our darkest times in life when we wait on God. For sometimes the reality of our condition and what God promises is such a contrast that we become terrified or despairing at the impossibility of it all…
Perhaps this is the heart of the life of faith, confessing that our salvation, that the realization of the Kingdom of God, will be a pure gift. We know we cannot achieve it on our own. We can only receive it as a gift from God. Perhaps we are terrified because we are so out of control when we are in God’s hands? Indeed, according to the Bible, even our turning to God, our response to God’s call upon our lives is only a response to the gracious promises of God.
We talk a lot about repentance in Lent. I don’t know about you, but repentance terrifies me. I’ll admit it: I’m afraid of change. The only way I can repent is if I remember first the good news of God’s story of salvation. But paradoxically I’m only open to God’s salvation when I’ve run aground by my own efforts. Perhaps that’s why I like that pithy summary of the gospel, “Cheer up, your situation is far worse than you could have ever imagined. But cheer up, God’s love for you is far greater than you could have ever hoped.” Repentance means remembering that we have a past which we can neither deny nor undo on our own, but also that we have a God who forgives, even from the cross... We remember that God “made him who knew no sin to become sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).
One final note: Today is the Jewish celebration called Purim. It is the holiday that remembers the story of Esther. Esther was chosen as the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, but her people were threatened. I encourage you to read the story of Esther again. But the clincher for me is the question that Esther’s uncle sends to her as she is living safely in the Palace. He challenges her to reflect on what she will do to save her people, even if it means risking her own safety and security. Mordecai sends her the message, “How do you not know that you have come to the Kingdom for such a time as this?”
It’s a reminder that we who are blessed are called to share that blessing!
Indeed, Jesus final words are ambiguous: “See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” In fact, Jesus was riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as they were crying out praise to him, but they very shortly betrayed him and yelling, “Crucify!” All of them. That’s the strange paradox of the gospel: even for his enemies, Jesus was faithful. Even for his betrayers, Jesus held to his promise. I take that to mean even when we cannot, our Lord will walk faithfully all the way to the cross… That’s why the bells will ring loudest on Easter! That’s why we fast and pray and give. Until the times comes, our work in this season of Lent is to repent and believe in him who has accomplished his work on the cross and rose again and lives and reigns for us.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.