February 17, 2016 by jmar198013
The manuscript for my sermon this coming Sunday, February 21, 2016. 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year C.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.
Pharisees to Jesus: “Herod wants to kill you”
You ever know somebody who just walked right into trouble? No matter how many people warned them to stop, or at least slow down? Maybe you’ve been the one begging them to turn back around and not do the thing. Then again, maybe you’ve been the one hellbent on going your own way, even though everyone around you is warning you that you’re going to get hurt.
I think that’s about what happened in our Gospel reading today.
Jesus and his disciples were ambling toward Jerusalem when some nervous Pharisees ran up to warn Jesus: Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.
That’s the same Herod who’d had his cousin John decapitated. During a dinner party. On a dare. So the Pharisees had good reason to be concerned. Jesus even more so. Anyone who’d cut someone’s head off on a dare would surely find a way to make sure someone they planned on killing didn’t leave town alive.
The Pharisees had told Jesus to, Go! Jesus turns it back on them: No, you go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work. However, it’s necessary for me to travel today, tomorrow, and the next day because it’s impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’
In other words, So what? I fully expect to be killed before all is said and done. But it will be in Jerusalem—not here. But until all is said and done, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
I’m pretty sure those Pharisees shrugged their shoulders, and shot the disciples a look that said, Well, we tried to warn him. And the disciples sighed and shook their heads, as if to say, Yeah, we’ve been trying to talk him down for weeks.
The Pharisees and the disciples agreed: Quit it, Jesus!
I bet some of y’all think I’m telling the story wrong. Really preacher? You think the Pharisees all the sudden like Jesus enough to warn him not to get himself killed?
Actually, yes—I do. A lot of folks think they were just trying to scare Jesus off. Maybe so, but that still begs the question: If they hated Jesus so much, why even warn him that Herod wanted to kill him? Just let Herod take care of him. Problem solved.
You know how I know the Pharisees didn’t hate Jesus all that much? Because they kept inviting him to dinner, no matter how awkward things got last time he came to dinner.
In the very next chapter—Luke 14—Jesus is at a Sabbath dinner hosted by Pharisees. That’s where he delivers some of his most important teachings. Like, It’s better to heal on the Sabbath than just let the disease fester on. That was an object lesson, because he said it in the middle of healing a man on the Sabbath. Hey, that’s a fun contrast. Herod kills people at dinner parties, but Jesus heals people at dinner parties. That dinner was also where he said if you choose the worst seat at a dinner party, maybe the host will invite you to a better one. But if you just barge in and take the best seat, probably the host will embarrass you by announcing that you’re in somebody else’s spot. And it was also at that dinner party he taught: When you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.
You know how Jesus said: How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God? Well, according to Luke 11, he said that at a dinner table full of Pharisees. I bet he did it just after someone asked him to pass the rue. He took it literal. And in Luke 7, Jesus was eating at Simon the Pharisee’s house when the sinful woman came in and washed his feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair.
Why did the Pharisees keep inviting him to dinner if it always turned into a fiasco?
Well, thing is, Jesus agreed with them about most things. They both believed in the resurrection of the dead. They both believed you could have a personal relationship with God outside of the temple. They both believed in the universal priesthood of God’s people. They both believed you could find God in community—like the synagogue. They both believed that you could have a deep and fulfilling relationship with God through faithful obedience.
Truth is, Jesus and the Pharisees shared more agreements than disagreements. But when they disagreed—and it was always at the place where holiness codes were at odds with loving your neighbor well—it broke out into a real dustup. Then the Pharisees wanted to take it outside.
So anyway, my point is this: as much as Jesus could be challenging, even exasperating to them, I think a lot of the Pharisees actually enjoyed having him around. Dinner with Jesus was always a lively event, especially if you didn’t mind being roasted along with the goat.
Certainly, they didn’t want to see him get killed. At least not all of them. At least not yet.
So when those Pharisees told Jesus, Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you, I do believe it was from a genuine concern for his safety and survival. They weren’t saying anything the disciples weren’t already saying. Every time Jesus told them that he would go to Jerusalem and be rejected and killed, but would rise the third day, they told him to knock it off. Quit it. Don’t go to Jerusalem and get yourself killed.
Well, in our lesson today, the Pharisees are saying, Jesus, don’t stay here and get yourself killed!
Jesus just wasn’t safe anywhere he went, was he?
Jesus tells these concerned Pharisees, I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name. A few chapters later, in Luke 19, Jesus will come riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey colt. And people start chanting: Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord. Just like Jesus said they would. And some Pharisees there will panic and beg Jesus: Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop! Because now it’s not just Jesus who’s in danger of getting killed. If Pilate gets wind of it, the Roman army is going to come and kill them all. Those Pharisees had good sense, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t be begging Jesus to knock it off, myself. Of course, Jesus just kept right on doing the thing. I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout, he says. I imagine with a grin from ear to ear. Wonder what Pilate would do then? Send an army out to break the rocks?
Sometimes people walk into trouble for good reasons. Remember the Civil Rights Movement days? Think about all the times Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers or countless thousands of others marched into water canons or billy clubs or snarling dogs. While people firebombed their churches and homes. All sorts of folks probably told them to quit it. People who cared about them. People who didn’t want to see them get hurt, or worse. What if they had listened to those people who told them to stop? Who begged them to get out of Birmingham or Selma, Alabama; or Jackson, Mississippi? Maybe they’d have lived a lot longer and died peaceful deaths. But then where would we be?
Sometimes, people march right into trouble because there’s no way around it. Sometimes the reasonable people who play it safe—like the Pharisees and even the disciples—don’t know what they’re talking about. And if we always listened to them, we’d be stuck. Sometimes the only way to defeat the evil is to walk right into it. Even if it kills you.
Foxes and chickens
So there’s all sorts of good reasons for people to walk—or even dash—into trouble. Firefighters and police officers and other first responders do it all the time, right? They know the risks, but lives depend on it.
Luke, in our Gospel lesson today, throws open the doors to the heart of Jesus. Shows us what’s motivating him to keep moving into the city that will kill him. Even though his disciples and even the Pharisees are begging him to stop. Luke gives us the privilege of hearing Jesus lament over Jerusalem. Never forget, church, that it’s always a privilege for someone to share grief and tears with you. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, he wails, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that.
I suspect Jesus isn’t just speaking for himself, but for God. After all, elsewhere he says, Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14.9). Through Jesus, God is saying, I just want to hide you in the shadow of my wings, but that’s not on your agenda. God is the hen, the people of Jerusalem are the chicks.
That’s fascinating, because Jesus has just called Herod that fox.
A fox in the henhouse. Herod is there only to steal and kill and destroy.
Last week, we saw Jesus say No to every temptation the devil threw his way. Rule over the people by controlling their food supply. Rule over the people as a puppet king. Rule over the people with shock and awe, insisting God is on your side. Jesus said No to all that.
But Herod—that fox—and the high priests and Pilate: these are the ones who have gleefully embraced all those temptations. They are foxes running amok in God’s chicken run.
Jesus is God’s Messiah. The anointed. the Chosen One. He has been chosen and anointed by God to go into Jerusalem—the old holy city that kills the prophets—and show them that Herod’s ways and Pilate’s ways are not God’s ways.
And before it’s all said and done, the people will choose the way of the foxes—Herod and the priests and Pilate—instead of the shelter of God’s wings Jesus offers them. Jesus knows they will do this, because most people do, and most people have. And bowing his head, he sighs:
But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned.
In other words: Have it your way. You’re on your own, now.
For much of Christian history, this has been interpreted as a story about God condemning and rejecting Jerusalem, and by extension, the Jews.
That’s not it at all. It’s a story about a very human tendency, usually conditioned by fear and insecurity, to choose Herod and Pilate’s ways—power and control and silencing troublemakers—over the Jesus way of compassion and generosity and openness.
We had better not make this a story about what some Jews did 2,000 years ago. We better make sure we’re not rejecting the sheltering wings of the mama hen, and opening the chicken run up to the foxes.
On the third day
Now, I promise there’s gospel—some good news, some extravagant news, some excellent news—in this story. But sometimes the good news is overshadowed by the bad news. So it is in this story, so it often is in life as we know it.
Here’s where the good news is hidden. It’s when Jesus said: Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work.
All is not said and done until the third day.
This isn’t the first time Jesus has talked about the third day in Luke. Just a few pages back, Jesus had told his disciples he would suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day (Luke 9.22).
Jesus will go on unleashing God’s kingdom of healing and restoration and peace, right in the middle of Herod’s and Pilate’s and the chief priests’ kingdom of neglect and intimidation and violence. He’s going to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, defenseless as a hen in a den of foxes. And they’re going to eat him alive.
But on the third day he will be raised. All is not said and done until the third day.
And that’s the good news. Finally, a prophet will make it out of Jerusalem alive. Heaven’s kingdom will infiltrate the kingdom of the foxes—and emerge victorious. The mama hen will live, and the chicks who were scattered will be gathered back under her wings.
We can all be gathered safely in the shadow of her wings.
Now that a prophet has made it out of Jerusalem alive
What was the message Jesus sent those Pharisees back to Herod with? Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work.’ Well, we’re on the other side of that third day, now. Now we know that on the other side of the rejection and humiliation of every cross, God has a resurrection to unleash. Not just for Jesus, but for all of us. For all creation, even. As it is written: Look! I’m making all things new (Rev. 21.5).
We may very well not escape the fox’s jaws. Jesus didn’t. But Jesus would have us know that God never lets the foxes have the last word.
That means—like Jesus—we can venture boldly into the kingdom of the foxes—whoever or whatever or wherever the foxes are—and dare to be nurturing and gentle and also fiercely protective like mama hens. We can do that today and tomorrow—as many days as God gives us the grace to do it. It also means that God’s grace is at work perfecting us until all is said and done. Today, and tomorrow God is at work in our lives, and God’s work is not completed in us until the third day. God’s work is not completed in us until our resurrection.
Jesus was speaking for God when he said: How often I have wanted to gather your people—your people who reject and kill my messengers—just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. It’s really not that different for us, you know. No matter how bad we are, how many times we have pushed God away, rejected God’s love, refused to listen—God’s deepest desire remains to gather us to him like a mama hen gathers her chicks under her wings. It’s not too late, you know. But that also means we have to give our enemies, the bad guys, the scumbags the same grace. Yes, even the well-paid bad guys who poisoned the water in Flint. Even ISIS. Even that brat who bought the AIDS antibiotics and raised the price 5000%. God just wants to gather them under his wings, too. Believe it or not. There’s always room for one more under God’s wings.
And what was the last thing Jesus said in our lesson today? You won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name. What if that’s what we said every time we saw someone in need? Someone who needs something from us? What if we see a street person with her sign, and we say about her, Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord? What if we started seeing every neighbor in need we meet—the lost child, the misfit, the pregnant teenager, the person whose spouse has just died—as someone who comes to us in the name of the Lord? Someone whom God has sent to us to be blessed, and to bless us? How would that color our world? Do you think we might see Jesus in places where we’ve been missing him?
These are the kinds of thoughts are free to think, the ways of life we are free to live, the grace we are able to receive and to give.We can walk boldly into all sorts of trouble, right into the foxes’ den. Now that a prophet has finally made it out of Jerusalem alive.