Sunday, March 04, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, March 4

Based on Luke 13:31-35 (read it here: )

When I was reading this passage, I was surprised to see that it was the Pharisees that came to If you could pick any animal to describe yourself, what would it be? Any animal at all. I wrestled with that question for a bit this week. I thought, maybe a dog–dogs are friendly, and loyal; but many dogs are also stupid, so I decided against a dog. I thought, maybe a cat; when you see a cat, you always get the impression that there’s more going on with the cat than you can see. Cats sometimes seem like a deep animal. I like the idea of people looking at me and saying, “Whoa, he’s deep; there’s more going on with him than I can see.” But then I realized that some cats are too independent and kind of mean. So I decided against thinking of myself as a cat. Finally, I thought, “Well, maybe I’d like people to think of me as a hawk.” You know, majestic, strong, sharp-eyed. But then I realize that most people would rather do anything than be in a closed room with a hawk. So I decided against a hawk.
In the end, I decided that I think I would like people to see me as a horse: horses are strong. Horses are smart. Horses don’t usually do any harm to anybody either, they just mind their own horse business and do their own horse things. I think I would like that. Of course the unfortunate fact is just because you want someone to see you as a certain animal does not mean everyone will in fact see you as that animal. Not everyone would see me as a horse. Some people would probably see me as a weasel; maybe some people think I’m a rat; maybe some people think I’m a toad! I can’t control the way everyone sees me.
This passage is rife with animal imagery; two of the most profound animal images in the whole Bible occur in this short passage. I want you to hear a little bit more about them, about the fox and the mother hen.
The Pharisees come to Jesus and they warn him, “Herod is trying to kill you.” Some people think this is one of the few times where the Pharisees are depicted positively in the Gospels. Throughout Jesus’ life, the Pharisees were his fiercest enemies. At various times, they sought to trick him, undermine him, silence him, get rid of him, and finally kill him. So it is kind of surprising here that they find Jesus and warn him to get out of town, to flee for his life.
Now, maybe they are genuinely being nice to Jesus; it’s hard to say for sure. But I tend to think that they were not really being so nice to Jesus after all. Jesus has spent the first thirty verses of this chapter telling stories and doing miracles that absolutely blasted the Pharisees. He healed a woman on the Sabbath day, to the shock and disdain of all the religious elite. He told a story that said how the people of Israel were like a fig tree with no fruit, and the farmer was going to give it one last chance to start bearing fruit, or then he was going to cut it down. A story like this would make the Pharisees very upset. And then, to bring it all to a head, he told a story that said the Kingdom of God would be populated with peoples from all over the earth, while the religious folks of the day would be thrown out.
In all of his life, in all of his ministry, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to let go of their precious power. And so when they warn Jesus about Herod, I think they’re just trying to get rid of him. I think they just were afraid to challenge him, and so they found another way to try to get him out of their hair. Now, Herod didn’t like Jesus at all, and no doubt would have killed Jesus given the chance. I guess what I’m trying to point out is that this is a very complex situation where no one really is on Jesus’ side, and lots of people are trying to silence him in different ways.
And so Jesus is warned by the Pharisees that the most powerful man in Judea was trying to have him killed. Rulers in Israel liked to have the nickname of the lion. When Jesus is called “The Lion of Judah” in Revelation 5:5 it is this image that is in mind. Jesus is the conquering, strong lion who comes in and defeats death. Some other rulers of Israel in ancient times took the nickname the Lion as their own–it was a proud, strong and regal name.
Herod liked to strike fear into the hearts of people; remember that when Jesus was born, it was Herod who commanded that all the baby boys two years and younger would have to be killed in order to ensure Jesus died. He was ruthless, strong and vindictive, and no doubt he would like to be thought of as a strong lion. So I’m sure he was hoping to strike a little fear into Jesus when the word slipped out that he was going to try to kill him. I’m sure he and the Pharisees were both hoping Jesus would tremble just a little when he heard that the great lion Herod was chasing after him.
But instead Jesus looks at the Pharisees and says: “Go tell that fox...” Jesus makes very plain to the Pharisees that he is not buying what Herod’s selling. This man who thinks he’s a lion, this man who’s so impressed with his own power, this man who’s so intent on showing others how ruthless and lion-like he can be, Jesus knows he is nothing but a fox.
The differences between a lion and a fox are many, but the most important one for the purposes of this passage is that a lion makes people tremble because it has real, genuine power. If you or I were ever to see a lion face-to-face, we would not be happy people. We would not want to run up to the lion and pet it, or play with its little mane, or tell it how cute it is; because we know that the lion has the power, and quite possibly the will, to bite our heads off.
Now a fox can be very dangerous; I don’t deny that. But a fox does not get its competitive advantage from genuine power; a fox gets its advantage through its cunning and its treachery. A fox can strike fear into a creature, but it has no real power. The only time a fox can be scary or powerful is if you convince yourself the fox is more powerful than it is. Foxes rely on being crafty and cunning, but foxes have no real strength.
Jesus is essentially looking at Herod, and the Pharisees for that matter, and saying, “You’re not a lion, you’re a fox. You talk a good game about hurting me, about coming to kill me, but you have no real power. You can’t touch me.” Jesus knows that there’s a power greater than Herod who is on Jesus’ side. There’s nothing quite so devastating to a fox as when you see right through his tricks; and this is what Jesus says; you have no real power, you have no real authority. So Jesus says, “tell you what...go tell that fox that I’ll be here, right here, the next couple of days, doing my work. I’ll be healing people today, casting out demons, today and tomorrow–and on the third day, when I’m good and ready, I’ll finish my work.” You tell that fox right where I am so he can come and get me, OK? Jesus knows that foxes have to come under cover of night, and to challenge the fox to come out into the light is to challenge the fox to a game he can’t win.
Think now for a second about the things that threaten you. What threatens you? Maybe your boss threatens you. Maybe you live in fear of what your boss is going to do if you don’t do everything exactly right at your job. Maybe your friends threaten you. Maybe you’re worried they won’t be your friends anymore if you do something, or if you don’t do something. Maybe war or terrorism threatens you; in these times, it always seems like there is someone somewhere wishing to do us harm. For many of us, that is very threatening indeed, very scary indeed.
Maybe your threats lie deeper within. Maybe there’s something more going on emotionally that threatens you. Maybe the notion of being wrong threatens you. I know many people who are scared to death by the idea that they just might be wrong about something, and so they have to insist that they’re right about everything. Man, I have to tell you, I feel sorry for such people, because it’s got to be exhausting to always think you’re right. But it’s a direct result of feeling threatened. Maybe you are threatened by the fear of failure. So you’re afraid to try something new, something different, and you just won’t do it. That’s no way to live either. You get stuck doing the same thing over and over again...
And all of these things that threaten us–what if we were to confess, with Jesus, that these things are not the lions they pretend to be, but they are foxes. We worship a God who, in Christ, claims to be beyond death, bigger than death; a God who puts all of our problems in perspective. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says to his disciples, “In the world you face persecution, but take courage; I have overcome the world!” In Christ, we know the Lion of Judah, the one with real power; and those things that threaten us, while they are scary, they are only as scary as we allow them to be. Like foxes, the things that threaten us only have power when we allow them to have power. Part of being a Christian is having the faith to look at these things that have such control and power over people’s lives and say, “that doesn’t threaten me, because I know One with real power.” To be completely truthful, to be totally honest, means that we have to call lions lions and foxes foxes.
So what fox is threatening you today? The good news of the gospel is that that fox does not have the power you’re giving it–only Christ has the power to rule our lives.
I love the fox image; but I am more deeply drawn to the image of the mother hen. Jesus tells the Pharisees that he’s going to be right here, doing his work, until the third day. And on that third day, he says, he’s got to be on his way to Jerusalem; “for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” By this he means that Jerusalem is a city that has never been hospitable to God’s messengers. In a city God has sent prophets to time and time again, Jerusalem has somehow never been able to hear the message; because Jerusalem silences the messengers. And so Jesus breaks into a wistful moment, and envisions the city in his mind’s eye, and he says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.”
There are not a whole lot of female images of God in the Bible, and so they are precious when they appear. This is one; where God is compared not to a lion, but to a mother hen. Warm. Nourishing. Providing for her little chicks everything they need to survive. Gathering all of her little ones together. It’s a beautiful image of God and it’s really a nice complement to the Lion of Judah. God is a strong and powerful lion, and God is a warm and hospitable mother hen.
But even more than the image being feminine, think of what this is saying: so often, I have longed to gather you all together, but you just would not be gathered! There’s a famous picture in my family, of when all of the aunts, and uncles, and cousins on my mom’s side of the family got together for our first real family reunion at a house down at the shore. Now at a family reunion, you always feel like you should take a picture of everybody, but it can be a hard thing to gather everyone together–especially the kids! We all wanted to run around, not get pictures we did. And when they finally captured us, to take the picture, my brother and I had the most sour looks on our face, because we wanted to be running around the beach, not posing for a picture. So forever and ever and always, when the family is together, we look at that picture and laugh at how silly and stupid we were.
There’s something in little chicks that just does not want to be gathered, especially when the mother hen wants everyone together. This is what Jesus was saying: I wanted you to be gathered, but you insisted on doing your own thing. You insisted on going your own way. When I sent prophets to you, you killed them. When I sent messengers to you, you stoned them. Every time I sent people to you to gather you in, you pushed away. You refused the shelter of your mother’s wing and you rejected her at every turn and now, you are desolate. Now, you are alone. Now, you have the separation you have desired so much, and it is not wonderful like you thought it would be. How I wish you would come home, and be gathered.
What happens when a fox comes to a henhouse? It’s mayhem. Feathers fly; teeth flash; often, it doesn’t wind up well for the chickens. I do know this, though; if I were a little chick, there is one place I’d want to be when a fox came to my henhouse: I would want to be under my mother’s wing. For one thing, not many hens survive when the fox comes around; but the one hen that can survive is the one that knows the henhouse better than anyone else, knows where the nooks and crannies are that the fox can’t reach. But for another thing, I want to be under my mother’s wing when the fox comes around because I know that if the fox has us cornered, the mother hen will lay down her life before she let that fox touch her chicks. I want to be right there under my mother’s wing because the mother will die protecting us and will not let us be devoured by the fox.
Even though the problems in our lives are little foxes, they can still hurt us. Why? Because we are vulnerable, weak little chicks. But there is a mother hen who would gather us in, if we would be willing. There is a mother hen who would shield us, make us her own again, would protect us with her very life against the foxes of this world.
How do I know? Because one day, Satan, that great fox of foxes, the one who relies on cunning and deceit to mask his lack of power–one day he had us cornered. And Jesus, the mother hen, laid down her life, dying in our stead, dying that we might live.
Do not run away from a mother hen who loves so bravely and so strongly. Be gathered in today.