Sermon for Lent 2. Year C.
Genesis 15, 1-12, 17-18; Luke 13, 31-35
Our garden backs onto woodland, so it is visited by a variety of wildlife, including foxes. We did have anxieties about the foxes, especially when we had kittens, but we always made sure they were safely locked in at night, and during the day all the animals seemed to co-exist peacefully, and we rather enjoyed seeing foxes sunning themselves on our lawn on warm days.
That is, until the time when the muntjac deer, who spent a lot of time in our shrub border, produced a fawn. We first saw it as a new-born, tottering onto the lawn in the late afternoon, and we were looking forward to seeing it again in the morning. But, the next day, we were woken around dawn by the magpies screaming, and the mother deer howling – and we looked out to see the fox disappearing into the woods with a small creature in its mouth. We never saw the fawn again, and I’ve never felt quite the same about foxes.
But I couldn’t imagine ever harming the foxes who visit the garden, unlike some of my friends and acquaintances who keep chickens. Some of them that have had a fox rampage through their hen-houses, killing everything that moves, would willingly kill any fox they found on their property.
Jesus uses the contrasting images of fox and hen in the story we hear in the Gospel reading for today. When he is warned that Herod, the puppet king of Galilee, is out to kill him, he sends back a defiant answer, calling Herod a ‘fox’. I wonder what particular characteristic of foxes he was thinking of? The most obvious is the habit of foxes of killing without reason. Herod had already killed John the Baptist (Jesus’ cousin in Luke’s Gospel) for criticising his behaviour. In spite of the fact that Jesus poses no direct threat to him, the Pharisees are now saying he is plotting the same fate for Jesus, and are warning him to leave Galilee quickly.
It’s a strange scenario for those of us who are used to the Pharisees being the enemies of Jesus’ mission, as they are so often portrayed in the Gospels; but Luke generally has a kinder view of the Pharisees than other Gospel writers. So perhaps this warning came from those who approved of Jesus’ teaching – or at the very least, disliked Herod as a puppet ruler who served the Romans more than they disliked Jesus as a wandering prophet who challenged their interpretation of the law.
Then again, it could just have been a ploy to get Jesus to move out of Galilee into Judea, away from their part of the country. According to Luke, he has just told them that in the Kingdom of Heaven things will be different: those who are now first, will come last, and those who are at the back of the queue now, will be first – not a message they are likely to welcome.
Jesus is already on that journey towards Jerusalem. His reply makes it clear that threats from religious or political opponents are not going to make any difference to his plans. He is going to follow his own timetable, fully aware of all the dangers that await him in the capital city. He speaks of the way that Jerusalem (which stands for the political and religious leadership of the Jewish people) has treated those prophets who came before him, who stood up to them, and warned them of the dire consequences of the paths they were following. We hear in the Old Testament how Uriah and Jeremiah suffered death, or were threatened with it, in Jerusalem because of their unwelcome messages. In parables and pronouncements, the gospel writers show Jesus speaking again and again of Jerusalem’s rejection of the messengers of God. He knows full well he may be going there to die.
But surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t go on to denounce the people of Jerusalem. Instead he talks of his longing to protect them from the horrors that are to come – the destruction of the Temple and desolation of the city. He speaks of himself as a mother hen, protecting the people of Jerusalem as a hen protects her chicks.
In several places, writers in the Old Testament compare God to a female animal, feeding and protecting her young; but these are usually strong and fierce animals, like an eagle or a bear, equipped to fight off predators. Jesus’ symbolism is different. How can a hen protect her young against a predatory animal like a fox?
I read an account once of a farmer in the USA, who woke one morning to find his hen house had caught fire during the night, and burnt to the ground. When he went to clear away the debris, it looked as though nothing was left alive; but when he lifted the carcass of a hen, her feathers scorched and her neck limp, from near where the door of the hen-house had been, there was movement, and her four chicks emerged from underneath her wings. She had used her body, and given her own life to shield her young from the fire.
We have probably all seen instances on nature programmes on TV, where mother birds will pretend to be injured and flap along the ground to draw predators away from the nests where there are vulnerable eggs or nestlings. Jesus uses the mother hen image to declare that is the way he will protect even his enemies against the horrors to come.
Our Old Testament lesson, one of several accounts in Genesis of the making of a covenant between Abraham and God, seems to be promising that so long as we have faith in God, all will be well. God promises to be our ‘shield’ (like the mother hen) and we will prosper and dominate our enemies. This view of faith as guaranteeing a good life to those who believe is a common one. But it is often problematic. If you hold this view and then something bad happens to you. If you lose your job, or your marriage breaks down, or you or somebody close to you gets seriously ill, how do you cope with it? Some people blame themselves and put themselves through the hoops, trying to strengthen their faith and prove that they are really deserving of God’s favour. Others put the blame on other people, members of their family or their community, who don’t share their faith, and have thereby brought punishment on all the members of the family or the group. Or it can destroy faith: “I kept my part of the bargain. I’ve believed everything just as I should have done, I’ve made sure every member of my family and my community toed the line, but still bad things have happened. I won’t believe in God, if God doesn’t keep God’s part of the bargain.”
Interestingly, the compilers of the lectionary left out four verses which modify the ‘trust God and all will be well with you’ message of this passage. In verses 13-16, Abraham is shown the future of his descendants, a time when they will be exiled into a foreign land, and will not return to the Promised Land for four generations. By the time that these sagas were being written down, the theologians and prophets were already beginning to question the ‘have faith and all will go well with you’ approach.
The Gospel story shows us another approach to faith. Jesus went to Jerusalem, anticipating opposition and death, and that is what came. Stephen and Paul and the other apostles found the same, and suffered martyrdom. Last week we remembered two saints of the Christian church who both died because of their faith: Valentine in the 3rd century and Janani Luwum in the 20th. Next week we will remember Polycarp who was martyred in the 2nd century. Their faith didn’t guarantee them a life of prosperity and a peaceful end.
What their faith did give them, and can give us, is the strength to face whatever the world throws at us without our trust in God, or our love of our fellow beings, or our commitment to the way of love and forgiveness, being destroyed. That is what Jesus as portrayed by Luke’s Gospel shows us. In spite of the hostility and cruelty of those who arrest, try, torture and execute him, Jesus’ attitude of love and forgiveness and his trust in God, never falters. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ words from the cross ask for forgiveness for those who hammer in the nails, and promise peace in Paradise to the thief executed beside him. At the end he commits his spirit into the hands of God, in total trust that his death is not the end of the story.
Jesus wasn’t being naïve or falsely optimistic. He was well aware of the destructive force and cruelty of the regimes and systems he faced. He knew that the call to proclaim God’s Kingdom did not guarantee a life free from pain and struggle. But he had faith that, despite appearances, God’s will would ultimately triumph. That was the protection his faith gave him; and the protection following in his way offers us.
As Mother Julian of Norwich said “He did not say, ‘You shall not be tempest-tossed, you shall not be work-weary, you shall not be discomforted.’ But he said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’ God wants us to heed these words so that we shall always be strong in trust, both in sorrow and in joy.”
Trusting in God’s ultimate protection, Jesus was faithful to death, and gave his life to protect his own, not only his chicks, but also the fox cubs, the young of those who sought to destroy him. As we follow him, we seek to grow in faith, so that we too may not turn on those who threaten us, and use our power to destroy them but pour out our lives in their service and be inspired extend our protective wings to all, even to our enemies, in the name of Christ.