St John’s & St Stephen’s Church, Reading. Sunday 28th February 2010, Lent 2
Luke 13:31-35 You were not willing!
The theme of our sermons in Lent is discipleship. What it means to be a follower of Jesus. Lent is a time of reflection, of penitence even so I take from that permission to look at the ‘dark side’ of what discipleship means. I begin with three short stories. Not even really stories; just things that happened that will I hope help us get inside this morning’s theme. The first is about a book I just read. Do you know how it is when you read something, hear something, watch a film that changes you a bit? I read a book by Rose Tremain, The Road Home, and some others here I know have also read it. It’s a story about a middle-aged east European man, Lev, whose wife has died and he is out of work. He comes to London to find work and earn some money for his mother and daughter. It’s perhaps possible to imagine the kind of experiences he has, working his pants off for a pittance and being treated like rubbish by some people – not all, though. Eventually he gets enough money together and is able to go home to set up a restaurant. What the book did for me was this: I won’t be able to look at a Polish bloke with the same eyes again.
The second story is a personal one. There have been a few problems at work recently and a couple of weeks ago someone I work with absolutely let rip at a female member of staff in a public place. And then the next day he did it again, and then went on holiday. I was away at the time. It fell to me to speak to him on his return, which I did. I was really surprised to find that he had no idea at all of the consequences of what he had done and said. Really none. In fact there had been such major upset there was talk of taking him to a tribunal. Well, I got him to see the error of his ways and he apologised. It’s all OK now but it struck me how easy it is for us not to even notice the pain we can cause. I reflected with one of my partners who is an Orthodox Christian that in the Christian tradition we are at least invited to think about what we have done wrong.
The third story is about an elderly couple who did not have any children. The old man had a dream in which God promised him not only that he would father a child, but that he would be the father of a whole nation that would have a special relationship with God. He promised him a land and a future. Look up at the sky, he said: your descendants will be as many as the stars. It was as if God invested all his hopes in the family of that man and his wife. The man’s wife laughed when she heard it. But it happened. The man’s name was Abram, his wife’s Sarai. Two thousand years later the nation of Abram and Sarai, Israel, was under occupation by a foreign power, the Romans. Onto the scene, last in a long line of prophets, comes a peasant prophet, Jesus son of Joseph. He spent his life shaping wood, for he was a carpenter; and shaping people, for he is our Master and we are his disciples.
Before we get to the crucial passage at the end of Luke 13, I want us to be clear about the context. In Luke’s gospel, where this morning’s reading comes from, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem comes about midway in the gospel, but it is really at the beginning of the build-up that will lead to his arrest and trial. The same lament over Jerusalem is also in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 23. Matthew places it nearer then end, just before the arrest and trial. In Jesus’ early ministry, he attracted great crowds and was hugely popular with ordinary people, less so with the religious leaders. His message was this: The Kingdom of God is at hand: change your minds and believe the good news! (Mk 1:15) He gave a message about God that was very real and very immediate. God is close to you and cares for you. Even the hairs on your head are numbered! God’s kingdom is open to all: simple people – peasants, fishermen, farmers, women, even children who were more or less non-people in those days. Even people considered outcasts for various reasons – the blind, lepers, collaborators, women of the night – all were welcomed in, their wrongdoings forgiven. You can call God ‘Father’, that symbolises your relationship with him. He challenged the religious leaders who had tied up the faith entrusted to Abram and his descendants with lists of rules and regulations which simply blocked peoples’ understanding of the true nature of God. Also, he told the people how to behave towards the Romans – for their own sakes, if they were to flourish. Look, God has not abandoned you. Be at peace with your rulers! Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Mt 5:44). If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well (Mt 5:40) and so on. You know the stuff. One of the reasons for telling them this was because if they persisted in trying to resist the Romans, as they were doing, if they continued to provoke them, then there was going to be retaliation. The other reason for telling them all of this was simply because that is how the people of God ought to behave, how they ought to relate to God and one another.
The tone changes in the lead-up to the lament over Jerusalem. Jesus, speaking in Jerusalem, begins to hammer the religious leaders. In the parable of the faithful and unfaithful slave in Luke 12, the master returns and finds the unfaithful slave having a fine old time in his house, abusing his trust. He earns a severe beating! ‘From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required’, says Jesus (12:48). Then he accuses the people of not being able to understand, to interpret what is happening around them. They can tell when it will rain, but not that disaster is coming – from the Romans – if you carry on like this. (12:54-56). Jesus tells a story about a fig tree that produces no fruit – chop it down! He heals a crippled woman in the synagogue on the Sabbath, well and good – yet the synagogue leaders thought he shouldn’t do that because of their Sabbath laws. They had completely missed the point of the Jewish law, which is about compassion.
In the gospel of Matthew, the chapter before Jesus’ lament is even worse. Matthew places it at the end of what are known as the ‘seven woes’, just before his arrest and trial. I won’t read the whole thing but the gist is this: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! You love to dress up in fancy clothes, to be honoured by everyone, to have everyone look up to you. You have locked up the kingdom of God and thrown the key away. You have got it all wrong! You tithe – that is, give away – all the ‘right’ things for your religious observance but you don’t practice justice, or mercy, or faithfulness. On the outside you look good and righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. You rejected and killed all the prophets. In other words, they loved the form of religion but did not carry out its demands. It was like this: all that trust and hope that God invested in that elderly couple, Abram and Sarai, you have messed up, misunderstood, perverted.
It is then that Jesus utters his lament. After the tough stories in Luke and the devastating woes in Matthew, we hear these words: ‘ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34)
In this lament we hear a mixture of strong emotions. There is anger, certainly, with the people of Jerusalem, the people who should have known a lot better. And then compassion – the tender, very feminine picture of a hen stretching out her wings to gather her chicks to protect them from danger. And finally frustration – ‘you were not willing!’
Hold that picture. Hang on to Jesus’ emotions of anger, compassion and frustration. Ever felt like that? I bet you have. That mixture of emotion is perhaps reserved for those we love most. It is usually those we love most who make us most angry, is it not? Our husband or wife, mother or father, son or daughter. We are furiously angry with them and love them to bits at the same time when they do what we know will actually cause them, and others, pain.
Let me connect this to my three short stories. The first goes like this: I had not seen this lament in that light before. I only read the bit about the hen and understood that God has, if you like, a feminine, warm, loving side. I missed the point: this is a tough thing. Love is at the centre of Jesus’ lament, certainly, but it in fact it drove his anger at the way that the Jewish nation had missed the point of it all. I see this with new eyes, like I see a Polish bloke with new eyes. The second is this, my work colleague had no idea what he had done wrong, and neither had the Jewish nation. Even after Jesus’ devastating words, they just did not get it. In fact, they killed him for it. The third story, the one of the beginning of God’s special relationship, his covenant, with Abram and his descendants (which was out first reading, in case you missed that), is mirrored here by pretty much the end of it. The trust that God had placed in the nation had been violated. Something new, and even better, is coming, but that’s to rush to the end of the story. For the Jewish nation however, it was ‘time’s up’ and within 40 years the nation would be crushed. It might have been avoided.
Which leads me to my point of discipleship. In fact, I am not going to tell you what to do but pose a question. In the lament, Jesus’ pain at the people’s failure to act as God’s people should have acted, comes to a point. Please, allow yourself to sense, to feel, to understand that pain. Now allow yourself into the picture. It is us that Jesus laments over. It is us that he loves, but is also frustrated with because so often we don’t get it. What is it that we do that not only gets in the way of our relationship with God and our fellow humans, but also messes it up for others, so that they don’t get it either?
I’m not so much thinking of individual things here, though I don’t exclude them. It is very striking how in Jesus’ ministry, he forgave and accepted people with almost all their failings. I’ve already mentioned the unlikely people who were welcomed as followers. Don’t think I’m condoning wrongdoing here but look where Jesus really got cross. It was at the collective blindnesses and wrongdoings. At the way that the religious leaders used the faith of Abraham to create their own bubbles of self-righteousness which excluded so-called ‘sinners’ and hated the Romans so much that it failed to see them as human beings too and more, that their attitudes were going to lead to their own destruction. At the idolatries of money and power. At the collective failure to trust God.
So I invite you to reflect on this lament. But to see ourselves as the ones lamented over. In doing that we must hold on to the centrality of love in the lament – that is, Jesus’ love for us, but to accept that there are things we do both deliberately and unconsciously; both individually and collectively, both as church and as a society, which hurt others and deny others the knowledge of the truth about the God of compassion and mercy revealed to us by the prophet Jesus-bar-Joseph, descendant of Abram and Sarai.