A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
The Second Sunday in Lent
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘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.’ 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! 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 case you missed it, I started a Lenten sermon series last week called “Teach Us to Number Our Days.” The title is based on a line from Psalm 90, the only one in the book attributed to Moses. It comes right after he says, “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Translation? “We human beings might live to be 70 years old, or even 80 if we’re strong,” Moses says, “but we’re not going to live forever. Life is hard, and sooner or later it’s going to get the best of us.” Therefore, he says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” In other words, “Lord, if we’re not going to live forever, teach us how to live well, how to make every day count.” And that’s what I’m hoping this Lenten sermon series will do: that in the 40 days of this season Jesus himself will teach us some lessons about how to live.
Last week he taught us how to deal with temptation. Do you remember? I quoted from that wonderful article by Scott Shauf, who suggested that after spending 40 days in the wilderness figuring out who he was and why he was here, Jesus also figured out who he was not and why he was not here.[i] I thought that if we could do the same, if we could spend the 40 days of this season getting clear about who we are and why we are it would help us resist the temptation to be who we’re not and do what we’re not supposed to do. At the end of the service I asked you to do that, to come up with some sort of personal mission statement. I may have gotten the idea from Jay McNeal, my intern. He’s going to graduate from seminary in May and he wants a personal mission statement he can print out as a banner and put on the wall of his bedroom, so that it’s the last thing he sees when he goes to bed at night and the first thing he sees when he gets up in the morning. His most recent draft says, “Sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves.” Can you imagine waking up every morning to that banner, being reminded that you’d been sent? It might keep you from staying home all day playing video games, or whatever else it is you are tempted to do.
Last week Jesus taught us how to deal with temptation; this week he seems to want to teach us how to deal with fear. Today’s reading begins with a report that while Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” You have to wonder what they’re up to, don’t you? The Pharisees are almost always the enemies of Jesus in the Gospels, although in Luke’s Gospel they sometimes invite him to dinner (7:36 and 14:1), and in Acts 15:5 (also written by Luke) we hear that some Pharisees had actually become Christians. So it’s not inconceivable that some of them were on Jesus’ side and wanted to help him. But it does seem unlikely. Scott Shauf says that while Herod in Luke’s Gospel always seems to be interested in Jesus, he doesn’t seem to be interested in killing him (Luke 9:7-9; 23:8), and when he’s given the chance to condemn Jesus he refuses to do so (Luke 23:6-12).[ii] Still, he’s one of the “bad guys” in this story. It’s possible that he wants to kill Jesus. But the Pharisees’ motives are questionable enough that you might imagine they are simply using Herod as a threat against Jesus, trying to scare him back to Galilee and away from Jerusalem, their primary base of operations.
But either way—whether they are trying to warn him for his own good, or scare him away for theirs—it doesn’t work. Jesus said, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work’” (vs. 32). It’s a gutsy response! Fearless! And you wonder, “How can Jesus be so fearless? This is Herod, after all: the one who put John the Baptist in prison and later cut off his head. Even if the Pharisees are up to something this isn’t a threat that should be dismissed lightly. But Jesus is on a mission. He is on his way to Jerusalem and nothing, not even Herod, is going to stop him. He says, “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my work.” Don’t let that reference to “the third day” throw you; Jesus isn’t talking about rising from the dead he’s talking about dying on the cross. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way,” he says, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” The message is clear: Jesus is a prophet, he’s going to Jerusalem, and he’s going to be killed.
We’ve come a long way from chapter four.
In chapter four Jesus was talking about preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He was talking about setting at liberty those who were oppressed and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. He was fresh out of the wilderness, standing before his hometown synagogue with a shining face, sharing a mission statement taken straight from the book of Isaiah (61:1-2; 58:2). But now, nine chapters later, he’s not talking about those things. He’s talking about casting out demons and performing cures and finishing his work, even if his work involves suffering and dying on a cross. It reminds me of those presidential candidates who make big campaign promises and then discover, when they get into office, that it’s not so easy to fulfill them. There’s all that gridlock in Washington, and all that opposition. Jesus, too, has faced opposition. All he wanted to do was establish God’s kingdom but the forces of evil have lined up against him, the forces of sickness, disease, and death, and ultimately the forces of political opposition from the elders, the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees.
He began to read from another part of Isaiah. Instead of reading about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind in chapter 61, Jesus began to read about bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases in chapter 53. Isaiah said, “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Did Jesus start with a dream of bringing God’s kingdom to earth? Did he run into more evil, more opposition, than he had imagined. Did he realize that the only way he could bring heaven to earth was to bridge the gap between the two with his own body? However it happened, at some point Jesus came to the conclusion that the mission of God’s Messiah was to suffer and die, and he accepted that mission (Luke 9:22).
But here’s the good news: once you have volunteered to die “death no longer has dominion” over you. The Pharisees say, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you!” And Jesus says, “So? He’s not the only one. Tell him to get in line!” Jesus is fearless! He’s the most fearless person I’ve ever known. I want to be like that, but how do I do it? I’ve been thinking about it all week, and I think it begins when you put others ahead of yourself. For example: Sometimes when I’m doing a wedding, just before we go out into the sanctuary I will ask the groom if he’s nervous, and if he says yes I will say, “Just think of how nervous your bride must be. When she comes down that aisle she’s going to be looking to you, and looking for clues that she’s doing the right thing. It’s not going to help if you’re standing there shaking like a leaf. You’ve got to be solid as a rock—for her sake.” It’s amazing how quickly he seems to get control of himself. Do you know why? Because he’s not thinking of himself any more: he’s thinking of her.
And what about those firefighters who rush into burning buildings? Surely they know it’s dangerous! Surely they know they may not come out alive! And yet they do it. Do you want to know how? It’s because they are not thinking of themselves in that moment: they are thinking of whoever is in that building. They rush up the stairs, they break down the doors, they bring out the baby who was crying in the crib with no thought for their own safety. But us? We are so afraid, so often. It cripples us and keeps us from fulfilling our mission.
For some reason I kept thinking about each of us cradling a water balloon in our arms, a light blue water balloon with a fragile skin that could be easily broken. I thought of them as our selves, with us walking around guarding them, making sure they didn’t get jostled, or bumped, or broken. So when somebody needed a hand we would say, “Sorry. I can’t help you right now. I’ve got to take care of my self.” And when somebody asked for a handout we would say, “Sorry. Can’t get to my pockets right now. I’m taking care of my self.” But not Jesus. In Philippians 2 Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself.” I picture him untying that balloon, letting the water out, and throwing the shriveled skin away so he could use his hands to help us, use his arms to reach us. And it worked. He wasn’t thinking about himself any longer he was thinking about us. And when people started following him around, trying to do what he was doing, he said, “You’ve got to get rid of those big, blue water balloons! You can’t help anybody while you’re holding those. Your hands are full! So deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. I’ll show you how it’s done.”
And even as he approached Jerusalem, the place where he would suffer and die, he wasn’t thinking of himself, he was thinking of those people he came to help. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” he cried, “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! I know something about that. We had chickens when I was growing up. When some threat comes to the henhouse the mother hen will drop to the ground, and spread her wings, and call to her chicks, and they will come running to the safest place they’ve ever known. But she can’t go out and gather them; they have to come to her. Sometimes they don’t. And when that happens there is nothing she can do for them. It’s the same with Jesus. He can’t do anything for those who won’t come to him, but for those who will there is nothing he will not do.
Listen to this story from Wayne Jacobsen:
“The forest fire had been brought under control, and the group of firefighters were working back through the devastation making sure all the hot spots had been extinguished. As they marched across the blackened landscape between the wisps of smoke still rising from the smoldering remains, a large lump on the trail caught a firefighter’s eye.
“As he got closer he noticed it was the charred remains of a large bird, that had burned nearly half way through. Since birds can so easily fly away from the approaching flames, the firefighter wondered what must have been wrong with this bird that it could not escape. Had it been sick or injured?
“Arriving at the carcass, he decided to kick it off the trail with his boot. As soon as he did, however, he was startled half to death by a flurry of activity around his feet. Four little birds flailed in the dust and ash then scurried away down the hillside.
“The bulk of the mother’s body had covered them from the searing flames. Though the heat was enough to consume her, it allowed her babies to find safety underneath. In the face of the rising flames, she had stayed with her young. She was their only hope for safety, and willing to risk her own life she gathered them under her body and covered them with herself. Even when the pain reached its most unbearable moment, when she could easily have flown away to start another family on another day, she made herself stay through the raging flames.”
And then Wayne Jacobsen says, “Her dead carcass and her fleeing chicks told the story well enough–she gave the ultimate sacrifice to save her young. It also illustrates an even greater story–this one almost incomprehensible. In this story it is the Creator of heaven and earth who does exactly the same thing to rescue his wayward children from their own destruction.” [iii]
How do you live a fearless life? You get clear about what your mission is; you make sure it’s about others and not yourself; and then you live for them and not for you. It’s exactly what Jesus did, and exactly what he called us to do.
“Come,” he said. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
[i] Scott Shauf, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Gardner-Webb University, Boiling Springs, North Carolina, in his comments on Luke 4:1-13 on the “Working Preacher” web site (www.workingpreacher.org).
[ii] From Shauf’s comments on Luke 13:31-35 in a separate article on the same website.
[iii] Wayne Jacobsen, “The Hen and Her Chicks” (http://www.lifestream.org/bodylife.php?blid=23)
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.