OLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
This passage is made up of two parts: The first six verses are a dialogue between YHWH and Abram resulting in the promise of first a son and then of countless descendants. The last part has to do with the promise of land. This is the core of the promises to Abraham and set the stage for the Abrahamic covenant. Once again, we have the familiar admonition from God of “Do not be afraid.” God will take care of it. This covenant and passage, of course, make up the basis for ancient Hebrew theology. It is also evidence of God’s incredible (and often unimaginable) generosity for God’s people.
The word that is translated here as “believed” is probably better translated as “trust”—Abraham trusted in God and what God had said and what God would do. And yet, Abram did prove to be a little bit uncooperative and impatient. And he wants some more information as to how God was going to overcome the big obstacles that were apparent and work this all out. But, in Abram’s defense, remember what “barrenness” meant in that time. An absence of children was not just a discontinuation of one’s line. It was death. There would be no one to care for you, no one to work with you to provide. Barrenness or infertility was looked upon as failure. It meant that God had not blessed you or provided for you.
In the ancient Middle East, covenants were traditionally sealed by the custom of sacrificing animals and cutting them in half. This was the literal “cutting of the covenant”. The makers of the covenant would then pass between the two halves of the animals. But with this covenant, it was God and God, alone, who passed through the pieces. God is the one who reached out. It was God’s covenant.
And so Abram “trusted” God (with what he saw as a little help from himself). He also questioned God (which I don’t think is such a bad thing! It really just gives you room to grow.) After all, this really didn’t make any sense. Here Abraham has been waiting around and no kids have emerged. So, basically, Abraham had taken care of it. Isn’t that just like us? We like being showered with promises but when they don’t materialize in quite the way we envisioned, we try to take care of it a different way. But, God clarifies the promise a little bit more. This is not the heir that God had been talking about. The heir shall be a biological child of Abraham and Sarah rather than a surrogate birth. Well, I’m sure you can see Abraham rolling his eyes a bit. Are you kidding me? Because, you see, I’m really, really old. This is just not normal. This is not even rational. This is nuts!
But, it says, Abraham finally believed God. The truth is, Abraham, father of three of the world’s major religions, was not perfect. In fact, he wasn’t even all that trustworthy. He was human. He was just like us. And God, with infinite patience, kept promising and kept delivering. And Abraham? Well, that wasn’t some sort of blind faith like some would like to depict it. Part of him was probably a little angry and definitely impatient. Faith and trust and all those things are not laid out on some sort of straight path. They come with lots of bumps and valleys along the way. I think that’s the point. Faith is not about blind acceptance; it is about relationship. So, the events surrounding the life of Abram are more than just ancestral tales; they become the voice of God to the people of God. “Do not be afraid.” In other words, just stick with me; I’ll ride it out with you!
But it should be noted that the land was given to Abram’s descendants rather than to Abraham himself. The realization of God’s promise was not immediate gratification. (I mean, did you think that you were the only one to which God was making promises?) Maybe that’s our whole problem. Maybe we want to see the fruits of our faith now, in our lifetime. Maybe faith is about realizing that we are part of a deep and abiding relationship between God and humanity as the holy and the sacred sort of dribbles into our world little by little. Our part is important but it is, oh, so much bigger than us. In fact, it’s really not even rational the way we think it should be. Maybe that’s what makes it faith. (In other words, just stick with me. I’ll ride it out with you!)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does it mean to you to truly trust God? What stands in the way of our trusting God?
- Do you think that you believe in God in such a way that it would constitute “righteousness”?
- What does it mean to truly believe that God will make our future secure?
- What does that say about how we view our own “barren” places?
- How do we get past the innate need for immediate gratification?
- What does that faithfulness in a future in which we may not see mean for us during this season of Lent?
NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3: 17-4:1
This passage, too, is in two parts: The first deals with the behavior of true believers. The second part is linked to the eschatological hope believers have in the coming Savior. It’s not really clear who the “enemies” are about which Paul is writing—perhaps it was those who were preaching a different kind of Gospel or those who did not live lives in accordance with the Gospel. But Paul is referring not to individual things that they do but to a pattern of life. He is essentially laying out two realities and asking the Philippian believers to choose the one that is authentic and by which they would live. Paul claims that the believers do not belong to the environment in which they now live but to a new “citizenship” in heaven.
Now we need to understand here that the people of Philippi were Roman citizens who took this very seriously. Philippi was a Roman, rather than a Greek, colony. But not everyone was a citizen. “Citizenship” was not a right. It was an honor that came with birthright. Their power came through their rights as citizens. But Paul is claiming to them that they have a much more significant citizenship waiting for them. It is essentially a redefinition of their very identity. There was no longer a class or birthright distinction.
This was indeed a new citizenship and one founded on the cross. It is a relationship based on others (as opposed to the self-centered “god in one’s belly” type of life). It is a citizenship that is not inherited but is rather lived. It is based on humility and self-sacrifice, just as Jesus Christ lived. It is a holy and sacred citizenship.
But holiness is an interesting thing. If one professes to be “holy”, then he or she has missed the mark. That was the problem with the alternative version of the Gospel about which Paul was warning his followers. Warning: If someone tells you that they have holiness or righteousness or godliness figured out, you should run. Holiness and righteousness are not quantifiable in the context of this world; rather, we are citizens of something that is both already and not yet. We are citizens of that which is beyond ourselves. It is not something that we have attained at this point. But, as Paul says, stand firm. It is just up ahead.
Jesus Christ showed us what it meant to leave this world, this citizenship behind. If not, then he surely would have saved himself from the Cross. But he understood that beyond what we know, beyond the rational, beyond the citizenship of this world in which we live, is something more—life. Our goal should not to be to become holy or righteous but to become alive in Christ. It is about relationship; it is about love; it is about caring and compassion. It is about life. And that is all the holiness and sacredness that you will ever need.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does that redefinition of identity mean for us as 21st century Christians?
- What does that change in the definition of “citizenship” mean for us?
- What is difficult for us about that?
- What is holiness to you?
- How does this speak to our Lenten journey?
GOSPEL: Luke 13: 31-35
We need to remember that, with the exception of one boyhood trip with his parents, Jesus had not been to Jerusalem. Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee. In fact, most of his ministry sort of centered around a lake. (We actually call it the Sea of Galilee—sort of a misinterpretation. It’s really a large and very deep fresh water lake.) From the middle of this lake, you can look around to the cities that line its banks—Tiberias and Sephoris, the cities built by Herod Antipas, the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala under Mt. Arbor, Bethsaida, Capernaum—and between the lake and the Mediterranean Sea were the cities of Cana and Nazareth. This was the area in which Jesus’ ministry began. Jesus was not commuting to work in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was still a long way off, through the wilderness and beyond the fertile area of Galilee.
But even here, Jesus was probably perceived as a threat by Herod. It would have been much easier for Herod to get rid of Jesus. After all, this was the Herod that had already killed John the Baptist (and getting rid of Jesus would probably have elevated Herod’s somewhat meager ranking as a ruler.) And Herod had his own vision working as he tried to lead the Galilean people to a new world—a world where Rome was the center and where the values were totally opposed by the teachings of Jesus. So, yes, Jesus was a threat.
There are differing notions as to what Jesus meant when he referred to Herod as a “fox”. In the Old Testament writings, the fox was often associated with destruction and Jewish dietary laws classified the jackal as “unclean.” To the first century Greeks, the fox was seen as clever but unprincipled. Whatever Jesus’ intended meaning was, it was clear that Jesus dismissed Herod Antipas as powerless to stop his mission to establish the Kingdom of God. As Jesus responded, he was going to do what he came to do and then he would be on his way. The mission was set. So with this Scripture, we begin to get a sense that Jesus is looking toward and facing Jerusalem.
Jesus is no longer merely “preparing” to go to Jerusalem. He is headed there. He has set his face toward the holy city. To Jesus, the danger was not in the Herods of the world but, rather, those things that got in the way of his mission. But he turns toward the city with regrets and heartache. And Jesus laments for Jerusalem. In The Gospel According to Matthew, this lament is placed once Jesus is in Jerusalem. We have this image of Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and lamenting for what could have been. But in the gospel by the writer known as Luke that we read today, the lament is part of Jesus’ Galilean experience. It is indeed a lament but rather than Jesus bemoaning what could have been, it is instead a challenge to the people to become a part of this mission, to “get their house in order”, so to speak, and to become a part of that new humanity that is of Jesus Christ.
Jesus does not want Jerusalem to become a symbol of a city that rejects and kills the messengers of God; Jesus wants it to be the Holy City of God that it proclaims to be. After all, this is not an ordinary city. This is the city that claims that the presence of God is in its midst, right there in the temple in the heart of the city near Mt. Zion. And yet, this city, too, has fallen into a different cadence, marching to the beat of prosperity and security and a positioning of power toward those around it. This holy city, the city of the temple, the city that should know better, would be the one that when the time came, would reject Jesus. Jesus knew this. So he turns his face toward Jerusalem and begins the journey toward the cross.
And, once again, lest we somehow lapse into an understanding of Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus as only attributed to the 1st century Jewish believers, we need to realize that we are part of it. Jesus was not rejected by a religion; Jesus was rejected by a culture and a society that thought that they were so right and so comfortable that they did not want to or have a need to change. Jesus was rejected by a culture and a way of life that is very much like our own. But there’s another point to the Scripture. Even knowing the rejection waiting for him in Jerusalem, Jesus still expresses the wish to love and protect the people, gathering them together as a hen does her chicks. Jesus never stoops to their level. He never judges or rants and raves about what is right, or what is moral, or what is going to happen to them because they have rejected him. He is the perfect image of God—the loving parent, the mother hen, who more than anything else, just wants to love her children and desires for them that they feel that love.
God calls us and when we do not respond, God does not reject us; instead, God surely laments. And even through the Sacred Eyes now blurred by Divine Tears, God, with open arms, once again invites us home. Lent calls us to remember that, to remember that even when we make other plans, even when we lose our focus, and even when we completely reject what God is doing, God is always there, always calling us to return. But until we realize that, we’ll never find our way.
On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his ministrations.
Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Two-thirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares. Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet?
Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.
But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, “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!” The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing…
If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. (From “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood, by Barbara Brown Taylor, The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=638, accessed 16 February, 2013.)
A thought experiment: read through the gospel text substituting the name of your town for “Jerusalem” wherever it appears. (You could try “Washington” too, but the US government feels so distant from most of us that it might not have the desired effect.) Does anything about that reading ring true?
In her commentary on Luke, Sharon Ringe writes, “When God’s gracious will is thwarted by human refusal to accept it, Jesus’ proclamation turns into lament” (192). True. We can see that lament in the story we’ll be tracing throughout Lent. Humans reject things like “casting out demons and performing cures” (Luke 13:32) as well as the rest of what Jesus has to do and say. And we misread the story if it only functions to blame someone else for that rejection (“those stubborn, corrupt Jewish leaders” or “that fox, Herod and all establishment power like him” or “those mindless crowds, fueled solely by emotion, who could say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ one day and ‘Crucify him!’ the next”).
This is one time when we are not hearing the story correctly if we hear in it only someone else’s problem. Biblical scholars usually want us all to remember that the scriptures are not just God’s word to us, but to all people across centuries. “It’s not always about you” is a good reminder for all sorts of things in our lives, Bible-reading included. Yet so-called critical distance with this text creates the problem of blaming someone else for the rejection of God’s own servant, Jesus. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces”. If this is true, then perhaps those ten thousand Christs are traveling to ten thousand Jerusalems and hoping to gather their inhabitants the way a hen gathers her chicks. (Mary Hinkle Shore, “Wide Open Are Your Arms”, from Pilgrim Preaching, 2 Lent C, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/03/wide_open_are_y.html, accessed 24 February 2010.)
(Here’s the whole poem):
As kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and do the same;
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself; Myself it speaks and spells. Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eye he is—Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his
To the father through the feature of men’s faces.
Gerard Manley Hopkins
- What meaning does this hold for you?
- What “Jerusalem” do we need to face this Lent?
- What is it that stands in the way of your responding to God’s call?
- What does it mean for us to take more responsibility for what happens in the world, for what happens in our Jerusalems?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.. (Havelock Ellis)
Lent is always a call to conversion. The problem is that we must remember that conversion is not a call to be something other than what we are. Conversion is a call to become more of what we are really meant to be. (Joan Chittister, Listen With the Heart, 28)
In wilderness is the preservation of the world. (Henry David Thoreau)
We are your people, mostly privileged, competent, entitled. Your people who make futures for ourselves, seize opportunities, get the job done and move on. In our self-confidence, we expect little beyond our productivity; we wait little for that which lies beyond us, and then settle with ourselves at the center. And you, you in the midst of privilege, our competence, our entitlement.
You utter large, deep oaths beyond our imagined futures.
You say—fear not, I am with you.
You say—nothing shall separate us.
You say—something of new heaven and new earth.
You say—you are mine; I have called you by name.
You say—my faithfulness will show concretely and will abide.
And we find our privilege eroded by your purpose, our competence shaken by your future, our entitlement unsettled by your other children.
Give us grace to hear your promises. Give us freedom to trust your promises.
Give us patience to wait and humility to yield our dreamed future to your large purpose.
We pray in the name of Jesus who is your deep “yes” to our lives. Amen.
(Walter Brueggemann, in Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 45-46.)