Sunday, 24 February 2013

The challenge of Lent

Mentmore Sunday 24 February 2013

First Reading Genesis 15.1-12,17-18

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

He also said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?”

So the LORD said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates.”

Gospel Luke 13.31-35

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.
The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice.
Harden not your hearts.
All Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory.

When the Gospel is announced the reader says

Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to N.
All Glory to you, O Lord.

At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

This is the Gospel of the Lord.
All Praise to you, O Christ.


Once you have a reputation – good or bad – it’s hard to shake it off. Take Herod for example. Or the Pharisees. Both loom large in today’s gospel reading.

Why did the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod was plotting to kill him? Didn’t they themselves want the same thing? What about Herod? Was he as black as history has always painted him?

First of all, the Pharisees may not have been sincere, and they probably only told Jesus what he already knew, but there’s no reason to suppose their caution was not real. After all, didn’t Pharisees invited Jesus to dine with them, so they could hear what he preached for themselves on more than one occasion? And if we read Luke’s sequel, Acts 15 tells us that some Pharisees actually converted to Christianity in the early church.

As for Herod, after beheading John the Baptist he worries that John might have come back to life in Jesus. He’s a superstitious man, unlike his wife. Or Pilate’s wife, who warned the Roman governor to have nothing to do with an innocent man. “Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” says Herod, And he tried to see him. Later on, in chapter 23, during Jesus’ trial by Pilate, we read:

8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.

Whatever their motives, Jesus made use of the threats by the Pharisees and Herod to say something about his imminent death. Jesus will die – but not at the hands of Herod or the Pharisees. In fact, his death is the expected culmination of his mission on earth. His death is the completion of his purpose in the world.

Jesus describes his ministry as casting out demons and performing cures. The significance of casting out demons for Jesus’ ministry is given in 11:20: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Casting out demons is part of Jesus’ battle against evil and so a part of his establishment of the kingdom of God.

Performing cures is likewise a part of the fundamental character of Jesus’ mission, announced in 4:18-19 as being “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” (quoting Isaiah). Another statement about the establishment of God’s kingdom.

Despite the threats, Jesus remains in control. The today and tomorrow when he carries on his work will still take place. He must keep going, and finish his work here on earth. But on the third day, Jesus says he will reach his goal. A goal he must achieve in Jerusalem, when his resurrection occurs on the third day.

Today, tomorrow and the next day are one continuity. They go together in sequence. They are linked. Today and tomorrow Jesus heals. On the third day, he completes his mission. In the meantime, Jerusalem will at least first recognise him for what he is. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ is of course a reference to Palm Sunday. Jerusalem may have been party to his crucifixion, but at least it first recognised its Messiah.

Throughout Lent, we should be preparing ourselves to experience the cross of Christ alongside and together with our Saviour. Today’s gospel passage invites us to consider whether our lives lead appropriately to the cross? Can we make sense of the way we live our lives as consistent with the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the world?

Would we be frightened away from our mission by the threats of the darkened world? As the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, how readily have we accepted the words of Jesus to change us radically from what we have been to what we will become? How have we recognised God’s Kingdom? By sharing in the cross of Christ, or acting like Jerusalem – at first welcoming him but then denying and condemning when put to the test?

So often in Scripture, we are offered the model of faith against all the odds. Like God’s promise to Abram to make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Yet Abram had no son, and his estate would be inherited by the son of a servant in his household. Still against all the odds, Abram believed, and God credited his faith as righteousness.

What is asked of us seems to me rather less farfetched. We have the historical records of the life and death of Jesus. Most of us have been brought up in the church. So our welcome for the Kingdom is far less that even the people of Jerusalem who welcomed Christ as Messiah, even though they turned on him so soon afterwards. What is harder is the way we live up to that faith. Our enemies are not so much persecution, idolatry and false teaching as lethargy, a comfortable existence and plenty, which leads us to think we are self-sufficient, and have no need of redemption. But the warning in today’s gospel is that, if we are not willing to wholeheartedly believe, and put our faith into practice, we will indeed be left desolate. God longs to gather us to himself, even as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But it’s up to us to allow ourselves to be gathered in, and not walk away. Amen