February 21, 2016
As long as I can remember, my dad was a man on a mission. During his youth, he came perilously close to participating in an armed robbery with some buddies. When the two guys came knocking on the door that particular evening, my father opted to stay home. He had found a chemistry book in a trash can that day and poured over it all night long. From that point on, there was no turning back. With the help of a mentor named Smitty who recognized my dad’s potential, the rest of the story is history, although not without struggle.
As the sun began to set on my father’s life, he longed to give back what he had received. He hungered to impart his knowledge, wisdom, and hard-earned life lessons to those coming after him.
Many of us don’t have the opportunity to face death slowly, or even with an awareness that it is coming soon. But others do. And those who do may have the opportunity to use that time deliberately and thoughtfully, even if it is filled with increasing pain, limitations, and heartache.
The last year of his life, my dad had a sense that death was coming. One time that year, he was surprised to return home after being hospitalized. The next time, however, he did not. There was an intensity to the way he lived, and an intensity to the way he died.
Jesus comes to us in the Gospel stories as a man on a mission–not just in his life work, which he pursues with fidelity and intensity, but also as he sets his sights on that final trip to Jerusalem. During his three years of public ministry, Jesus skirts death more times than most of us ever notice in the biblical text. He is keenly aware of what awaits him down the road.
Life has a different feel to it, when we are face-to-face with death. Throughout the Gospels, we sense the pounding urgency of Jesus’ ministry; the fervor of the crowds who follow him and their fickleness; the confusion of the male disciples and their many foibles. We see Jesus withdrawing to seek Respite, Silence, and Rest–to the mountains, into the wilderness, at Mary & Martha’s home.
Danger lurks everywhere. Jesus’ cousin, John, is imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by King Herod through the cunning manipulation of his wife Herodius and her alluring daughter, Salome (Mark 6:14-29). As time passes, Jesus has more and more conflicts with the Religious Elite.
It is in this context that we come to today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus has just confronted a group of Pharisees with their spiritual blindness. The time for niceties, if there ever was one, is past. He pulls no punches. Some of the Pharisees warn him that Herod is out to kill him. They tell Jesus that he should just cut and run.
Why this warning? Do some secretly support Jesus, like Nicodemus does in the Gospel of John (John 3:1-13)? Are these religious leaders functioning as “double-agents,” expressing their concern about his safety when their true motives are nefarious? Are these men hoping to avoid a showdown with Jesus in Jerusalem? Are they trying to protect their Temple turf, while simultaneously appeasing the Romans?
We do not know. But we do know that Jesus is neither intimidated nor deterred from his path by their words. He replies deftly and with conviction: “Go tell that fox: ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work’” (Luke 13:32). Foxes are known for their crafty, manipulative behavior. It is quite bold to call the Occupying King of one’s Occupied People a fox. And this man also ordered the execution of his cousin, John. Think about that for a moment.
Time is short for Jesus. The phrase, “today, tomorrow, and the third day” evokes the sense of urgency which he feels.
Jesus is a man on a mission. What prophet comes to his demise anywhere but in Jerusalem? As he speaks, it is as if the entire panorama of God’s work stands before him–timelessly, eternally. In this particular moment, Jesus sees himself as one among many of a long line of fallen prophets, not the One among the many.
Jesus then launches into what feels to me like a melange of proclamation, confession, and lament. It is all jumbled together in a mixture that seems appropriate for this time and hour in his life. He cries out with a depth of agony and love that echoes throughout the ages, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how many times I have wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!” (from Luke 13:34).
When a Mother Hen spreads her wings, her breast is left exposed. Yet, that very self-exposure protects her baby chicks. She is more vulnerable; they are more safe. It is a juxtaposition of two poignant, contrasting images—one for the chicks, another for the mother.
We could spend a long time on this image of Jesus as Mother Hen. Mystics have ruminated on it throughout the ages, reminding us that gender is not a primary category of the one we call Son of God. In fact, the phrase “Son of God” is the Greek is more accurately translated into English, “the Human One.”
Back to the lament itself. This passage strikes me most deeply when I yearn for something with all my heart and yet have no power to make it happen. I felt that so keenly, time and time again, raising our late daughter, Sarah–in her early adolescence, when we fought for her life through eleven hospitalizations followed by a year-long illness; during her first year of college, when she came within a hair’s breath of unraveling; at age thirty-three, when she had a complete breakdown and returned home shattered and weary, with no fight left in her spirit. And all those moments that connected those moments! How many times I cried out with my own prayers of lament, loving Sarah so much, longing to make her whole, yet being utterly incapable of this.
Our stories are all different, and we all have them. And yet the lament we share is the same lament. It is also the lament of Jesus. Even the Human One, the Incarnate One, cries out in stark words of agony, confessing his utter lack of agency. I find a strange comfort in knowing this.
Yet, there is hope at the conclusion of this text. Jesus affirms that the day is coming when the chicks will be gathered, when they will proclaim, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35b). For Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, that day remains in the future. Yet, his vision of it offers a testimony for us: what we see here in this moment is not the whole story, nor is it the end of the story.
Jesus remains faithful to God. He makes himself vulnerable for the sake of those he loves. He perseveres in spite of all odds. In a recent Facebook post, beloved PCC’er and Oberlin College alum, John Bergen, encourages his friends to “do something brave” for Lent. Fidelity, vulnerability, perseverance. That’s what I call “brave.” The world is crying out for that kind of brave. Amen.