A prominent New Testament scholar tells about a discovery made after a barnyard fire. The fire had swept through the chicken coop. But beneath the burnt bodies of several hens were found very living peeping chicks. The hens had saved the lives of their little ones, who may never have realized the danger they faced.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is warned that He should avoid going to Jerusalem. There, it’s said that the king, Herod Antipas, was planning to kill Jesus. The threat is plausible. Herod was one of several sons of Herod the Great. That Herod was king when Jesus was born. It was Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem after the maji told him that the Messiah had been born in David’s city. The son, Herod Antipas, was the one who had murdered John the Baptist. He also, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, generally liked to silence troublemakers.
Whether the Pharisees who warn Jesus away from Jerusalem speak for Herod Antipas or not, Jesus tells them to carry a message back to him. Calling Herod “that fox,” Jesus says that He’s coming to Jerusalem at a time appointed by God and nothing that Herod may threaten, say, or do will prevent Him from going there.
Our passage comes at about the midpoint of a long section of Luke’s gospel called the travel narrative. It runs from Luke, chapter 9, verse 51, all the way to chapter 19, verse 27. The theme of this section is set at its beginning when we’re told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Jesus tells us why He is going to Jerusalem in today’s lesson: “It is impossible for a prophet [and Jesus is the greatest of all the prophets, as well as being Messiah and God-in-the-flesh]…impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem…”
Jesus has a mission, which Herod in this week’s lesson, every bit as much as the devil in last week’s lesson, wants to keep Jesus from fulfilling. It’s in Jerusalem that Jesus will fulfill it. God’s will—God’s plans—will triumph not only over the devil, but over the plans of puny human rulers and other wielders of power. In Jerusalem, at a time set by God the Father, Jesus is intent on sacrificing Himself on the cross, taking our punishment for sin, so that all who trust in Him will live forever with God.
In our lesson, Jesus says that Jerusalem is the only place He could possibly do this. Jerusalem, of course, was the holy city of the ancient Jews and their nation’s political capital. In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was also the place which the Romans, who had conquered what had once been known as Israel, used as their base of operations.
Every sin you can think of was accepted in Jerusalem. Every injustice. Every dirty deal. And the leaders of what we would today call “church and state”: the priests at the temple, supposed guardians of true faith in God and the Jewish puppet kings and their advisers who wielded power by submitting to Rome instead of God, went along with the sin.
More than that, they got involved with it. It lined their pockets. It gave them nice homes and servants. It gave them influence and power. Jerusalem, like much of our world today, had become a corrupted, dark place that closed its ears to God, God’s Word, and God's will.
It was only by going into this heart of darkness that Jesus could do what He set His face to do. He would do something very similar to what the mother hens did in the face of that barnyard fire. In fact, Jesus speaks of what He will do in Jerusalem in those very terms. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to you. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing…”
Jesus’ desire is to gather not only Jerusalem, but Logan and Saint Matthew, you and me, and all our neighbors, under the protection of His maternal wings.
He will give His very life in order to gather us in, saving us from death, and giving us life.
The most critical question each and every human being faces—the question of our lives—is whether we will let Jesus gather us in or go our own ways?
Will we live in the shadow of the Lord’s wings or not?
We may find that, as was true of Herod and even of the religious Pharisees, a lot within us and around us keeps us from taking shelter with Christ. It means swallowing our pride, for one thing. This is hard. The sin within us resists.
We don’t want to acknowledge that we’re not in control of our lives.
We don’t want to admit that we’re involuntary sinners who need a Savior to set us on the right path.
We don’t want to deal with the fact that, absent the help of God, we’re incapable of becoming the people we sense we could be.
So, we try blocking out the truth about ourselves and our need for God with lots of habits—many not bad in and of themselves, but destructive when taken to excess—from mindless TV channel-surfing to overeating, from sex outside the bounds of marriage to overwork, from gossiping to indulge a pretense of being superior to others to harboring resentments of those who have more than we do, from a lazy indifference to difficulties faced by neighbors to frenzied activity and achievement designed to prove to the world—and to ourselves—that our lives are worth something.
Jesus wants to free us from all that. He wants us to walk free and forgiven, free and filled with hope, free and full of life, free and without worry, free and certain of our eternal destinies.
Under Jesus’ protective wings, we aren’t given lives devoid of risk, or challenge, or even the possibility of adversity, pain, or tragedy.
But we are freed from the weight of our past.
We are freed to begin becoming the people God made us to be.
We’re freed to live each day in the awareness that God loves us and will stand with us forever.
When we dare to throw away all the props we use to shelter us from the unpleasantness of life and the reality of our need for God and the salvation He offers through Jesus, God gives us life, an incredible gift that only the Creator of life could possibly give!
Author Steve Smith tells of a man who lived a “safe” life. [He tried to shelter himself from life’s realities the way the Pharisees supposedly sheltered Jesus.] He decided not to love too much because love cost too much. He decided not to dream too much because dreaming only brought disappointment. He decided not to serve too much because serving got your hands filthy and got you into trouble. When he died, he presented his life to God—undiminished, unmarred, and unsoiled by the messiness of a fallen world. He proudly said, “God, here is my life!” And God said, “What life?”I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of interchange I want to have with God when I face Him in eternity. Someone has said, “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”
Jesus could have played it safe, He could have skipped out on going to Jerusalem. But He knew that without His death and resurrection, our lives would be meaningless pilgrimages to eternal separation from God. He chose instead to spread out His arms on the cross and welcome all who will receive Him as their Lord and King into the shelter of His grace. No matter what life brings our ways, what Jesus accomplished in Jerusalem makes true and everlasting life possible for all with faith in Him.
Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem, face down the evil of the devil and the world, suffer agony on the cross, and rise from the dead so that you and I could play it safe. Jesus did all of that so that, like the chicks saved by their mother hens, we could live!
He calls us to join Him in the risky business of facing the evil of the world with love, confronting sin with the gospel, filling the needs of the hungry, the jobless, the victims of natural disasters, and others with Christian service, praying even for our enemies, and not only reading God’s Word but praying for God’s help in living that Word.
Christian living isn’t always safe living. But it is living!
And it’s made possible when we dare to take shelter under the wings of just one God, just one King, just one way, truth, and life. It happens only under the wings of Jesus. May that be the way we all live each day! Amen
[Agnus Day appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org.]