[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]
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 living baby 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, called Herod the Great, was king when Jesus was born. It was Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem after the magi 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 through murder.
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 great interpolation or the travel narrative. It runs from Luke 9:51 to Luke 18:14. The theme of this section is given at its beginning, which says that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” [Luke 9:51].
Jesus tells us why He is going to Jerusalem in today’s lesson: “I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” [Luke 13:33]
Jesus has a mission, which Herod in this week’s Gospel, 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.
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, as well as 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 our world today, had become a corrupted, dark place that closed its ears to God, to God’s Word, to God's will.
It was only by going into this heart of darkness that Jesus could do what He set out 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,” Jesus laments in verse 34 of our lesson, “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, and you were not willing.”
Jesus’ desire is to gather not only Jerusalem, but you and me, all our neighbors, all our family members, and our whole world under the protection of His wings, gathered in and by His grace. He will give His very life in order to gather us in, to save from death, and give us eternal life with God.
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 what Psalm 17:8 describes as “the shadow of [God’s] wings” or will we choose to live in the shadow of sin and death?
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.
The main reason for that is that doing so means swallowing our pride. This is hard. The sin within us resists. Like Adam and Eve, we want to “be like God.”
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 are 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 overwork to gossiping in order to indulge in a pretense of being superior to others, from harboring resentments of those who have more than we do to a lazy indifference to difficulties faced by neighbors, from frenzied activity and achievement designed to prove to the world—and to ourselves—that our lives are worth something to letting bigotry or the abuse endured by others go unchallenged.
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. After all, if the prophets of Old Testament times suffered, why should we be exempt? If Jesus Himself suffered in this world, why should we expect that we on't do so as well?
But when we let Jesus cover us with His grace, we are freed from the weight of our past.
We are freed to begin becoming the people God made us to be.
We are 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 ourselves 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!
The story’s told of a man who always lived a safe life. He tried to shelter himself from difficulties the way the Pharisees were ostensibly trying to shelter Jesus from Herod’s wrath and shelter themselves the trouble Jesus was bound to bring to Jerusalem. This man decided not to love too much because love cost too much. He decided not to dream too much because dreaming brought disappointment. He decided not to serve too much because in serving, we encounter other people’s problems and you can get into trouble. When he died, he presented his life to God--undiminished, unmarred, unsoiled by the messiness of life. He proudly said, “God, here is my life!” And God asked him, “What life?”
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, death marches.
Jesus 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.
And 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, one truth, one life. It happens only under the wings of Jesus. May that be the way we all live each day! Amen