Sunday 13 March 2022

On the road to Jerusalem

photo by Alain Rouiller, under Creative Commons licence

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan church on Sunday 13 March 2022, the 2nd of Lent

Jesus always likes to use vivid, familiar images to catch the attention of his audience.

In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 13:31-35), he uses images of animals - the fox, and the mother hen brooding her chicks.

Jesus has set his feet on the road to Jerusalem, to the Temple at the heart of Jewish religious life, where he knows that he must confront his opponents. He is not rushing, but wending his way slowly through the towns and villages on the way, where he continues to teach his followers, and to heal those who come to him.

Let us travel in our imaginations with him, standing close to him, where we can hear him speak.

Jesus is in the territory of Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, a client state of the Roman Empire.

His family has form. Herod Antipas is the son of King Herod the Great, who had ordered the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth there. And Herod Antipas ordered the beheading of Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist, at the behest of his wife Herodias. He is a violent and dangerous petty ruler.

Some Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him ‘Get away from here’, they say, ‘for Herod wants to kill you’. The Pharisees in the Gospels are often portrayed as bitter enemies of Jesus, as many were. Perhaps these Pharisees have been sent by Herod to threaten Jesus, or maybe they just want to get Jesus off their own patch. But I prefer to think that they came to warn Jesus because they admired and respected him. We know that some Pharisees did: Nicodemus, for instance, who came to Jesus by night to discuss his teaching, and who helped to bury him after the Crucifixion.

Jesus replies to them with the first vivid image. ‘Go and tell that fox for me’, he begins. People then saw foxes as both sly and destructive, as those who keep chickens still do today. But they also saw them as dirty, impure, because they scavenged in rubbish tips for dead, rotting meat. To call Herod a fox in public is a great insult – perhaps a bit like a Russian in Red Square today loudly describing Putin as a vulture. Imagine your shock, and the shock running through the crowd, when you hear Jesus’s words!

With his eyes wide open to the danger Herod represents, Jesus refuses to run away from his ministry. ‘Listen’, he says, ‘I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’ Then, says Jesus, ‘I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.’ He will reach Jerusalem in time for Passover, when the city will be crowded with people, both up from the country, and from across the Roman Empire.

By the time Jesus’s words are reported back to Herod, it will be too late for Herod to send his men to arrest and kill him. Jesus will have left Herod’s domains, walking the road to Jerusalem with his disciples, in obedience to his loving Father’s will. There he will confront the religious and political leaders, with his prophetic message. We are following him on that road this Lent. It leads to his crucifixion on Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter morning.

Jesus knows what he must expect when he reaches Jerusalem. He laments: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!’

Jerusalem is the seat of Jewish political and religious power, and a headquarters of Roman imperial rule in Judea. Those who speak truth to power never receive a welcome, but that is what Jesus is going to do when he gets there.

In the OT story, time and again the children of Israel go astray from God’s ways and reject the prophets, sent by God to bring them back to the right path. Jesus knows himself to be sent by God in that same tradition. He has already suffered rejection on a previous visit to Jerusalem. But still Jesus yearns for the people to come to his call, where he can nurture them, and teach them the ways of God’s kingdom.

‘How often’, he exclaims, ‘have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’

Jesus employs a second lovely image – that of a mother hen brooding and protecting her chicks. Can’t you just see these little balls of fluff, so tiny, so fragile, so vulnerable to predators?

Surely this must be how God sees us - like curious little chicks, scattering this way and that, wandering in the farmyard and even out the gate, wandering far from our mother hen, far from Jesus, far from God’s love, easy prey for foxes.

We are not so very different from the pious Jews of Jerusalem in Jesus’s time, I think.

It seems so in our nature to wander wilfully. We often ignore God’s call to love him as he loves us, and to love our neighbour as ourselves, which makes us easy prey for many evils. The evil of selfishness that hurts other people. The evil of greed that wounds the beautiful, bountiful world we have been placed in. The evil of hatred that causes war and oppression. Evil is real. We see it in the war in the Ukraine. We can see it all around us.

Many today are just as oblivious to the dangers as the pious Jews of Jesus’s day were. To them, Jesus says, ‘I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”’. When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey, Luke (19:38) tells us that a multitude of his disciples greeted him in these very words. But not the pious Jews of Jerusalem.

By his life and teaching, death and resurrection, Jesus has shown his disciples – those who have seen him – that’s you and me - how to resist and defeat evil. He tells us that he will be with us always, and he sends his Holy Spirit to guide us, to be like a mother hen to us, gathering us under the shelter of her wings.

But Jesus does not give up on those who have yet to see him. He also tells us that we are to go out and make disciples of all nations, to gather all people under those protective wings. 

Tuesday 8 March 2022

Praying the Lord's Prayer

 Reflection at Morning Worship with the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 8th March 2020

You may find today’s reading both familiar and strangely different – it is the NRSV translation from the Greek of St Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, set for today in the common lectionary. It is deceptively simple, while at the same time encapsulating all that we ought to ask of God. I’m going to share with you some reflections upon it.

First, Jesus’s introduction makes me a bit uncomfortable because I fear I all too often ‘heap up empty phrases’ in intercessions that are too long and wordy. But I take comfort that God, our Father in heaven, ‘knows what I need before I ask him’.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray what we call the Lord’s prayer, as we continue to do whenever we come together as a Christian congregation. But there is nothing explicitly Christian about it. The Lord’s prayer can be said in good conscience by anyone who believes in a loving, almighty God, including Muslims and Jews - both Jesus and his disciples were of course Jews. Notice that Jesus calls us to pray together to ‘our Father’, not individually to ‘my Father’ – it is a prayer to be said together, not a private prayer.

When we pray ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’, we express our reverence for the nature and character of God, who is holy, who is good and who loves all his creatures, just as an ideal father of a household loves all the members of his household. That includes you and me, but others too - not just Christians, but people of other faiths and none – and not just human beings, but all the wonderful diversity of living creatures we share our planet with, because God sees all his creation to be good.

We pray ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. I believe that God’s kingdom is a state of peace and justice where we and all his creatures flourish. This is not the damaged world that we see around us, beset with war, dangerous climate change, and collapsing biodiversity – that is the antithesis of God’s kingdom. But I believe we can glimpse his kingdom, even enter into a small part of it, at any time and place where we do God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. Our prayer is an invitation to look to the future in hope.

Jesus invites us to pray ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Notice he does not invite us to pray for more than our daily needs, and nor should we. If I greedily take all I desire, hoarding it for the future, others will likely get less than they need. We are to share what we have so that all have enough. It is ok for us to ask God for what we devoutly wish for ourselves and for others – if we can’t ask God, who can we ask? But we ought always add, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done’, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane. The purpose of prayer is to align our wishes with God’s wishes, not to badger him into doing what we want.

‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. The Lord’s prayer in the BCP speaks of sins or trespasses, rather than debts. But they amount to the same thing – a failure to pay what is due, a failure of duty to God or our neighbour, a failure to do what is God’s will. Every one of us has failed many times in our duty to God or to our neighbour. I ask God to forgive my failures, but the sting in the tail is that God will forgive my failures only in proportion to my forgiving the failures of others. We must forgive to be forgiven.

Finally, we pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one’. Our time of trial may take many forms. Someone else, even someone I love, may seek to persuade me to do what I know is wrong, what is against God’s will. Or a character flaw in myself may give evil an opening it is hard to resist. Or cruel events may make me doubt the goodness and love of God. So we ask God to spare us such trials and temptations. But when we must face them, we ask God to help us resist them, as Jesus did when Satan tempted him in the desert, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel reading.

Evil is real. We see it all around us in the violence humankind does to this beautiful planet. We see it in the way people exploit other people for their own ends. And we see it in the death and destruction of war. We see it in the suffering not only of the people of Ukraine, but also of misled Russian soldiers, and those whose lives are upended by sanctions, which will include many here in Ireland.

Now more than ever, we need to pray to our Father in heaven to rescue us from the evil one.