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March 8th, 1998 (St. George’s URC, Hartlepool)
Lent 2 (RCL - year ‘C’)
Revd. Phil Nevard

Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
Phillipians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35 *
Psalm 27

"The Fox and the Hen"

Some Pharisees had come to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  It is a little odd, don't you think, to hear about Pharisees wanting to protect Jesus?  Nervous paranoia came easily to Herod.  He already had the blood of John the Bapist on his hands, and he was hated for it.  It might be that he wants to drive Jesus away so that he doesn't do something he might regret, and some have suggested that he is using the Pharisees here to deliver a death threat.

Jesus seems to think so.  He sends the Pharisees off with a message for Herod.  In the message we see Jesus' utter contempt for this man Herod,  "Off with you, and tell this to that fox..."  The fox of Aesop's fables; the fox - the longstanding enemy of the hen; the fox - the sly, cunning, deceiving low-life.  I'm sure it's unfair to foxes, but that's what Jesus meant.  We've never heard him speak about anyone with such contempt before.  When Jesus is called before Herod for trial, you will remember how Jesus refuses even to speak to him.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  He is following the path that God has laid out for him.  He knows it will end in death.  But he will not let Herod seize the initiative.  In effect he is saying to Herod - "Yes! I am going to die.  Yes! I am heading out of your jurisdiction and into Jerusalem. But No! you are not in control; No! I am not under your authority; No! your threats do not concern me.  I have a ministry here.  When that is complete God will take me forward to the next step.  It is God who is in control here."

It is easy to see Jesus as a victim.  You might say he was the victim of the Pharisees, the victim of Rome, the victim of fickle crowds who called for Barabbas; you might say that Jesus was swept along by events beyond his control; you might say that that Jesus bit off more than he could chew.  But that's not how Jesus saw himself; that's not how Jesus saw his ministry.

I'm not suggesting that Jesus had a plan; I'm not saying that Jesus had a schedule at the back of his mind that he could refer to every now and again.   Jesus may not have known in advance every step of the way and every turn in the road, but he did know that his Father God was in control of events.  Jesus never saw himself as a victim of events or of other people, he saw himself as a servant of God, faithfully following his Father's path.

I wonder if you are ever tempted to think of yourself as a victim - swept along by the tides of life. Perhaps you feel that your life is ruled by the decisions of others.  Perhaps you feel like a very small pawn in a very large game - the victim of world economics or global affairs.  Well remember this, God showed Abraham the stars and the galaxies, "don't worry that you have no heir, that you can't see what the future holds, I am in control here", and God convinced the Psalmist against all the odds, "I know that I will live to see the Lord's goodness in this present life.  Trust in the Lord.  Have faith, do not despair.  Trust in the Lord." (Psalm 27) God is in control.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is where it must happen.  God is in control. Jerusalem - the centre of Jewish religious life - the heart of faith - the home of the Temple, the dwelling place of God.  This is where it must happen.  This is where it had happened before. King Manasseh killed hundred's of prophets in Jerusalem - the streets were flowing with blood; Zechariah was stoned to death here on the orders of King Joash; Uriah was killed here by King Jehoiachim, and many others...

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  You kill the prophets and you stone God's Messengers.  How often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings, but you would not."

I once read a story about the day that a hen house burned down.  It was told by a lad called Ike and it happened on his grandad's farm. Ike arrived just in time to help put out the last of the fire. As he and his grandfather sorted through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead near what had been the door of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed brown by the fire's heat, her neck limp. Ike bent down to pick up the dead hen. But as he did so, he felt movement. The hen's four chicks came scurrying out from beneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hens wings, protected and saved even as she died to protect and save them. [1]

The pop group "Everything But the Girl" have a fabulous love song called "Protection" which includes the line, "I'll stand in front of you and take the force of the blow." [2]  It seems to me that that is what love is all about, and that is precisely what Jesus is saying here...

"O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  You kill the prophets and you stone God's Messengers.  How often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings, but you would not."

This is such a powerfully tender image isn't it?  Jesus knows his earthly ministry is drawing to a close, and he can see how his message has been met with such rejection.  Just as the prophets had been killed, so would he be killed and he warns his disciples to expect the same.  Jesus just longs to draw them all to himself and to warm their hearts with God's all-embracing love, but they just will not have it, they are pushing him away.

Chicks don't rate very highly on the ladder of life, but for all of that even the least intelligent animal offspring stay close to the one who gave them life; they cry out to the one who nurtures and protects them. But people? - that's another story. Human beings stray; the children of God are always turning away from the love and protection of the God who made them.

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"

In those words of Jesus we hear the voice of God's lamenting.   We hear the sound of God's heart breaking.   With the tender fierce love of a mother God loves his children.  And yet, says Jesus, the children have strayed: they have killed the prophets and stoned those sent to them.

As a mother hen spreads her wings over her brood, so God would spread protective wings over his people. But unaccountably, unnaturally, unrepentantly, they would not.  The children of God have counted the love and protection of God as nothing, choosing instead to go their own way.  

How could such a thing be? How could the children of Israel have been so foolish, so unnaturally rebellious as to turn away from the warm wings offered to them? Especially when those wings had brought them safe through so many difficulties.  Especially when God had delivered them time and again from their enemies, and bestowed on them so much that was the envy of the people around them.

Hard questions these...

Hard enough to answer for the people of Israel.  Even harder for you and I.  For don't we have to come clean and confess that we have so often pushed God away.  We may physically have killed prophets, but we have chosen to ignore so much of what we know God is saying to us; we may never have shouted "Crucify! Crucify!", but we have so often turned away from those most in need; we may never have called for Barabbas, but we have so often chosen to follow the crowd when we know that the footsteps of Jesus lead the other way.

The questions turn back on us - because times come when even the strongest among us desperately feel our lack of security, the absence of protective wings over us the distance that so often seems to exist between ourselves and the presence of God, the times when we simply cannot feel God's presence at all.

"How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"

It's not God who has wandered off.  It's not God who has strayed.  If I suddenly find myself adrift, lost, cut off from the presence of God, it is me who has strayed, it is me who has wandered off, trusting in my own strength, my own wisdom, striking out for a new taste of independence.

God's lamenting cry rings sharply in our ears because we too "would not."   We would not hear the call of comfort, the cry of invitation.  We would not trust our worries, our pain, our sin to the wings of God, preferring instead to peck about here and there in the hopes that we will stumble upon some morsel that will fill our stomachs.

"How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not..."

Listen, hear, the voice of invitation is speaking, the call to protection and holy love. "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest."  Even now the Mother Hen would gather us in the shadow of outstretched wings, warm and secure next to the beating heart of God.  Even now God bids us to come, to trust, and to rely on his protection and nurture and guidance.

The protection of His wings assures us that whatever does happen to us, whatever pain or problems may plague us, whatever fear may face us, whatever sin may assail us, we will never be found defenceless or alone.  For we stand under the protection of God's wings, shaded by God's forgiveness.

This morning, once again, Jesus Christ calls you and me. He calls us to the shelter of his protecting wings. He calls you and me to the safety of his arms stretched out for us on the cross. He calls us to trust him, no matter what our fears, hurts, or troubles; to trust that his outstretched arms are strong enough, his wings broad enough to keep us safe.

[1]  Story told by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild  (Kir-Shalom)

[2]  The best of EBTG (Massive Attack with Tracey Thorn) track 15  "Protection"