Archive for March 4th, 2010

February 28, 2010

The first thing I want to say is that I am not going to talk about the Olympics. I figure that the people who want to hear about the games have been watching television non-stop for the past two weeks, and the rest of you have been forced into it by default. So, this is an Olympic-free zone. There are two things I hope to cover in today’s sermon. You heard a little bit about one of them in the children’s story, and I will come back to that in a few minutes, but for now, let’s take a look at the first part of the Gospel reading, the part where the Pharisees came to warn Jesus about Herod.
The usual reaction of people to this is disbelief. The Pharisees? These people who have all along been trying to trap Jesus? These people who have been all along hoping to trick Jesus into committing blasphemy or treachery? They were warning Jesus? But let’s remember that not all the Pharisees were against Jesus. There were those like Nicodemus, who came to visit Jesus under cover of darkness, and Joseph of Arimathea, who would later give his own tomb so that Jesus could be buried. And these are only whose names we know. Surely, there must have been others. Anyway, some of these sympathetic Pharisees came to warn Jesus, saying, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” This was not the same Herod who ordered that the baby boys born in Bethlehem be slaughtered, but his son, Herod Antipas. Many of the Pharisees were closely involved with Herod, as the civil ruler of Jerusalem, and they would have heard about Herod’s plans. They knew that Herod and his court were starting to be nervous about this wandering prophet. Remember that this was the man who ordered the execution of John the Baptist after John accused him of immorality. And just think for a minute about the things Herod must have heard about Jesus. There were many wandering prophets at this time, but not all of them were able to perform the miracles Jesus did. And which of them claimed to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy? Which of them claimed to be the Messiah? Only Jesus. Did this mean that he would be rallying the people to rebel against Rome? Because, if it did, this would bring the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem, and the Jews would be slaughtered. So, as far as many of the Pharisees were concerned, the best thing would be to get rid of Jesus right now, before anything happened. The sympathetic Pharisees did not want this, and came to warn Jesus, as we have heard.
Now, Jesus’ reaction to this was surprising, to say the least! He replied, “ Go and tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” He called Herod a fox! To us, this is not a really horrible thing to call someone, but to the people on Jesus’ time, it would have been a huge insult. Foxes were regarded as sneaky creatures, ones who would creep about in the night, stealing from others, living by wits rather than by strength. Here, Jesus was pointing out Herod’s weakness. Here he was saying that Herod was not a strong ruler, but one who toadied to Rome, one who did what Rome wanted him to do. And, as we already know, Herod was a bully. But we really don’t expect Jesus to react like that. Fine, let Herod know that he was not going to just disappear. Fine, let Herod know that he was not going to give in. But to call Herod a fox! Now, that was just asking for trouble, and we know that, most of the time Jesus didn’t do that. But sometimes he did. Sometimes he reacted in an all-too-human manner. Think about the money changers in the Temple, and how Jesus made a knotted cord – or whip – and drove them out. Think about the times he was upset with his disciples because they just didn’t get it. And this is one of the times when we see the human side of Jesus, when we see him treating Herod with contempt.
As Christians, we are told to love others, to forgive others, but there are times when it is necessary to be blunt, when it is necessary to call a spade a spade. A person who embezzles money must be called a thief. An unfaithful spouse is an adulterer. Even today, evil must be named and confronted, for this is the only way it can be defeated. Making excuses for bad behaviour is not what we are supposed to do. It certainly isn’t what Jesus did. You didn’t hear him – or John the Baptist – excusing Herod for adultery by saying something like, “He couldn’t help himself. He just fell in love.” No, John said that it was not lawful for Herod to marry Herodias, because she was his brother’s wife. And Jesus called him a fox. No matter the cost, there are times when evil must be named. There are times when a Herod must be called a fox. And Jesus did it, knowing what it would cost him, knowing that it could lead to his death.
And then he changed. He moved from anger to lamentation, in one of the few scenes in the New Testament where we saw his profound sorrow. Jesus looked down at Jerusalem, and he wept. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, 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, but you were not willing.” So today’s Gospel is all about animals, from foxes to hens. But of course, we know that it goes much deeper than that!
The story I told the children today about the hippopotamus in the zoo in Memphis is quite true. Everybody wanted to name the baby hippopotami, but nobody was willing to risk the wrath of their mother to determine the gender of the babies. And I don’t blame them! From what I have been able to find out, an adult hippo can do some serious damage to a human. I would have been quite content to leave the babies until they got older, and were wandering away from mama to determine their gender. Or I would have given them non-gender specific names. In any case, I would not have been upsetting two tons of motherhood just to name creatures who don’t even respond to names in the first place!
The baby hippos were quite happy to stay close to their mother, and the frustrated officials finally named the babies Splish and Splash. Incidentally, according to the zoo’s website, Splish still lives at the Memphis Zoo with her mother, Julie.
These baby hippos were no different from any other baby animals. I remember a book I used to read to my children when they were small, called Are You My Mother? In this book, a baby bird fell out of the nest, and spent a large part of the day wandering around, searching for his mother. Of course, it all ends happily, but the point is that this baby bird knew that he needed his mother. New-born puppies who are taken from their mother too early may develop odd behaviours, such as inappropriate biting. Some animals who are taken from their mother too soon will even die. They just don’t know how to live without their mother taking care of them. Even bottle-fed lambs often die, simply because they miss their biological mothers.
It is really interesting to watch a mother hen at the end of the day. All day long, her chicks may have been scratching in the dirt, feeding themselves on grain tossed in by the farmer. But as evening draws in, each mother will call her chicks to her, and the chicks will go to the right mother. Now, I don’t know about you, but, to me, most hens look pretty much the same, and chickens even more. But somehow, these birds who are too stupid to come in out of the rain, know who their mothers are. The hens know who their chicks are, and they will fuss until all the chicks are safely tucked under their wings. The hens look considerably fatter than they actually are, but the chicks are protected.
In Labrador, we have birds called ptarmigan, who are really quite stupid. They don’t run from hunters, but sit there quietly, so they are easy to capture and kill. However, when there are baby ptarmigan involved, the mother – the ptarmigan hen – will lure predators away from her nest by pretending to be unable to fly. This is her way of protecting her young – she will give up her own life rather than allow the predator to get the babies.
And animal babies know where they are safe. They know that their mothers will protect them. No one has to tell them – this is all done by instinct. If, for some reason, a baby is separated from its mother, it will cry pitifully, so that the mother will recognize the little voice.
Why, then, don’t people know where they are safe? Jesus said, “You were not willing.” He said to Jerusalem, “You kill prophets and stone those sent to you.” Chicks come running to their mother when she calls, or when they sense danger. Puppies and kittens snuggle close to their mothers. Even baby hippopotami like Splish and Splash don’t wander far from the safety of their mother’s bulk. But people – people are not willing. They kill prophets and stone those sent to them. And God, Jesus, will not force them. He says, “You were not willing.” From our vantage point of the 21st century, we can see that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were being foolish, that they could not see who Jesus was. But we know! We would never turn our backs on Jesus, would we? Or would we?
We are called every day, and how do we answer? God calls us when we are troubled, when our lives seem to be falling apart. Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And we don’t do it. We think that we have to carry the burden by ourselves. To me, that is one of the great joys of being a believer, that we don’t have to carry the burden by ourselves – that Jesus will help us, if we are willing.
We are called every day, and how do we answer? God calls us in our prosperity. John the Baptist said, “The man who has two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” It is because of God that we prosper, and through our tithes and offerings each week, we return some of what God has given us, if we are willing.
We are called every day, and how do we answer? We are called to rejoice, to praise God, to acknowledge his part in the goodness and beauty that is creation, that is our lives. That is the purpose for which we were created, if we are willing. We are called to come to God when we have turned our backs on him. Every week, in the assurance of pardon, we are told that God forgives us, no matter what. God will take us back under the shelter of his wings, if we are willing.
God called us for the first time at our baptism, when we became part of Christ’s family. Every week, this call is renewed when you show that you are part of the community of faith. Animals protect their young while they need it, but eventually, this protection stops. Mother birds drive their babies out of the nests. Other animals push their babies to independence. Even humans do it. There is an expression that defines a good parent as one who raises a child so that the child no longer needs the parent. Well, this might work – although I don’t completely agree with it. I still get calls from my children, which I think means that they need me, and I still miss my parents, which means that I still need them. But the point is that, at some point, we expect our children to be independent, and to live in their own places. A friend of mine once said that he was looking forward to the time when his kids would no longer be on the family payroll. Well, God doesn’t do that; God doesn’t put limits on the time he protects us.
Animals – including humans – care for and nurture their young for a limited time. God does it for eternity. In doing this, God does not say that nothing bad will ever happen to us. Rather, he says that, when it does happen, he will be there. In John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you.” To me, this means that, no matter what problems we face, no matter what fear affects us, no matter what temptation may appeal to us, we will never be alone, as orphans often are. We are protected, just as chicks are protected by their mother’s wings. We are comforted by God’s forgiveness, saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, and strengthened by the community in which we live.
Again today, we are called. Again today, Jesus wants to gather us to him as a mother hen gathers her chicks. The mother hen stretches out her wings to embrace her brood, just as Jesus stretched out his arms to be crucified, to protect a whole world of sinners. And all we have to do is to be willing, to take the shelter he offers.


March 2010
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