Lament for Jerusalem

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
Luke 13:31-35

“At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’” Hard to know why a group of Pharisees would offer such cautionary words; maybe it was just an attempt to scare Jesus into hiding. He’d been on this extended road trip through Galilee, and on account of both his teaching and his healing presence, he had gathered quite a following; something deeply concerning to many of the Pharisees. Luke’s readers have already been alerted to the fact that Jesus’ ministry was not to be limited to Galilee—“[Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem,” Luke has told us four chapters earlier (Luke 9:51)—but as far as these Pharisees knew this is just a grassroots Galilean peasant movement led by a compelling teacher with a reputation for healing. Herod is the figurehead in Galilee… maybe threatening him with Herod’s wrath will derail this Jesus.

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“Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” In other words, “I’m not about to stop what I’m doing.” And then Jesus continues, “Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Jerusalem… he’s headed for Jerusalem…

These words about how it is “impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” are the bridge to the heart of this gospel reading, which are words of lament for that city.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Jerusalem stood at the heart of the nation. Captured for Israel by the great King David, it was more than just the political capital of his kingdom. First under David’s reign and then under Solomon’s—the king who had built the first and greatest temple—it stood as Israel’s political and spiritual heart. By all ancient accounts, it was a wondrous place set high on a hill, protected by strong walls, and anchored by temple and palace.

In principle at least, the same language of faith was spoken in both palace and temple. In principle, kings were to be present in the temple, and priests welcomed in the royal home. In principle, the story of God’s covenant relationship with the people of Israel was to be told and retold in both places. In principle…

Yet we know that it didn’t often work that way. It was from the roof of his royal home that David looked down to see Bathsheba bathing and decided that because he was king he could have her. Yes, Solomon built the wondrous temple, yet his next building project was to construct a new palace for himself; one even bigger and grander than the temple itself. For all of his reputation for wisdom, Solomon seems to have had a serious weakness for the perks of power: a bigger house, more wealth, more wives and more mistresses.

After Solomon’s death, the kingdom split in two, and the part centered in Jerusalem saw more than its share of problematic rulers. This, though, is where the prophets came in; speakers of truth, who insisted that the dynamic connection between palace and temple—between politics and religious practice—be rebuilt. Those prophets faced down the spiritually compromised kings and called them back to first things. Those prophets were unafraid of challenging hollow priestly practice, and to say, as Isaiah did, “‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?’ says the Lord; ‘I have had enough of burnt-offerings.’” (Is 1:11) God has had enough of it all, because it is not matched by the offering of the self, from the heart.

These prophets were unafraid to look hollow practice and corruption in the face and to call it for what it was. And for this they were rejected, persecuted, and even killed. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” And then that extraordinary sentence: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” It is a sign of maternal protection, this hen. When her chicks are under threat, the hen spreads her wings to cover her brood. Even from the threat of a wildfire; after a prairie grass fire has raged through, it is not uncommon to find the dead body of a charred hen with her chicks—many still alive—sheltered under her wings.

I wish that I could do that for your children, Jerusalem, Jesus says, “and you were not willing.” There is the pathos of the scene. He considers this city, in all of its history, wonder, and significance, yet because of its failure and lostness, and he can only offer these words of deep lament: “If only I could shelter your children…”

It was not to be. Jerusalem as it was and as it was remembered would soon be destroyed by the might of an increasingly impatient Roman empire. Something new, though, was to be birthed from its ashes; two new things, in fact. A form of Judaism rooted not in the sacrificial system of the temple, but in the word and story based way of synagogue and home would soon arise; and this new thing—the church, the body of Christ, “the Way” birthed by the teacher/prophet/messiah from Nazareth. God will not be defeated by the corruption and compromise of a broken system, much less by the might of the Roman imperial army. There is a tomorrow.

Still, even with this on the horizon, Jesus laments for that city. It had such promise… it embodied such hope… “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood…” And he means it.

Over this past week, I found myself wondering if in our time Jesus might not be looking at his church with some of that same sense of lament. Over the past 2000 years it has embodied such wonder, such beauty, such hope. And over the past 2000 years it has so often forgotten its essential calling to be the Body of Christ, choosing instead the politics, the power, and the way of the world. And in the name of Christ, it has wounded so many so deeply…

Oh my people, I long to gather you—in all of your forms and expressions, and with all of your divisions and confusions; from the smallest disheartened gatherings to the biggest mega-churches perched on the edge of the suburbs; from the slum church in Haiti to a little house church in the Arctic—I long to gather you and tell you again that you are mine. As a hen gathers her brood under her wings, I long to draw you together…

Of our own steam, it is impossible. As the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once observed, the church is not ours to save; it is God’s. And perhaps like the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time, the church as we know it—at least in our own part of the world—will be allowed to come crashing down.

But God will not be defeated by the foibles and failures and struggles of this thing we call the church. Just as out of the destruction of Jerusalem something new was birthed, so it will be, ever and always. For the Body of Christ is ever and always God’s new thing, and that road called “The Way” is always beckoning.

There is a tomorrow. In the mind and heart of God, there always is and always will be. The task for God’s people is to trust that, and to be the Body of Christ.

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