Longing for the Lord

Longing for the Lord

Sermon for the second Sunday in Lent
Psalm 27 and 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.’” Though by this stage in Luke’s narrative Jesus has begun his movement toward Jerusalem—has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” as Luke puts it (Lk 9.51)—at this point he is still in Galilee; still in Herod’s territory. Like his father before him, Herod is a nasty piece of business, supported on the throne as a puppet king under the Roman Empire. And like his father—the one who had ordered the slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth—this Herod is ruthless, willing to defend his thin claim to the throne at any cost.

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“Get away from here,” these Pharisees say to Jesus, “for Herod wants to kill you.” We tend to be conditioned to hear the word “Pharisee” and be immediately suspicious. They must be exaggerating the danger Herod poses as a way of trying to get Jesus to clear out of the region, right? Maybe, but maybe not. There are, after all, Pharisees who invite Jesus into their homes to share meals with him, and in John’s account there is the figure of Nicodemus the Pharisee who comes by night to see Jesus. In the book of Acts—which is also written by Luke—there is even mention made of Pharisees becoming Christians (Acts 15:5). The Pharisees were no friend of Herod’s, so perhaps this warning is genuine. Clear out, lay low, he’s bad news.

“Go and tell that fox for me,” Jesus replies, that I’m doing the work I need to be doing, and that it is not here in Galilee that I will face any threat of death. “[I]t is impossible,” he says, “for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” And then those extraordinarily poignant words: “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…” It is a powerfully maternal image that Jesus uses to describe his own desire—his own longing—for the people of Jerusalem, and I think it is important to recognize that fact. And this is not a stereotypically gentle and nurturing maternal image; it is a fierce one. When danger approaches—maybe a fox—a hen will not only shelter her chicks under her wings, she’ll protect them by doing all she can to ward off the predator. She’ll risk her own life for the sake of those chicks she has tucked under her wings.

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” “How often have I longed to gather your children” is the way the New International Version translates it, which I believe better catches the spirit of Jesus’ lament. He longs to gather them, to save and protect them, and to do that with the fierce protectiveness of a mother hen.

Longing; it is such an evocative word, isn’t it? The psalm we heard read aloud this evening is filled with longing; longing for safety, longing to be hid in “God’s shelter in the day of trouble,” longing to “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” In considering Psalm 27, Beth Tanner first asks if it is “a psalm of trust or a prayer for help?” It certainly begins in a posture of trusting praise—“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”—and over the first six verses it expresses a deep trust, even “When evildoers assail me” and “war rises up against me.” For those first six verses the voice of this psalm is stubbornly and resiliently steadfast, trusting, unafraid. And how can that be? Because the Lord will hide me, and shelter me in the day of trouble.

The Lord will conceal me under a covering of tent;
The Lord will set me high on a rock.

Though the psalmist doesn’t use the image, he’s basically saying I’ll be safe as a chick under the wings of a mother hen; enemies, predators, foxes notwithstanding.

But then the psalm moves from that posture of trusting praise to one of lament and uncertainty, and now a deeper, almost agonizing, longing is voiced. “Do not hide your face from me,” “Do not turn your servant away in anger;” “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me…” These enemies, these adversaries… their threat is real—“false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence”—my only hope is in the shelter of your house, your tent, your way, your wings.

“If my father and mother forsake me”—what an incredible line that is—if even my own parents turn away from me “the Lord will take me up.” And the psalm begins its turn from lament to praise. “It is cyclic,” Beth Tanner comments, “just as our lives are. We praise, we cry, we praise. It is the stuff of our existence.”

The psalmist longs for safety, longs to be sheltered, longs to “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” Notice the power of that line. Not off in the sweet by and by, but here and now in the land of the living. “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord” in the here and now.” For all the false witnesses—the slander and gossip and lies—and for all the violence that is being breathed against me, I believe. And so with longing and boldness the psalmist ends by singing,

Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

The great sorrow, though, for Jesus in his longing to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks is that they are not willing. The “children of Jerusalem” he calls them, and by this he doesn’t mean literally the children. He means all of them, in their lostness and vulnerability; the Pharisees, the scribes, and the temple priests as much as anyone else. They can’t see how vulnerable they truly are, they don’t recognize the sheltering safety and salvation that he brings, they haven’t recognized their need. They have other longings. Maybe to maintain the tradition, maybe to hold the precarious power balance with their Roman overlords, maybe to hold the political, religious, social and cultural status quo. But the sheltering wings of Jesus? Not so much. Though he longs for them, they can’t yet see him as the one to whom they need to turn in order to have their own deepest longing met.

Except—and here is one of the great themes of the gospel tradition—those who are physically blind are able to see who he is and what he brings. Those who are as good as dead sit up and take notice. Those who realize that they have pretty much lost in all scurry close and take shelter with him… even if they still don’t realize that the maternal fierceness of this Jesus means that like a mother hen he is willing to die to keep them safe.

Our hope lies in that great Gospel reversal, of course. When we honestly count ourselves among the last and the least and the lost and the dead, like the blind man by the side of the road we can begin to see how much we need those sheltering wings.

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

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