Monday, February 25, 2013

Sermon on Luke 13:31-35, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, "Self-preservation, or self-sacrifice?"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Gospel reading from Luke 13, begins with some Pharisees giving Jesus a warning to get out of harms’ way. Herod, known to be a maniacal king, wants to kill Him, they say. By human expectations, Jesus response is strange here--He doesn’t thank the Pharisees for the warning, or accept their advice. Instead He makes a statement of defiance over against Herod, and affirms that He was going to “stay His course” and finish the work He had left. Then He follows with hard words for the city of Jerusalem--but sandwiched in the middle of them is a picture of the remarkable tenderness of God’s love for us.
Did Jesus question the sincerity or the motives of their warning? Or was He just undeterred from the job that lay ahead of Him? Certainly before, Jesus had been able to make a safe exit when His life was in danger, but He was also no coward. When He knew His cross drew near, He didn’t run when it came down to it, but stood His ground and faced His fate. It seems like He didn’t have the instinct for self-preservation. Isn’t the survival instinct basic to us all? When He knew His betrayal was near, Jesus made no attempt to escape. When He was arrested by the guards, He put up no struggle--even rebuking His disciple Peter who fought with the guards. When He was struck, He remained silent, when He was falsely accused, He made no defense. When the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, was amazed that Jesus did nothing to get out of a situation that was rapidly going from bad to worse--Jesus solemnly committed Himself to the course He was destined to finish. When Jesus was on the cross--the crowds threw cruel words at Him, challenging Him to preserve Himself, if He had helped so many others. His disciples, on the other hand, undoubtedly wished that He would free Himself also. To what can we chalk all this strange behavior up to? How can we understand Jesus’ actions? He was not oblivious to the danger. His eyes were wide open, and the pain and the insults were real.
We find the explanation in today’s reading. Jesus compares Himself to a hen, who gathers her chicks under her wings for protection. When danger comes to threaten, a hen also gives up her instinct for self-preservation, for the greater good of protecting her young, vulnerable chicks. A Discovery channel program about animal parents showed how this is true. While a mother hen was with her chicks, suddenly a chicken hawk, a bird of prey, circled overhead. The hen, sensing the danger, squawked excitedly to the chicks, who quickly gathered under her wings. She fluffed up her feathers and spread her wings, protecting them with her own body. The hawk swooped down upon her, but she blocked him with her body. A second time he dove in for the chicks, and she spread her wings wider. A third time he came at her, but was thwarted by her determination. She was too big for him, so he flew off in search of easier prey. Whether the chicks knew the danger or not, they were kept safe by the mother hen’s focused self-sacrifice.
Jesus’ words, and the example of the hen, unfold the apparent mystery of Jesus’ actions. They explain His unshakable determination, His unwillingness to turn from the course, His focused self-sacrifice. They explain His great sadness over the city of Jerusalem, and His longing plea for them to listen, and come under His shelter. Like a hen guarding its chicks, Jesus sacrificed the “survival instinct” to the greater good of protecting us. This is the meaning of true love. His love for us was so great, that He protected us from the circling danger, throwing His own body, even His own life in the way, to ensure our safety.
But what is the danger? What was the danger then? The danger now? Herod was just manini, a small fry, a fox near the hen house. However unpredictable and dangerous he was to the Jewish people he ruled, Jesus’ eyes were on the real threat. The real threat, then and now, is our threefold enemy of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. It’s the spiritual power of evil, that draws us away from God and His protection. It’s the subtle voice of temptation that tells us there’s nothing to fear from ignoring God and His good commands. It’s the subtle voice that tells us that this life is all there is, and our lives have no consequence for what comes after.
Jesus said, “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem! the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” You can hear the tears in His voice as weeps for the city, the people that He loves, who refuse to listen to Him. The pain of watching a child forsake their parent. He weeps also for us, when we close our ears to His voice. God is not willing that anyone should perish, but wants all to come to the knowledge of the truth. Some still choose to forsake Him and His protection, though, and this saddens God--who longs for us all. The prophets and Jesus both, called then and call to us today to confess our sins and to take shelter under God’s wings. To take refuge from the spiritual evil that circles around us. Jesus’ calls us to gather to His side, to find refuge under His wings.
But the astonishing thing, is that unlike the chicks who have the good sense to listen to their mother’s voice, and run to her for shelter when she calls--we as human beings so often run away. As the words of the old hymn put it, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love.” Our hearts are ever wandering, always in search of something better, never content to rest in God. We wander into danger, knowing or unknowingly, chirping that we’re fine, as we run away from God. This is also why Jesus calls Himself the good shepherd that find His lost sheep, to bring them home.
As parents, I’m know you’ve all had moments of fear and protectiveness for the safety of your child. You’ve watched in shock when they wandered toward great danger, and were out of arm’s reach. As a child the dangers might be a hot pan, a busy street, a suspicious stranger, a deep pool. Often to them, danger is hidden, and they instead see something intriguing, exciting, mysterious. We see the danger, we might even warn them, but we’ve all seen them ignore our cries and charge right into trouble. Hopefully you haven’t experienced too many heart-stopping situations, where they genuinely had a near miss with real harm--but we all know what we’d be willing to risk to protect the life of our child. Our protectiveness and love for our child would even override any thoughts of self-preservation. As they get older, the dangers might change--their unwillingness to hear our warnings may or may not. And to confess the truth, we all know that we’ve done (or perhaps still are doing) the same. In the same way that kids are often blind to those dangers, so also we are often blind to the spiritual danger that God warns sin is for us.
Sin is an ever-present danger, a compulsion to disobey or ignore God’s voice. Just like for a child, we too often ignore the danger. It’s hidden to us, or we choose to ignore it. And God watches with grave concern that we don’t listen. We roll our eyes and say, “oh brother!” We scoff at the notion of evil, or that harm could come to us because of disregarding God’s law. But our wise heavenly Father does not give His Word as idle warnings, and He truly does know what’s best for us--far more than any earthly parent could.
But God doesn’t just watch His children with helpless fear. He sprang into action with the deepest compassionate and self-sacrificing love. Jesus Christ stepped into the path of danger, and shielded us with His body. That’s what His cross is all about--Him taking the penalty of our sin, our wandering, our guilt, and dying for it, so that we might be spared.
Another story tells about a man named Ike who visited his grandpa’s hen house that had just burned down. When he and his grandfather were sorting through the wreckage, they came upon one hen lying dead, near what had been the corner of the hen house. Her top feathers were singed by the fire, her body limp. Ike bent down to pick up the dead hen. And just as he did the hen's four chicks came scurrying out from underneath her burnt body. The chicks survived because they were insulated by the shelter of the hen’s wings.
We don’t tend to think of a hen as a particularly noble bird. We might even think of them as silly, or a nuisance. A rooster at least is proud, fearless, and will fight--but a hen doesn’t convey strength to us. Jesus’ death on the cross may not seem proud or noble to the world. It rather seems filled with shame and defeat. But when the house burns down, when the world comes to its end, when all the chips are cashed in, we’ll be glad to have taken shelter under Jesus’ wings, under the refuge of His cross. The Bible tells us that the wages of sin--it’s true hidden danger--is death. It tells us that the “sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” That means that sin, sin against God’s law, is the bitterness about death. Sin keeps us from inheriting eternal life. It poisons our relationship with God, if we leave it unaddressed, unforgiven. It makes death a bitter ending, rather than a joyful beginning. But the same Bible passage goes on to say, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ!”
You see, while the world may not think much of Jesus and His cross, Jesus was not bowing His head in defeat! He was laying down His life in self-sacrifice, letting the full danger and harm of sin and death rain down on His body--to shield us from what we deserved. He died that we might live. He went to the city of Jerusalem, where so many prophets had died, and He faced the same inevitable fate of those who had dared to warn the proud and the stubborn of the danger they did not see. He died on Good Friday, lay in His tomb on the morrow, and on the third day, He finished His course, rising from the dead in Victory that Easter morning! With 20/20 hindsight, we can see and understand what Jesus was about when He behaved so strangely toward those who warned Him to flee for His life. We can see and understand why He didn’t run and play “chicken” but stayed and played “hen” as He faced the rising danger that our sins poured out against Him. We see that He died with arms enfolded in love around the world--even draped over the soldiers who scorned and mocked Him. On that day, who would imagine that they were the “chicks” who had been spared by the “hen’s” self-sacrifice?
Yes, when it comes to you and me--to sinners who could not see their way to safety--Jesus showed His ultimate love. He becomes the wondrous show of God’s love, the Savior of those who seek refuge from their enemies, and the one who holds us as the apple of His eye; hides us in the shadow of His wings (Ps. 17:7-8). On the third day after His death, His rising to life again shows us the power of His victory--and transforms the cross from symbol of death and shame, to the glory of our salvation and the victory that brings us life! His death for sin meets our repentance with the forgiveness of sins. God has done this for you, and He calls you to the shelter of His side. With the joy of a child who has had the sudden realization of being rescued from serious danger--and is now resting securely in their parent’s loving arms, we pray to God our Loving Father, and Jesus, His dear Son, to “bind my wand’ring heart to Thee.” Let God’s grace keep you tied closely and safely to His forgiveness, mercy, and life, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Why is Jesus’ behavior toward those who warn Him of danger puzzling? What was this King Herod capable of? Luke 3:19-20; 9:7-9. How did Jesus stand His ground?

  1. What kept Jesus so committed to His course, despite the danger, which turned into betrayal, great pain, suffering, and death? Luke 22:39-46; John 10:7-18

  1. How are we saved by Jesus’ focused self-sacrifice? From what danger and harm are we spared? Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 15:56-57; 1 Peter 5:8-9.

  1. Why is Jesus so saddened that the people did not listen to His voice, or the voice of the prophets, and repent, and turn back to God? Luke 13:34; Ezekiel 18:23. Can you describe the pain of a loved one turning away from your voice?

  1. What dangers do we face in this world? Why is danger often hidden to the young? Why are we often equally naïve about the danger of sin, that God is able to see?

  1. Why are we prone to wander, to leave the God who loves us? How does He sacrifice Himself to protect us? 2 Corinthians 5:20-21

  1. How did Jesus’ self-sacrifice end with glorious victory? Acts 2:24

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