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Sermon: The Fox and the Hen

February 26, 2010

Luke 13:31-35

If you were with us last week, you may remember that we read about the temptation of Jesus.  He was in the wilderness for 40 days, and the devil pushed Jesus to take shortcuts in an effort to achieve his mission quicker and, with less pain and effort.  Jesus refused the devil’s offers of help, and passed the test.  Ominously, the story told us that though Jesus had resisted temptation in the wilderness, the devil would be back.

That scripture from Luke’s gospel took place at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  Before Jesus ventured out into the world to teach and heal, Jesus went to the wilderness.  It was a period of preparation.  Today’s lesson from Luke’s gospel skips well forward in the story.  Jesus has already called his disciples.  He has already taught in the synagogues and healed the sick and cast out demons.  That was already behind him, yet in front, the walls of Jerusalem are coming ever closer.  And in Jerusalem, there is a cross.

Today’s scripture finds Jesus in a place where everything was tense, tight and maybe even a little desperate.  He was teaching more and more about readiness, about that day that will come like a thief in the night (Luke 12:39-40), about fire kindled on the earth (12:49).  He spoke about repentance (13:5-9) and getting your affairs in order before it is too late (12:57-59).  There was more conflict with religious leaders (13:10-17), more signs of danger and violence in the world (13:15).  The end of Jesus’ time on earth was approaching, and though there were still a few roads to walk, Jesus must have known that his day was drawing to a close.

Jesus had just finished a story about evildoers, and weeping and gnashing of teeth, when some Pharisees approached him.  The Pharisees, you may remember were lay leaders in the synagogues.  They were very zealous, very religious people, much like Jesus.  While Jesus often sparred with them, he also had dinner in their homes.  On this day, the Pharisees came to warn Jesus.

“Herod is after you,” they said.  “You better get out of here.  He’ll kill you.”

Much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, Herod had been very curious about Jesus.  He had heard stories.  The text says that Herod even tried to see Jesus (Luke 9:7-9; Fred Craddock, Interpretation: Luke [Louisville: John Knox, 1990], 173.), apparently without success.  But in the intervening months, something had changed.  Herod only wanted to kill Jesus, not sit down for a talk.

“So get out of here, Jesus.  Go.  Save yourself.”

“He said to them, ‘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.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.”’”

Some people might sense contempt for Herod in Jesus’ words, and you could make a case for that.  I hear something else.  To me, it feels much more as if Jesus was completely dismissing Herod and his so-called power.  It appears that Jesus paid no more attention to that fox than he would to a fly that landed on his shoulder.

Herod—and by extension, all who exercise political power—has no bearing on what Jesus will or will not do.  Jesus will cast out demons today and tomorrow, and on the third day he will be on his way, no matter what the Herods of the world think they are doing.  Jesus would be moving out of Herod’s jurisdiction shortly, not because he was running away, but because he had a date with his destiny in Jerusalem.

Remember how Luke presented the birth of Jesus?  Caesar Augustus had ordered a census at the time Quirinius was governor in Syria.  Caesar Augustus was by far the most powerful human being in his part of the world.  But do you think God cared much about Caesar and his census?  Not really.  Jesus was born in a stable in the quiet town of Bethlehem, and God didn’t even bother to tell Caesar.  Augustus went to his grave never hearing a word about this special child of God.

Then, the devil came to Jesus in the wilderness offering Jesus all sorts of spectacular power—stones into bread, authority over all the kingdoms of the world, a vision of angels carrying Jesus down from the top of the Temple.  Jesus said to the devil, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  You don’t have any real power.  You simply imagine you do.

Then Herod thought he’d go after Jesus, kill him just as he killed John the Baptist (Luke 9:9).  Herod, just like all the others, was sadly mistaken.  Surely, he had some power.  He had the power to command.  That had been given to him by the Roman authorities, but that power could be taken away from him.  He had the power to make lives miserable.  But it was so fleeting, so limited.  Today we wouldn’t even care one whit about Herod if he weren’t a character in someone else’s story—Jesus’ story.

All leaders, the famous and the infamous, are nothing.  They are but a breath.  They rise up.  They strive for greatness, but then, just like all of us, they turn frail and they die.  They have no real power.  That comes from somewhere else.

Jesus said to those Pharisees, “Herod is nothing.  I do what I do.  I’ll do my work here, and when I’m done, I’ll go on to Jerusalem.  That is where I choose to go.  The fox doesn’t chase me there.  He can neither hinder me nor help me.”

Then, abruptly, Jesus turned his thoughts to that beloved city, the home of the Temple of the God of Israel, Jerusalem.  There was sorrow in Jesus’ voice, because his own people, just like you and me, were often foolish and disobedient and headstrong.  Just like you and me, Jesus’ own people did not always recognize when God’s presence was breaking in among them.  Just like you and me, they mistook false, temporary, political power for the real thing.

Jerusalem and the Temple were powerful symbols of God’s great hope for the people of Israel and the world.  They reminded the people that God had such great love for them, saw such great promise in them, that he formed them into a people, brought them to a good land, and built them up to be a blessing for all Creation.  Jesus thought about that great city, and he saw, that just like you and me, the people had failed to live up to their full potential, and it made him sorrowful.  They had misunderstood some good prophets, rejected some others, and had even killed some others, just as we do even to this day, most notably Gandhi and King.

That caused Jesus sorrow.  He felt like a mother hen who simply wanted to surround her brood beneath her protective wings, but the chicks would not come to her and scattered all over the barnyard.  This hen would let them choose.  She would not force her young ones to come to her.  It was their choice.  We all have the option to find shelter beneath the wings of the mother hen or to run around exposed in the barnyard to our peril.  Jesus knew that when he came to Jerusalem, he would be rejected.

So we have in our scripture for this morning a fox and a hen.  The fox is sleek and quick, with sharp teeth and claws.  The fox has political and military power at his disposal.  He can bend the situation to his will.  He creates history.

On the other hand, we have a hen.  She is heavy bodied and slow.  She has wings, but she can’t even fly.  She wants her brood to cover up beneath her wings, but they won’t even do that.  She doesn’t bother to chase them down, but lets them go their own way.  The only power she has is that of motherly love.

It is clear who the winner will be.  On a Friday in Jerusalem, another fox, Pontius Pilate—the Roman ruler in Jerusalem—will hang the mother hen up on a cross to die a bloody, pointless death.  The hen doesn’t stand a chance.  Wings are no match for tooth and claw.  A mother’s love is no match for sword and spear.  The hen will die and her brood will be scattered and devoured.

Like every good story, this one has a twist.  On a Friday, the fox does destroy the hen, but Jesus said to those Pharisees, “On the third day I finish my work.”  On the third day.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

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