A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 13: 31-35
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 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. 33 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.’ 34 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! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” 
So this is one of those weeks where the lectionary is cool because I get to preach on one of those passages that I probably wouldn't pick to preach on otherwise. It's not that this passage isn't interesting or anything, it's just that it's one of the smaller exchanges that Jesus has. It doesn't really fit into the larger context. It is as if Jesus is hanging out doing his Jesus stuff, then some people come to him and he reacts. It's not a planned speech like a parable. It's not instructions like the sermon on the mount or one of the healings. It's not rise take up your matt and walk. It's not I am the way, the truth, and the life, it's not you are the salt of the Earth, instead it's Jesus reacting. We get a glimpse of Jesus in a unrehearsed moment, when someone makes a statement to him, and it's actually a threat of danger, a threat to Jesus' very life, and then he replies, and in his reply so much is packed. It's like if you ever had the question, how would Jesus respond to a death threat, pay attention to this. There is a lot here. I want to work to unpack his reply this morning. Maybe we should read it again before we get going because we have much to unpack.
So it begins, with the Pharisee coming to him, with the threat. . . 31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Now come some questions from us. . . What is the Pharisee's motive? Are they sent by Herod? If so what would that mean? If not then what? Was it out of their own volition, if so what is their motivation? Do they care for Jesus? Do they want Jesus to leave, to get out of town, get out of their way? What is it? It's hard to know for sure, and because we are so conditioned in Luke's gospel to distrust the Pharisees, we certainly have doubts about the intentions of them. So what do you think? Is it Herod, if so why the warning? If Herod truly was a fox, then wouldn't he sneak up on him take him unawares? Isn't that the political way? Then that leaves the Pharisees, are they threatened by Jesus' presence? Would it be better for everybody if Jesus would just go away? Is this exchange done in public? Does he show up the Pharisees for the benefit of the crowd, or is it in private? Do the Pharisees whisper to him, or are they threatening in their manner? Is there more behind the words? What is their body language? The questions are endless, an inquiring minds would like to know, but I guess we won't know because the Pharisees are silent after his initial question and there isn't any extra narration.
So now Jesus' answer:
32 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.
"Go tell that fox." Don't you just love that. Here is Jesus with some attitude. Here is Jesus, giving lip service to the warning. It seems to me there is no way to read this that doesn't have a little bit of sass in it, and a little bit of sarcasm, and total disregard for the political issues of the day. Here he is above normal trivial human concerns, you know like life itself. Think about it. A group of high ranking religious authority figures are giving him a warning that the highest ranking, non Roman political authority figure, is planning to kill him, and Jesus insults the ruler and disregards the warning. It is a total insult to all involved. Jesus is like, hey I've got some work to do, I'm going to be doing it the next three days, and I won't stop until I am done. You all worry about your politics I, instead will be casting out demons and healing people. There is a scene in the Kevin Costner movie about Wyatt Earp, where Costner as Earp who is the town's Marshall has just been involved in the OK Corral shootout, and the corrupt County Sherriff, Johnny Behan comes to arrest him, and all Earp says is, I don't think I'm going to let you arrest me today, Johnny. Awesome, totally Bold, in the face of someone who is a coward. Jesus shows that kind of disregard for these Pharisees and Herod here. There is even some extra flippancy because he gives them his schedule. In other words, if that fox wants to find me, he can look for me here. He knows where to find me. I'm not running. It is interesting, what power does Herod have over a man who is unafraid of death, in his day, and to an extent in our own, the threat of violence is the unspoken trump card in the government's arsenal, death in Jesus case in fact it is in his plans. Secondly, what power of intimidation do religious leaders have over someone who has a strong relationship with God. These are important ideas to remember because they may be of some importance in a minute. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. . .
But first I found something very interesting in my research, an interesting insight into ano older Christianity and Bible interpretation that seem so far outside of our experience. I was checking out Matthew Henry's famous Bible Commentary. It's the biggest thickest single volume book I own. It's huge. He goes through the entire Bible and give his comments on each part. I found this section to be one of the most amusing that I have ever found there. Especially the "Fox" part, check it out, he writes. . .
In calling him a fox, he gives him his true character; for he was subtle as a fox, noted for his craft, and treachery, and baseness, and preying (as they say of a fox) furthest from his own den. And, though it is a black and ugly character, yet it did not ill become Christ to give it to him, nor was it in him a violation of that law, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. For Christ was a prophet, and prophets always had a liberty of speech in reproving princes and great men. Nay, Christ was more than a prophet, he was a king, he was King of kings, and the greatest of men were accountable to him, and therefore it became him to call this proud king by his own name; but it is not to be drawn into an example by us.
Can you imagine someone working so hard just to defend or excuse Christ for being rude to a ruler? My how different we are today. . . In other words, you can speak out against political leaders as long as you are a prophet. . . then you get a pass. . . and you get an extra pass if you are Jesus because you outrank them. I wonder does that count for us, as Christians, and Christ followers or are we bound by the Old Testament norm. The quote, " Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people" is from Exodus 22:28. Interesting in context of Exodus, when there are no "princes and rulers" yet, except for the Pharoah that they have just defied. Interesting understanding of the idea of the justification for civil disobedience, don't you think? Henry wrote in 1662, when much like Herod's Israel, and Pilate's Rome, the political structure was unquestionable and seen very much as a gift of God. What does Jesus think of such a situation? Are all those powers that be destined to be foxes? Interesting to think about, and again we'll get to that in a minute too.
Now we come to the next part of Jesus's respsonse:
33 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.’
Here is an interesting line. I've always been intrigued by this line. How often is it that Jesus offers such a legalistic phrase. Why is it impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem? Is it some kinda cosmic thing? It is literally impossible for a prophet to be killed somewhere else? What is it? My rational mind goes away from those cosmic hypothesis and comes to a conclusion a little more close to home, and it has to do with where Jesus goes next. I think it has to do with human notions of tradition and closemindedness, that we don't recognize prophets unless they meet certain criteria. Doesn't this ring similar to Jesus in his hometown, saying a prophet isn't regarded in his hometown? The problem then isn't with the prophet, but instead the blindness and weakness of the people being prophesized to. Prophets must be killed in Jerusalem because they always have. Or have they? What is it about human beings that we tend to make up rules like this, and that tradition becomes one of the biggest limiters of our mind, what we believe, and what we can find possible, otherwise the limitations we put on our world, ourselves, and also regrettably on God. . . Here we are again, we'll get to that in a minute, too. Now we get to Jesus's lament.
34 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!
Look at this, it is a message of protection, of comfort, of love, but they were unwilling. Why? Because of fear. . . Because of lack of faith. . . It fits in perfectly with the other laments of Jesus. But also look closer at the image. . . A chicken protecting her chicks. . . And what is the common enemy of chicken? What is the biggest predator of a domesticated bird like a chicken? My aunt and uncle raise chickens. They have all kinds. There are so many good stories about them and their chickens, but the sad fact that they have continued to struggle with is trying to protect their chickens, and the chicken's eggs, from foxes. . . foxes. "Go and tell that fox for me." Herod and the Pharisees, those foxes. . . how prescient. In a passage that just abounds with imagery of the future work in Jerusalem. . . three days, finishing work, being killed, now you have an extra piece. . . it is these foxes whom the people will choose rather than Jesus, again and again, and seemingly in Matthew Henry's time, and again now. But Jesus, despite it all offers more:
35 See, your house is left to you.
In my house there are many rooms, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it's here, just take it. I have left a place for you, but as I said you won't choose it. Or will you? Jesus does seem hopeful, still teaching even in his lament. Always dropping clues of the truth. But then he closes it all with more foreshadowing:
And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”
Foreshadowing because those palms will be waved, there will be glory, but a few days later everything will shift, and fear and lack of faith will again be the case. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, why oh why? Why do you choose to be protected by the fox? Do you think that he is stronger than the hen, too, and even though he devours you, is the only one strong enough to protect you. It's an interesting metaphor isn't it because the hen probably isn't strong enough to stop the fox. At my uncle's the fox typically would eat the hen, too. They never would go out and find a slain fox amid the chicken feathers strewn, but there were survivors, always survivors. Now let's play out the metaphor, how would the hen protect her chicks? How? Yeah you are right, by becoming the sacrifice for them. By giving herself for the chicks. The fox takes her and leaves the chicks behind. You've just got to love studying the Bible. The symbolism is so interesting and layered.
Instead though we choose the fox because there is too much risk about the hen. There is too much faith involved, we become overcome by fear, and so we depend on the fox, the devouring predator for protection. Matthew Henry's commentary brought it out for me. He, himself fell into the same trap. Well, Jesus should question authority, but we better not, for we're not prophets. I beg to differ. We are prophets, Christianity must speak with a prophet's tongue and challenge what is not right in the world. Silence in many cases is choosing fear. Hanging inside safe traditions is choosing fear. Limiting God, and replacing God with our own idols. The idols that take the place of God in our lives. What are the things that we depend on rather than God? I invite you to ask yourself that question this week. Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . . Christian, Christian, 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! 35 See, your house is left to you. . . come into the house. Amen.