7Then he said to him, "I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." 8But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" 9He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him…17When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,"
31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." 32He 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. 33Yet 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.' 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.'"
Our passage from Genesis reminds us of God’s covenant with Abram and takes us back to the beginning of God’s relationship with Israel. God called Abram and told him to take his wife and his nephew and leave his home and family. God promised that he would be with him and that he would make Abram into a great nation. Amazingly, Abram picked up his things and followed God’s leading into the great unknown.
In today’s reading Abram seems a little discouraged because at this point he doesn’t have any kids at all, so his prospects for becoming a great nation are looking pretty shaky. He voices his frustration to God and God reaffirms the promise. Abram believes God, but he still asks for some confirmation, which God provides through a classic animal sacrifice to confirm the covenant.
That covenant with Abram was reaffirmed with Abram’s descendants: Isaac and Jacob and was renewed powerfully when God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and made a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai to be their God forever. That covenant continues with the Jewish people today, through many twists and turns.
As Christians we look back to that same covenant for our relationship with God. We can’t trace our genealogy back to Abram, but we can trace our faith back to him. Through faith in Jesus we become part of the covenant God made with Israel; that covenant to be our God as we will be God’s people. Israel’s history with God becomes our history as well; we are heirs to all the twists and turns of faith that Israel experienced as well as new twists and turns of faith the church has lived through over its nearly 2000 years.
The relationship between the church and Israel has been difficult from the start on both sides. As we know Christianity was first a movement within Judaism, though the leaders of the faith rejected it.
Because of the opposition between the Jewish leadership and Jesus and later between the leadership and the early Christian church many stories in the Bible, especially in John’s Gospel cast “the Jews” as Jesus’ opponents. That phrase, “the Jews” really means the religious leadership, not the whole Jewish community. After all, almost all of Jesus’s supporters were Jewish so clearly the religion as a whole was not Jesus’s opponent. The opposition between Jesus and the leadership was a struggle within a religion, not between two different religions, and the struggle between the early church and the Jewish leadership began that way as well.
As Christianity became separate from Judaism and grew more powerful we weren’t critical enough about how we understood the differences between Christianity and Judaism. As a result the church often used scripture to justify prejudice and even persecution against Jewish people. The church’s history of anti-Semitism isn’t pretty and even though we weren’t part of those episodes ourselves we carry that heritage with us as a church.
The thing is when Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders he is criticizing his own faith community. He is challenging the leadership as a member of the community. So to read that criticism faithfully in a way that will be useful to us today we should think not about how it might apply to the Jewish community, but about how it applies to the church. Jesus was challenging his community to live up to their covenant, and we should challenge ourselves and our community to do the same.
All that is to say: we come to our Gospel passage knowing that God has a covenant with Israel that is full of love and full of difficulty on Israel’s part keeping that covenant. And we come to the passage knowing that we are heirs of that covenant and of the difficulties in keeping it.
This passage begins with some Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus seems totally unconcerned about this news. Why is Jesus so blasé about the threat from Herod?
I think it’s because he knows that death is a part of his mission, so it doesn’t really matter if Herod tries to kill him because it’s all part of God’s plan. He’s already told his disciples that he will be killed and he embraces that part of his ministry along with the rest of it. We know that he struggles in the Garden of Gethsemane with the reality of suffering and death; he is human, after all and torture and death are appalling realities to face. But in the big picture he embraces his ministry with all the risks and suffering that goes along with it. He knows he will die, and having made peace with that fact he is not afraid.
That’s a great model for us in our lives. Most of us aren’t headed for a literal cross on a hill, but unless God brings in the kingdom soon we will all die some day. That’s a fact, and we all know it in our minds, but we often have trouble making peace with it in our hearts. Our culture is afraid of death. We try to push it away by living at a frantic pace and we try to hold it off as long as possible with heroic medical interventions that sometimes border on the immoral.
Those of us who work in healthcare have more stories that we want about families who couldn’t accept that a loved one was dying and so kept seeking more and more drastic measures to keep that person alive. Often families spend so much time and energy battling the inevitable that they miss out on enjoying the time they have left with their loved one.
On the other hand I’ve seen families who looked at the facts squarely and saw that the end was coming. They accepted that fact and decided to seek hospice care rather than working to fight something they couldn’t beat. Often those families, especially the patient, are relieved that the struggle is over and when the end comes they are grateful they had the chance to focus on enjoying the time they had left. Many patients use that time to reconnect with family and friends and to say the things they know are important in the light of eternity.
Fortunately, we don’t have to be at the end of our lives to make peace with death. If we do it right, like Jesus does, accepting death gives us courage to live fully now because we aren’t worried about the end. Instead of struggling to push death away we can look at our life, consider our calling, and figure out how we should spend whatever time we have on this earth. It’s a great way to gain perspective on the stuff that truly doesn’t matter but dominates a lot of our attention. More importantly, it’s a great way to find peace and joy in the fact that every day is a gift from God; a gift that comes with the responsibility to use it well. We live our calling most faithfully and most boldly by facing and making peace with the fact that death is part of our calling.
Jesus also seems to know that he will be killed in Jerusalem so his thoughts turn quickly from Herod’s threat to the Holy City. When he thinks about Jerusalem, the city where God’s temple is and where the covenant has its center, Jesus steps into God’s role and thinks about the long relationship with Israel from God’s perspective. God is a mother to Israel, a mother to us. God cries out like a mother left behind: “How often have I longed to gather you like a hen gathers her brood under her wings!”
How often has God longed to gather us in, to bring us close to her bosom and keep us safe and warm? How often has God ached to lead us back from our wandering ways and our forgetfulness? How deeply has God desired to set us free from the false gods and distractions that keep us in bondage, to free us to be faithful instead of seeking things that don’t matter? How often has God longed to gather her children into loving community out of the windy roar of our loneliness and selfishness? How often has our heavenly mother longed to gather us under her wings, but we were not willing?
We were not willing, so our ancestors jailed and killed the prophets sent to call them back to God. We were not willing, so our ancestors jailed and killed the prophets sent to call us back from prejudice and injustice. We are still not willing so we tune out and abandon the modern day prophets struggling for justice here and around the world. We are not willing so we keep our heads buried in the search for individual wealth and family security instead of seeking the things that last. We’re not willing because we want to go our own way instead of surrendering to God.
We are not willing, but there’s a part of us that does long for the shelter of God’s wing. There’s a part of us that longs for the community of all those lost children gathered finally to our mother’s breast. There’s part of us that aches to let go of the things that trap us and cling instead to the love of our heavenly mother and our brothers and sisters. There’s part of us that longs with God to be gathered and to be safe. There’s part of us that knows we won’t truly be happy or at peace until we leave our false paths and come home to God.
So come home. Take shelter under God’s wing and live in the nest of God’s love. Being under God’s wing doesn’t mean leaving our calling, it means being rooted in God while we follow that calling. Under God’s wing we are secure in God’s love that casts out fear and conquers even death. Under God’s wing we know that we are home for good and so we don’t need to worry about the world’s threats and dangers. Under God’s wing we know, like Jesus, that death comes with the package but it will not have the last word.
Let your heart take shelter under God’s wing even when you have to face the raging wind of a hostile workplace. Take shelter under God’s wing while you follow your calling to educate our children and to help them find peace in a troubled world. Take shelter while you follow your calling to lead others to the love you’ve finally found. Take shelter while you follow your calling to sit by the bedside of someone in pain, and offer them hope that death is not the end.
Take shelter in the knowledge that wherever you go your mother is with you. Take shelter in the faith that God’s love knows no boundaries. Take shelter in the hope that your life is joined with Christ’s and so one day you will rise in glory. Take shelter in the love of this community and the love of the God we share. Take shelter and take risks. Take shelter and take hope. Take shelter and take joy because God is with us until the end.
Thanks be to God.