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February 21st 2016 - Hugh perry

Date Given: 
19 February 2016

 Readings

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

In this section of the Abraham Saga Abram continues childless and Maurice Andrew notes that The Old Testament is realistic about time and God’s promises are not fulfilled immediately.  He goes on to say that delay in fulfilling the promise is a theme that could have been taken up in succeeding periods of Israel’s history.  Some scholars see the background to this passage as a time when ‘possession of the land, and indeed the continuing existence of Israel, could no longer be taken for granted.  Therefore this passage reflects a time of uncertainty and danger and, as a result later times are expressed through earlier times and through trusted figures of the past.  This frequently happens in the Old Testament and is an ancient way of grounding an assurance for the future.[1]

This promise is expressed in the form of covenant which is particularly suitable in a time of uncertainty and doubt but even after his expression of belief Abram is still doubtful and so a covenant ritual is introduced. 

For the people to survive they must have land and Yahweh is defined as one who promises land.  ‘Individuals’ says Andrew ‘can live anywhere but if they are to be a people they must live together in a specific place.

The indissoluble connection between people and land is another universal feature of the Pentateuch.  In Aotearoa New Zealand, with uncertain Maori/Pakeha relations, covenant as promise of land implies that a way has to be found for land to belong to everyone in the most appropriate way, and that this process may take some time.  The connection between covenant and land means the land is an essential factor in the relations of the people who live on it.  It is not an optional extra.[2]

Luke 13: 31-35

Fred Craddock points out that, from a literary point of view, a warning and a lament are of quite different textures but in this context they are joined by the word Jerusalem.  It is Jerusalem that will provide the death that Herod threatens and there is a reason within prophetic tradition for that.

Verses 31-33 are only found in Luke.  Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, provides Luke’s narrative with continuity, progression, and anticipation.  Herod had beheaded John and upon hearing about Jesus amid reports that he was John resurrected, Herod was perplexed and curious to the point of wanting to see Jesus.  Now he wants to be rid of these disturbing prophets by killing Jesus also. [3]

The phrase ‘blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. Is obviously a prelude to the palm procession into Jerusalem and Luke continually includes warnings in his narrative of events to come in future verses and chapters.  The mention of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem, therefore Herod can’t kill him, provides the link to insert this point in the narrative and none of the gospel writers were particularly worried about chronology or geography.  If the temple authorities appear to have connived in suppressing unrest to protect the temple and Israel’s faith, this saying counters by saying that such protection will have the opposite effect.  It will lead to the temple’s destruction.  

Bill Loader concludes his commentary by saying:

These few verses are rich in historical allusions. They invite us to participate in the movement for freedom and salvation in a world where individuals and communities are governed by other powers.

Sermon

All the gospel writers collected sayings of Jesus and reports of particular incidents and joined them together as a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.  We can also see that they copied each other while adding their own theological perspective.  But the thread that held the narrative together was a journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus’ journey progressed, the tension with those in authority increased, until it reached its conclusion with Jesus’ execution.

Understanding how the narrative is woven on that single relentless strand helps us understand this morning’s strange little reading from Luke’s Gospel. As Fred Craddock points out it is an odd combination with a warning and a lament that builds a tension that is linked together by the word ‘Jerusalem’. 

This is a continuity passage that reminds us the journey is coming to a close but also connects with the journey so far.  The warning that Herod is trying to kill Jesus reminds us that Herod killed John the Baptist.  Herod is part of the ruling class that dislike people they see as troublemakers. 

Therefore we are given a hint that as Jesus’ popularity increased so the ruling class became concerned and began to move against him. 

Herod was tetrarch, a sort of governor, of Galilee and desperately wanted Rome to appoint him King like his father so he was keen to show that he didn’t tolerate trouble makers.  There is some thought that the Temple authority in Jerusalem were also trying to impress the Romans.  The temple hierarchy’s fear was that, if too much anti-Roman feeling was expressed at Temple gatherings, the Romans would destroy the temple and the religious heart and focus point of the Jewish people would be lost. 

Of course by the time Luke wrote this Gospel that had happened and the Gospel suggests that happened because the Temple had failed to represent God to the people.  God was no longer to be found in the Temple and the link between God and humanity was now the Risen Christ.

We also get the hint that Jesus was aware that powerful people were moving against him.  His mission was becoming dangerous. 

In John’s Gospel Jesus is very aware of his divinity and his destiny but in the synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus is much more human.  The synoptic Jesus grows towards God along the way, along the journey to Jerusalem.

Therefore we have Jesus dismiss the threat from Herod, he is moving away from Herod’s influence in Galilee as he moves towards Jerusalem.  But Jesus is also aware of the greater threat that Jerusalem presents.  Jerusalem is where the ruling powers eliminate the prophets, those who speak out against unjust authority.  Ruling elite do that to protect their authority and the institutions they represent. 

Of course Luke is writing with hindsight.  Luke knows that Rome destroyed the temple because discontent had boiled into armed rebellion and the rebels saw the temple as a rallying point.  The rebels may also have imagined that, in making a fortress of the Temple, God would protect them.  They had put God to the test and paid the consequences. 

This tiny passage tells us that Jesus could see the danger to both him and his mission.  But rather than flee he continued his mission to protect the people, gather them like a hen gathers her chicks. 

Jesus was on a mission and even as he saw the danger his vision stretched to understand that the mission was greater than he was.  This was not the other-world divine understanding of the Jesus’ of John’s gospel.  This was the reasoned conclusion of a true visionary who used simple logic to assess the risk but was still committed to a cause he believed in even to death.  Understanding that does not minimise the divinity in Christ but it spells out the commitment of the divine call in our own lives.  

Jesus’ commitment forces us to recognise that, even in our comfortable safe lives, threatened authorities will react and are even likely to kill people to protect their positions and the institutions they represent. 

The most likely reaction is to remove privilege, dismiss people from employment or ridicule people in public.  However when protests against French nuclear testing was gaining momentum the French Government sent commandos to New Zealand to blow up the Rainbow Warrior.  In so doing they killed a photographer which in my perspective is an atrocity of unspeakable evil.

On 27 March 1984 a suitcase bomb was left in the foyer of the Trades Hall in Wellington and when Ernie Abbott, the building's caretaker attempted to move it he triggered the bomb and was killed.  Wellington Trades Council boss Pat Kelly was reported as completely distraught.  His daughter Helen remembers being at Teachers College and franticly trying to find out if her father was alright.  The perpetrator has never been found.  Of course those murders, like the crucifixion were ineffective and New Zealand became nuclear free and Helen Kelly succeeded her father as a very effective trade union official, even raising her prophetic voice for workplace safety and the rights of exploited workers as she dies of cancer.  Writing on Stuff last Thursday journalist Donna Miles suggested that Helen Kelly was her New Zealander of the year and wrote’ ‘Kelly teaches us that the values and hard-fought rights that make this remarkable country a great place to live in are worth fighting for, to the last breath’[4].

Compared to the patriarchal vision of Abram looking up at the stars and forming a covenant with his vision of God through elaborate ritual sacrifice our short gospel reading gives a warning of the risk and self-sacrifice required to speak an uncomfortable truth.

We are easily subdued by the image of a gentle Jesus meek and mild.  But this passage and our Lenten journey to Easter speaks of a Jesus whose message was far from gentle and a lethal threat to all those who would oppress ordinary people for their own security and their narrow vision of the greater good.

‘The kingdom of God is at hand’ may seem a pretty innocuous statement to us.  But to those who stand above a well disciplined crowd that applauds every sentence their dear leader utters it is frightening.  The idea that every single one of any underprivileged multitude has direct access to God is about as seditious as anyone can possibly get.  Caesar is not God and even some of those who seek democratic election have silly hair.

The Jesus who was committed to his cause even to the point of the death that he realised was inevitable unless he fled was also the Jesus that showed loving empathy and compassion. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’ (Luke 13:34)

That was something that Jesus couldn’t do because his loving empathy threatened those who’s wealth and power separated them from those they ruled.  For any absolute ruler empathy is replaced by fear. 

Jesus was crucified but the Christ Spirit so far has gather a third of the world’s people under its wing.  For all the failings of the church it is still the best imperfect institution to spread the love of Christ into a humanity that has indeed become as numerous as the stars in the night sky.

Our calling is to be that caring Christ to those around us.  We must understand the risks and the cost, the stupidity and absolute illogical madness of putting energy and resources into a dying church.  But we must do it anyway.  This small Gospel passage reminds us that the gospel road to Jerusalem and the cross is also the road to resurrection.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp.62-63.

[2] ibid., p.63.

[3] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), p. 173

 

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