Here I am, slowly working through the back-log of sermons as of yet not posted. This one was from a couple of weeks ago, February 24, 2013. I have received good feedback from it, and look forward to more! It was a lot of fun to write, and more to deliver. Enjoy!
Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 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 of Jerusalem.’ 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! 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.'”
Throughout the bible, there are various images of God. More often than not, God is an invisible figure, who’s power and presence is shown through God’s hand, or God’s holy word. In many of the songs, we get imagery of God. You see God, the strong tower, a refuge for the weak and for he downtrodden. You see God, the mighty lion or leopard, swift and cunning, powerful and mighty in avenging God’s people. You see God, the good Shepherd, guiding his lost ones through the valley of the shadow of death, warding off enemies and leading us forward to peace and prosperity. The best image we get, however, is in the person of Jesus, God in the flesh, a man who speaks truth to power, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, eats with sinners, gives freedom to those who are oppressed, and loves all who he meets. However, Jesus is prone to saying some… shall we say, confusing things. In this passage, we see Jesus comparing himself to a chicken.
All this leads me, at the very least, to ask why. Why a chicken? Given the vast array of imagery in the biblical narrative, why a chicken? For us, this takes some exploration, I think. First of all, we often don’t often think about a chicken when we think about a strong character, or a strong image. When we think of a chicken we usually think of someone being afraid, or fearful. This is far from the kind of imagery we think of when we want to think about God, let alone God in the flesh, the one we call the messiah, the chosen one who has come to save us from sin. We have an almost instinctual aversion from identifying with chickens. They’re farm animals! We eat them, or we keep them around so we can eat their eggs. We don’t want to use them normally as a template for our identity.
I think, however, this may be a primarily cultural thing. I’m thinking about the Back to the Future films.
They’re good movies, but one particular part sticks in my mind. The main character Marty McFly is a hotheaded teenager who never backs down from a fight. He has a near pathological aversion to running away. The thing that brings this to mind is whenever he is confronted, and he wants to take the high road and walk away, something almost always happens. The bad guy yells out “What are you, chicken?” When that happens, Marty stops, turns around, and faces the bully in the eye and says “Nobody, but nobody, calls me chicken.” It’s an insult to us in our culture. It means we are a coward, in our day and age.
The thing to remember about the bible is that it was not written in our time and place. It was written over a long period of time, hundreds and hundreds of years, and on top of that, it was completed and collected into a single collection almost 1700 years ago. The stories and images that Jesus gives us would better relate to his time and place, to his people in the countryside in Judea, 2000 years ago. Honestly, I don’t think Jesus had cowardice or weakness in mind when he said this, not at all. Jesus, as you well know, is a very intelligent person. He speaks to us in riddles and parables, stories and images that we can relate to, think about, ponder, and argue about, as any good rabbi would do. In all honestly, what he gives us here is another parable, albeit in the form of a very different type of biblical writing.
There are some passages in the bible that are thoroughly uplifting, and beautiful. There are some that are terrifying, that inspire fear and awe. There are some that are instructional, that teach us who we are, who we should be, and how we should live. There’s poetry, there’s music, there’s history, there’s prophecy. But sometimes in the bible there’s something that’s just sad, that expresses deep sorrow, pain and disappointment. This passage is actually in line with two very different kinds of literature: prophecy and lament.
The first part of this story is prophecy, in that it is a warning to Herod. First, however, something strikes me about this passage that we don’t often see in the gospels. We see here that Jesus is not being scolded or challenged by the Pharisees, but is actually being warned by them. It would appear that these men are worried for Jesus’s safety and is telling him to get out because they don’t want to see him killed. This is a side of the Pharisees we don’t often see. We’re used to seeing angry Pharisees, antagonistic Pharisees, Pharisees who want to see Jesus discredited or even run out of town. But in this instance, we see them somewhat sympathetic, or at least concerned for Jesus’s wellbeing. This goes at least part of the way to humanizing a group of people we are used to seeing as the enemies. Let this be at least a partial lesson; sometimes our enemies are not as bad as we may initially think they are. It goes a long way towards that whole “love your enemies” thing.”
In any case, they are warning Jesus, but Jesus responds not with the expected response of “Ok, let me get out of here and save my hide.” No, Jesus’s response instead is a counter warning, a prophetic condemnation and a discounting of Herod’s threats. He says, basically, “Tell that old fox that I’m busy! I’m too busy doing what I’ve been called to do to worry about him. I’m too busy casting out demons. I’m too busy healing the sick. Then, when I’m good and ready, I’ll being going into the belly of the beast to face him.”
You see, Jesus truly knew what his fate was to be. He knew where he was headed, and because of that he knew he was safe…for the moment. There was no way that, where he was, outside of Jerusalem, he wasn’t going to be killed, because it’s in Jerusalem that prophets are killed. And because of that, it leads him to the next phase of his proclamation, the prophetic lament.
Because it’s a lament, it lends itself to the comparison of the book in the Old Testament, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah was the prophet who was reluctant from the start, who didn’t really want to be in the prophet business, who hated the fact that he was called by God to pronounce God’s wrath upon Israel, and who eventually watched the city be burned to the ground by invading armies. Jeremiah’s lament is a short, beautiful, but saddening poem, describing the destroyed and empty city of Jerusalem after the devastating battle it endured. It’s filled with a wistful hope for what could have been, if the people had only listened to God, and ends with a hope that one day the Lord would deliver it’s people once more. However, the main point is that the people of Jerusalem were wantonly sinful and broken, and because of that it was bound for destruction.
Jesus’s lament is for Jerusalem as well, but in a different reason. Jesus laments not for the people of the city, but for the way it treats its prophets. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, people don’t like prophets because prophets are in the business of telling the truth—and nobody likes it when you tell the hard truths. Jeremiah hated being a prophet because the people hated him, and because being the bearer of bad news is a hard burden to carry. Jesus is also the bearer of bad news, the same bad news that Jeremiah carried—we are sinful, and we need to repent.
So Jesus laments for the city, but also for the people and for himself. “Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” In this one phrase he says quite a bit, because he’s setting up the trajectory for his own path. It’s almost as if his future isn’t in his own hands, despite the fact that he is fully god and fully human. He’s putting himself in the same lineage of prophets, of Elijah, of Isaiah, and of course, Jeremiah, prophets that were in their own way sent to Jerusalem as prophets. In his way, he’s sent to Jerusalem, not only as a prophet, but as a sacrifice too. The sacrifice is most evident in the next part…where the chicken thing comes back.
The thing about the chicken is that it all starts with his description of Herod as a fox. This is Herod Antipas, the next in line after the Herod that we know from the Nativity story. This Herod is a major political player. There’s a good reason why Jesus describes him as a fox.
Foxes are known to be sly, manipulative, intelligent, but also ruthless. This could very well describe Herod. He was a Jew, but he was also a member of the Roman government, and a powerful player in that government as well. The people of Jerusalem and Judea at large would have considered him a conspirator and a traitor to Israel because he was so ingrained into the power structure. For Jesus, he was Jewish in name only; he was a ruthless manipulator who was Roman at heart.
So we see Jesus setting up Herod as a fox, and himself as a chicken, specifically a mother hen. The passage goes: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” In this passage, Jesus does not see a chicken or the mother hen as a figure of weakness at all. Those of you know about how hens act will know what he’s getting at. Jesus is very fond of sort of agricultural metaphors, things people will have a knowledge of; in this case, mother hen behavior. I think it’s intentional and purposeful why he uses a hen and not a lion, or tiger, or even an eagle. He uses it because he wants us to have the image of a protective mother.
Nothing is nearly as fierce as a protective mother, and this is a wonderful image of God, I think. We know and constantly hear of God as father; Jesus is intentionally flipping that script and telling us to think of his love as more of a motherly protective stance. A mother will do anything to protect her children. She will fight with the force of a thousand warriors, with the ferocity of a whole army. I think it’s a good thing that we have a solid and strong feminine picture of God; it’s indicative of the kind of God that we have. God is not male nor female; God is beyond all gender constructions that we can perceive. God is more than all that. God is wisdom beyond all wisdom, and while God is revealed to us as Father, Jesus here reveals God also as mother, loving us as a holy parent, and all the ferocity that entails.
So Jesus is setting himself up as a motherly figure… but also as a mother hen, longing to protect her children. He does this in opposition to Herod as a fox. As we all know, foxes eat hens, and eggs. This is a primal, natural antagonism. But we know better than to mess with a mother hen.
Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, has a fascinating and beautiful take on why Jesus does this. It’s because, in a way, Jesus is describing the circumstances of his own arrest, trial, and execution. Because of this, Taylor comes to this conclusion: “What [Jesus] will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”
This is the love of our Lord Jesus Christ in its purest form. Jesus wants to let us know the depth of his love. He is willing to be there and take the hit that he knows would be far more devastating to us than it would be for him. Jesus can take it. He can take the foxes, the wolves, the lions, and all any other enemies—ultimately, he can take the sin and death that would destroy us all. In this, Jesus proves his love for us. He would die for us when we would abandon him. He would protect us, even though it would cost him his very life. But because he is also God, he knows that he will ultimately be the victor in the battle between him and sin and death. And death will be defeated.
This [was] the second week of Lent, the long journey of us following Jesus to the cross, but ultimately to Easter. We follow him, and we pray that we can be good followers of this mother hen, this protective God. If you read this passage, and hear what it has to say, remember that through this journey, we will be walking with Christ. Christ will be our strength, our redeemer. He will be our good Shepherd, our tower of defense our refuge and strength. And yes, Jesus will be our mother hen, protecting us with her very life. God loves you this much, that God would be willing to die for you, simply because we are God’s children. Know that you are loved, above all else, and that we have our strength in Christ. To God be the Glory. Amen.