A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent; Luke 13:31-35.
There’s a joke you’ve probably heard: a group of Episcopalians get together and decide to study the Bible. They approach their vicar and say, “Vicar! We want to study the Bible! What should we study? Where do we start?” The vicar, astonished and delighted at his apparent brilliance in shepherding this flock, says, “Ah, yes. How about the psalms? Read them for a few weeks, and come and tell me what you have learned, bring me your questions.” So they go off and crack open their Bibles in the very middle, finding the psalms, and they read them. A few weeks later, they come back to the vicar and say, “Vicar! This is a scandal! The Bible has copied the Book of Common Prayer!”
That’s not something that would happen in this congregation, coming as many of us do from traditions that started us off on the milk of Scripture, and grew us up into the prayers of this book (…of Common Prayer). Even if you’ve been Episcopalian your whole life, I’ve always found that this congregation takes Scripture with particular seriousness, for which I’m so grateful — I learn so much sitting around Bible study tables with you.
And so, it won’t have been lost on you that Jesus’ quotation this morning isn’t only a reference to those beloved psalms, number 118 to be precise (though I had to look up which number it was), but also part of the liturgy that we recite every single time we pray together for God to send his Holy Spirit to fill up the bread and wine with his very presence, that when we put it in our bodies, his presence would be strengthened in us, giving us energy, courage, discernment, and kindness to live as vessels of his love in the world.
What does it mean, then, that we call up this Scripture passage every time we eat the Last Supper? What are we acknowledging, or committing to, with the action of receiving the bread and wine under the blessing of these words; these words offered so strangely and prophetically by Jesus, into the ears of sympathetic religious people?
There’s a lot made of the evils of the Pharisees, they’re those religious people we love to hate, they’re the self-righteous ones who think they don’t need a healer. The bad guys. The ones who think they’re sinless, but they’re really no better than anybody else. Except in this story, their action is a good one. They’re not throwing Jesus at the feet of Herod, or themselves spitting on Jesus; they’re warning him, they’re urging him to protect himself, they want to help him out. Just like so many groups of people, liberals or conservatives, Bible-thumpers and Social Justice Warriors, Pharisees can’t be painted with a broad brush. Indeed, Nicodemus, the one who came to Jesus by night was a Pharisee, and Joseph of Arimathea, the man who took Jesus’ body for burial after his crucifixion, was a member of the Jewish council, called the Sanhedrin, before which Jesus had stood.
The first lesson, then, is that…
Jesus’ message is for everyone — not just the prostitutes or the notorious sinners, but also, as Scripture describes Joseph of Arimathea, those who are “seeking the kingdom of God.” Jesus doesn’t only spend his time in drug dens or brothels, but also with the lady in the nursing home whose Bible’s pages are wearing away at the corners from use. Jesus doesn’t only spend his time on street corners or with the lepers, but also around family dinner tables and snuggling with kids on his lap.
I’ve been doing this devotional for Lent, and the two questions I’m to ask myself every day are: “How has God loved me today?” and “How have I loved God and my neighbor today?” While I’ve often considered “loving God and neighbor” as bringing a casserole to a new mom, or spending time praying with a stranger, the moments that come to my mind and heart at the end of each day have much more to do with the most intimate relationships in my life.
Jesus’ message, God’s love, is not just for big, dramatic outpourings of sacrifice, though those are good, too! Jesus’ message and God’s love is for pouring in to our children, for pouring into our spouses, for pouring into the next door neighbor we see each day watering her flowers, or sitting on her porch. It’s the relationships that form the shape our lives each day and each week that God most often sends his messages through. It’s both the religious people and the ones who never darken the door of the church who need God’s love from us, through us.
The other thing to notice this morning in this passage is that Jesus seems determined that his death will happen, and that it will happen in Jerusalem. Listen as he says, “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.’”
Historically, prophets were killed both inside and outside of Jerusalem, so what’s different in this case? Jerusalem’s name means “City of Peace,” though we know from history, as well as situations in our own day that Jerusalem is far from a bastion of great and abiding shalom, or peace. Jerusalem, in this case, is a symbol for Israel, just like on September 11th, New York City was a sufficient and powerful symbol of the whole United States.
In the time of Jesus, the symbol of God’s people, who Jesus himself has made clear is all people, but the symbol, like NYC or Jerusalem, is the Israelites, the Hebrew people. What happened to and the story about them is the story of God and humanity. It’s the same story that they experience and the same story we experience. We Christians are stirred into, mixed up among, rubbing shoulders with — in a fuzzy time-space-continuum way — all of God’s people throughout time. It’s called the “communion of the saints.”
Just like the Israelites, we wander in the desert. There’s a desert in your life, somewhere, right now. There’s somewhere that God wants to free you from, to take you out of an Egypt. The same stories play out over and over, and in this piece of Scripture, this passage where Jesus is set on getting himself to Jerusalem, is all the pieces of all the stories of history coming together, layered up on top of themselves.
And in its truest form, that’s exactly what happens when we gather at the altar on Sunday mornings, too. Not only do we proclaim “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” but we pray for the Holy Spirit to descend, just like it did in tongues of fire on the first disciples in Jerusalem on Pentecost. Not only do we break Christ’s body in two, the way he offered himself for us, but we pray the words he taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father…” Just like happens in the story of Jesus here today and throughout the passages we’ll read in the coming weeks of Lent, there are layers and layers of Scripture and history and human experience and story all piled up when we kneel to pray these same words that Christians have said for more than a thousand years,
and it’s a moment when, just like Scripture says happened when Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple that separated God from the mass of humanity was torn in two from top to bottom, any separation between God and you or God and me is burned up, thrown away, dissolved, when Jesus offers himself in love on the cross.
But that’s not the end of God’s story. Jesus says, “on the third day I finish my work.” We know it wasn’t literally three days later that Jesus was killed after this pronouncement, or that he was resurrected, and so we can understand what Jesus says as being the third day of his passion, of the ordeal that he underwent at the hands of the government and the powers of evil in Jerusalem, but Israel, and throughout all of God’s people. The end of his work, the finished product, is not the cross and is not death and suffering, but is life everlasting.
He spends today and tomorrow, he says, casting out demons and performing cures. These are small, immediate, temporal ways that he can bring life and ease the suffering of people. He can provide food for those who are hungry on the hillside, he can sing a lullaby to a child who has had a bad dream or just needs a little extra love this morning, he can sit with the man in the hospital whose family has abandoned him, and these are good ways to bring the presence of God into the lives of those who are suffering and needy.
But these people, whatever comfort he offers, whatever comfort we might offer, will still suffer mortal death. Only God, in Jesus Christ, can cure that. So our call is not only to wipe the brow of the ailing, or to tuck the scared child into bed, but to bring them the news of everlasting life. That Jesus has come, has died, and has risen again in new and changed life, that we might follow him, imitate him, and be a vessel of his very body and blood to the world; to his own, beloved people, all people.
Come to the altar, where Jesus has offered himself to us, and here, kneeling before the Lord of Lords, find your life given to you. Amen.