“What Kind of Welcome?”
Second Sunday of Lent
Sunday February 28, 2010
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
Philippians 3: 17-4:1
Things were not going well for Jesus.
The time of the Passover in Jerusalem was approaching. Controversies with the religious authorities had heated up and, as we are informed in the opening verses of today’s reading, Jesus’ fame had come to the attention of the political authorities. We read, “some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’
We are not informed about the motivation underlying the Pharisee’s decision to warn Jesus of Herod’s intentions, but their words have been the subject of much debate over the centuries. Were they concerned for Jesus’ safety? Were they using Herod as a convenient justification for their desire to discourage Jesus from coming to Jerusalem? Was their desire to avoid what might happen in Jerusalem if the arrival of Jesus stirred up the crowds and provoked a harsh reprisal from Herod?
Regardless of the possible reasons, however, their words were ineffective.
Jesus told them to go back to Herod and tell him that he would not be deterred. “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 wanted to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”
These words of lament over Jerusalem are particularly poignant when one considers what the city was supposed to be. Jerusalem was supposed to be the city that would welcome the promised Messiah; it was the city that had been established to be the seat of David’s kingdom, in which a descendant of David would one day take their rightful place in an everlasting kingdom; it was the city that had housed the Temple. Of all places on earth, it should have been the place where Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God -- would be welcomed with open arms.
And yet, Jerusalem had so often been the place where the proclamations of the prophets had been rebuffed; Jerusalem had so often been a place of conflict and division, of corrupt monarchs, power-hungry politicians, and unethical religious leaders.
And, even before he got there, the religious authorities were discouraging him from coming, and the political authorities were plotting his demise.
It was not only discouragement that was confronting. Jesus himself knew that things were not going to go well when he got there. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
It is interesting to hear these words across the whole span of the history of the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem has continued, throughout the centuries, to have a dominant role in the spiritual traditions of the majority of the world’s people. The adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – who together make up over half of the world’s population -- all view Jerusalem as the location of influential events in their religious traditions. The city has, therefore, played an unparalleled role in the formation of humanity’s self-understanding and its claims about God.
And yet, in spite of the spiritual importance of the city, it has not always achieved its potential role as a place of enriching encounter. To the contrary, it has been a place that has often been in conflict, often along religious lines.
Conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC and then subsumed into the Persian Empire, the city later came under Greek control when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire. Greek control eventually gave way to the spread of the Roman and subsequently the Byzantine Empires, until the city was conquered by the Arab Caliphate in 638 AD.
Over the subsequent centuries, Muslim Arab control of Jerusalem was often marked by tolerance to Jews and Christians. However, this changed under the rule of the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim bi Amr al-Lāh whose dislike for the religious minorities in Jerusalem led him to order that all Christian churches be destroyed. In response to those destructive actions towards the Christians in Jerusalem, a series of events unfolded which led groups of European Christians to set out on military expeditions, at least in part to free their Christian brothers and sisters from Muslim rule and to recover control of Jerusalem. As a result, Jerusalem was retaken in 1099; but the Crusades had begun.
Over the subsequent centuries, as the Crusades were being fought, control of the city shifted between different powers, including its conquest by Saladin in 1187. A level of enduring stability was eventually established when the Ottoman Empire wrested control over the city from the Egyptian Mamluks in 1517. The city would remain in Ottoman control until December 1917 when the British General Sir Edmund Allenby entered the city, having been victorious over the Turks in the First World War.
Most of us know something of the subsequent history of the city – its place in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948; its disputed areas around the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock; its importance in the unfolding relations between Jews, Muslims and Christians; the continuing controversies about the control and access to its holy sites; and the role that it plays in the ongoing problems between the people of Israel and Palestine.
Even such a cursory glimpse of the history of that ancient, diverse, wondrous and divided city serves to underline the continuing relevance of Jesus’ words. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
But in spite of the role that Jerusalem plays in this text, and in the spiritual history of our world, we miss the point of this passage if we think that Jesus’ words, or the meaning of his words, is somehow limited to that one small geographical municipality.
Rather, in pondering what Jerusalem was meant to be, we begin to realize a deeper relevance of these words to every one of our lives.
That is, even though Jerusalem was supposed to be a place where God’s presence would be welcomed and celebrated, and even though Jerusalem occupies such an important place in the Bible and in the history of our world, the Bible also makes it abundantly clear that God is not interested in being limited to any one geographical place on earth.
Rather, the place that Christ seeks to be welcomed is in all places – and even within each one of us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them and they with me.”
Too often, however, our world, our communities, our churches, our own lives do not welcome Christ, but serve instead as mirrors of the complex history of the city of Jerusalem – we, too, are shaped by conflict and division, by unfulfilled potential, by the longing for peace but the inability to achieve it. In so many ways, we -- like Jerusalem -- feel overrun and dominated by pressures and forces not of our own control. We long for the reign of God’s love and justice, but we do not know the way to establish it.
And, unfortunately, we do not extend a welcome to the One who seeks to come in our world, our communities, our churches, our lives to offer us the very things for which we long.
Like Herod and the Pharisees, we resist and discourage his coming.
Like the crowds on Palm Sunday, we welcome him with shouts of adoration – at least until he starts to make demands upon us.
Like the people of Jerusalem, we celebrate his coming until his words reveal that following him will have implications for the ways that we spend our time; the ways that we use our money; the ways that we treat others; the ways that we practice our relgion; the ways that we love our neighbours, our families, even our enemies.
Like his followers, we make grand proclamations about our undying loyalty to him, until we begin to discover that following him leads us into the presence of the outcasts, the marginalized, the sick, the dying, the hungry, the poor, the excluded, the crucified.
And, when he does not meet our expectations, we, like the people of Jerusalem, try to bar him from taking his rightful place as the authority and Lord of our lives, preferring instead to ignore him, drive him out and be done with him.
As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, it is this question which continues to be set before us -- what kind of welcome do we extend to the One who comes to us?
But even though it is important for us to ponder such questions, the substance of the Gospel is not found in this question.
Rather, the Gospel is a declaration of good news.
And the good news is found in the fact that Jesus knew that the political authorities wanted him dead; he knew that the religious authorities were conspiring against him; he knew that the cries of the crowds in Jerusalem would shift from ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify’; he knew that his best friends would betray and abandon him. And he knows that none of us welcome him into our lives as we should.
But, in spite of knowing all of these things, he did not stop. He made that final journey to Jerusalem.
He kept going – right into Jerusalem; right into the anguish of the Garden of Gethsemane; right into the judgement hall of Pilate; right to the cross.
And why did he continue that journey?
He did so for the sake of love.
For the sake of the love that God had for a world that would not welcome Christ. For the sake of a love that was not dependent upon love’s return. For the sake of a love that continues to have the power to redeem, to save and to transform our world, our communities, our church, and our lives.
Everything that we do, in the church, is a response to that gracious, death-defying love. Our baptism is not a celebration of our faith; it is a celebration of God’s grace poured out like water upon us. Our commitment of money, energy and time are not because God needs us, but because we need God. Our worship is not about our noble desire to seek God or to call out to God, but because God seeks us and calls us into worship, into relationship, into communion.
Our love is because God first loved us.
And how do we know this?
Because in spite of the fact that the world did not welcome him; in spite of the fact that Jerusalem did not welcome him; in spite of the fact that we do not welcome him; Jesus kept on going.
Thanks be to God.