Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Genesis 15:5-12, 18 Luke 13:31-35
February 21, 2016, Second Sunday of Lent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

On this second Sunday of Lent, we are invited to feast on the faithfulness of God’s promises. In both Old and New Testaments, we see stories that point our attention to the unstoppable mercy and love of God, who acts in our lives with boundless mercy.

Our Genesis reading tells us about a conversation between Abraham and God. Abraham has heard God’s promises, but at this point in the story, he has not seen the fulfillment of the covenant. He is still Abram, not Abraham; his wife is still Sarai, not Sarah, and they still do not have a son and heir.

He is questioning whether God intends to keep the promises of the covenant, and he dares to ask whether God is going to be faithful. First, God told him to gather up his goods and his wife and his herds and go to a new country. And he did. Then God told him to wait and he would have a son. Abram has been waiting. So far, nothing has happened. He asks again, and God answers. Let’s listen for God’s voice in Genesis 15:5-12, 18

God brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

God said to Abraham “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” Abraham asked “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” God said to Abraham “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abraham did as God asked, and brought all these. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Nile river in Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

In the New Testament reading, Jesus has attracted the attention of Herod. This is not Herod the great, but his son, Herod Antipas, the puppet governor who moves when Rome pulls the strings. Herod Antipas is not a man to trifle with – he is the ruler who had John the Baptist beheaded. But Jesus is not frightened by Herod, nor does he answer back with threats or insults. He simply tells the Pharisees who have come to warn him that he will continue in his work until his time has come. Then he will go up to Jerusalem for the final time. Let’s listen for the voice of Jesus in Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘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 away from 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.” ’

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Sometimes, you have to wonder what God is thinking. Really, don’t you?
Abraham certainly did. God had made these promises, promises about a son, an heir, an impossible promise to a couple old enough to be grandparents. Abraham believed, he did.
Still, he was starting to wonder. Does God keep God’s promises? Is God faithful?

So he asked. Lord, how do I know you are going to keep your promises? God has shown him the stars – numberless, distant, beyond counting. You’ve seen it – you’ve looked up at the night sky on a clear moonless night. The stars scattered in the darkness like diamonds thrown across velvet. Beautiful, that sight.

But Abraham had been promised a son. One son. And he did not have a son.
Still, he trusted God. Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness. 

We know, as Abraham would know, that God’s promise would be fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah would have a son, a son called Isaac, who would be the father of the twins Jacob and Esau; and Jacob would be the father of twelve sons – the twelve tribes of Israel. God’s covenant promises to the people of Israel continued. There was liberation from slavery in Egypt. There was the promised land. There were judges, a king and a kingdom, and at last, in Jerusalem, a temple. It was that temple to which Jesus and his family traveled, when he was a child. It was that temple where the high priests offered the sacrifices, where Jesus would turn over the tables of the money changers. It was Jerusalem, the city of David, the capital of the kingdom after north and south were united under King David.

In this particular story in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is not in Jerusalem, but still in Galilee. Matthew’s gospel places this story toward the end, when Jesus is about to be arrested. Whenever it happened, it is a powerful and poignant story.

The image on the front of the bulletin is of a mosaic based on this text. The mosaic itself is on the front of an altar in a church in Jerusalem. It sits atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city. The church is called “Dominus Flevit,” Latin for “The Lord wept.” The best description I have ever read of this church and this mosaic come from the great preacher Barbara Brown Taylor. Here is what she says about it:

“Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet? … on the front of the altar is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.”[1]

As Barbara Brown Taylor points out, the hen never did gather the chicks under her wings.
The chicks were not willing. They would not come. The fox, somehow, looked like a better bet.

You have to wonder what Jesus was thinking – using this image of a mother hen and chicks.
Why not the Lion of Judah? Why not the eagle? Why not a might king?
Why, of all things, a chicken?
Herod is a fox, to be sure – sly and deadly, not to be trusted. 
And certainly, if there is a fox on the prowl, the last thing anyone would want to be is a chicken. 

Not that I have anything against chickens. People who keep chickens know that they have complex social orders. Chickens can apparently keep track of numbers up to five, and they are able to navigate according to the sun. Chickens can be taught to perform some clever tricks, as well. When I was a child, at an arcade down the street, there was a chicken who could play the piano. Sort of. So, chickens are not quite as silly and frivolous as we might think.

But, really. God as a chicken?
And not a rooster, mind you. Not a rooster who will fly at you pecking and clawing.
A hen, gathering her baby chicks under her wings. She doesn’t have any natural defenses.
Especially not against that fox.

There is a fox out there, ranging around, licking its chops. Wily and smart, that fox wants us to believe that we are safer if we will put ourselves in his care. All we have to do is listen to what he is telling us – that we are not safe unless we comply with his direction, that our well-being depends on his protection. I’ll build a wall, he says, I’ll keep you safe, I’ll make everything all right. That fox wants us to distrust everyone else, to think of ourselves and only ourselves. That fox wants us to be afraid.

Of course, you know what happens, when the chickens get near the fox. Jesus knew, too.
He does not react with defensiveness or anger or insult. Jesus does not return evil for evil.
Jesus says, “You go tell that fox what I am doing. I am healing and casting out evil spirits. My work will be finished on the third day. Jesus says, “You go tell that fox that my love is unstoppable. You go tell that fox that threats and terror will not keep me from doing what I have promised. Jesus says, “The day will come when you see me and you will say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

“You tell that fox that if he wants my babies, he will have to kill me first.”

Jesus does not want us to be afraid. Jesus does not want us to run, scattering like chickens when the shadow of a predator falls across our path. Jesus weeps, weeps with desire to gather us together, a motherly protector, spreading his wings out to gather us in.

Everyone who loves another human being knows this feeling, this lament of loving someone so much, and knowing that you cannot protect them, cannot save them from themselves, cannot restore their health, cannot manage their life, cannot stop the addiction or the depression.

You know that feeling.
It’s all you can do - standing there with arms open wide.
You keep standing, waiting, knowing that it is up to them to come closer.
It makes you completely vulnerable, standing there like that.

The love of God is like that – speaking like a voice in the night,
shining through the darkness like stars in the skies.
spread out like wings of peace and promise,
offering shelter to all who will come,
giving solace to all who seek it
waiting, yearning, to surround us with love.

It’s unstoppable, that love.
even with the fox sneaking around at night,
even with the tiny chicks scattering in fear,
even with that mother hen clucking furiously.
It’s ready to die to save us from that fox.

That’s what happens, you know.
He dies - the one who comes in the name of the Lord
Of course he does.
That fox gets him in the end.

But the promise continues.
The love lives on.
The covenant returns again and again,
like the stars flickering on every night at dusk.
It’s the new covenant, the feast of faithfulness,
the promise that gathers us together at the table,
that waits for us to come,
that welcomes us,
that yearns for us,
that loves us.

All of us.
All the time.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor “As A Hen Gathers Her Brood”

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