https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png 0 0 Tom James https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png Tom James2019-03-20 10:17:002019-10-30 08:25:08City of peace (Luke 13.31-35
City of Peace (Luke 13.31-35)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church/Lent 2 (February 21, 2016)
The most important word in the Christian faith, says one prominent theologian, is “with.”You’d think it’d be a longer word or a more impressive one! But the most astounding claim Christians make is that God is with us. In Jesus Christ, the power and presence of the God who made a vast universe comes to dwell—with. And yet, as incredible as this is, it falls directly in line with the whole, long tradition of Hebrew Scripture, in which God is painfully and hopefully with God’s people, in bondage, in exile, in the wilderness, in battle, and in miraculous crossings of seas and rivers. God is with the people wherever they go. God is not attached to a place, where people must come if they want to be with God. No, God is a God who goes with, who is to be found everywhere, who leaves no place profane and unhallowed.
But there is something about Jerusalem. Perhaps no place has been fought over as much as Jerusalem. It goes back thousands of years. It was brutally sacked in ancient times—many times over, in fact. It was taken and re-taken by Christian crusaders in the middle ages. It is riven in two by disputes between Jews and Arabs today, a dispute which in many ways is the continuation of the crusader wars. And that conflict over a few square miles, as we know, has implications for the global order itself: our own foreign policy in this nation has been shaped profoundly by it. A new round of fights has recently broken out over it. I’ve often wondered in recent years, in fact, whether the “global war on terror” begun in 2001 will be remembered by historians as a third world war, and how central the occupation of Jerusalem by European settlers will prove to have been in setting that war in motion. In any case, Jerusalem has been, in one way or another, a seat of power and a focus of political conflict virtually from the time of its founding, shrouded in the fog of ancient history.
But Jerusalem means, city of “peace.” It is the place of “shalom,” in Hebrew, of “salaam,” in Arabic. It is where God’s togetherness with the peoples of the world is symbolized most richly and with the most elevated hopes. If there is any one place that makes God’ “with us” the clearest, where human togetherness is supposed to be the most profoundly transformed by God’s togetherness with us, it is Jerusalem. Here, God shelters God’s people. Here, according to rabbinic legend, heaven and earth come close enough to touch.
Here is also where Jesus will go, and this is why he is not afraid of “that fox,” Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who killed John the Baptist and who know seems to be gunning for Jesus. The Pharisees come and warn Jesus that he is a marked man as he long as he remains in Galilee, and the reader wonders whether they do so out of genuine concern for him, or to make Jesus afraid or to put him in his place. In any case, whatever their motivations, Jesus is undeterred by their warning. It won’t be a puppet ruler of Galilee, put there by the Roman empire, that will decide Jesus’ fate. Jesus will not die in Galilee but will go to Jerusalem, the city of peace where prophets are always killed.
This short passage is full of ominous foreshadowing. If we fast-forward in the story, it is interesting to find that Jesus does end up before Herod with his life on the line. This is during what William Herzog calls Jesus’ “show trial,” when he is hauled before Pilate, and sent to Herod, and then back to Pilate, and also before a group of elders in Jerusalem who scrutinize and condemn him. Herzog points out that to call these events a “trial” is probably anachronistic because the word suggests for us an attempt to ascertain whether a person is innocent or guilty. A “show trial” of the kind Jesus underwent, however, was not a juridical or judicial event but a political one. It was an effort publically to humiliate a person who has been determined to be an enemy of the state, much as in Stalin’s Russia. The outcome was not in doubt. No evidence was sifted, no cross-examinations by a defense were allowed. Witnesses were brought forward not to aid in determining the facts of the case, but simply to give voice to the state’s pre-determined condemnation of its enemy. That is why Jesus knew that he went to Jerusalem to die. He knew he was to enter the city, among throngs of palm waivers, as a man condemned.
So, in reality, Herod has no power of him, after all. Whether or not Herod wants him dead is immaterial. He will be killed because he is an enemy of the state, and the rulers of Jerusalem, in league with the state as they are, will kill him, just as they killed the prophets in generations past.
And still, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, to be with the people during the Passover. Why does he go? Is it because he thinks he has to die to satisfy God’s wrath at sinners? This is a later interpretation of the Jesus story that we cannot attribute to Jesus himself. Is it because he wanted to confront injustice there, to go straight to the heart of the powers that be in Israel and to call them out? Maybe. But he could do that in Galilee, just as John the Baptist did. There’s a really simple reason why Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, actually. It was Passover, and that is where the people would be, praying and longing for deliverance, faithfully remembering their traditions and rehearsing their hopes. Jesus wants to go and be with them in the midst of their occupation by the Roman empire. He wants to be with them as they are subjected to corrupt rulers who want to preserve the so-called peace of Rome because they have learned how to benefit from it. Jesus wants to go and be with the people as he calls out injustice, as he resists the reign of Caesar, and as he announces the kingdom of God in their midst. Just as he is with them in the Galilee, as he heals, casts out demons, counsels Jews to give Caesar back his dirty coins, sends out disciples two by two, aligns himself with those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. These are all ways that he lives out his desire to be “with.”
Commentators note about this passage that is heavily laced with human desire. Herod wants Jesus dead. Jesus wants to gather the people of Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks. The people don’t want to be so gathered. The same Greek word is used in each instance. And the overall picture puts the wants of Jesus, God’s Messiah, and the people of God, both ruler and ruled, in opposition. And, in many ways, this opposition isn’t just about what Jesus stands for. It is about who he is.
Not just who he was in the first century, but who he is today. Jesus wants to be with us. We, so often, don’t want to be with him. That’s the heartbreak of this passage if we would hear it as a message for us. Now, to be fair, I don’t think that there is any doubt that we are “for” Jesus, just as the Palm Sunday crowds would be, especially when he stands up against those who wrong us or others that we care about. And, of course, we would “vote” for him if given the opportunity. We would root for him in a heated primary. We’d like him on facebook. We’d speak up for him on social media, and maybe even troll his opponents. We’d even canvass for him, going door to door, if it came to it. Well, maybe not! But, anyway, it’s not as if we aren’t committed to the cause.
But “for” isn’t the most important word in Christianity, remember? Being Christian isn’t a matter, primarily, of being for something. It’s not a matter of being partisan. There is certainly a place for partisanship. After all, throughout Scripture God seems to be forthe outcast, the rejected, the poor. The Good Samaritan is for a Jewish stranger who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Jesus himself is for the woman caught adultery when the blamers seek to end her life in a torrent of stones. But God’s being for is not the cold willfulness of choosing “a” instead of “b,” blue instead of red, or red instead of blue. It is, rather, that God is for those whom God wants to be with. The God we see in the flaming pillar that leads Israel through the desert, that we see even more brightly reflected in Jesus, is a God of passionate involvement, a God whose most powerful act is not to create, nor to manage, but to dwell with, to inhabit. “God with us” is an even greater truth than “in the beginning, God created…” God’s partisanship, God’s being forus, is really just an aspect of the fact that God wants to be with us.
Being with is what God is. God is the one who wants to be with, who does not choose to be alone, isolated in divine splendor. God is the one whose very life consists in choosing community, of being together. And so, as we are aligned with God—if we feel that we must take a stand for God, let us never forget that being for God can only mean being with God’s creatures in their joys and in their sufferings. To be for God means to be with the victims of shootings and other violent attacks, in our own neighborhood or in New Zealand, whether they are like us or whether they are not. Being for God means being with those who are excluded from community or who are oppressed or exploited. Being for God, in fact, means acknowledging no boundaries to the call to be with. It means that no circle can be drawn around our love, that the human togetherness that we are for can’t be limited by the bounds of race, or nation, or religion. It’s daring and it’s dangerous to take that stand, because the powers of our world are all about breaking people up, keeping people isolated from each other, all about protecting and maintaining walls of division and hostility. But the object of our faith, the divine mother hen we know in Jesus Christ, is all about gathering the chicks, all about including everyone, all about with, even it kills her.
And, as grim as it sounds, that’s good news for us. For you and I are gathered, like chicks under the loving protection of a mother hen. And no matter how much we squirm, no matter how loud squawk, no matter how much we may seek to be isolated from God, God is steadfastly with us. God doesn’t abandon us. And because of that, we insist on being with each other, and on being withthe world, even if it kills us. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.