Second Sunday in Lent | Luke 13:31-35
A man walking purposefully toward his death, even though he has been warned, and God is a sitting hen with a brood of chicks—this is an odd bit of scripture.
Pharisees came to warn Jesus, Pharisees mind you, that Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus told them that it was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem. It wasn’t true, of course. Not literally. Plenty of people get killed all over the place, most of them nowhere near Jerusalem.
He wasn’t talking about the city. It was what she stood for, her role in the story. Jerusalem is, in the symbolism of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, the city of faith and the city of betrayal. Without faith and belief and love there can be no apostasy and no betrayal. Only the faithful, the people of faith, could put Jesus to death, and it was toward the faithful that he walked, knowing full well the price of his admission to Jerusalem.
Our story matters.The story of Christ’s death on a cross, his willing and intentional self sacrifice, his three day journey into darkness, his resurrection, was so powerful that it began to be told in every part of the world. By the time the story of the crucifixion reached northern Europe and the blood minded vikings, the people who heard it embraced it, wove it into their own mythology, trying to make sense of it. In their stories, Odin, the All-Father, the god who walked abroad in the form of a man, goes of his own will to be hanged on the world tree, a sacrifice of himself to himself in the search for wisdom, a boon to all humanity. He is hanged for nine days—three times three, to have one up on the Christian tale. Odin’s side is pierced with a spear, and in his death Odin gains in mystical power. Afterward Odin is wiser, transfigured, alive. It is a clear appropriation of the Christ story. Perhaps the incorporation of the Christ story into the Nordic myths explains why the northern peoples were notoriously averse to convert to Christianity—unknown even to themselves, they had already embraced something of the Gospel, though they had mapped Christ onto Odin. The Gospel story, even changed and adapted by Norsemen, had power.
The early Church did not rely on explanations. In the first and second century, one did not find lengthy theological explanations of what transpired on the cross, on the meaning of the resurrection, past being the signs of God. The explanations would come later. Instead, they relied upon the story and upon their comprehension that something mystical, miraculous, transfigurative had occurred in the purposeful life, teaching, willing death, and astonishing resurrection of Christ.
They held to the old, old story.
We moderns, on the other hand, want to hold to our newer explanations. We want to rely upon our systematic theological explanation of what it meant, how it worked. Good theology is central to faith, inseparable from a life of faith. Nevertheless, the best theology is not a substitute for faith. It is not the same thing, much as the study of biology, no matter how wonderful and powerful and useful, is not the same as being alive.
I am certainly not against theology—quite the opposite. Much of what I write is, at heart, theological. No, it is that I suspect many of us confuse our ideas about God with actual faith in God.
And what if our explanations are wrong? Or what if our systematic explanations of what happened on the cross are only partly right, partly true? What about the rest, the part we have missed, the parts we have overlooked, the ideas that we added, the parts we have wrong? The story is the thing that matters most. Without hearing the story—Christ’s journeying, Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s resurrection—and without wondering at it, being amazed by it, even doubting it and looking askance at it, we have nothing but notions and rules. It becomes only an explanation, and every child who has ever seen a rabbit pulled from a hat knows that the magic is more than smoke and mirrors. We grownups explain and think we are so brilliant to have figured out how the thing was done and why, that we miss the magic of it being done at all.
It was impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem, Jesus told them. A man may die somewhere else—a criminal, a rebel, an innocent person—but a prophet only dies a prophet within the context of the faith community. It would make no sense outside the context of the life of faith: everywhere else the prophet is merely another human being. The Romans, left to their own devices, may have refused to harm Jesus. Pilate does, in fact, try to set him free. It was the people of Jesus’ own faith group who made sure he died.
In three days, he tells them, his work would be complete. We do not need to comb the narrative, trying to tell how long Luke’s Gospel takes to get Jesus to Jerusalem. Three is a perfect number, a symbol, and three days measure the perfect fullness of time.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!
Jesus the prophet, Jesus the human expression of God, stands and proclaims the love of God as Mother, female, nurturing. It is not the only expression of God in the feminine form to have survived.¹ Given that the scripture we have was recorded, edited and preserved by a male dominated culture of priests and holy men, we may regard the survival of such feminine descriptions as miraculous, there because God wished it so.
So, we have Jerusalem and prophets, Odin and Norse mythology, God as our Mother, and Jesus walking toward his own death. What are we to make of that?
In this season of Lent, perhaps we need to let go of our explanations and simply embrace the story. It worked for the earliest Christians. Surely, the old, old story can work for us.
If you’d like a way to hear it without reading an entire gospel, here is the Nicene Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer. Yes, there is meaning here, and deep theology, but my God, the story:
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
¹ Descriptions of God embracing female aspects may be found in Genesis 1:26-27; Deuteronomy 32:10-18; Psalm 123:2-3; Isaiah 42:14, 49:15, 66:13; Hosea 11:3-4; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34.