Pastor Frank C. Senn
Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
Promise and expectation are not necessarily the same thing. What is promised is one thing. How that promise is imagined is something else. We’ve all experienced situations in which our expectations of what is promised are disappointed. This might happens when we’re going to a place we haven’t been to before. We pick out a resort in the Caribbean to get a break from Chicago’s winter. But there’s no guarantee that it will be as luxurious as advertised or that it won’t rain all week.
Surely immigrants coming to this land of promise expect a better life than they left behind. Today on Saint Patrick’s Day we think of all the Irish who escape the potato famine to come to America, only to be greeted by a hostile reception. The American or “Know Nothing” political party was formed to push back on “rum, Romanism, and rebellion,” which was associated with the Irish. Americans have been generally hostile to each wave of immigrants since the founding of the republic. Yet each group of immigrants has eventually found a place in American society.
One wonders if Abraham found life better in the land of Canaan than in Iraq (ancient Chaldea). Nowhere in the Bible is the discrepancy between promise and expectation truer than in the story of Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation with descendants and land. Yet here he is in today’s reading, aging and with no heir or land of his own. The Lord God reiterates his promises. Abraham will indeed have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and his own heir, not his steward. Moreover, the Lord authorizes the possession of the land of Canaan. It is ratified by a strange nocturnal vision of a sacrifice in which God as a blazing fire seals the covenant between his promises and Abraham’s faith, which is accounted to him as righteousness.
Abraham himself, of course, never possessed the land. Neither did his immediate descendants. It took generations before the children of Israel came out of Egypt and crossed the Jordan under Joshua to take possession of Canaan by a holy war that lasted several centuries.
Revising expectations of what is promised is something we do all through life. Experience teaches us to have a plan B as well as a plan A. The people of Israel also had to revise their expectations of what God had promised.
God promised descendants and land to Abraham. The expectations of Israel became bound up with geography and political rule. Mt. Zion and the city of Jerusalem became not just David’s, but God’s capital on earth. Yet God allowed foreign kings and armies to overrun the land and take Israelites into captivity. After the Persian king Cyrus released the Jews from their Babylonian exile, those who returned to the land seldom regained sovereignty over it. Some Jews got used to living in the diaspora and returned to the land only as pilgrims.
In today’s Gospel reading Jesus – the Son of the God of Abraham and the descendant of David on his human side – laments over Jerusalem as the place that kills God’s prophets. We don’t know what prophets Jesus was referring to. None of the Old Testament literary prophets were killed in Jerusalem. Jesus may have been referring to other prophets, or maybe even to later Christian martyrs like Stephen and James the Just. But Jesus is determined to go there.
He is advised by the Pharisees that King Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, is out to get him, as he got Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Jesus says he is not afraid of that fox. He will not be deterred in his mission by a crafty provincial politician. He will face the real powers-that-be in the place where prophets are killed by their own audience-turned-jury.
He expresses a disappointment that he has not been able to gather the people like a mother hen gathers her chicks. It’s the strongest feminine image Jesus uses of himself. But it’s not an image of strength. If there’s a contest between a fox and a hen, the hen loses. The most the hen can do is offer herself in the hope that if the fox gets her, the chicks under her wings will escape to safety. It’s really an image suggesting that Jesus is offering himself for the salvation of the people, if the people will accept the shield he provides and come under his wings.
Not surprisingly, the followers of that Son of God and son of David who was killed in Jerusalem lost interest in the earthly Jerusalem, or even in the land promised to the descendants of Abraham. Expectations change. We followers of Jesus look to a heavenly Jerusalem. We expect to go to heaven.
But perhaps our expectations need to change again. The vision in Revelation is of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth. It was Origen, the greatest biblical scholar and theologian of antiquity, who convinced Christians that the promise to Abraham had to be realized spiritually. He thought he had St. Paul on his side, for the apostle wrote to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” But this doesn’t say we’re going to heaven, any more than the citizens of Philippi were going to Rome. Philippi was a town of military retirees who were Roman citizens living there on their pensions. Paul uses this image to compare his Philippian congregation with those believers who are “enemies of the cross.” These “enemies” are not persecutors of the church but Christians who reject the idea that the life of faith entails suffering. They want a theology of glory, not a theology of the cross. Paul, who knows quite a bit about suffering doesn’t expect worldly glory with earthly triumphs. “We are citizens of heaven,” Paul tells them, just as the residents of Philippi are citizens of Rome. We expect Christ to come to us from heaven, just as the emperor might come from Rome to visit Philippi.
We Christians, who hold to the Old Testament also as our sacred scriptures, have come to see in the Bible a long epic story that goes through many twists and turns as God makes delivery on his promises. We have come to see Jesus in his person and work as the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and to David. The faith of Abraham is passed on to all the nations of the earth through the apostolic mission of the church of Christ. As the descendant of David according to the flesh Christ has secured for the house of David an eternal throne in heaven.
Yet even on earth, Jesus could not escape the political ramifications of being an heir to the throne of David when there were already emperors and kings sitting on thrones that claimed the land David once ruled. These ramifications dogged him his entire life. His birth had threatened one King Herod. In our Gospel today we see that his ministry was threatening another King Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of Galilee, who had his own political ambitions.
Luke wanted his readers to sense the underlying direction and purpose of events in history. He reminds them and us that the God of the covenant is at work in our midst, seeking to move human life toward the kingdom so eloquently proclaimed by Jesus and so thoroughly inaugurated by his life, death, and resurrection. Even the recalcitrance of the holy city in rejecting the Messiah sent to them seems to have played into God's plans.
Of what can we be certain if expectation does not always match promise? The antidote to uncertainty is to develop an awareness of the purpose of God in the course of human events. God is leading us toward his future, just as he led Abraham. It is from the perspective of that future, revealed with finality in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, that we can understand how God's purposes have been worked out in the things that have taken place (even if they are contrary to our expectations!).
Like Abraham and his descendants, like Paul and his Philippians, we must sort out how God is moving us toward his goal amid conflicts and in the face of well-intended or duplicitous adversaries. How is God keeping his promises? In what ways do our expectations cloud our perception of what God intends by his promises? Sorting things out is one of the purposes of Lent. And one of the things we have to sort out is our relationship to place.
The link between faith and place still lingers, and in the wake of the chilling murders of Muslims praying in their mosques in Christ Church, New Zealand by an Australian white supremacist the issue takes on new urgency. Faith and place have a way of getting mixed up, sometimes in deadly ways when some extremist concludes that you and your kind don’t belong here.
Let us be clear that the God of Abraham is not a god of the place, like the other Middle Eastern deities. This is the God of people: the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Jacob and Leah and Rachel, the God of Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, the God of Gideon and Deborah and Ruth, the God of Samuel, David, and Solomon, the God of Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah, the God of Ezekiel, Ezra and Nehemiah, the God of Mary and Joseph and the Father of our Lord Jesus the Christ.
In last week’s First Reading, the Israelites who took possession of the land promised to Abraham were given a confession of faith that began, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” The Christians to whom the Book of Hebrews was written were reminded, “We have here no abiding city.” Christians have no holy city or holy land other than the heavenly Jerusalem coming down to earth in which God will dwell with all tribes and nations. As for the prophets God sends, are they not in harm’s way in whatever city they show up? Is not every city both a place of crucifixion and---incongruously---also a place of promise?
Jesus marched into Jerusalem and ended up on a cross. But the story doesn’t end there. The condemned city became a city of hope and a place of new beginnings for the mission of God. So can all cities be places of hope and new beginning, for the Messiah who fears not the foxes of this world still marches boldly into them whether they bless him or not.
The question for us, especially asked of us in Lent, is whether we will be in his parade and follow him all the way to his execution, to his grave, and beyond…to whatever our Lord has in store for his earthly followers. Amen.