(Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3.17-4.1 & Luke 13.31-end) – Year C
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s often said that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. However, I prefer Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s response, when he said “When people say that religion and politics don’t mix, I wonder which Bible they are reading.”
Anyone who thinks that following Jesus won’t affect their politics is missing the point. My place is not to say who you should vote for. That is for each of you to read up on, pray about and decide for yourself. But let’s be clear here – how you vote will be influenced by following Christ.
Jesus was radically political. We heard in today’s Gospel that a group of Pharisees told Jesus that Herod was plotting to kill him. Were they helping Jesus, warning him of danger? Or were they threatening or trying to unnerve him? Probably the latter – there are points earlier in the Gospel where the Pharisees as a group are said to have had a grudge against Jesus (Lk 11.35) so it’s unlikely they were now trying to be helpful. Regardless of their motive, Jesus responded by calling Herod a ‘fox’. He had no time for this puppet king and his machinations.
Instead Jesus ignored this threat and spoke of his work, his on-going healing and freeing of people from oppression by demons. Throughout Luke there is a motif of exorcism and it’s often linked with the chaos and oppression of the political situation of the time, of the Jewish people being held in chains by Rome, and of the rigid religious rules of the Scribes and Pharisees that bound the people so tightly they couldn’t even see God any more. Here Jesus mentioned Herod and then exorcisms in the same sentence. He wanted the Jewish people to be saved from all spiritual, religious, and socially systemic oppression.
But equally Jesus wasn’t interested in becoming a king himself or in overthrowing the Roman occupation. His ministry subverts all this type of party politics. This is a bone of contention with his opponents, for his authority is not given to him by another human agent, but by God. Furthermore Jesus didn’t fulfil the Messiah role in the way that many of his supporters had thought he would, and when he described himself as a mother hen he subverted the gendered language of the time – a rabbi, a king, a God, who is caring, compassionate, motherly, nurturing. It’s such a beautiful image, so tender and loving. The hen as she walks about is followed by her chicks; you can just imagine them running to her side, huddling against her breast.
But the picture is not entirely rosy. As Christ described it, the chicks, his people, refused to gather under the spiritual safety of his wings. Instead they scattered, falling away and ignoring him. Throw into that mix a fox…well, we all know what happens when a fox gets into the henhouse.
Jesus knew this. In this passage he set his face towards Jerusalem, and talked of the past, of the catalogue of prophets who had tried to call the people back to God, and for their pains had been put to death. Jesus as our mother hen will sacrifice himself for his brood.
So where does that leave us today, on this the second Sunday of Lent? Just as Jesus was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, literally as he went there to celebrate the Passover, but also as a spiritual journey, so we too are on our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday. How are you doing in your prayer, self-denial, giving of alms, or whatever it is you are undertaking to draw closer to God this Lent? How might you gather closer to Jesus under his wings?
Our Lenten journey is only as challenging and transformative or as easy and superficial as we as individuals make it. There is no Roman occupation to oppress us, no Herod to threaten, and if you disagree with the religious authorities’ teaching you have the right to say so. We have freedom to worship, freedom of expression. That is not the case around the world. I’ve watched in horror the brutal treatment meted out to anti-war protestors in Russia, and to women trying to express their freedoms in Syria and Iran.
Working for that oppression to be lifted from others is a political act, and no matter what anyone says about politics and religion not mixing, it is one we are called to be a part of. Again Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it perfectly: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
We are called to listen to Jesus and respond to his Good News. Later in the service we’ll sing ‘Facing a Task Unfinished’. This hymn was originally written in the 1920s by the China Inland Mission. They were praying for 200 new missionaries when the number of Christians in China was estimated at 100,000. Today, that number is calculated to be around 100 million.
When we pray and act, with the Holy Spirit at work, amazing things happen; political structures are transformed, lives are transformed. It’s too easy to say that as individuals we can’t make a difference, because we can. In singing this hymn we remember the difficulties that Christians face in countries around the world in the face of evil acts and oppression.
The words of the hymn take us back to Herod and Rome, of the forces that defy Christ, but more so there is a challenge to us:
From cowardice defend us
From lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake.
It’s a stark reminder that Christians right now are faithfully following Jesus in places where it is dangerous to do so, and if they can do so, then we should jolly well be engaging properly with Lent and the Gospel too.
So, together let us live out our Lenten pilgrimage with acts of defiant love, prayers for ourselves and the world, and lives lived out in the knowledge that we have been freed from all that might try to oppress us, safe under the shadow of Christ’s wing.
(Artwork: ‘Christ in the wilderness – the hen’ by Stanley Spencer