If you have not been around the past couple weeks nor kept up with the messages in the Bulletin, the Gospel reading from this week may well prove very difficult to hear and inwardly digest. Before I spend some time in it, it is important to set the stage, so to speak. Remember, we are in the season of Lent. We are in that season in the life of the Church when we should be examining our relationship to our Lord. Ideally, we are discovering behaviors which keep us apart from God, and we are learning about disciplines which help deepen our relationship with Him. And while our worship is a communal affair, the examination is one that we do ourselves. My purpose today is not to condemn you. My purpose is, like Christ’s in His teaching, to warn us of the dangers of straying from God, to remind each one of us of the consequences of our willingness to turn away from God, and to remind each one of us that the penalty for every one of our failures and sins has been paid in full by the one empowered and granted authority to make those judgments about us and the rest of the world.
That being said, our reading in Luke today comes after an important reminder in two parables and after an attempt by a hearer of Jesus’ words to figure out who else might be saved with him. The two parables are the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leavened bread. Although there are other meanings to be gleaned from these teachings, today I want to focus on the inevitability they pronounce. Jesus tells those in His audience and us that the Gospel starts out seemingly insignificant. Like the mustard seed, it is almost beneath notice. Yet, with proper rain and nutrients, a shrub is produced which provides food and shelter for birds of the air and shade for animals on the ground. The allusion to history is obvious. Though Caesar could have cared less about a carpenter from the backwoods province of Judea, the disciples of that same carpenter grow in a few centuries to overtake the Roman Empire. Less visible, I think, is how the mustard seed reflects the planting of the seeds in the lives of those around us. Sometimes it is a teaching, oftentimes it is a service, occasionally it is through means we least expect, but the Gospel starts out as a germinating seed in the life of an unbeliever. If the soil is “good” and the “farmers” know what they are doing, the seed can be watered and manured so that, one day, the plant burst forth in bloom and fruit to the glory of God and the celebration of heaven at the repentance of a sinner. Unlike other plants, though, the Gospel “seed” can lay dormant for a long time, grow exceeding slowly or exceedingly fast as life and circumstances and quality Christians around them nurture that growing seed. And, like the crops in the world, the growth is ultimate dependent upon God. Like farmers, you and I can till and till and till until we are exhausted, but we cannot cause growth. Only the Lord can plant and cause the Gospel to grow. And so, like the farmers around us, we do well to be patient as we tend those in our fields.
Similarly, Jesus’ use of the yeast and the flour point to insignificant beginnings. Jesus reminds them and us that nearly fifty pounds of flour can be enlivened by just a pinch of yeast. Fifty pounds are transformed by a simple pinch! Sound familiar? The flour and yeast will be combined to create leavened flour which will be used to make loaves of bread or other bakery items. From a small pinch, food for life is created.
Both parables remind us of the inevitability of God’s kingdom. It may start out small in the world, but it always has far reaching impact. What happened to Rome is but one example. Think of the “re-yeasting” or “re-planting” movements in the life of the church over the succeeding centuries. The Reformation, The Great Awakening, the Oxford Movement, the Methodist Movement, just to name a few. To different extents, each one was a reinvigorating of the Church. No matter the corruption, no matter the laziness, no matter the falling away, God always wins in the end. His bride is always renewed and restored when she confronts her particular sins and failures. And so you and I ought to have a particular compassionate optimism as we go through life. We should be able to mourn with those who mourn, suffer with those who suffer, and yet do so confident that God will win in the end. Like the yeast in the flour, His saving grace with permeate everything; like the mustard seed, He will produce an amazing growth and harvest. It may not happen on our timeline, but it will happen. He has promised. And His victory over death reminds us that He has the power to keep all His promises.
It is with that certainty of our Lord’s inevitable victory that we come to today’s readings. The Pharisees decide to intimidate Jesus with the threat of death. “Jesus, you need to move along because Herod wants to kill you.” Taken outside the Scriptures, we might believe that the Pharisees care about Jesus’ safety and well-being. But we know better. The Pharisees perceive Jesus to be a threat to their power, respect, and authority. What better way to scare Him that to tell Him that the king is on their side and wants Jesus dead! Surely the local yokel will be terrified, right?
Jesus responds as one anything but intimidated. You tell that fox I have work to do. “I have to drive out demons and heal diseases today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal. . . . I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day -- for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.” Jesus not only is not afraid of death, He knows it will occur in Jerusalem. And His work has a very specific reminder both to Herod and to the Pharisees who are “trying to warn Him.” The ability to command demons and to heal are signs of God’s Anointed. If Jesus is really doing these things, what do the signs testify about Him? Plus, if a suck-up Pharisee runs to Herod and tells the king, how should the king respond? Remember, it is the king’s job to read and study God’s torah . That is his chief responsibility. Herod has had enough conscience to fear John the Baptist has returned from death to torment him, not enough to have stopped the beheading, but enough to know what he did was wrong. If the Pharisee repeats Jesus’ words to the king and the king works to kill Jesus, Herod pronounces God’s judgment on Himself by killing yet another of God’s prophets. And by rejecting Him and His ministry, the king and leaders of Israel are once again rejecting the call of God. And, not coincidentally, Jesus will no longer focus on those outside His circle of disciples. From this point forward in His ministry as described by Luke, Jesus will no longer work on calling the nation to whom He was sent to His care and keeping.
Then Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s rejection of His care throughout history. The judgment is accurate--you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you--, but Jesus does not gloat or threaten over the deserved judgment. Instead, He laments how often He has tried to gather Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks, but that she was not willing to be gathered. If you have ever watched a hen try and gather willful chicks, you know the difficulty of which Jesus speaks. Left outside the mother hen’s protective wings, chicks are almost always in mortal danger. Yet how few seek her wings on their own. Similarly, outside a relationship with our Father in heaven who seeks to gather us under His wings, you and I are in eternal danger. Rejecting His call and avoiding His wings reminds us that internally we have rejected His call on our lives. The seeds and yeast in our lives have lost their life.
If Jesus ended there and we stopped there, there would be absolutely no Gospel today. Each of us, no matter how long we have known our Lord, chooses to trust in our own wants and our own desires. And like Jerusalem, we are often left by our Father to face the desolation of our choices. You see, more often than not, God gives us what we ask for. The problem is that we often ask unwisely. More often than not, we are like Israel who begs for a king. The king that they get, when left to their own efforts, is like Saul or Herod. And God wants nothing but good for us. But we insist on choosing poorly. We insist on living in desolation.
Notice the word “until.” Though Jesus would be righteous in the utter condemnation of Jerusalem for her rejection of His call throughout history and even as God Incarnate, such is not the tact that He will take. Instead, He will remind Jerusalem and us that desolation will be her and our destiny until we acknowledge Him as God’s Anointed and pledge ourselves to His service. Though Jesus’s judgment of Jerusalem and Israel is accurate, it is not yet finalized. There is still hope! What can atone for the rejection of God’s messiah? What can atone for the blood of the prophets? The blood of Christ. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. All Israel has to do to leave the desolation is to repent, return to the Father’s wings, and they will be welcomed back into the life He has prepared for them. They can choose desolation if they wish, but His invitation still remains. Until their dying breath, He gives them a choice.
Brothers and sisters, have you heard the call of His voice and determined to live in the shadow of His wings? Have you heard the hope and promise of inevitable victory in His Kingdom, and have you chosen to live and die as He calls you? Or, do you still prefer the desolation of your own devices? Do you even recognize the desolation of your lives if you have chosen poorly? One of the dangers highlighted in the section immediately before our reading is the simply truth that one can be close to the promise of God and miss it. In our readings, the people see and hear Jesus, the Incarnate Son, speak and teach. Salvation comes that near, and still they miss it in their midst. Put in modern language, maybe you believe that because someone or even most of your family is grafted into His vine, He has to take you even if you choose not to accept Him. Maybe you think that because you come to church enough to satisfy the requirements for active membership in St. Alban’s, He has to transfer your name to the book of life. Maybe you think that you have earned your salvation by feeding at the Community Meal, serving at Angel Food, serving during worship, or any other number of the ministry opportunities around here. Notice His message in this passage. Ask yourself and Him, in which group am I?
Brothers and sisters, this is as they say “heavy reading.” No one likes to be confronted with their own shortcomings and sins. Failure to us equals judgement. But His ways are not our ways. While Jesus is righteously judging, hear the compassion in His voice. He is not a God who desires to inflict harm and to avenge Himself on us. He is a God who loves us so much that He was willing to enter the world and accept our deserved punishment, death, on Himself. He wants you to turn to Him. He wants to gather you under His wings. If you are, like those chicks, wandering hither and yon with no direction through the desolation of your life, why not heed His call? Why not turn and repent and allow yourself to be gathered? If He wins in the end, why make any other choice?
And yes, I know you don’t deserve His love. Yes, I know you have failed Him terribly. Yes, I know some of you have chosen desolation for a long period of time. You don’t deserve His love and mercy, but neither do I nor anyone here. That is why it is called grace. But I also know this, as sure as He rose from the dead: nowhere in your life are you beyond His persistent call; nowhere in life are you beyond His compassionate embrace; nowhere in life are you beyond His redeeming love. Though your decisions have been horrible in the past, nothing is to prevent you from starting anew in your relationship with Him. His death in Jerusalem testifies to that truth. His empty tomb reminds us that no evil we have chosen can ever keep us from Him, unless we choose to reject Him. So, whom do you serve this day? Yourself and your desolation? Or your King and His inevitable victory?