Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (February 28, 2010)

“The Determination and Compassion of Jesus” (Luke 13:31-35)

The Vancouver Winter Olympic Games conclude today. It’s hard to imagine that they were just up the road from us here. Being so close in proximity, it would have been fun to be able see a few events in person. But tickets are hard to come by. Spots at Olympic events usually sell out well in advance. I read in the news that tickets for today’s gold medal hockey game were selling on an official Olympic site for several thousand dollars apiece. On the Craigslist website, tickets are going for $4,000 with one ad offering “awesome seats” for fifteen grand … cash only! ( Only the most rabidly determined fan would be willing to pay those prices to see a sporting event.

Rather than paying such exorbitant prices, I’d rather admire the athletic prowess of the athletes in the warmth of my living room, even if my TV is not the biggest screen in the neighborhood. That way you can see the determination of the athletes up close and personal through a camera lens. Speedskater Apolo Ohno sprinting around the track with his cat-like reflexes, eyes peeled for every chance to pass his opponents. Snowboarder Shaun White barreling down the half-pipe, twisting and turning effortlessly after flying out from over the rim. And who will be able to forget Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, whose mother died of a heart attack while in Vancouver to see her daughter skate? In spite of her grief, Rochette took to the ice and skated to a bronze medal. Now that is dedication and determination.

Olympic athletes have the determination to compete with the goal of winning a gold medal. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the determination of our Lord Jesus. But his goal was not to win a medal. His goal was to die. And his sole motivation was his great compassion for sinners like you and me.

The Determination of Jesus

Jesus was determined to continue his ministry in spite of opposition by people in powerful position. This wouldn’t have been the first time this happened in Israel’s history. In today’s Old Testament reading, we heard how the prophet Jeremiah was confronted by unfaithful priests and prophets who called for Jeremiah’s death. But Jeremiah was determined to call the people to repentance. If they would not turn from their sinful ways, then God would send destruction upon the city of Jerusalem for the people’s rebellion.

In today’s Gospel reading, some Pharisees had come to Jesus while he was in Galilee. They told Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” This was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born. King Herod’s territory had been divided up after his death. The Romans had set up a governor by the name of Pilate over Judea in the south. Galilee in the north was handed over to the supervision of Herod Antipas. Both Pilate and Herod would have a role in the events of the night before our Lord’s crucifixion.

Herod wanted Jesus out of the way. His threat may have been a ploy to get Jesus out of his territory. Or it may have been a very real threat. After all, Herod had put John the Baptist in prison for criticizing his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife, and later put John to death after Herod made a rash promise to his stepdaughter. Whether a shrewd ploy or a sure threat, Herod was concerned about Jesus’ growing popularity with the crowds. This was a threat to Herod’s own popularity and power. With Jesus either dead or departed from his jurisdiction, that would solve the problem. Jesus is no fool. He knows Herod’s game. And so Jesus calls him a “fox,” a symbol of shrewdness and cunning.

Our sinful nature is a lot like Herod. Our sinful nature wants Jesus out of the way. He is a threat to our own perceived freedom to do what we want. And so we engage in cunning ways to excuse our behavior and ignore God’s commands. But when we do so, it’s not just the fact that we want Jesus out of the way. Remember: Herod did not kill Jesus. Even Pontius Pilate, the man who handed down Jesus’ death sentence, didn’t kill Jesus. It was our sin that sent Jesus to the cross.

But Jesus was no pawn in a greater plan over which he had no control. Jesus was in charge the whole time, faithful to his Father’s will. Jesus was determined to die in Jerusalem. Herod’s threats would not influence him. In his own time, and in his own way, Jesus would leave Galilee and head to his appointment with death. “Today, tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course,” Jesus told the Pharisees who came to him. Jesus meant that in a short time, he would face his destiny at a cross and a tomb. And it’s hard not to think of the empty tomb when we hear those words “the third day.” The body of Jesus was laid in a tomb on Friday. Saturday – the Sabbath, the day of rest – he rested from his work of dying for the sins of the world. And on Sunday, the tomb was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

Jesus reiterates his determination by injecting a little sarcasm into the conversation, too. He says, “I must go on my way today, tomorrow, and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside Jerusalem.” That was the sad reputation that Jerusalem had. It was the place where so many other prophets were mocked and martyred. Jeremiah, for one, was publicly ridiculed, thrown down a well, imprisoned. There’s a tradition that says Isaiah was sawn in two there. So, with a touch of irony, Jesus says, "Herod, your threats mean nothing to me. I fully expect to die in Jerusalem. That's the place where everyone whom God has sent goes to die, right?"

The Compassion of Jesus

How would you and I feel about a place like that? How would you feel about a city that was so murderous towards its faithful inhabitants? We would hold it in contempt. We would avoid it like the plague. We would go miles out of our way to avoid it if it was between us and our destination. But not Jesus. Jesus was compassionate to those who resist him, and not just the powerful, but to everyone.

When people threaten us or accuse us or oppose us in any way, our natural reaction is to stiffen up, get angry, lash out. We hold others in contempt. We do our best to avoid them.

But Christ’s reaction was different. From his vantage point in Galilee, he looked upon the city in his mind’s eye, and said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’”

Hear our Lord’s compassion in his words. His calling out to Jerusalem twice expresses not anger but affection and pity. And then he gives a tender picture of his love for the people of Jerusalem. Like a mother hen who sweeps her chicks under her wings to protect them when they are in danger, our Lord over and over again reached out to the people of Israel. But over and over again they resisted him. Their divine judgment was the absence of their Divine Inhabitant in the temple. God had forsaken his own house. Yet God had not completely forsaken his people. Jesus was still determined to be compassionate to them. He was still determined to enter the city to shouts of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Those shouts of acclamation would soon turn to derision. But Jesus would not let that discourage him from finishing his course.

The fact that we still find that we have sins of thought, word, and deed proves that we still have a sinful nature that resists Christ. Yet Jesus is still determined to be compassionate toward us. He is compassionate to finish his course with us, to come to us and save us and not leave us forsaken.

He demonstrated his compassion first and foremost at the cross. There he was forsaken by his Father with our sins charged to him. Now our sins are forsaken … set aside … released … let go … not credited to our account any longer … forgiven … the debt has been paid in full. Blessed is he who came in the name of the Lord at the cross!

Jesus demonstrates his compassion today in Communion. Here he gives to you his body and blood which he gave as a payment for our debt. Eat and drink in faith, and your sins are forgiven, your faith is strengthened so that you can, with the power of the Holy Spirit, no longer look upon those who oppose you or who have offended you with anger, but with the compassion of Christ … determined to see others as those whom Christ has redeemed and who are in need of a Savior just as much as you. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord in Holy Communion!

And finally, Jesus promises that he will be compassionate toward you until the consummation of all things. The Risen and Ascended Lord promised that he would visibly return one day. All human history will come to an end. In the meantime, we wait in joyful expectation. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:20-21) Blessed is he who will come in the name of the Lord … our determined, compassionate Savior.


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