Today, we continue our journey through the forty days of Lent. And we walk alongside Jesus, as he makes his way inevitably toward Jerusalem.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus is totally focused on his goal. The pharisees come to him with death threats from Herod, but Jesus brushes them off. In fact, this is a classic example of what I like to think of as “snarky Jesus.” Jesus calls Herod a “fox” and responds to his threat by basically saying, “Look Herod, I don’t have time for you right now. I’ve got work to do. But hey, I’ve got an opening in three days, so if you still want to kill me, you can come on down to Jerusalem and do it then – because we all know that no prophet can die outside of Jerusalem, amirite?” Jesus basically dismisses Herod and the pharisees because he is so focused on reaching Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem is the stage on which the grand drama of the passion narrative will unfold.
Jesus laments over Jerusalem as he talks about his journey there. And he gives two very different images of the city and its people.
First, he calls Jerusalem “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it,” painting Jerusalem and its people as a ruthless band of hardened sinners who have totally turned their backs on God.
But then, Jesus’ tone turns soft and motherly, and he speaks of Jerusalem as a city of lost children that he wishes to gather together, “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Despite Jesus’ biting comments about Jerusalem’s violent relationship with the prophets, there is great love in his words, and a desire for redemption and reconciliation. Despite all that has happened, God in Jesus still loves the people of Jerusalem, and always has.
So the question that this story raises for me is: where does Jerusalem’s resistance come from? They were chosen by a loving God to be God’s people, but anytime God sends a prophet or a messenger to them, they stop up their ears and kill the one whom God has sent. Why would they respond so violently to a God who has such motherly love toward them?
Well, I have three theories as to why this may be.
The first theory that I have is that the people of Jerusalem are expecting a word of judgment from God. They know that God is good and just and all that, but they also know that they haven’t exactly lived up to their end of the covenant.
This theory makes me think of a professor I had in college who was my academic advisor. She was a truly lovely, wonderful person, and I admired her tremendously. But during a couple of my college years, I struggled academically and frequently fell behind in classes. And when this happened, I would avoid my advisor like the plague. I couldn’t bear to think of disappointing her and was afraid to think of what she might think of me. But then, out of nowhere, I would run into her unexpectedly after class or around campus, and fall into conversation with her. And every time, even though she knew how behind I was, she was always unfailingly gracious with me. So, like me, perhaps Jerusalem had forgotten that their God is a merciful God as well as a just one.
The second theory I have is that the people of Jerusalem were well aware of God’s mercy; and they anticipated that Jesus would come to them with a word of forgiveness. Well, that sounds pretty good, right? Being forgiven beats being judged. But in truth, forgiveness itself can be a hard thing. Forgiveness means admitting to ourselves that we have done something wrong. In fact, the other day, I was reading a story about a Holocaust survivor named Eva Kor, who described forgiveness as “the best revenge of all.” She was a plaintiff in the trial of Oskar Groening, who was indicted as “an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews at Auschwitz.” During the trial, Kor took Groening’s hand, embraced him, and forgave him for his part in the crimes of Nazi Germany. She later said that he was so shocked by this gesture that he nearly passed out. The trial forced Groening to confront the reality of the horrors that he had committed, but Kor’s forgiveness and mercy, after all he had done, were an almost unbearable grace.
Imagine Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. Imagine what it is like to be forgiven of such a violent history by none other than God themself.
Still, I think there is something else to Jerusalem’s resistance to Jesus and the prophets. And that is my third theory, which is this: the people of Jerusalem knew that Jesus and the prophets were coming to them with words of mercy, and also with words about turning back to God, so that God might embrace them. But that turning back means repentance, and well, repentance – true repentance – is much harder than being forgiven.
Repentance means turning away from the things that draw us away from God; but those things can be a really strong part of who we are. Repentance means giving up a part of who we are in order to be who God wants us to be. It means letting part of who we are die.
Anyone who has ever been a smoker or who has struggled with alcoholism or addiction understands this. Even when you know it isn’t good for you, it isn’t easy to give up something that has been a part of you for such a long time. Even dieting is like this – I know I struggle to keep my love of sugary, fatty, delicious foods from getting in the way of being the healthy, whole person that God wants me to be.
And as whole communities, whole societies, we struggle with repentance, with turning back to God, just as the people of Jerusalem did. For example, in some countries, people are used to farming crops that require a lot of irrigation; but their overuse of water for irrigation has led to a shortage of water for drinking, and even violence over the lack of water. Our dependence on fossil fuels has fanned the flames of international conflict; and our overconsumption of these fuels has done severe damage to our climate and our planet. But turning away from these practices, repenting of these practices, means fundamentally reimagining both our agriculture and our energy. In a way, it means reimagining who we are.
This is the repentance that Lent is about. And, like the people of Jerusalem, we resist it. It’s one thing to give up chocolate or caffeine for forty days – but to truly repent of the ways that draw us away from God is much deeper, and much more challenging.
But there is good news! This isn’t a road that we walk alone. Jesus is our constant companion and guide as we walk along. And when we fail, he is there to lift us up again with great love and limitless mercy. Because God’s desire to love us and to be in relationship with us is greater than our resistance. The road of repentance may be long, but we also walk it together as a community – you all are gathered here to support one another and to hold one another accountable, and to remind each other of God’s boundless love and grace.
And really, that’s the best news of all. Repentance may mean letting go of parts of who we are, but that letting go opens us up more fully to being the people that God would have us be – to be people who are healthy and whole and fully alive. Repentance means turning away from our sinful selves; yet it also means turning toward God – and God is waiting for us patiently, lovingly, waiting for us to turn around, so that God may gather us together, just as a mother hen gathers her chicks beneath her wings.