Genesis15: 1-12, 17-18/Luke 13: 31-35
In Genesis chapter 15 God ratifies a covenant with Abram. Abram, who at his advanced age has left home as the Lord God had called him to do and is still without an heir. God says you shall have an heir, and you shall have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. And they shall be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. And this is the land I have promised you as your new home. Abram says, But how, Lord, am I to know this? This is the question for all of us. How indeed!
When the heavens are darkened, when we cannot see the light, when we cannot count the stars, how are we to know? When politicians fail to fulfill promises, or obfuscate and lie, how are we to know? When we know that if we are to proceed in the way in which we are traveling it will lead to certain confrontation and even death, how are we to know?
The Lord says, “Bring me a heifer, a goat, a ram a turtledove, and a young pigeon and I shall show you,” says the Lord.
Which strikes us as odd, but Abram knows what to do. He sacrifices the animals and lays out one half of each across from the other half, driving away the birds of prey. This is an offering for the Lord, and sets the stage for the Lord’s covenant ceremony. This is how covenants were sealed in those days. The parties would walk between the laid out animal parts with the understanding that this will happen to me should I break the terms of the covenant. Note how God passes through on Abram’s behalf while Abram is in a deep sleep and terrifying darkness.
This passing through can be likened to Moses and the people passing through the Red Sea on dry land. Or, like Jesus passing through the cross and what the world counts as death into new life. Covenants are sealed by someone having passed through something somewhere, just as we pass through the waters of Baptism into a covenant relationship with God in Christ.
Once you have passed through there is a degree of ultimate safety guaranteed.
Abram knows this. Jesus knows this. Knowing this, Jesus, like God does for Abram, passes through death for us while we are in deep darkness. We are those people who know this story well. The Herods and Pilates of this world never do get it and so trust only their own violence and forcefulness.
Then there are some astonishing elements to our Gospel for today beginning with the Pharisees. After much disputation with Jesus along the way to Jerusalem, these Pharisees come as friends warning Jesus to “get away from here! Herod wants to kill you!” Jesus tells them to go to Herod, that “fox” and tell him I am “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” Already the three day pattern is set just as his face is set toward Jerusalem – the city that kills prophets!
Then comes a remarkable metaphor. Jesus says our covenant relationship with God is like being a chick under the wings of a mother hen. Under those wings is warmth, and safety, and love, and care that is unbounded, which may be the root characteristic of the very mercy we pray for today.
Note that God is portrayed as a woman, a mother hen. As opposed to Herod the “fox” which was considered a cut, a diss. Foxes were considered insignificant predators next to lions. Jesus’ listeners would know this and no doubt get a good laugh at Herod’s expense. Our mother hen of a God is infinitely more powerful than all the Herods you could line up, and in fact there were a number of them doing The Empire’s bidding.
But if we have ever seen baby chicks, we know that just as soon as the mother hen gets five of them under her wings another three pop out. They just squirt out as if they were greased or sprayed with WD-40! People in that agrarian society would know just how true and comical this really looks. Cue even more laughter from the crowd.
But then it turns serious. “See your house is left (or abandoned) to you.” Luke and his hearers know this to be true as Jerusalem and God’s house already lie in ruins when Luke is writing. Luke links Jesus’ impending death on a cross with the destruction of the Temple itself. God’s will for Jesus and Israel to be a blessing to all people is thwarted by human refusals to accept it and be gathered under God’s wings. Perhaps it helps to know that the teaching just before this story is about the narrow door which eventually will be shut. The time to be gathered under the wings of God is now. There is no later.
Note how easily Jesus begins to judge the living and the dead as we say. Those in charge in Jerusalem would not find this so funny. The peasants who usually live their lives in abject fear of the Romans and Aristocracy in Jerusalem are seeing the kind of hope Abram would see when counting the stars in the sky. The “haves” and the “have nots” always see things differently.
Also note that this section ends with the song people will sing welcoming him into Jerusalem: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. This draws us forward to his work in Jerusalem which he will complete. Even Herod cannot interfere with that. Luke seems to hold out hope that there will be those who “see” Jesus and recognize him as he who comes in the name of the Lord. It is hope and lament over the demise of Jerusalem all at once as Luke prepares us for Palm Sunday.
Whether we find this figure of God the mother hen fetching or fearsome depends on whether we count ourselves among the chicks under her wings, or among those who are busy squirting out and away from the protection of her wings. As always, it is a matter of perspective. The irony of living in God’s kingdom is that it is safer to be with the hen than with the fox! Go figure. The least and the last shall be first and so on.
Many people never even stop to think about this at all. We, on the other hand, are those people who take this time in Lent to take a look and see where we find ourselves: under the wings of God? Are we becoming the wings of God in this world? Or, are we busy playing with the foxes of this world?
God’s mercy in Jesus invites us to squirm back under the wings of God before it’s too late. Amen.