Saturday, 20 February 2016

Foxes and Hens

Philippians 3: 18-19For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly...

 Luke 3:31-32 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work". 

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent: Foxes and Hens.

I wonder if you are familiar with the fable often read in childhood: The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen?

It was a well-loved Ladybird book and today will set you back nearly £10 on eBay.
It told the story of how the sly fox coaxed the little red hen out of her hidey-hole in the woods and caught her in a bag from where he planned to take her home and cook her for supper.
But on the way he fell asleep and she hopped out, filled the bag instead with stones and toddled off home.
The fox woke up, picked up the heavy bag and proceeded to his house where he stoked up a big fire, above which boiled a large pot of water.
As the stones, and not the hen, fell into the pot, boiling water splashed out over the fox and killed him outright.

Today’s gospel is about a sly fox and a hen – the sly fox is Herod Antipas, he who had John the Baptist killed and who ‘desired to see Jesus’ in Luke 9:9.
The hen, you might be surprised to learn, is Christ.
However people might try to picture God, whether as a bright light, or a kindly old man, or as glorious King, perhaps not many will come up with the image of a hen.
A hen is not memorable, just ordinary, small; trying to keep her chicks safe, waddling after them when they go astray and squawking at predators.
Christ the mother hen, who wants only to round up her children and hide them under her maternal wing, especially after they’ve wandered off…

Page One. Trouble in the text.
Jesus is tempted to avoid the cross.
Today on this second Sunday in Lent, we see Jesus being tempted to avoid the cross.
We were told at the end of last Sunday’s gospel that the Devil left him ‘till an opportune time’ (Luke 4:13).
Here, it seems, is just that time.
His temptation comes in the form of what initially seems like a sympathetic warning from the Pharisees, of all people.
‘At that very hour, some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you”.’
Jesus’ reply is curt – even rude.
‘”That fox!”’
The advice of the Pharisees is merely a temptation to avoid the cross.
Go away and hide somewhere, is what they are really saying.
They cannot understand that Jesus deliberately chooses the way of the cross.
He says ‘today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way’, and immediately mentions his destination – Jerusalem.
In other words, his destination is the cross and his way is the way of the cross.
It was the most difficult thing to choose the cross – everyone was counseling against it.
The disciples didn’t understand; the Pharisees said flee; Herod is simply a voyeur, and a violent man.
Yet though Jesus is clear about his mission, his rejection by Israel pains him.
He laments over Jerusalem, capital city of the chosen nation that is about to crucify its long awaited Messiah…
‘”Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets, and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”’
Jesus’ path is the hardest one, filled with deep frustration, sadness and a sense of missed opportunity.
Yet he cannot force a following – this is the theological conundrum of free will.
We feel his loneliness, his humanity, his struggle, as he is tempted to avoid the cross.

Page Two. Trouble for us.
We are tempted to avoid the cross.
Are we, too, tempted to avoid the cross?
If we are tempted to avoid the cross, how does this play out?
Let’s look at Paul, because he has a lament too, in our reading from Philippians.
He laments those who live as enemies of the cross of Christ.
‘I have often told you of them’, he says; ‘and now I tell you even with tears’ (Phil. 3:18).
Who are these people who live as enemies of the cross?
It’s tempting (excuse the pun) to see them as unbelievers – we live the way of the cross, and those outside the church do not.
But the temptation to avoid the cross is maybe a bit more insidious than that for us believers.
Because the way of the cross is not particularly attractive.
The way of the cross involves my dying to self, and that’s never comfortable.
The way of the cross is deeply contrary to much of what passes for modern life today.
The ways we’re conditioned to think and behave in society reveal a deep propensity in us to avoid the way of the cross.
Take an average Saturday Colour Supplement – such as the one we bought over half term – I think it was the Guardian – but the Times or Telegraph would be no different.
What are the themes?
Just at a glance, looking at the 13th February edition, we have an article about finding romance on specialist dating sites; an article about living with the guilt of having been the mother of a mass murderer; an article about the latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which doesn’t refer once to any of the spiritual themes; a piece from a stay at home mother who feels trapped and one form a woman who went on a trip to visit all her old boyfriends; 4 pages on property, 6 on travel and ten devoted to food.
‘Their god is their belly’, says Paul.
Nothing, in short, on the spiritual life; nothing about the inner life or how to develop it in humility, truth or self sacrificing love.
We cannot be unaffected by this complete emphasis on what Paul calls ‘earthly things’.
Of course we need to eat, we sometimes travel, we all look for love, but we have neglected the spiritual, even though ‘our citizenship is in heaven’ (Phil. 3:20) from where we expect a Saviour.
If we truly expected a Saviour to show up this morning, in the midst of our worship, would we be half attentive, would we have a hand casually in the pocket as we stood to sing…?
We have neglected the spiritual; we have been tempted to avoid the cross.

Page 3. Grace in the text.
The way of the cross is the only way.
So we return to Jesus – walking that literal and figurative path that we also share at Lent.
He has set his mind towards Jerusalem, and he keeps faithful to it.
He is the mother hen who, even when her chicks stray, goes after them and brings them back.
In a hot Middle Eastern culture, fires were commonplace.
It sometimes happened that in the fire ripping through the buildings, a mother hen would hide her chicks under the protection of their wings, and in the resulting smoke, she would die, but her chicks would survive.
It is not for nothing that Christ compares himself to a hen
The abiding image of these verses in Luke is of Jesus moving forward towards Jerusalem, towards the cross.
He knows that the way of the cross is the only way.
He hears from either side the voices of those who think they know a better way: avoid the pain; go into hiding; turn these stones into bread; impress us with a miracle.
But the way of the cross is the only way.
It’s the way God redeems us, and redeems everything that’s gone wrong for us.
Jesus holds fast to it and blazes a trail, as it were.
The long days of fasting in the wilderness have developed in him a quick ear for God’s voice, and the habits needed to obey that voice.
He doesn’t put a foot wrong along that dusty, bumpy, hot and crowded road to Jerusalem.
In fact four chapters back, in Luke 9:51 we already have a very revealing verse for Jesus’ frame of mind here.
It says, he set his face towards Jerusalem – the verb is to resolutely decide on something and not be dissuaded from one’s end.
We might say he steeled himself for the journey (the Message) or that his face was set like flint (cf. Isaiah 50:7).
Flint is a hard material, so hard that other things, when hitting into it, are set on fire.
Jesus journey to the cross is tough, and in it he shows us his tough love.
And he never loses hope.
His last words over Jerusalem hint at hope.
Yes, they have missed their Messiah, but there will come a day when they will say, miraculously, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (verse 35).
Salvation history is in his hands, and is achieved through the way of the cross.

Page 4. Grace for us.
We can continue on the Way because of Jesus.
As we look around the world this Lent, God reminds us that salvation history is in his hands.
We keep on going on the way whenever we come to church together to share, to pray, to sing, to gather around the Word and around the Lord’s Table.
God keeps us going because God has provided the way by reconciling the world to himself on the cross.
Even when we look at the news and wonder what will come of war and displacements of peoples, referenda on the EU and the various scandals that plague our public life, especially those involving vulnerable children and those whom society has forgotten.
The way of the cross gives us hope.
Jesus did not give up – he kept going so that we could keep going.
Thanks be to God who keeps us on the way – the way of the cross.
And to return to the Ladybird tale where we began…
Avoid the crafty foxes and snuggle up under the mother hen.


(Initial idea from The Word is very near you, John Pridmore.
Structure from The Four Pages of the Sermon, Paul Scott Wilson). 

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