Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Second Sunday of Lent

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.

The Second Sunday of Lent

Reading: Luke 13:31-35

The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’, so-called because they have a similar view of the story of Jesus and have much material in common, often in the same order. (The word ‘synoptic’ itself comes from a Latin word, which means ‘seen together’.) The way these three Gospels view and present the life of our Lord is different to how our Lord’s ministry is viewed and presented in St John’s Gospel.

Although the synoptic Gospels clearly have much in common with each other and share much of their content, they, nevertheless, each have their own way of using this shared material and presenting the story of Jesus. Each Gospel writer has their own special emphases and each highlight different aspects of our Lord’s life and message.

Scholars spend a great deal of time examining and analyzing the relationship between these three Gospels and speculating on both their use of each other and of other possible sources. There is a real temptation for scholars to become more interested in the sources of the Gospels and the relationship between them than in the text of the Gospels themselves.

In the world of scholarship, PhDs have to be gained and academic careers furthered, and the so-called ‘synoptic problem’, that is, the question of what the relationship between the first three Gospels actually is, provides fertile ground for academic research. Apart from being an intriguing area of study, it is an area of research that has an added advantage for scholars. At the end of the day, there is so much that we simply do not know and never can know, so scholars can speculate without much limit on it. One scholar has written of how he was a member of a professional group of scholars who had been studying the synoptic problem together for 12 years during which time they had not been able to agree on a single issue!

This doesn’t mean there is nothing to be gained from such study, just that we need to be aware of its limitations. Where comparisons of the three Gospels can be helpful is in illustrating the different emphases of each Gospel writer. That each Gospel writer has different way of presenting the story of Jesus even when using shared material shouldn’t surprise or bother us. When describing someone this is what we all do all the time. We inevitably focus on those aspects of a person’s life that most interest, attract, or concern us. It is by bringing the different accounts of a person together that we get a fuller picture of the person concerned.

One of St Luke’s major emphases in his Gospel is on Jerusalem and on Jesus’ relationship with it. It is this relationship that is very much in view in our Gospel reading this week.

In St John’s Gospel, much of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Jerusalem. In the synoptic Gospels, the focus is on Galilee and only at the end of Jesus’ ministry do they describe events in Jerusalem itself. St Luke, while sharing the synoptic focus on Galilee, manages by a careful structuring of his material to stress the importance and centrality of Jerusalem in the plan and purposes of God and, indeed, specifically for Jesus himself.

St Luke begins his Gospel in Jerusalem with the announcement by the angel Gabriel in the Temple in Jerusalem concerning the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, who is himself a priest in the Temple (Luke 1:5-25). St Luke ends his Gospel with the disciples in the Temple in Jerusalem after Jesus has told them, before he ascends to heaven, that they must wait in Jerusalem for the promise of his Father (Luke 24:44-53).

St Luke describes how Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the ‘city of David’, the great King of Israel from whom Jesus is descended ‘according to the flesh’ (Romans 1:3). Bethlehem is just 6 miles outside of Jerusalem, which is itself also the ‘city of David’, having been captured and made the capital of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah by David. Jesus is ‘presented’ in the Temple by his parents when just a few weeks old (Luke 2:22-38). St Luke alone records an incident from Jesus’ childhood that takes place in the Temple when Jesus is 12 years old (Luke 2:41-52). For St Luke, the climax of Jesus’ testing by the Devil takes place not in the wilderness, but on the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 4:1-13).

We have seen how at Jesus’ transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appear to talk with Jesus, their discussion concerns the exodus which Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:28-36)). This is an event that marks a turning point in the Gospel. After the transfiguration, St Luke begins to give an account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for this ‘exodus’. Jesus’ journey begins at chapter 9 verse 51 and will continue to chapter 19 verse 27, thus taking up a great deal of the Gospel. It is a unique and major feature of St Luke’s Gospel and, throughout his account of the journey, St Luke will stress how important it is that Jesus is going up to Jerusalem to die (Luke (9:51, 53; 13:22, 33; 17:11, 18:31; 19:11). It has to be in Jerusalem that Jesus is killed.

As Jesus arrives at Jerusalem and his journey comes to an end, Jesus weeps over the city (Luke 19:41-44). In St John’s Gospel, Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus his friend; in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus weeps over the death and destruction that is coming to Jerusalem. This is a recurring theme on our Lord’s journey to Jerusalem and it is the theme of our Gospel reading this week.

In our reading, Jesus is making his way through the villages of Galilee on his way to Jerusalem, teaching as he does so (Luke 13:22). He has just spoken of how many of those who expect to enter the Kingdom of God when it comes will be excluded, whereas many of those from afar, who were not expected to get in, will be included. At this very moment, some Pharisees come and warn Jesus that Herod is after him to kill him. Jesus tells them to tell Herod that he is casting out demons and healing people but must soon be on his way. Herod may want to kill Jesus, but it is in Jerusalem, Jesus says, that he must die, for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. Jesus then goes on to express his anguish over Jerusalem. I will return to this, but first I want to ask why the Pharisees warn him? We think of the Pharisees as wanting to get rid of Jesus, so isn’t Herod’s desire to kill him something you would expect them to co-operate with?

The Pharisees have been very critical of Jesus and he of them. St Luke has told us that they have become very hostile towards Jesus. St Luke writes:

‘… the scribes and the Pharisees began to be very hostile toward him and to cross-examine him about many things, lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.’ (Luke 11:53)

Jesus has also warned his disciples about the Pharisees. He tells them to ‘beware of the yeast of the Pharisees, that is, their hypocrisy’ (Luke 12:1). It doesn’t sound like there is any love lost between Jesus and the Pharisees. So why now the Pharisees’ apparent concern for Jesus’ safety? Some commentators don’t think that they are warning Jesus out of any concern for him, but because they are wanting to scare Jesus and intimidate him. It’s not easy for us to judge their motives, as St Luke doesn’t give us any indication at this point as to what they are. It is, however, worth remembering when it comes to Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees that the picture isn’t a black and white one. The very next passage, for example, begins:

‘On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.’ (Luke 14:1)

This leader of the Pharisees isn’t the first Pharisee to invite Jesus to dinner. If the Pharisees have completely given up on Jesus, why invite him for meals? And yet there is clearly suspicion of Jesus, even at the meal. The probability is that the Pharisees were sympathetic to much that Jesus said and did, but anything but sympathetic to other aspects of his ministry. And even when sympathetic, some Pharisees were more sympathetic than others.

Those who were more sympathetic probably included some who later went on to join the Church (Acts 15:5). St Luke tells us that while there were Pharisees who, like St Paul originally, hated the Church, others joined it. Ironically, St Paul, despite his initial opposition to the Church, was to change sides and become an enthusiastic advocate for the Church. This even resulted in St Paul being persecuted by the Pharisees who had joined the Church. Instead, now of St Paul persecuting the Pharisees who had joined the Church, they now persecuted him for being over-zealous as a believer! In other words, it is all much more complicated than the Pharisees simply being for or against Jesus.

It was after all a Pharisee, Nicodemus, who with another member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, took Jesus’ body and buried it when everyone else had abandoned him (John 19:38-42).

A problem we also have in the Church is that for many years the Church operated with a faulty understanding of Judaism, in general, and of the Pharisees, in particular. This has changed in more recent years, but the old understanding still lingers. The old understanding was largely due to a reading back into the Gospels of disputes between Protestants and Catholics at the time of the European Reformation in the 16th century. The Jews were seen as being guilty of the same sort of sins that the Protestants accused the Catholics of being guilty of.

The Protestants saw themselves as believing in grace in the same way Jesus and St Paul believed in grace. The Protestants thought Judaism and the religion of the Pharisees wasn’t a religion of grace in the same way as they were convinced that Catholicism wasn’t a religion of grace. Again, it was all much more complicated than that. Sadly, by giving the Jews at the time of Jesus such a bad name, the Protestant reformation fed into the antisemitism that was already rife in Europe with disastrous consequences, not least in Germany.

Pendulums swing from side to side and there are now those who won’t have a word said against the Pharisees. The truth is that at times Jesus did severely criticize the Pharisees. It is historically dishonest to pretend that he didn’t. We just need to be careful to see what it was that Jesus actually criticized the Pharisees for and not make up our own charges against them.

Whatever the motive of these Pharisees in our reading in warning Jesus, Herod is not going to be allowed to kill Jesus in the way he killed John the Baptist. Jesus must die in Jerusalem. It is impossible, Jesus says, for a prophet to be killed anywhere else.

Jesus has a deep and intense emotional and spiritual relationship with Jerusalem that we will explore as we journey with Jesus to the Holy City. On the one hand, Jesus condemns Jerusalem for killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to it and he will pronounce God’s coming judgement on it. On the other hand, Jesus expresses his pain and anguish at Jerusalem’s refusal to receive him. Jesus relates how he has often desired to gather Jerusalem’s children together ‘as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’, but Jerusalem has been unwilling. Incidentally, this comment by Jesus suggests that St Luke knew of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem, which is described by St John in his Gospel.

Jesus then anticipates the coming judgement on Jerusalem when he says that the city will not see him until the time comes when it is willing to welcome him as the one sent by God. Jesus will enter Jerusalem at the end of this journey and his disciples will celebrate and announce his arrival using these very words of welcome. The Pharisees in the crowd, however, will ask Jesus to tell his disciples to stop. Jesus as he gets near the city will weep over it at the judgement that must come upon it for not recognising its visitation from God.

In Jesus words in our Gospel reading, however, there is a glimmer of hope. Jesus knows Jerusalem will not welcome him now and will be judged because of it, but there will come a time when they will speak the words of welcome that they refuse to speak when Jesus enters the city on Palm Sunday.

In asking what this all says to us today, I want to repeat some things I have said previously and to apologize in advance for those who have heard me say them before.

The Church for most of its history has been virulently antisemitic. If you don’t believe me, I invite you to spend some time on the Yad Vashem website. Yad Vashem is the holocaust museum in Jerusalem. As most people will know, the holocaust saw nations with a Christian heritage conspiring to eradicate systematically the Jews from Europe. And please don’t tell me it was just a few mad Nazis who were responsible for the genocide. It took the complicity of many ordinary Christian people to make it happen and to allow it to continue to happen. The holocaust wasn’t a one off mad period in the history of the Church, but just one more outburst of something that had been present in the Church for hundreds of years - and still is.

Theoretically, of course, we don’t approve of antisemitism nowadays, although it is interesting that church leaders who are anxious to be seen publicly to repent of racism are not so quick or so public in repenting of antisemitism. What church leaders are quick to do is to condemn the state of Israel and to side with the Palestinians against it. Sadly, condemnation of the state of Israel is often just an acceptable way of expressing antisemitism in the present.

Mention the state of Israel, however, and it won’t be very long before you find yourself in trouble. The modern state of Israel itself came back into being, for the first time in centuries, in 1948. Its re-creation, however, was, and is, extremely controversial. We have seen just how controversial in the conflicts between Israel and the terrorist group, Hamas.

A distinction is often made when discussing these matters between Judaism and Israel. Judaism and Israel, we are told, are not synonymous. While this may be a fair comment, and one that many Jews themselves would agree with, it is, nevertheless, impossible to separate the two.

According to estimates by Professor Sergio Della Pergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the world Jewish population is approximately 15.2 million. In other words, not very many. Very much a minority, in fact. Of this 15.2 million, 6,930,000, 45.3% (nearly half), live in Israel itself. 6,000,000 Jewish people live in the United States with the rest living in various other parts of the world. In 1950, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, passed a law giving every Jew the right to return and settle in Israel. It is, in other words, impossible to divide the Jewish people from the land of Israel. This is not meant to be a controversial statement, but simply a political statement of fact.

The attitude of Christians in all this is interesting. Many American evangelicals are devoutly pro-Israel. I think it is fair to say that most Anglicans are not. For some believers, the Bible teaches that the Messiah will one day reign over his Kingdom on earth from Jerusalem. For others, God’s kingdom has got nothing more to do with Jerusalem than it has with any other earthly city.

God’s original promise to Abraham seems quite clear. The Lord said to Abram, as he was then called:

‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever.’ (Genesis 13:14-15)

Most Christians think that this promise doesn’t apply any more, or that it is now being fulfilled in the Church, or even that God didn’t say it in the first place (after all, it is in the Jewish Scriptures). Writing to Roman Gentile believers tempted to think like this, however, St Paul writes of the Jewish people:

‘… as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29)

Should we then support Israel whatever she does? Of course not. The Israeli government is no more infallible than any other human government. But nor should we allow people to use criticism of Israel as a cloak for antisemitism. We must repent of antisemitism and call it out, not least in the Church, where it has traditionally been strongest.

But we need to go further than this. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of his anguish at the judgement that is going to come to Jerusalem because of her refusal to accept and believe in him. Jesus says:

‘See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Luke 13:35)

We need to be praying that God’s people will accept Jesus as their Messiah. Given our history of antisemitism in the Church, we need to be sensitive to Jewish suspicion of what many Jews see as Christian attempts to convert them. Equally, however, we need to take seriously the words of St Paul. St Paul writes:

‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16)

While we should be ashamed of our attitudes and behaviour, as believers, towards the Jewish people in the past, we should not, in our relationship with the Jewish people in the present, be ashamed of the Gospel itself. And, as St Paul writes, the Gospel is to the Jew first.

In the passage immediately before our Gospel reading, our Lord warns his hearers of some surprises that are in store when the Kingdom of God comes. Jesus says:

‘Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’ (Luke 13:30)

Jesus warns them that they will beg to be let into the Kingdom. They will claim that they ate and drank with him and that he taught on their streets, but Jesus will deny ever knowing them, and they will find themselves thrown out. Instead, Jesus says, people from far away will come and will eat in the Kingdom with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets.

St John writes that ‘he came unto his own’ (John 1:11). Jesus’ own were those who ate and drank with him and whom he taught in their streets, but they, his own, received him not. It is those who were not his own, but who, nevertheless, received him who are welcomed into his Kingdom.

By the time St Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, many in the Church were not Jews but Gentiles. People were coming from far away to enter the Church. St Paul was himself one of those responsible for so many who were not originally one of Jesus’ own coming into the Church. While he rejoiced to see it, St Paul could also see the danger. As the Church became increasingly Gentile, there was a very real danger that the Gentile believers would become spiritually complacent and arrogant in the way some of Jesus’ original Jewish hearers had been.

Describing as ‘natural branches’ those of his fellow countrymen who did not believe in the Messiah, St Paul warned the Gentile believers:

‘For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off.’ (Romans 11:22)

The natural branches had not been spared; they had been cut off. Using a different metaphor, Jesus said they would be ‘thrown out’. St Paul tells the Gentiles that the natural branches were broken off because of their lack of faith, but that they, the Gentile believers, only stand through faith. If they fail to continue in faith they too will be cut off. St Paul warns them not to become proud, but to ‘stand in awe’ (Romans 11:20).

Jesus tells his hearers that they should strive to enter by the ‘narrow door’ (Luke 13:24). A door, in other words, that is hard to get through. It is all too easy to take our salvation for granted. We assume that God wants us to be saved and to get into his Kingdom and will not, therefore, ever exclude us. The default theological position in the Church now is’ universalism’, the belief that everyone will eventually be saved.

This may be what we want to believe, and it is certainly in keeping with the mood of our age which stresses inclusion. Believing all will be saved no matter what they do, may give us some comfort and enable us to believe that we will all be OK in the end, but it is only possible to believe it by ignoring Jesus’ teaching about judgement and how people will be excluded from the Kingdom.

It is not just universalists who become complacent, however. Like those who first heard Jesus, we too can assume that because we are members of the right group or believe the right things, we will be OK. It is a dangerous position to be in. We need to wake up if we are not to find ourselves excluded from the Kingdom of God.

As I was preparing this sermon, I was sent a video about God’s love for Hong Kong in which it was said that God is never against us. It’s what many believe. But that wasn’t Jerusalem’s experience in AD70 nor, according to Jesus, will it be the experience of those who find themselves weeping and gnashing their teeth because they have been thrown out of the Kingdom. It sounds nice to say God is never against us. And it may be what we want to hear. It’s just not true.

What is true is that God does not want to be against us. Jesus says to Jerusalem:

‘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!’ (Luke 13:34)

God takes no pleasure in the death of a sinner and longs for us to turn to him. We might reply that we have never taken part in the killing of a prophet, which may be true, but we need to ask whether we have resisted being gathered together with all those who love God. Have we received Jesus as our own personal Lord and Saviour? Have we welcomed him into our lives?

Jesus’ words over Jerusalem may seem distant and to belong to an age long past, but they stand as a warning to all of us not to take the grace of God for granted and not to assume that all will be well, whatever we think or do. Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement on Jerusalem is a warning to enter by the narrow door while we still can.

May we, then, welcome Jesus into our lives as we say the words Jesus wants to hear:

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ (Luke 13:35)


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