We have some dark, mysterious, brooding images this week in our Scripture which in many ways mirror our external world at the moment with war and environmental disaster seeming to surround us all as well as whatever personal losses and struggles we may be dealing with. (RCL Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; and Luke 13:31-35) I believe that if we can work our way through the strange stories we have been given to reflect on this week we will not only be challenged but ultimately comforted and encouraged in our own dark times.
The story from Genesis is one of many times we hear the promises of God made to Abram. This is maybe the darkest telling of it. At this point Abram has been promised some time ago that he will be given a land of their own and that he will have heirs to share this with. He is beginning to see evidence of the land part of the promise being delivered but is yet to see any progeny or offspring of his own and he and Sara are getting older every day. He is trying to be faithful but is struggling to hold onto the promise received. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless ...?” (Genesis 15:2) God’s response is to take Abram outside and point to the numberless starts in the night sky. Which Abram accepts and believes – as best he can for Abram still asks questions of the “Why and how” variety. And then God orders Abram to do what seems to us bizarre and barbaric – to slaughter a number of prize mature livestock (of great value) and cut them in half laying them out on either side of a pathway. Abram protects them from the vultures until dusk when he falls into a dark swoon into which God speaks the terrible detail that yes your offspring will inherit the land but not easily and that it will be a journey of many generations before the fullness of the promise is enjoyed. And then the smoking fire pot and a flaming torch is seen moving between these pieces as God names the lands that shall become the promised land of the offspring of Abram.
This makes no sense until we know that this practice of cutting animals in half was part of covenant making ritual. Effectively the two leaders who were making a covenant would take their valuable stock and slaughter them, placing them such that a path was created between them, and the two stakeholders would walk down the path effectively saying that if I go back on this covenant that we are making, may it be with me as it is with these animals – may I be slaughtered! It was a deal signed in blood. God was demonstrating how very seriously he meant the covenant and the foundational nature of the promise that would call generations into relationship even through the long difficult process.
And the gospel reading this week is not easy either. Some of it, such as the reference to three days seems straight forward enough but all the comments about Jerusalem and foxes and hens? Sometimes I think it helpful to start with geography. Jesus is making his way toward Jerusalem when some Pharisees (not enemies here but sounding an alarm out of their concern for Jesus’ welfare) warn him of the increasing tension about him and the plot to kill him. Jesus effectively says in a variety of ways that he knows and that he needs to go to Jerusalem anyway, indeed because of the conflict between his vision of God’s purposes and the authorities ideas about power and peace. Jerusalem is not only the closest capitol city it is the centre of Jewish religion, and it is the outpost of Roman political power. Jesus, like most of the prophets, has a vision of God’s purposes which is a critique of the religious and political power base (still often the truth today) that can only be worked out in Jerusalem, at the centre of ideas, authority and influence. Jesus “needs” to go to Jerusalem in spiritual and political terms, even though he knows this is a showdown, a conflict, he will not win in any worldly sense.
Secondly the animal images Jesus uses are curious - the description of Herod as a fox and himself as a mother hen. A fox, then as now, was an insult in a way that other predatory animals were not. To call someone a lion is not to insult them, it is to acknowledge their power even if predatory. A fox is a predator but a sly one, one who uses cunning rather than outright power. And how does Jesus describe himself in comparison? As something magnificent and biblical? No - as a mother hen?! Not even a mother eagle who also could have gathered up her young under her wings (and that would have given us lots of references to psalms and prophets who have likened God to an eagle who protects). A mother hen who though fiercely protective and caring, and prepared to sacrifice herself for the sake of the chicks, is not a very powerful match for any predator and particularly not a fox whose favourite meal is chicken!
And of course Jesus has told his disciples and all who would listen that he had a journey to complete – that he would be going about his business of healing and teaching and that then he had his three day process that must be undertaken. Jesus was not hiding from the fox but going about his “father’s business” regardless of the circumstances.
So out of all this swirling dark and mysterious imagery what do we take for our time and situation? Firstly I think we can hear and see that the promises of God to Abram and to us through Jesus are worked out in the messy and difficult real world where we and all others are under fire from all manner of resistance and destruction. That the promises of God are journeys toward the promised land, toward union, that are processes we enter into not magic done to us.
Secondly that the processes themselves are dark and involve death – Abram goes into a dark swoon and Jesus must die in order to live again and that we with him must enter into this process. Whilst this may not seem like good news in some ways – why can’t we be delivered into sunshine and plentiful landscapes once we believe the right things? I believe that in the real world in which we all live where tragedy and wickedness and vulnerability often seem to prevail it is good news that even what appears dark and of death is ultimately the journey into hope and life and love.
And thirdly that we are companioned on this journey – God walks the bloodied path between the sacrificed creatures and promises to be with the people for the generational long haul; and Jesus promises to gather us up when we are under attack. Nothing is outside or beyond the reach of God’s loving presence and redeeming power. This is the Easter story, the good news at the centre, the power in our seeming weakness, as we lament and praise, mourn and laugh, our way to Jerusalem.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, gather us under your wings and give us courage for the journey.
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