Do we accept all that God offers, even when we cannot see how it will be to our good?
Lent 2c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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!
All of our Scripture readings today give us powerful examples of acceptance and rejection — and the consequences of those actions. And as the lessons show, those consequences can affect not only the individual but generations to come.
We are presented first with Abram, and God’s promise of a reward. Abram is by no means ungrateful, but he is clearly not content: whatever God gives him will end with him — for he has no heir or descendant. The reward stops with him. And so God makes a promise to go along with the reward — God promises that Abram’s descendants will be more numerous than the stars. Abram believes, but then also seems to step back for a second time and ask God how it is he can be sure of this promise. And there follows a dreamlike passage in which Abram sacrifices a number of animals at God’s instruction and then enters into a deep and terrifying darkness in which he has a vision of smoke and fire passing through the midst of the divided portions of the bloody sacrifice, and a final promise from God: “to your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river Euphrates.”
This is a story of multiple acceptances and very little rejection. Abram understandably can hardly believe the blessings that God is ready to pour out on him and his descendants. He’s a bit like one of those folks on The Antiques Road Show who when told their old jug is worth $25,000, say, “No!” But God accepts Abram, and his sacrifice — and Abram responds by accepting God’s promise in that vision of the night, of smoke and blood and flame.
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The reading from Philippians takes a sharp turn towards rejection, however. Paul is lamenting some who have rejected the cross, and even made themselves enemiesof Christ’s cross and salvation. These are people who have made a choice — they have rejected Christ crucified and have chosen earthly things: starting with their own bellies. These are perhaps some of the Greeks for whom the cross, with all its shame, is foolishness, as Paul would say to another Gentile congregation in Corinth. So they reject the way of the cross — reject following in the footsteps of Jesus and taking part in the sufferings that come with such faithfulness, and seek instead a life of comfort and personal satisfaction. Paul contrasts those who reject the way of Christ with himself and those believers who have accepted Christ, who have put their trust in him, even though they might at present be suffering persecutions and humiliations — as did Christ himself. And so Paul counsels them to stand firm in their acceptance of their Lord and Savior, in that cross with all its shame.
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Finally we come to those who not only reject the cross but Christ himself. Jesus personifies this rejection in the city of Jerusalem: the city that rejects the prophets and those who are sent to it. Jesus knows, of course, that the cross lies ahead of him and he will no more swerve aside from it or reject it, than would the faithful of that community at Philippi under the guidance of Saint Paul. For they know the truth, as Jesus knew, that salvation comes through and by means of that suffering. As the coach will say, “No pain, no gain”; or as an even older and more profound saying puts it, “No cross, no crown.”
But Jerusalem, Jerusalem, as the prophets had warned, likes to sit in comfort and safety — it wants the gain without the pain, it wants the crown without the cross — and in doing so forgets its reliance upon the Lord and God who is the only source of its strength. It is so jealous of its comfort and security that, like the Wicked Witch in “The Wiz” — that musical adaptation of the Wizard of Oz — it shouts out, “Don’t be bringing me no bad news!” It doesn’t want to hear the corrective words of the prophets, the words of warning that might save it. And in the long run that proud city rejects not only the prophets, but the Savior himself. And in doing so it loses its gain, and forsakes its crown.
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And what about us? Do we accept the things that come to us from God’s hand, or are we sometimes moved to turn up our noses when what befalls us does not suit our immediate needs? Or even more so, causes us trouble or pain? Do we ever fall into the trap of despair, as Abram almost did — unsure of how God can bring an answer out of all this mess we seem to have gotten into; beginning to doubt, beginning to lose our trust — not in our own abilities (which we are probably wise to doubt) but in the power of God to do all that God has promised for us? Do I? Do you? Do we, as a community, as a congregation, as a church? Do we let our insecurities or mistrust stand in the way of receiving the blessing that God has promised to pour out upon us when we offer that sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to God’s holy name? Do we work through our doubts and confusion, facing them and working through them like a dream of smoke and fire and blood — passing through that painful sacrifice to the gainful promise on the other side?
Do we follow the example of Saint Paul, imitating him and living in accordance with the example that he set — working hard even when the reward seems far off; holding fast to the cross for the life-preserver it is in the flood of this mortal life? Do we grasp it — the cross of Christ — as a refuge anchor in the storm and the strife? Or do we let our bellies be our guide — our bodily needs and wants and desires and ambitions, unwilling to suffer any discomfort or inconvenience and so treating the cross of Christ — even his death on the cross — as irrelevant, or at best something to be put on the shelf or the end table, along with the Bible that hasn’t been cracked open in many a day?
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No, my friends, let us not reject the one who is so willing to have us accept him. Let us not be like Jerusalem of old, a city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it; Let us not be like the disobedient children who when called home to safety instead run away to danger and destruction.
Listen, listen, he is calling us still, calling us to come to him, that we might take shelter under his wings. In the storm and the stress, in the smoke and the flame, we may not be able to see him reaching out to save us — we may at most see only the barest outline of his cross before our eyes. But he sees us, my beloved sisters and brothers, he sees us and knows where we are and if we will not reject him he will gather us up into the safety of his loving arms.
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Some years ago there was a terrible house fire in an old three storey frame building. You know these kinds of things happen in the Bronx all the time, especially in hard winter when someone accidentally knocks over one of those kerosene heaters they shouldn’t be using in the first place. Well in this case, the family managed to escape the house — or thought they had, until the father did a quick count of all the children on the sidewalk, and then heard that most horrible sound: his little boy calling to him from the second floor window, as the smoke billowed around him, blinding him so that he could see nothing. The father wanted to rush back into the house, but the crowd held him back, so he ran and stood under the window, calling up to his little son, telling him to jump. The terrified child, his eyes clenched tight against the stinging smoke, yelled out, “But Daddy, I can’t see you.” And his father shouted back, “But I can see you! Jump!”
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That decision to jump is sometimes as hard to make as the decision to follow God’s invitation to trust in him with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. It is hard — but it is the way to salvation. Let us not reject the one who stretches out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, who calls to us to come to him — to run, to walk, to crawl, or even to jump into his loving saving arms — even Jesus Christ our Lord.