The crack of lightning was terrifying and the accompanying boom of thunder left everything still and silent in its wake–it was as if the entire forest was afraid to move. The silence didn’t last for more than a few seconds when the creatures who lived there resumed their scurrying to find shelter from the rain—the sounds of little feet pitter-patted over branches and through trees, birds called to one another the warning of the storm, the rustling of wings and sounds of movement cancelled out the quiet crackling of a smoldering blaze inside the hollowed out space of an old, dead tree. It wouldn’t be for several hours that the birds and squirrels, foxes and snakes, and all the wildlife of the forest would be in a panic looking for escape—for now the short surge of rain defined their only need and urgency.
It was the crickets that seemed to know about the fire first. After the brief shower, they began their song again only more urgently and then it was silenced as they prepared their departure. Other insects followed and there was a hush upon the land. The rabbits seemed to know next and began to flee, the thumping of their feet sending a signal to others that danger was near. Squirrels leapt form branch to branch, foxes that had been holed up in their dens, stuck their pointy noses out and then scampered away. The moles buried themselves deep underground. Snakes slithered through the leaves and the fire quickly spread. Birds took flight and a mother hen used her wings to herd her chicks in front of her and move them from danger’s path. The whole forest was moving as the acrid smell of smoke filled the air and forewarned the creatures who made her their home that it was no longer safe to stay still.
There was a river nearby and many of the creatures instinctively knew that this was the place they needed to escape too—that somehow the water would bring them salvation. The family of foxes was the first to get there, diving into the water and swimming to the other side. The rabbits soon found holes to burrow in on its muddy banks. Birds roosted in the branches of trees on the far side of the river. And as the insects arrived, they found safe passage on limbs and leaves that served as boats to help them cross the river. Soon the banks of the river were filled with the song of crickets and birds and the buzzing of bees—a siren’s chorus calling the other animals to safety in the face of the impending peril. The mother hen hurried her young charges on, knowing that danger was imminent and that she must make it to the river. The fire continued to spread and though the river served its purpose as a barrier to flame and ferocity, some of the sparks crossed the waters and took hold in this new part of the forest. The fire went south and north and east as well—it crossed roads and streams and left destruction and death in its wake.
It took a couple of days to get the wildfire under control. Park Rangers, Sherriff’s deputies, and firefighters spent a few days after that making sure no embers or small sparks of flame could flare up again. They did so by walking the devastated and blackened land looking for any signs that might cause concern for another flare up. As they walked, they kicked over heaps of wood or brush clumped on the ground where a small spark or smoldering ember might be attempting to hide. One such heap looked like feathers coated in a dark grey soot—as one of the men approached it he thought it resembled that of a bird and figured it had been overcome by smoke in its attempt to escape. Imagine his shock and surprise when, upon kicking the pile over, a brood of chicks came running out—all unscathed. Apparently, when the hen and her brood were threatened by the danger of the fire and she realized the possibility of escape to be futile, she stretched out her wings to cover and protect her little chicks, sacrificing herself for their salvation.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”
We are at a key point in Luke—all the Gospels have it—the point where Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. The moment where Jesus embraces his death and is determined to go to the city that kills the prophets. This entire passage of Luke is filled with foreshadowing of what is to come—that the political authorities will kill Jesus; “today, tomorrow, and the next day alludes to the three days between Jesus’s death and resurrection; that he is being sent to Jerusalem and that he will die there; that his death will be a sacrificial one done for the salvation of his people; and that he will return and we will know him as messiah and Lord. “He stretched out his arms upon the cross…”
For those of us who hear this passage proclaimed in the church two thousand years later, our perspective is influenced by knowing the outcome, as Paul Harvey was want to say, “The rest of the story…” But if we look beyond simply the words and history and liturgy, into the tone and imagery of this story we find the deeper lament, the sadness and despair with which Jesus sets his face—not because he will die, but because of our hardness of heart and inability to recognize, much less accept, the salvation he offers to us. Jesus recognizes that we are so blinded by the cares and concerns of our daily lives that we don’t notice the dangers that threaten us until it is too late—until the smoke has filled the air and the blaze is warm on our backs and we are desperate for the waters of our own salvation.
Jesus’s promises to us on the cross are the same promises that God has given to us since the start of time—the promises of love and care for us, the promise of blessing. God made a promise to Abram that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky. And Abram trusted in God for the fruition of that promise. So, Abram and Sarai journeyed to the land that God promised them and waited for a child. Time passed. They went to Egypt, they went back home—no child. More time passed. They lived their lives. They prospered. They grew in reputation and resources. No child. They took in their nephew, he broke with them and was captured, they rescued him—still no child. And after a great deal of time, God came to Abram and told him, “Do not be afraid.”
The divine beings have spoken those words to others. Gabrielle said them to Mary, an angel appeared to a bunch of shepherds on a cold night outside of Bethlehem and said the same thing. When we hear one of the celestial party say, “Do not be afraid,” we can be assured that something big is about to happen. But whereas Mary responds with resolve and the shepherds with fear and trembling, Abram responds with grief and anger regarding the unfulfilled hope and promise that have caused he and Sarai such pain. Basically, God says I’ve got something amazing for you Abram. And Abram responds—what do I want from you? I am childless.
Abram’s lament is filled with despair—the brightest hope of his soul had become his deepest hurt. By making his complaint known to God. “You have given me no seed,” he not only reminds God of his promise, he invites God into his suffering. To tell God about his deep pain and hopes left unfulfilled, he is asking God to take on his problems that God might make them his own. And even more than securing God’s empathy, to offer his complaints to God—his disappointments, his sorrows, even his anger—is to trust God; to have faith that God will respond, that God wants good for him, that God is big enough to bear his pain and endure his anger.
Abram laments and God makes a covenant with him: a covenant that continues to find fulfillment in us. God responds to Abram’s lament by renewing the promise. And more than that, he expands the promise—not simply will Abram’s descendants be a great nation, they will be more numerous that the stars in the sky. Now whenever Abram doubts the promise, he need only go outside on a cloudless night and look up—up to the heavens, up to the stars, up to God—to reaffirm his hope.
Jesus’s lament is that we have forgotten God’s promise; we’ve forgotten to look up; we’ve forgotten our blessedness; we’ve forgotten that in looking past the cross we will see resurrection. After the Twin Towers fell in New York on 9/11, a drawing of Jesus made its rounds on the internet—a drawing of Jesus with his arms spread wide hovering over the Towers as the souls of the departed were gathered to him—a hen gathering her brood to give them comfort and salvation.
Jesus’s death on the cross is that hen in the fire. It is the covenant God has given his people, the blessings upon blessing. Bad things will happen—suffering and fire and war and divorce and bankruptcy and failure—God does not promise us an easy life. But God does promise us protection and hope and salvation in the face of all those things that challenge and defeat us. We need only gather under the protection of his wings.
Lent 2C: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35
Church of the Ascension – Episcopal, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, March 17, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer