A Project Bigger than Your Life

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem of Peace” 1994

Luke 13:31-35

Our story opens with Jesus still in the Galilee, still on his way to Jerusalem. He’s been on this somewhat desultory journey for several chapters now, and you have to wonder if he’s as determined to get to the holy city as he claims to be in other places in the gospel of Luke.

Jerusalem, of course, is not the only place a prophet might meet a bitter end. Some sympathetic Pharisees approach him with ominous rumors about the dangers right where he is: “Get away from here,” they say, “Herod’s trying to kill you.”

They aren’t talking about Herod the Great who was king when Jesus was born and, according to Luke, died right before his return from Egypt. They’re talking about Herod Antipas, one of the Great’s three sons who each rule one third of their father’s not very big territory.

As rulers of the earth go, Antipas is a bush league potentate. All the same, a threat from any Herod is a serious thing: the Great slaughtered the innocents of Bethlehem, Antipas beheaded John the Baptist. And that’s just for starters in the nasty catalogue of Herodian terror. But Jesus doesn’t scare easily. He dismisses the threat, calling Herod an old “fox.”

Later in this story, as he approaches Jerusalem, he will liken himself to a hen that gathers her chicks under her wings in the face of imminent threat. So when Jesus calls Herod a fox, we imagine he’s thinking about Herod. And why wouldn’t he? Herod fits to a T the image of a wily predator slinking through a hole in the fence, licking his chops at the thought of God’s defenseless brood scattered around the barnyard.

But there’s another meaning of ‘fox’ that fits our story just as well. To call someone a fox was to insult him as cowardly, silly, trivial. In other words, Jesus could be saying that Herod is a gutless wonder. A nasty piece of work, to be sure, but in the great scheme of things, very small potatoes.

Jesus replies, “Tell that old fox I’m going to keep healing today and tomorrow, until the third day”— which is to say, I’m going to do what I do until God determines otherwise, and no puny human king like Herod can stand in the way.

God is in charge, Jesus is on God’s schedule, God will decide. Herod is a laughable inconsequential speck in the universe compared to the mission of infinite reach and eternal consequence that Jesus is carrying out for God.

Jesus knows himself to be the agent of something large and long, wide and deep, indestructible and lasting, something completely unlike a puppet ruler’s tiny jurisdiction in a region half the size of New Jersey.

He is the agent of a realm that can’t be corrupted, overthrown or occupied; a regime that has no imperial designs, no lust to subjugate, and yet encompasses everyone and for all time. Herod’s sovereignty is a meaningless sway over nothing, but the sovereignty of God is cosmic and never ends, even if Jesus dies.

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem of Hope” 1998

As for that death, Jesus seems in charge of it here. He informs his listeners that despite all the threats, it’s not going happen there, in Galilee, Herod’s territory, under his authority. It will take place in Jerusalem, the city of God.

Jerusalem sits at the heart of Luke’s story of Jesus like a magnet. It is, as another preacher put it, a desired and dreaded destination, the site of fulfillment and the scene of failure, a haunting paradox of a place where the most intense spiritual emotions are concentrated and the most ferocious violence is unleashed; a stubborn paradox of a place, where God dwells gloriously in the Temple and God’s prophets meet the stiffest resistance and the ugliest end.

Today Jerusalem still stands for all our stubborn human paradoxes. Jerusalem makes us weep. It made Jesus weep too.

No matter how certain he seems that God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven; no matter how laughable it is that God’s intentions could be thwarted by pretentious human powers; no matter how confident he is that the world is on a unstoppable trajectory of healing and justice, when he pictures Jerusalem, he is overcome with grief.

It sounds so good when you preach it, this “God is winning” message; but when you look at this world…

“I have wanted to gather you,” he laments, embodying the desire of all the prophets for the peace of God’s people. “I would have, but you would not,” he cries, summing up the longing of God for the whole human race.

The sight of Jerusalem wrenches out of Jesus the question of the ages, “How long, O Lord? Will things ever change?” It is a question of bewilderment, of unrequited and squandered love, of futility. It is a form of that other appalling question that Jesus will speak to the empty heavens outside the City, hanging on a Roman cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Here is a vital lesson for us. Watch Jesus and learn that you can dismiss Herod as a pipsqueak and still question God. You can laugh at human pretentiousness and still feel the anguish of no end in sight. You can weep and wail and shake your fist and demand in your grief-stricken rage that God keep God’s unkept promises and still walk to Jerusalem with your face set like flint and your spirit resting in God’s hands.

Lamentation and confidence ground each other. And if we never lament, never wonder in our heart of hearts if anything we do makes a whit of difference, never demand answers and insist on divine faithfulness, it may be that we have never seriously engaged the world.

John Thomas, former general minister of the UCC, once observed that futility is the question hanging over every thoughtful, honest disciple. How many times have we prayed for peace, and the tanks rolled anyway, the planes flew, the bombs fell, and all those people died?  How many gun deaths and mass shootings have happened after we vowed, ‘Never again!’?

Week after week in church, we talk confidently about God’s promises, about ministry as transformation, about creating communities of radical hospitality and bold global mission, but most of the time the best any of us actually does is help a few wounded souls – and our own – limp from one day to the next, coping as best we can.

In homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens, despite the selfless efforts of staff and donors, no one is solving the problem of hunger and homelessness. Neither are the politicians, who could.

We have the poor with us always, abandoned to the whims of the pious powerful for whom justice is a question of personal choice and political expediency. Social workers drown in caseloads. Parents can’t protect their children from the bizarre and hurtful fantasies the culture seduces them to dream.

And you and I?  I can’t speak for you, but I know that I will carry to my grave serious sins I did not want to commit, but committed anyway; unhealed hurts I want to forgive but can’t; gifts and energy I meant to use for the things of God, but have not, and likely never will.

A sense of defeat haunts all our hopes, Thomas observes. A victory in one part of the world, or in one part of our lives, seems sooner or later always to be overshadowed by some greater tragedy, some more horrific evil. Our noble personal intentions are thwarted by our tax dollars at work.

It is no wonder that in the face of this intractable complexity, many good people lose heart and decide to withdraw, tend their own gardens, and let the rest of the world go to hell if it wants to.

This is not the path Jesus takes. With tears in his eyes, he keeps going. Without for a moment minimizing the enormity of the pain he sees in all the Jerusalems of this world, he insists that he is engaged in a project greater and more coherent than the nonsensical and agonizing frustrations of his small slice of history. He sees over the immediate horizon. He is about a project bigger than his life.

Such a project requires a disciplined faith that knows the difference between hope and optimism, struggling daily in the dark without the solace of outcomes. It requires a face set like flint towards Jerusalem and all its painful paradoxes. It requires a steadfastness born of grief and lament, a trudging sort of hope that in practice is often nothing more than putting one aching foot in front of the other.

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–Avraham Binder, “Jerusalem the Golden” 1998

What makes this futile, foolish trudge down the road to Jerusalem redemptive is that, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, its foolishness is revealed as wisdom in the end, and its futility becomes the occasion for new striving. This is the sort of faith Paul encouraged when in the face of encompassing difficulty he wrote, “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

This is the quality of faith we are invited to probe and try on and share by accompanying Jesus on the Lenten journey—the sort of hope that Frances Moore Lappe, a long-time fighter against world hunger, was talking about when she wrote, “If you are working on a question that can be solved in your lifetime, you may be wasting your life.”

Wasting my life? That judgment will surely seem exaggerated, even harsh, to people like me who are fainthearted stragglers on the trudge up to the holy city, weak in vision and self-justifyingly unsure whether there’s much to write home about at the end.

But to those who walk the futile road so stubbornly; who walk it in the company of the saints who have walked it before them and in the company of those who will come after them; to all who have experienced the long defeat and fight on with a longer courage anyway, it is the gospel truth, the Word of the Lord.

So let those with ears of faith to hear, listen.

2 thoughts on “A Project Bigger than Your Life

  1. Rosa

    Thank you–this is another wonderful piece of work. I so appreciate your ability to name the paradoxes (I don’t think I’ll forget “a sense of defeat haunts all our hopes” for a long time to come)–you draw them with starkness and gentleness at once. It is a relief to have the hardship named so clearly and still find the glimmers of hope that insist on being noticed in the midst of all those little and big defeats that define ministry for me right now. Peace.

    Reply
    1. sicutlocutusest Post author

      Thank you, Linda. The paradoxes are what keep me anchored in the Christian tradition: it’s not easy to embrace them and negotiate them, but at least it’s real. I appreciate your taking the time to comment very much.

      Reply

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