To Defy Danger

By in Sermons on March 17, 2019

Luke 13:31-35 Last week we started to explore our Lenten theme of “courage”, and I alluded a bit to Aristotle’s idea of the virtue of courage as being a mid-point, a balance between foolhardiness on the one hand, and cowardice on the other. And I suggested that that wasn’t a bad description of a certain type of courage, in particular, the courage needed in the face of physical danger – the virtue which finds the middle path between foolishly rushing in and timidly retreating. Today, with our theme of Courage to Defy Danger, we find ourselves looking at exactly that situation – Jesus’ response to the very real and very physical danger that faced him in his decision to go to Jerusalem, to put his head into the lion’s den. And once again, I think we’ll find value to in the C.S. Lewis description of courage as ‘the form of all virtues at the testing point’. Our gospel reading begins with some Pharisees coming to warn Jesus. Now one of the things that I’ve found most helpful in expanding my understanding of all sorts of gospel passages is having a basic understanding of the politics of Jesus’ day. I think we have a tendency to just kind of lump lots of Jewish groups together – the Pharisees, the Saducees, the Herodians, the Priests – into a general category of “Jewish leadership who opposed Jesus and got criticised by him”. But here, and in a few other places, we see the Pharisees in particular, seeming to side with Jesus. And that’s perhaps not so surprising; they came from the same places, the rural villages; they addressed the same concerns of how faith in God worked in real day-to-day life; they shared the same suspicion of the way the Temple and the Priesthood seemed to cosy up a little too closely to the forces of Rome. Jesus was clearly at times identified as a Pharisee – the title “Rabbi”, for teacher, was one used almost exclusively amongst the Pharisees, and much of Jesus’ teaching style was that of the Pharisees – not surprising, since that’s who he grew up amongst. Not that the Pharisees didn’t come in for some biting criticism in Jesus’ teaching – but at least to an extent that was just the way that Rabbi’s argued. We have contemporary accounts of Rabbinic debate as a vicious verbal battle, after which those engaged would sit down to share food and wine together in fellowship. In many ways, many of the Pharisees were actually well aligned to much of the teaching of Jesus, and there were certainly Rabbis who became part of the early Christian Church. So it’s not really so strange for there to be Pharisees who wanted to warn Jesus about the danger that Herod posed. They had, after all, been amongst the most cruelly persecuted by previous Roman legates and puppet kings. What is strange is something Jesus says in response. “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem” Huh? We don’t know with a great deal of certainty the biography of many of the Hebrew prophets, but the tradition of Jesus’ day, captured in a work known as “The Lives of the Prophets”, recorded prophets dying almost anywhere except Jerusalem – Jeremiah in Egypt, Ezekiel in Shem, Daniel in Babylon, Hosea, Amos and Joel each in their home villages, and so on. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets”. Clearly Jesus had something else in mind. One clue, perhaps, lies back in that tradition of the “Lives of the Prophets”. About half of the stories end with a prophet dying naturally, often in honour and old age. But of those who came to a violent end, it’s not surprising that they were all killed by the people that God had sent them to. Not surprising; for the role of the prophets was often to speak confronting truths to those who held positions of power and authority, to challenge the status quo, to shake up the established social order. And anyone who does that is going to face resistance, and to face resistance from people who hold power can be a very dangerous thing. Last year thirty journalists around the world – that we know of – were murdered by the political regimes that they were investigating, speaking out against; countless political activists, protesters, leaders and agitators have met similar fates. It’s not that Jerusalem was uniquely likely to kill a prophet – it’s what Jerusalem stood for. Jerusalem was the seat of the powerful religious and political and social system that the words of Jesus were shaking up. Prophets have a great tendency to die at the hands of those they speak against. But then Jesus takes that truth, that observation, and adds something else, something important. 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 Here is something that sets Jesus apart, as the prophet who comes driven not by anger, not by a desire for revenge, not to throw down the powerful as an end in itself, not in the quest for truth, but by love. And crucially, love, not just for those who are oppressed by the system, but for those who are the oppressor. Jerusalem, centre of misused power and corrupt authority, you are so defensive, so frightened, so angry that you kill those who speak the truth, you stone those who are sent to help you. You lash out like a wounded animal or a frightened child, but with all the strength of the a religious and political system behind you, you kill the mother hen who would gather you under her wings. Their power threatened, the powerful lash out. Their privilege challenged, the privileged fight back. Their authority questioned, those with control silence the critic. Even if that threat, that challenge, that questions, comes from a place of love. And so many who begin speaking their challenge from a place of love, in the face of that pushback, become hardened. Words which were loving become angry. The desire to see good becomes the desire to win. Righteous anger at sin becomes hatred of the sinner. And constructive engagement becomes violent opposition. At least, that’s the way it normally works. And then we look to the example of Jesus and see what courage really looks like. Virtue at the testing point; when your genuine and deep desire to seek the good of the other is met by anger and opposition and threats of violence, then the question is asked – will you defy danger, not just with the physical courage that it takes to face the risk, but with the spiritual courage that it takes to resist the temptation to lash out back, to reduce yourself to the level of your enemy, to become no better than, just different from, those you sought to love. Here, it seems to me, is true courage; not the courage to fight bravely, but to bravely refuse to fight. Jesus’ approach to Jerusalem is not seeking out conflict, unnecessarily facing arbitrary danger, it’s not foolhardy courage. But it is a willingness to face a danger that is existentially linked to his mission; the ones who will endanger him are the ones he has come to save. It takes courage to go on into Jerusalem. And it takes even more courage to do so and still refuse to fight back. Courage which can only spring from a deep seated love combined with a genuine clarity of vision and a confident faith in God. Love for the people, love for the city, love even for those who he knows he needs to speak against. Combined with a vision of non-violence, an understanding that it is only the high road that can lead out of the swamp of retribution and the endless circle of conflict. And a confident faith in the goodness and ultimate justice of God. In love, vision and faith, we find courage not just to face danger, but more importantly, courage not to be hardened by danger, not to become the monster that we started out to fight. Amen

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