Reality Check

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent

Readings: Genesis xv.1–12, 17–18: Psalm xxvii: Philippians iiii.17 – iv.1: Luke xiii.31-35

This morning’s gospel is a curious vignette, only found in Luke’s gospel, and one of those passages it would be easy to gloss over – but there is much to ponder. First of all, there is the sense of dislocation caused by the Pharisees. Why on earth should the Pharisees – so often the target of Jesus’ least restrained criticism – go out of their way to help him? So used are we to Pharisees being painted in the gospels that even these words, which on the surface are about friendly warning, are tinged with sinister intent. Are they trying to deflect Jesus from his task, his journey to Jerusalem (which takes a long time in Luke)? Anyway, Jesus will have none of it. He knows that the core task of ushering in his Kingdom depends on the prophetic signs he is performing – curing ailments, casting out demons, as signs of the liberation he comes to bring. Then he turns his attention to the final and definitive act of liberation – that of his own death, for which he must go to Jerusalem, in the manner of so many before him, but marked with uniqueness, because of all that will follow.

Luke here portrays Jesus as the Prophet – one who must meet his death in Jerusalem if he is to fulfil the divine plan. If he is shaken from that course, it exposes him as a false prophet, which is presumably what the Pharisees intend. In any case, Jesus sees the questioning of the Pharisees here for what it is.

His words are not only dismissive – they border on the contemptuous. The Pharisees have failed to recognise just how far they have to travel. They are playing catch-up. Events have overtaken them. It is too late. Jesus is already, in heart and mind, on his way to Jerusalem, where the decisive events of salvation are to take place. Herod – and the Pharisees, come to that – are yesterday’s news. There are more critical people, and things, to worry about. In a sentence Jesus puts Herod in his place – an old fox, who, sly and cunning as he may be, is still in reality a powerless, twitching puppet. And Jesus’ words, read in this way, may be read as a conscious abandonment of the world of the established order, as he goes to Jerusalem not merely to embrace a new order but to create one. And when he does so, those same Pharisees will have to accept him or reject him – there will be no middle ground. Those who have been running both with the hare and the hounds will be forced to confront the truth that there is no ‘middle way’ with Jesus. He is either the incarnate Son of God, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, you have to be open in your opposition to a charlatan, a dreamer or a blasphemer. If he is, then your whole life, and the reason for it, is turned on its head. The Pharisees knew the power of the idea, and, more to the point, the power of the person.

We shouldn’t underestimate the effect of Jesus’ words on himself. He points to his death as the consequence of his going to Jerusalem, the place where prophets are stoned. Very often bereavement causes us disturbance not merely for the suffering and death of another, but because it acts as a reminder of our own mortality. Here Jesus points to his own death, possibly avoidable but inevitable if he is to be faithful and truthful – and we may consider all those moments in scripture when he foretells his own death – and each is a foretaste of his agony, all to be gathered up in the moments of terror in Gethsemane. In George Bernard Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion the Lady Lavinia, about to be sent into the arena to perish for her Christian faith, says

What he would have called my faith has been oozing away minute by minute whilst I’ve been sitting here, with death coming nearer and nearer, with reality becoming realler and realler, with stories and dreams fading away into nothing.

Death is the ultimate reality, and Jesus must undergo it, as must we all. This is a reminder that when we minister in parishes we are dealing with the reality of living and dying: every call from a funeral director, every bereavement visit, every rite and every graveside a reminder to us of mortality and finitude. And reality becomes, in Shaw’s words, realler and realler. How important it is to speak of resurrection at these moments, in our preaching and conversation! But it cannot be mere words, but must spring from a deep and graceful inner conviction of faith and hope, formed through the interior life of grace, that our own dying will be in the company of one who has travelled that route already; and that through his dying we can live in the hope of the eternal life which he promises, a life beyond our imagining and our limitations. The journey to death, which Jesus speaks of in this morning’s gospel, he undertakes not merely for himself but for us all; thus (as the hymn puts it)

between our sins and their reward,
We set the passion of thy Son, Our Lord.

The Lenten journey is one which ends in the reality of death, but which points beyond itself to the glory of the eternal life to which we are called, and for which we were created. Part of this season’s gift to us is that it makes us confront reality in our lives – that we will die – and that when we do so, our existence will be placed squarely in the hands of the living God. And it is this God who raised Jesus from the dead, to show that death has no dominion over him. May God grant us, then, the grace to persevere on this journey of reality with Jesus; may we receive the needful gifts of greater faith, greater trust in God, and his purposes, that we may endure, and with Christ, prevail.

Preached at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, on Sunday 24 February 2013

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