Sermon: Lent 3, Year C – 28th February 2016

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
The readings today are rich and powerful, each in their own way, but they have a common theme of God’s amazing love, compassion, grace and mercy to us. Lent is a perfect time to reflect on the wideness of God’s mercy, even as we come to understand more deeply that we do not deserve it. In the passage from Isaiah God is calling his people to return to him; to turn away from material things and to eat and drink of the food that really nourishes them – the love of God. When even the wicked return to God, he will have mercy on them and he will abundantly pardon them.
I am currently reading a book by Mitch Albom, called Have a little faith. It is a true story of a young man struggling with his own place in life and records his interactions with a Jewish Rabbi and an African-American Christian Pastor.

The Rabbi is old and wise and has always been strong in his faith. The middle-aged Pastor has, in his past, been a drug dealer and user, a thief, spent time in prison, has been destitute and homeless and turned away from God many times. Each of these men teach the younger man much about God’s love and mercy, even though they have each been subject to prejudice and hate. This story caught my attention: The young man was recounting a time in high school when the story of the parting of the Red Sea was told using a Jewish commentary: ‘After the Israelites safely crossed the Red Sea, the Egyptians chased after them and were drowned. God’s angels wanted to celebrate the enemy’s demise. According to the commentary, God saw this and grew angry. He said, in essence, “Stop celebrating. For those were my children too”. The young man said this was the first time that he had heard that God might love ‘the enemy’ as well. He never forgot that story.

This is worthy of reflection: who do we see as ‘the enemy?’ Does God shed tears over the deaths of all people in wars or conflict, no matter what ‘side’ they are on? We are confronted with the horror of war today, in a way that was never possible before the invention of television. But even now, we are only told what the media decides, or is able, to reveal. Can we, as Christians, ever think that the slaughter of people is justified because of their religious or political beliefs? Islamic State is a powerful evil in the world today, but even in this group, there are innocent victims without the will to kill. God still loves the worst offender and desires them to return to him. That does not mean that crimes will go unpunished, that is a different issue. So our prayers should include those who commit such horrific acts, that they turn to Christ and sin no more.
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’. In other words, humans cannot fully grasp the ways of God. One commentary said, ‘They are incomprehensible to us; even though God reveals them to humankind, we cannot fully understand them. It is for this reason that God’s ways are not to be identified with man’s ways’. I find this a very comforting thought, because humankind hasn’t got a very good track record of looking after the world and everything in it. However, there are those who are certain that they do know the mind of God, and go about teaching all manner of heresy, and they attract a following because they offer certainty – a set of rules to live by – black and white solutions – no room for shades of grey. People are drawn into cults, rigid thinking, even willingness to do violence to those who differ from them. It is human nature to be uncomfortable with uncertainty – we seek to bring order to chaos.
We also have a tendency to prefer everyone else to think and believe as we do – we may be certain that our way is the right way. In the book the young man asked the Rabbi why there were so many faiths bickering with each other and the world was so fractured when we are supposed to come from the one God. The Rabbi answered ‘…would you want the world to all look alike? No. The genius of life is its variety. Even in our Jewish faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates. In Christianity; in other faiths, the same thing…This is the beauty. It’s like being a musician. If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts. It’s the blending of the different notes that makes the music’ ‘The music of what?’ asks the young man. ‘Of believing in something bigger than yourself’ said the Rabbi. But what if someone from another faith won’t recognize yours? Or wants you dead for it? The Rabbi replies: ‘That is not faith. That is hate…and if you ask me, God sits up there and cries when that happens’. End of quote.

And what of the Christian Pastor in this book? After his conversion and ordination, He began a ministry called, ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ where he welcomed the homeless, the drug and alcohol affected and others down on their luck. He took in those that others had turned away. He gave them food and shelter in a broken down church with crumbling walls and a leaking roof. There was no money to fix it. He told his congregation. ‘God don’t care about no building. He cares about you, and what’s in your heart.’ Did he try to convert those who came to him? The answer is no, not overtly. He gave them food and a safe place to stay; he gave them dignity. His actions showed the love of God not the judgment of the world. His own life experience had shown him how powerful this approach can be. So when we want to convert others, we must consider our own approach and motivation, and look to what is in our hearts.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is warned to run because Herod (that fox, as Jesus calls him) wants him dead. Instead of saving his life, he continues his saving work among the people and makes his way to Jerusalem – to the Cross.
Jesus laments the future of Jerusalem. ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; and you were not willing!’ A hen will die protecting her chicks. It has been said that fire-fighters in the bush have often come across a dead bird covering her chicks. She could easily have flown away, but she chose to stay there and die and protect her young. A hen has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If a fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Many people wanted Jesus to be a warrior, a hero that would raise an army against the Roman Empire. But Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. If we want to know more of what God is like, we must look to Jesus who was willing to die a horrible death to save us from all that keeps us from the love and protection of God. We are all in this boat of humanity: the good, the bad and the ugly and God loves us all. As we move forward on our Lenten journey, can we become more like Christ who has abundant compassion and mercy and tells us to love one another as he has loved us?

The final hymn that we will sing today captures this sentiment very well, in particular these two verses:
For the love of God is broader than the measures of man’s mind; and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.
The Lord be with you.