Monday, February 22, 2016


Luke 13:31-34[1]
I think for most of us, it can be a challenge to find a way to get a handle on our relationship with God. When we think about relationships, we normally have in mind the connections we have with people. We can interact with people. We can talk to them, we can laugh with them, we can touch them and they can touch us back. Nevertheless, human relationships can be incredibly challenging. Even though you may have spent a lifetime living, eating, laughing, and loving with another person, it can still be incredibly difficult to know what is going on inside. You can spend a whole lifetime with another person and still not feel like you really know him or her.
How much more difficult is it to carry on a relationship with God, whom we can’t see. We can talk to God, but unless you have a special gift that I don’t have, we don’t hear God speaking to us in audible words. Yes, we may have a feeling that God is telling us something, or leading us in a particular direction, but it’s incredibly easy to misinterpret a “feeling.” And, although Jesus made God more “real” to us by living as a human being, in our time we can’t actually touch Jesus, or God for that matter, in the same way we can touch another human being. I think one of the great challenges of our faith is how to maintain a relationship with God throughout our lives, through thick and thin, come what may.
Our Gospel lesson for today addresses what I think is the crucial element in this challenge. To better understand this text, I think we would do well to put it in the context of Luke’s Gospel as a whole. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows he is going to complete his mission of giving up his life.[2] As Luke recounts this story, he seemingly drags it out—for almost half of the book! The reason for this is that, as he tells the story of Jesus’ journey, Luke recounts a great deal of Jesus’ teachings about what it means to follow him.[3]
In this particular chapter, Luke begins with a story at the synagogue—just as he began his account of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ initial visit to the synagogue in Nazareth, as you may recall, provoked criticism because he made it clear God’s mercy was not going to be bound by the people’s prejudices. In this chapter, Jesus’ visit to the synagogue provokes a similar reaction (Luke 13:10-17). When he heals a woman who had been bound for 18 years, the synagogue leader responded with a very stingy view of God: she should have come on another day, not the Sabbath (Lk. 13:14).[4] But Jesus reminded them that if they had the decency to unbind their livestock for a simple drink of water on the Sabbath, how much more should God’s grace be allowed to free someone who had suffered for years (Lk. 13:15-16).[5]
This sets the stage: Jesus represents a view of God that most of the Jewish people could not accept because they were too tied into their traditional ways of thinking. And so Jesus laments over them all when he laments over Jerusalem: “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, and you were not willing!” (Lk. 13:34).[6] His view of Jerusalem—meaning the people of Israel as a whole—as those who are unwilling to live in relationship with God echoes sentiments expressed throughout the Hebrew Bible.[7]
His view of God as a mother hen trying to gather her chicks under her wings is one that may seem startling to us at first, but it also expresses one of the key messages of the Bible. God loves us with a love that will not let us go. God is constantly working in each and every life to “gather us” to himself through various ways. In fact, some would say God will use whatever it takes in order to bring his people back to him.[8] But Jesus knew that many of the people of his day and time were “unwilling” to be drawn into God’s ways and God’s life in this way.[9]
It seems to me that when we think about our own relationship with God, that’s the fundamental question we have to address: are we willing to be drawn into God’s ways and God’s life, no matter what the cost? It is not a question that is simple or easy. It’s not simple because it requires us to be willing to open ourselves to what God may be doing in our lives.[10] That doesn’t always line up with the agenda we have for ourselves.
And it’s not easy because it’s not something that takes place quickly. God draws us into his life and his love over time as we open ourselves to him by practicing spiritual disciplines. Traditionally that has taken the form of prayer, solitude, submission, and service.[11] But for some of us, there are other disciplines that can be more helpful: being mindful of God’s presence every day, finding ways to practice our faith in the routines of life, or simply experiencing God through the beauty of a sunset.[12]
Whatever means we use, the key is to be willing to open ourselves to God’s presence and work in our lives. Like any relationship, it’s something we have to cultivate. That can be challenging because we can feel vulnerable when we open ourselves, and most of us don’t like feeling vulnerable.[13] So we may find ourselves unwilling to face the difficulty and the discomfort of allowing ourselves to be drawn more fully into relationship with God. But that just leaves us stuck in the same old ruts. On the other hand, if we’re willing, it means finding ways of opening our lives more fully to God’s presence.[14] It means embracing the new life that God wants to give us through repentance and new levels of obedience. It means cultivating our relationship with God. At the end of the day, however, it means responding to what God is doing in our lives by being willing.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/21/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 534, where he points out that “Central to the Lukan depiction of Jesus’ mission is its grounding in the divine purpose.” He summarizes further, “As the divine agent of salvation” Jesus “must carry the divine message to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem kills those whom God sends.” Cf. similarly, Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 169, where he says that “the approaching passion in Jerusalem casts its shadow over” this whole section of Luke’s Gospel.
[3] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 105, where he says that Luke’s purpose is to “solidify th relation between disciples and master, to provide instruction in the way of discipleship, and to encourage people to join him on the journey of serving God’s purpose.”
[4] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 523. He says that the synagogue leader “publicly challenges Jesus’ authority as a teacher and reasserts himself as the authorized interpreter of Scripture” by simply making a pronouncement that implied “the legitimacy of his interpretation is a given.” He also adds that according to scribal tradition, her condition was not life-threatening, therefore “Her treatment could thus wait until tomorrow, so, …, her need did not supersede Sabbath law.”
[5] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 519: “Jesus’ encounter with this woman and his ensuing interpretation of her liberation as a necessary manifestation of the divine will, an outworking of the presence of the kingdom, on this day, the Sabbath.” Cf. also ibid., 525, where he points out that Jesus counter-argument expresses his view that “today, this day, even a Sabbath day” is “the right time for the redemptive purpose of God to be realized.”
[6] This is a very difficult saying because it can tend toward anti-Semitism. Unfortunately that is an anachronistic reading of the text. Jesus, as a Jewish teacher, carries on the tradition of intra-Jewish debate about the people’s obedience to God (or lack thereof). In that vein, Green, The Gospel of Luke, 538, says, “How will Jerusalem respond to Jesus? Will its inhabitants receive him with pronouncements of blessing appropriate to ‘one who comes in the name of the Lord’? Or will they declare him to be a false prophet, an apostate, as they had God’s earlier envoys? Jesus seems to hope for one response while expecting another.”
[7] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 537: “Jerusalem, then stands as a cipher for Israel as a whole: hence, not only must it be the ultimate destination of the prophet proclaiming the message of reform, but it is there, where the message of reform contrasts most sharply with accepted beliefs and practices, that resistance to the prophet will reach its acme.”
[8] Cf. Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi, 15, where he says that Franciscan spirituality “incorporates the seeming negative and moves our life to its hard edges, thus making things like failure, tragedy, and suffering the quickest doorways to the encounter of God.” He continues, “There is nothing that God cannot and will not use to bring us to divine union—even sin (felix culpa).” Felix culpa is a latin phrase meaning “happy fault,” and it is prominent in the Roman Catholic liturgy for the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer,” the “happy fault” referring to the original fall of humankind into sin.
[9] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 539: “Jesus so identifies with God’s care for Jerusalem that he is able to affirm his long-standing yearning to gather together his people for shelter and in restoration. Alas, this desire is not shared by the Jerusalemites.”
[10] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8-14, where he describes the process of opening up three inner spaces: our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.  He says (p. 8), “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us--and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”
[11] For a summary of these disciplines, see Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline. For an account of how mainline Protestant churches are using them as a source of renewal, see Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us
[12] Cf. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, xv, where she describes spiritual discipline as the process of “becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.”
[13] Cf. Gail R. O'Day, “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel,” Word & World 8 (Winter 1988): 54, “We are afraid to embrace newness, to accept transformation, because such acceptance would mean letting go of the things that defined our lives before newness was offered. We stubbornly cling to our definitions of life, because we are afraid to accept God's offer of new identity.”
[14] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 56, where he says that the deepest meaning of our personal experience is “a constant invitation calling us to turn our hearts to God and so discover the full meaning of our lives.”

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