Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – March 17, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Throughout the ages there have been all kinds of stories about foxes and hens.
Maybe you heard the one about the fox who got into the hen house and ran around in circles causing the hen to become dizzy. When the hen collapses, the fox captures her in his sack and takes her home, where he plans to gobble her up. But along the way the fox stops to rest. As he is snoozing, the hen slips out of the sack and replaces her weight in the sack with a stone. And so, when the fox gets home and reaches into his sack for his supper, the joke is on him.
In these stories the foxes are inevitably depicted as wily and cunning and deceitful and tricky, employing various clever strategies to fill their bellies with some Chick-fil-A. But in most of these stories the foxes are outwitted by the higher wisdom of the hen. They are foiled by those seemingly awkward, seemingly foolish feathered creatures who end up exercising an unexpected power of their own.
This basic premise is seen in all kinds of stories, from Aesop’s fables to the all-time greatest cartoon ever made – Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, which is the same story set in the American Southwest.
Aesop’s versions of these stories date back to five or six hundred years before Jesus! And from the sound of our gospel reading for today, it appears as though Jesus himself was familiar with them.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what he needed to do there. He knew the fate that awaited him. He was determined to carry out his mission. Some Pharisees came to him with a warning: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” It is hard to know what motive the Pharisees might have had in bringing Jesus this warning. They certainly haven’t been concerned about his personal safety before now! Perhaps they were using it as a way to get Jesus out of town. Whatever might have been motivating them, Jesus would not be thrown off course. “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
Herod is described by Jesus as a fox. He must have inherited his wily ways from his father, Herod Senior. Years ago when Herod Senior heard people saying that a new king had been born in Bethlehem, he had every child in that town under the age of two murdered. It was a ruthless and calculating way for a king to keep his hold on power. But as brutal and crafty as his strategy was, this fox was outwitted. The newborn king and his parents had already fled to Egypt.
Herod Junior was following in his father’s footsteps. It was Herod Junior who, when John the Baptist publicly condemned his divorce and remarriage to his sister-in-law, had John put in prison. Herod Junior seemed cunning and powerful, but it was his own dancing stepdaughter and her mother who tricked him into taking the far more grim step of putting John’s head on a platter.
It was Herod Junior who had killed Jesus’ cousin John. It was Herod Junior who Jesus was now calling a fox. “Tell that fox I have work to do here. I’ll go when I’m good and ready.”
If Herod is the fox in this power play, Jesus casts himself as the hen. As he sets his sights on Jerusalem, Jesus says, “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 wing, and you were not willing.”
Hens seem powerless against foxes. Hens seem defenseless. They seem so docile. But they exercise a power of their own! Maternal love is like that. Maternal love and protection is a force of nature, isn’t it? We see this across the animal kingdom. The last place you want to be is between a mother and her brood. I’ve seen the sweetest looking otter mama turn terrifyingly fierce towards me when I rowed too close to her babies in my canoe. This is true for humans too. My wife has a hoodie that says “Mama Bear” on it. Ninety-nine percent of the time my wife is sweet and gentle and soft-spoken and demure. But if you mess with our kids she will bite your face off!
Jesus casts himself as a hen. He won’t be deterred by that fox, Herod. Jesus won’t be thrown off course by his threats.
But at the same time, Jesus has a different problem. There’s a new wrinkle in this story of the fox and the hen, and it has to do with the chicks. As Jesus looks towards the city of Jerusalem he sees a bunch of chicks that don’t want his protection. He sees a bunch of chicks that reject the fierce love he is coming to bring them. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that 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.”
If Herod is the fox and Jesus is the hen, who are we in the story? We are the chicks! We are the ones who go scurrying away, thinking we can handle things on our own. We’re the ones who maybe don’t think the fox is really a threat. We are the ones who reject the loving care of the hen. Throughout the Bible, indeed throughout all of human history, human beings have been like chicks who run away from the help of the hen. We know this. We see it all the time. Human beings can be stubbornly independent. God created us for himself and for community with others, and yet human beings persistently and stubbornly think they can manage on their own.
For instance, men are notorious about not wanting to go to the doctor, right? I remember seeing a billboard for a public health campaign trying to get men to go to the doctor. It said, “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.” And someone had vandalized the sign. Some guy got up there and spray painted the words: “No we won’t!”
There are students who refuse to get help from free tutoring provided by schools. There are married people who refuse to get help from marriage counseling. There are young parents who refuse to ask for help from veteran parents. They’re going to do it their way! One of my biggest frustrations as a pastor is that so many people who need the healing ministry of the church refuse it. In fact, when people’s lives get difficult is often the time they stop coming to church. They don’t want anyone to know about their problems, even here at church, where is should always be OK to not be OK! But none of us want to be seen as weak or vulnerable, as needing help.
This pervasive human stubbornness gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus too, and when it does it breaks his heart. He wants nothing more than to gather us under the shelter of his wings, but oftentimes we’d rather go at it alone. What seems to us like being brave or strong or independent is really a rejection of what he has come to give us.
When Jesus did make his way to Jerusalem, he showed us and the whole world the unexpected power of a mother hen. In Jerusalem, Jesus outwitted every last fox once and for all. And he did it in a way that no one saw coming.
Hens aren’t powerful creatures. They don’t have claws or fangs. They don’t quite have the talons that roosters do. They can peck at an enemy, but usually that’s no match for a hungry fox. And so, when her brood is threatened, a hen exercises a different kind of power. When a fox comes after her chicks, mother hens have been known to jump in front of them. They will hurl themselves into the jaws of their attackers in order to save their brood. It isn’t uncommon for people who keep chickens to go out to the coop the morning after an attack and find the mother hen reduced to a pile of feathers while the chicks are all safe and sound. That’s the strange power of the hen.
I read a story this week about a University of Idaho professor who was studying a range fire when he came upon an odd-looking clump. He kicked at it with his boot and found a bunch of sage grouse chicks underneath what was the remains of their mother. That’s the strange power of the hen.
Mother hens will give themselves for the sake of their brood, and this is precisely what our Lord Jesus has done for us. On the cross, Jesus hurled himself into the jaws of the worst fox of all. He handed himself over to sin, death, and the devil. Talk about clever – Jesus took our rejection and turned it into the means of our salvation! On the third day his work was indeed complete. He rose again so that he might, at last, gather us into his kingdom.
You can stop scurrying away, you know. You can stop trying to make it on your own. You can stop trying to rely on yourself. For Christ Jesus died and rose to make you part of his brood, and he is gathering you under his wing even now.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church