Sermon: A hen in a world of foxes

Sermon for Williamstown

The second Sunday of Lent, 21st of February 2016

Luke 13:31-35

In today’s gospel reading we have two different ‘animals’. Herod Antipas, ruling as Tetrarch at the pleasure of Rome, is described by Jesus as a fox, while Jesus compares himself to a mother hen. This is worrying. Short of a miracle, or intervention by a farmer, in any encounter between a fox and a hen the fox is going to come out better off. And this seems to be true in today’s reading – the fox is in the position of power, the hen is walking towards his death. But, as always, God’s ways are not our ways.

Today, this second Sunday in Lent, we join Jesus on the road. Jesus is travelling towards Jerusalem and the cross when he’s confronted by some Pharisees who warn him to leave because Herod wants to kill him. But Jesus will not be diverted from his purpose: ‘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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”’ Jesus then laments over 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!’

Hen and chicks

It’s an extraordinary lament. Why, to begin with, does Jesus describe himself as a mother hen? There were no biblical precedents for that. God was usually compared to much fiercer animals. When Israel rejected God, for example, Hosea prophesied: ‘I will become like a lion to them, like a leopard I will lurk beside the way. I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart; there I will devour them like a lion, as a wild animal would mangle them.’ (Hosea 13:7-8) There are references throughout the Hebrew Scripture to people taking refuge under God’s wings, but those wings were unlikely to have been imagined to be hen’s wings. God tells Moses to remind the people that God ‘bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Exodus 19:3-5) and in Deuteronomy we read that: ‘As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided [Jacob]; no foreign god was with him.’ (Deuteronomy 32:11-12) While the idea of taking refuge under God’s wings wasn’t an unusual one, I suspect that any of the people using that metaphor imagined that the wings were those of an eagle, not a hen.

But Jesus does not describe himself as a lion or a leopard, a bear or an eagle. Jesus overturns expectations and describes himself as one of the weakest of farm animals. If Herod is a fox, then Jesus describing himself as a hen doesn’t give us much confidence in his ultimate survival. And indeed, Jesus knows that he won’t survive. He is deliberately walking towards his death. It won’t be the fox, Herod Antipas, who kills him. But on the last day of Jesus’ life Governor Pilate will send him to Herod to be seen and mocked, and Luke tells us that: ‘That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.’ (Luke 23:12) In this encounter between the fox and the hen the fox will seem to have won. But that is not the way that God ends the story.

There is a reason that Jesus describes himself as a hen rather than an eagle, even if both birds have wings under which chicks can shelter. Describing himself as a homely, humble, mother hen makes sense when we hear what Jesus is saying. Jerusalem is going to kill him, yet Jesus does not threaten it with mangling and devouring. Instead he laments over it. He laments for the city that will reject him, in the same way that on the cross he will pray ‘‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ and tell a repentant thief: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:34, 43) We see here, as we do throughout the gospel according to Luke, Jesus’ astounding compassion towards even those we might want him to condemn.

There is something both deeply comforting and profoundly confronting about this image of Jesus as a mother hen. We are among the chicks who are gathered under Jesus’ wings; we are among those for whom Jesus willingly died. There is comfort in that. But we live in a world full of foxes, and sometimes we desire more protection than a mother hen can offer. One of the greatest problems for Jesus’ first followers was the sheer fact that the Messiah had been crucified. We see this in the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus, unable to understand how Jesus of Nazareth could have been the one to redeem Israel when he was condemned to death and crucified. We see it in Paul’s letters, when Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’. (1 Corinthians 1:23) Some of Jesus’ first followers expected that the Messiah would come as the ambassador of the God who devours and mangles like a wild animal, and sometimes we want that God, too. With Isaiah we cry out: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!’ (Isaiah 64:1-2) Instead, in Jesus God quietly entered this world as a baby and died on the cross as a condemned criminal. In Jesus we see a God who offers mercy and forgiveness, rather than judgement and condemnation.

Later in that same letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’. (1 Corinthians 1:25). The hen seems weaker than the fox, but we know that ultimately the hen will triumph. However it will not triumph through power and force, by tearing open the heavens and causing the nations to tremble. The hen triumphs through self-sacrificial love that is affirmed and confirmed by God in the resurrection.

We live in a world that admires power and wealth, a world in which violence is used to enforce oppression, and yet we follow a God who entered this world in weakness and poverty, and responded to violence with forgiveness. As chicks sheltering under the wings of the mother hen we too need to let go of our desire for power and recognition, and our will to win, and accept instead the way of humility. In the words of our Lenten song, we must learn to work in the darkness, while trusting in the light. We must respond to the foxes of the world with love. That is not easy, but that is the way of Jesus. In Lent we join Jesus on his road of love, walking to his death, lamenting over those who will kill him, and forgiving them for what they do. This is the God we worship, not a God who triumphs through power, but a God who sacrifices Godself in love. Let us imitate our God and let love be the path we walk upon, this Lent and always. Amen.

Note: The hymn that Williamstown Uniting Church – Electra St is singing every Sunday in Lent is ‘How Long?’ by Robin Mann.


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