Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The Second Sunday of Lent, 13th of March 2022
Genesis 15:1-11, 17-18
We in Australia are used to seeing one level of government blame another for any failings, passing the buck back and forth between them. We have seen it happen throughout the pandemic and most recently after the floods in Queensland and NSW; state and federal politicians disagreeing on whose responsibility it is to do disaster mitigation or call out the defence force. In today’s gospel reading we might be seeing a little first-century buck passing between Herod Antipas and Pilate. Some Pharisees warn Jesus to ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you’. Luke has not previously shown the Pharisees as supporters of Jesus, and in Jesus’ response he seems to believe that they have come directly from Herod. If Herod does want to kill Jesus, why would those with access to him warn Jesus? It could be that they secretly want to drive Jesus out of Herod’s jurisdiction and into that of Pilate. Let Pilate deal with this troublemaker!
Herod did not need to worry. He will not have to take responsibility for Jesus. Jesus is going to go to Jerusalem, and he will die there, but in his own time and following God’s schedule, not that of Herod or even that of Governor Pilate. Herod Antipas thinks that he is in power, even though the Romans will not even allow him to call himself ‘king’. He is not, and Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees makes that clear. Jesus is unafraid of the man who killed John the Baptist and now apparently wants to kill him. Describing himself later as a hen does not mean that Jesus is accepting the power of the fox.
In the world today it looks as though the foxes are in charge. Today the world’s eyes are on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from which more than two million refugees, half of them children, have fled. We now hear less news from Afghanistan, where the economy has collapsed under the Taliban and ninety-five per cent of households are facing food insecurity. We never heard much about Yemen, where after seven years of war twenty million people need humanitarian assistance to survive. We see the foxes in power around the world, and lament as we watch the chicks being devoured. It would be no wonder if we joined Abram in his suspicion that God might not fulfil God’s promises.
Abram had left his country and his family at the word of God. God had promised him blessing and prosperity, and Abram had received it. He ‘was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold’. (Genesis 13:2) But he had no children. So when the Lord again approached him, and promised to be a shield to him and to reward him greatly, Abram’s response was not to thank the God who had already made him rich. It was to question the Lord, to answer back. Given that Abram now had all those animals, silver and gold, it would have been understandable if the Lord responded to this by chastising Abram for his ingratitude. The Lord’s response was different. God instead made a covenant with Abram. Commentators agree that the smoking fire pot and flaming torch passing between pieces of animal carcases was a ritual of obligation. They suggest that in this rite the one who passed between the animals’ bodies was agreeing to be dismembered like the animals if they failed to do what they had promised. The astounding thing is that in this rite the Lord is the only one who makes any promise. Abram does not pass between the pieces and promise to worship God. Given that Abram is our ancestor in the faith, it appears that we can question God, answer God back, ask for guarantees from God, and God will still bless us. The story of Abraham tells us that when we look at the pain and suffering throughout the world, we are allowed to question, lament, and complain to the Lord.
Today’s gospel reading then suggests how God responds to the world’s pain and suffering. Turning from his interaction with the Pharisees and his message for Herod, Jesus speaks of Jerusalem and says to it, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings’. By here describing himself as a hen Jesus is doing something new. The Bible is full of metaphors that compare God to an animal, but they are all fierce, wild animals: lions and leopards and bears. Even when the psalms and the prophets speak of people taking refuge under God’s wings, the wings are those of an eagle, not a hen. And yet here Jesus compares himself to a homely, vulnerable, humble, mother hen.
Jerusalem is going to kill Jesus, but Jesus does not threaten it. He does not describe himself as a lion or a bear who will mangle and devour his murderers. 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 will 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, even the foxes who devour the chicks.
I love this image of Jesus as a mother hen. I have said before that one of the saints whose writings I find most helpful is Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth century English mystic. She wrote about Jesus as mother, describing his maternal love for us, and said:
A mother’s work touches us most nearly, is carried out with the greatest alacrity, and is the most reliable. Its nearness is because it is the most natural, its alacrity is because it is the most loving, and its reliability is because it is most true. No one could even perform this service perfectly except Christ alone … This lovely, loving word Mother is so sweet and so close to the heart of nature that it cannot really be used of anyone but him.
There has been a lot of discussion among theologians about the difficulties describing God as ‘Father’ can cause for people who have had abusive or neglectful fathers. Describing Jesus as ‘Mother’ can create the same difficulties for those who has abusive or neglectful mothers. When talking about Jesus as mother I am not suggesting that we have all had good mothering and can use our experience of that to understand Jesus’ love for us. But when Julian of Norwich says that the name ‘mother’ can only be used of Jesus she is reminding us that even if our relationships with our own parents have caused us harm we can turn to the God whose love for us is without limit. Psalm 27 says, ‘If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up’ and the prophet Isaiah reassures us that even if a woman was to forget her nursing-child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb, God will not forget us: ‘See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’. (Isaiah 49:15-16) Whether we had good or bad parents, or simply human parents who were a bit of both, we are included in the chicks who are gathered under Jesus’ wings.
While the hen might seem to lose to the fox, while the Herod who became friends with Pilate over Jesus’ execution (Luke 23:12) seems triumphant, at the heart of our faith is the belief that ultimately the hen will triumph. In this encounter between hen and fox, the hen’s self-sacrificial love is affirmed and confirmed by God in the resurrection. The message of Christianity is that love wins. Love always wins. To again quote for Mother Julian:
Spiritual enlightenment came [to me] with the words, ‘Do you want to know what our Lord meant in all this? Learn it well: love was what he meant. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? Out of love. Stay with this and you will learn and know about love, but you will never know or learn anything else from it – not ever.’ So I was taught love was what our Lord meant. And I saw with absolute certainty that before God made us he loved us, and that his love never slackened, nor ever will.
It is because of her certainty of God’s love that Julian of Norwich was able to make the shining affirmation for which she is best known: ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well’. In these difficult times, as we mourn the pain of the world and walk with Jesus on the road to his death, the hope we have and hold is faith in the God who loves us as a mother and who protects us as a hen protects her chicks. As we lament over the pain of the world, and pray for its healing, as well as doing our own small part towards caring for the vulnerable, we can hold on to the reassurance offered to us by a fourteenth-century mystic. Because we know that at the core of the universe is love, we believe that ‘all will be well and all will be well and all manner of thing will be well’. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987, p. 124-5.
 Revelations of Divine Love, p. 169.
 Revelations of Divine Love, p. 55.