SERMON Blessed is He…

Sunday, I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, where I am preaching next week too. This is what I preached, more or less.

Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)

  • Genesis 15:1-18
  • Psalm 27
  • Philippians 3:17–4:1
  • Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. ’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Luke 13:31-35 ESV)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

We’re going to hear those words in a few weeks, on Palm Sunday, on the day Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as a conquering hero and a delivering king.

Today, though, we hear them slightly differently. In a lament and warning. This is, after all, the season of Lent, of solemn introspection, of walking with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what is coming — triumph follower by betrayal and death.

In fact, our reading today begins with a warning. King Herod wants to kill you, some Jewish religious leaders tell Jesus. Flee, get away from here. Save yourself. Maybe they are fans of his work — after all, Jesus is doing great things. And they want to see him continue, want to see him succeed, whatever that means to them. So go, run away, far away, and keep doing what you are doing. Because otherwise, King Herod is going to put an end to it.

And Jesus … Jesus tells the Pharisees what he is doing, today and tomorrow, and on the day after — on the third day — he is finished. But that doesn’t matter, because Jesus must do this work, must go on his way, must make his way to Jerusalem, to the seat of Herod’s power, to the House of God, and must suffer the fate of so many prophets before him.

I don’t know if Lent is a big deal here. It is in many of the Lutheran churches I have worshiped and served at. We take seriously this matter of Christ’s suffering and his journey to death. It’s a big deal for us Lutherans, and our hymnal is a much more … somber book because of it. There’s not a lot of overlap between your hymnal and that published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are a people who take suffering and death seriously. Suffering is not a puzzle to be solved, an inconvenience we seek to overcome, a moral failing that forever stains the one who suffers and makes them less than fully human or less than completely a beloved child of God. Suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition, a huge part of Israel’s story as the people of God dealt with their failure to be the people of God. Israel suffers for its sin and faithlessness, yes — by living under foreign rule, by facing war and famine and conquest and exile. All of these things God promised Moses in the wilderness and they came to pass.

Because Israel forgot who it was, and forgot who had called it into being.

Over time, in scripture, as God deals with this wayward people, God grows closer to them, does more of the work, promises to meet them and redeem them in their poverty, their misery, and their exile.

Until God becomes one of them. One of the people of the promise given to Abraham — descendants greater than the stars in the sky, a land of your own, and a blessing to the entire world. God joins them, in their conquest, in their exile, as they face a brutal occupying army that knows no kindness and no mercy. And a puppet king in Herod, who rules Israel not for the benefit of the people he reigns over, nor for the benefit of the God who called them into being, but for the Romans — outsiders, foreigners — who hold what appears to everyone as real power. Tangible and brutal power.

This is the world God joins us in. He meets the suffering of his people and he heals sickness and casts out demons. Jesus raises the dead, feed multitudes, and proclaims the coming kingdom of God. And he is slowly empowering his disciples — us — to do the same.

But if we’re tempted to think this is a glorious task that grants us power and privilege, Jesus reminds us of something important — Jerusalem is an occupied city, a city inhospitable to prophets like Jesus who come to hold the leaders of Israel, the shepherds of Israel, accountable. A prophet doesn’t just warn of the coming consequences of God’s judgment upon his faithless people, but he also speaks words of redemption. Judgement is never God’s last word on human sinfulness — redemption and resurrection are. And that is always the case, at least until the coming Day of Judgement.

There is no glory in this calling. Not in the crushing adoration of the crowds that follow Jesus everywhere. Not in the confused response of the disciples who cannot seem to keep up with Jesus. Not in the demons cast out who proclaim what no human seems able to confess, that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the Son of God. This is a doomed enterprise, and it has been doomed from the start. It will end in betrayal and arrest, in torture and death. With followers who were once eager to accompany Jesus into death scattered and frightened. And very much alive.

This, my sisters and brothers, is our journey in Lent. This is why we have this season, why we take this journey, why we have a church year. To remember all of the story. Not just the promise of resurrection glory, not just to teach ourselves God’s instructions for faithfully living together given through Moses and the Apostle Paul. To remember Jesus came, struggled, wept over this city he could not and would not save from siege and destruction, and in anticipation of the things to come, he gave in to the betrayal of God’s people and death at the hands of the Romans.

We are making our way to that Cross. There is no escaping it. And sisters and brothers, the Cross of Christ is what the true Glory of God looks like.

It’s hard to think of God’s glory as betrayed and broken, as tortured and beaten, but there it is. Raised high. For all humanity to see.

Now, we Lutherans aren’t completely given over to gloom. We know an empty tomb when we look into it. We know a resurrected savior when we meet him on the road. Well, actually, we don’t, but neither do you. No one does until he breaks bread with us. But we know how to celebrate, how to proclaim “He is risen!”

However, we are not there yet. We are walking, breathlessly, tired, confused, and not sure entirely what happens next, with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, working miracles and teaching wondrous things along the way.

We are the brood under his wings. We are the sheep his fold. And right now, we are with him, moving, never stopping, always in motion. Going his way, to the fate that awaits him. That awaits us.

Death. Resurrection. Ascension. Glory in blood. And tears. And the iron of nails, the hemp of ropes, the painful prick of thorns, the sharp tip of a spear. Glory in an empty tomb, in a wadded up and crumpled burial shroud. Glory in broken bread and a shared cup of wine.

Glory. All of it.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

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