Readings: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Luke 13:31-35/Fair Trade fortnight
Early one Sunday morning in the mid 1970s I decided to give up on God. I was reminded of this as I prepared to talk about my spiritual journey at our homegroup earlier this week.
So why was I giving up on God and how did I imagine it panning out? In my early teens I’d had a period of searching for something. I’d bought a bible, read most or maybe even all of it, prayed pretty much every night, got confirmed and gone to church most Sundays. And it had made no difference to anything. I was tired and disillusioned. I thought I’d tried hard enough and it was time God put in a bit of effort. So, somewhere between the ages of 13 & 15 – I don’t remember clearly – I signed off with the words: “ I can’t hold on to you, God, you’ll have to hold on to me”. It wasn’t so much a prayer, more a letter of resignation. I certainly didn’t expect God to take any notice, and apart from becoming steadily less diligent & heartfelt in my religious practices I didn’t even take much notice myself. But the memory of that morning came back to me some years later when as a student I thought again about the Christian faith and found that it sounded true. And, given that I’m here today in a Christian community and in relationship with God, I guess you could say that God did hold on to me – and didn’t accept my resignation.
But maybe that explains why our reading from Genesis 15 was for some years one of my favourite bible passages. People who have looked at the customs of the ancient near east, that is Abraham’s time and culture, say that in his day two partners in an agreement (a binding covenant) would cut up animals, lay out the pieces and both ritually walk between them promising to keep the agreement or else let themselves be cut in pieces like the slaughtered animals.
In our passage God asks Abraham to get hold of a number of animals. This Abraham obediently does, and apparently he knows what’s coming next as he doesn’t stop there. He kills all the animals and lines them up ready for the covenant ritual. The scene is set for a solemn pact between Abram and God – but then as night falls and darkness closes in, Abraham falls into a deep sleep.
Now if I were about to make a binding covenant and stake my life on it, I think I’d want my covenant partner to be as fully engaged and committed as I was. If you compare it with a wedding, I think we would all want any prospective spouse to be not only physically present but also awake (and sober). So you might think that Abraham nodding off at this critical moment would be a bit of a showstopper. But it looks as though this is what God has had in mind all along. Because, in a dark rather spooky sequence, bordering on the nightmarish, as Abraham sleeps a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passes between the animal pieces. And verse 18 tells us that the covenant was concluded, even with Abraham asleep.
So for years this passage stood for me as an example right at the very beginning of the story of God with humanity of the way God does the bulk of the work, God holds on Abraham even when Abraham is fast asleep and not holding on to anything. Of course, it’s not all one-sided in the relationship between God and Abraham. In Genesis 18:19, for instance, we read that God expects Abraham to “charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice”. But it’s God who initiates the covenant and God signs up for the awful consequences of breaking the covenant without expecting Abram to do the same.
So Abraham depends on God and God holds on to Abraham. And Abraham embraces God’s promise and allows himself to depend on God.
We’ll come back to this passage in a moment but for now let’s think about our passage from Luke.
Here the Pharisees bring Jesus a warning that Herod is threatening his life. Jesus is not intimidated. On the contrary, he’s openly scornful of “that fox” Herod. Then he appears to run through his diary for the next few days, apparently checking how he is fixed for the proposed quick getaway. He makes his ministry sound just like anyone’s normal routine: “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work”. It sounds almost comical – hmm, let me see now, I’ll just check my diary, oh, no looks like I can’t leave right now, I’ll be busy with demons and healings for the next couple of days.
But Jesus gives another reason for not running away: “today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”. So it’s as if he is saying, oh, is Herod going to kill me? Well, in that case I’d better make sure I’m in the right place for him.
This seems to me to be a powerful way of responding to Herod’s threat. Jesus embraces the very thing that is supposed to scare him into backing off. So he’s taken away the only weapon against him; the threat is no longer a threat. He’s made the whole conversation low key and almost normal.
Sometimes in a day-dreaming kind of a way I try to come up with creative ways of responding in imaginary violent or potentially violent situations, in the hope that if and when I find myself in one I may find I have an approach up my sleeve that will help defuse things. And I feel there is a pattern in Jesus’ response that could help us respond when violence is threatened. But try as I might I can’t come up with a concrete example. The best I can do is recount a friend’s experience (as far as I recall it). Seeing two men squaring up to each other in the street, ready for a fight, she approached them and asked “Shall I call an ambulance now or afterwards?” I think she achieved the same effect as Jesus did. She reacted without anxiety, and calmly – and with humour – spoke as if a fight would be something quite normal which she would be prepared to deal with if it happened, which seemed to take the wind out of the men’s sails. At any rate, they never got round to fighting.
The next part of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees is just as striking. Here is Jesus as mother hen who longs to gather Jerusalem under his wings. It’s a wonderfully parental, even maternal, view of God. And surely Jesus is making a point by referring to himself as a protective hen just after describing Herod as a fox. The fox-hen relationship is a notoriously troubled one. It’s all about predator and prey, about eating and being eaten. So perhaps talking about fox and hen raises some questions. Of course, if I want a comforting parent, I’d rather have a protective broody hen than a wily fox who is out to kill. But in troubled times, maybe a fox would be a better ally? If I could be sure it would be on my side and not snapping and biting, maybe a fox would be a better deal.
I wonder whether Jesus is pushing people to think about what their priorities are and where their loyalties lie. Do they want to want to play it safe, covering their backs by allying themselves with the ruler who collaborates with Rome, who operates by force and the threat of force? Or do they want to flee to the hen who loves them and cares for them as a parent, who offers no violence and has no military power behind her?
And again I think there are some possible applications here for us. If we think about our focus for this service on fair trade, I think we may be able to paint some pictures that seem to match the fox/hen contrast. There are the large companies with vast global presence intent on profit and, in some cases, not afraid to play dirty to get it. You may have heard the news story this week about Reckitt Benckiser who have bent or even broken the rules in order to maintain profits from their product Gaviscon and thus driven up NHS bills. They are not largely in the same market as fair trade companies but give an example of ruthless business practice. And we could talk about fair trade companies as deliberately refusing this kind of ruthlessness, of taking the way of the hen. But I wonder if for Jesus’ hearers there is a bit more at stake in this question than there is for us when we decide to buy fair trade. It could have been risky for Jesus’ hearers to choose to align themselves with the hen Jesus rather than the powerful fox Herod. For them choosing to hold on to God would have required a willingness also to let go of the safety and security of being on the side that is armed, might even ultimately have required a willingness to let go of life, as Jesus himself was to do.
So let’s now look at these two passages together.
One gives us the God of the night vision, the smoking pot and flaming torch, the God who can promise whole swathes of land even though they are still inhabited. God takes an immense risk in making a covenant of love with imperfect humans who will fall short and disappoint in countless ways. And we could say that God is willing to accept the threatened penalty of death for breaking the covenant – but actually God has no intention of breaking the covenant, so God’s life is safe.
As for Abraham, to believe and trust God in spite of the evidence is to make a brave choice to hold on to God he hardly knows as yet. At the time he embarks on this journey with God, it probably looks highly unlikely that God will be true to his word. But if God does keep his promises, the rewards will be amazing – countless descendants settled in desirable lands with their rivals driven out. This is a powerful God who can be relied on to keep God’s people safe, will always intervene to make everything OK. Veronica looked last week at the way the tempter drew on an idea common in the bible, particularly in the Old Testament, that those who serve God will always be rescued, and that the worst things only happen to the wicked. And I think we can see this view here and in Psalm 27 which we read together.
But Veronica reminded us also of “the danger of quoting the Old Testament without reference to the new” and the Luke passage gives us another view of God and of how rescue and suffering play out. In this passage, Jesus casts himself not as the fox with strength and cunning to get his own way for himself and his allies but as the hen willing sit tight under threat, to gather her chicks under her wings and protect them with her own life. Here the threat to God’s life is real. God’s life will depend not on God’s own faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham but on how vigorously and violently Herod the fox and his allies decide to pursue the hen and her chicks. This shows us Jesus as a hen under threat from a fox but willing to face the threat rather than run away. I think this image is a good one to carry through Lent as we approach Easter and think about a God who hasn’t scooped us all up out of danger but has chosen, in Jesus, to join us in the midst of danger and suffering.
Perhaps this can help us think about the suffering we see round about us and in our midst. Jesus as mother hen protects us, cuddling us in under his wings, loves us and is willing to absorb the violence threatening the chicks to the point even of death. But by not countering violence with violence, by choosing instead the path of tender care, Jesus takes his followers too into a world where things won’t always go as we wish they would.
The people of Jerusalem wouldn’t let Jesus gather them under his wings – and maybe it was shrewd to choose instead protectors with armies to call on. So I think there is also a question for us here. Will we follow Abraham in depending on God, holding on to God and trusting God to hold on to us? And will we do that even if the promise Jesus holds out to us includes the call to renounce cunning and threats and alliances with the powerful but violent? And what might it look like today, what might we have to let go of, to follow the way of the hen not the way of the fox?