Sunday 28th February 2010
Each year during Lent and Passiontide I am struck afresh by the integrity, strength and courage of Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and, of course, during the events of Holy Week. I sometimes wonder if this strength and courage are aspects of Jesus that aren’t always recognized or thought about in depth. But it’s an aspect of him that I find particularly compelling and inspiring.
This morning we hear about some of the dangers Jesus is facing.
To begin with we have Herod who, some sympathetic Pharisees tell Jesus, is out to kill him.
This Herod is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who sought to kill the infant Jesus when he learned of the birth of one who was “King of the Jews”.
Herod Antipas rules the region of Galilee, tolerated by the Romans because he keeps control over his subjects and unchallenged by rivals because he has a ruthless way of dealing with his enemies. It was Herod Antipas who had John the Baptist arrested, imprisoned and then beheaded because John had spoken up against Herod’s sleazy private life.
So when Jesus is warned that Herod wants to kill him we know that this is a very real threat and it may well have scared off some of Jesus’ followers.
Jesus refuses to be quashed and even refers to Herod as “that fox”.
Jesus is determined to continue his ministry of healing and deliverance and anyway, he says, “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”.
So here’s the second danger Jesus is facing: Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem” says Jesus, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”.
Later, Jesus will tell a powerful story about a vineyard owner sending servant after servant to collect from his tenants his share of the fruit of the vine. Each servant is insulted, injured and thrown out. Finally the vineyard owner sends his own son thinking he will be respected. But no, the tenants kill the son thinking that by doing this the vineyard will become their own.
There’s no doubt that Jesus identifies himself as that son, sent by his father in the hope that he would be accepted where others had been rejected. Jesus knew, when he set his face towards Jerusalem, what danger he would be in – but he’s going anyway.
So Jesus is in danger from Herod and is heading towards danger in the city of Jerusalem, the city at the very heart of the people of Israel – his own people who will not receive him.
And this leads on to the third risk that Jesus is taking and has been taking ever since his time of temptation in the wilderness. This risk, which perhaps requires even more strength and courage than facing physical dangers, is the risk Jesus takes by walking in the way of love.
Perhaps many of us here this morning have known the pain of unrequited love or experienced the rejection of a much loved friend or relative who is suddenly shutting us out. It takes courage to go on loving and trying to express that love in the face of what feels like a brick wall. We might decide it’s easier to block out love and forgiveness and respond with anger, hatred or bitterness for our own protection.
But Jesus just goes on loving: in the good times, the bad times, in danger, in distress, in tragedy and despair and on the cross.
He is a man of extraordinary integrity and courage.
Today we are privileged to be able to worship God without fear of modern day Herods or hostile cities. But we have brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where it is still dangerous to be a follower of Jesus; places where Christians need strength and courage in the face of oppression, persecution and even the possibility of death for their faith.
And it may be that there are situations in our lives which require us to face a different sort of danger. The danger of being ridiculed or criticized for our faith as Christians, of being shunned by colleagues when we take a lonely stand on some issue which differs from their views.
But perhaps the biggest challenge to our strength and courage is to do with our own inner lives.
I wonder if during this journey to Jerusalem Jesus hears again the temptations of the devil in the wilderness, the devil who has been waiting for an opportune time to strike again. Does Jesus battle again with the temptation to overthrow Herod and take control of the region and then the world? Does he once again resist the idea of performing some spectacular stunt like jumping off the temple walls to show the people of Israel that God will save him – he is the Messiah?
If Jesus is tempted again like this he once again has the integrity, strength and courage to resist and to remain true to his calling.
Traditionally Lent is a time of self-examination, penitence and prayer. Last week Tricia spoke very movingly about some of the darker sides of our personalities that we may want to think about. She mentioned lying and gossiping and I’m sure we can all think of many others including being critical and judgmental, selfish and proud. I think that we would agree that we all have failings and fall far short of what love demands from us.
Like Jesus we, too, struggle with our own particular temptations which are tailor made to fit our particular weaknesses. We too need to hold on to our integrity, strength and courage to remain true to our calling as his followers.
It takes a lot of courage to be truly honest with ourselves and with God. We become very vulnerable and perhaps afraid of the consequences. But let’s hold on to the picture of a tender, compassionate and merciful God who in Jesus holds out his arms in love to reach us and strengthen us with his own extraordinary love and courage.