The summer I graduated from high school was an eventful one. We had a fire in our home, and I fell in love for the first time.
No one was hurt in the fire, and the fire damage was limited to one room, but the entire house suffered from smoke damage. So for two months, my parents and three brothers and I lived in two rooms at the Holiday Inn. Aside from the obvious annoyances of sharing a room with three teenage brothers, this arrangement had its benefits, one of which was that when I wasn’t waiting tables during the breakfast shift at the Dutch Pantry across the street, I could hang out by the hotel pool. That’s where I met the boys in the band that the hotel had hired to provide entertainment in the hotel lounge for the summer.
The band was called “Hot Ice.” It was made up mainly of boys from Indiana University, and I fell hard for the lead singer. Amazingly, he liked me, too! I’d had schoolgirl crushes before, but they never had a grip on my heart like this boy did. We spent most of our free time together and, as long as I stuck to soft drinks, I could hang out in the hotel lounge every night, listening to him sing. When he sang “Stairway to Heaven,” I was pretty sure I was already there!
But when the summer was over, the band went back to Indiana. I spent some pretty miserable weeks pining over my lost love, wondering if I would ever see him again. I had all this love in my heart that I was willing to give away, but the boy I wanted to give it to was gone. Oh, how I missed him and longed to see him again! I can still recall the ache in my teenaged heart. (Fortunately, I met Marc a year later, and that romance has lasted for nearly forty-three years.)
Some of our most memorable love stories are marked by a sense of yearning and the question of whether that yearning will be fulfilled. My favorite movie is “Love Actually.” It’s a movie made up of lots of intertwined love stories. Nearly every relationship in it is marked by yearning and uncertainty. A woman silently yearns for a co-worker but is afraid to let him know. A language barrier keeps a man and his housekeeper from expressing their longing for each other. A little boy pines for the most popular girl in school, while his stepfather yearns for his wife who has passed away. Nearly every story line in the movie centers around someone who is experiencing that achingly strong desire for a relationship that seems unattainable, and the audience is kept wondering if the love being offered will be accepted and returned.
But there’s a bigger love story I want to share with you today—one that includes each of you. It’s the love story of a Savior and the people he came to save—a Savior who is ready and willing to gather us to himself, if we will only let him.
In our passage today, we hear Jesus expressing the yearning that is common to so many love stories—his yearning for the people he loves. As he cries out to Jerusalem, the symbol of all those he came to save, he pours out his desire to protect and care for them. He knows that fulfilling this desire will be costly to him. He knows just how much he will have to sacrifice for those whom he loves so deeply, even if they reject his gift of love.
Some Pharisees had come to urge Jesus to get out of town; they said Herod wanted to kill him. Luke doesn’t tell us what was motivating these Pharisees. Their words suggest that they have Jesus’ best interests at heart. Now, maybe this particular group of Pharisees was genuinely concerned about Jesus’ well-being. Or, maybe they thought they could scare off this headache of a rabbi. Or, maybe they were afraid that Jesus was in Herod’s sights, and they didn’t want the rabble-rousing Jesus to put the Jewish community at risk of a Roman crack-down.
We really don’t have any evidence that Herod was out to get Jesus at this point. Although Herod was no Mr. Nice Guy (he had beheaded John for criticizing Herod’s marriage to his own sister-in-law, after all), all we know from earlier passages is that Herod simply wanted to see Jesus—maybe witness a miracle or two. Jesus brushes aside the Pharisees’ concerns about Herod, describing him as a fox—crafty and sly, destructive, but of little importance.
The hostility from the Pharisees, on the other hand, had been growing. They were working hard to stop Jesus from completing his mission. Their disbelief and their efforts to keep others from believing that Jesus was the Messiah were as destructive to their community as any fox in a hen house could be. Maybe Jesus was thinking he had two breeds of foxes to contend with.
But Jesus would not let Herod or anyone else keep him from his mission—the mission that would take him to Jerusalem. It is there, in the city which is the focal point of the Jewish faith, that Israel will have to make its decision—to accept the Word of God made flesh or not. To be made righteous in Christ, or not. To be assured of a life lived eternally with God, or not. To accept God’s love in its fullest expression, or not. It’s in Jerusalem that Israel will either accept Jesus or kill him, like the prophets before him, and Jesus knows what decision they are likely to make.
Jesus sounds defiant and sure of himself as he informs the Pharisees in no uncertain terms about the work he intends to carry out over the next three days. But then, his mood changes. You can almost hear a catch in his voice as he contemplates the people he loves so much and their refusal to accept the life he offers. He knows that evil surrounds them, and yet they refuse his protection—the kind of protection a mother hen extends to her babies. He sees that their disbelief will leave them as empty and desolate as an abandoned house.
I’ve never raised chickens, or even been around anyone who did. So, as I thought about Jesus comparing himself to a mother hen, I was curious to learn more about how a hen cares for her chicks.
I learned that a hen is pretty defenseless when it comes to protecting her chicks in a cold and dangerous world. So, she offers what she has to keep her chicks safe—her own body. She gathers her chicks underneath her to protect them from predators and the cold.
In her blog, the Rev. Sharon Cress tells a story about her own experience with a hen and her chicks. Her family had a little farm outside the small town where she grew up. Her sister had a hen that hatched fourteen adorable little chicks. The mother hen had a terrible time keeping all those chicks safe. She would gather them up, settle down on them to keep them warm, and then, one by one, heads would start peeking out from all directions. No matter how many times she would gather them up and settle them in, they would pop out all over again.
The chicks were only a few days old when the weather turned very cold. The family did all it could to make the barn safe and warm for the chickens and the other animals. The hen settled her chicks into their nest but, right away, their heads had began popping out from under her feathers. The family left, thinking it would be a long, busy night for the mother hen. The next morning, half of the chicks were safe beneath their mother. The other half had died when they refused the shelter of their mother’s wings and ventured out into the cold barn.
Jesus knows what the cold and sinful world will do to his children. It leads us away from his protective love with shiny distractions, encourages us to think we can go it alone, and focuses us on what is temporary and fleeting. It tempts us with mean-spiritedness and violence and calls it entertainment. It lures us with promises of greater connection through technology but disconnects us from real relationships. It feeds us a me-first approach and calls it security.
But Jesus did for us what a mother hen does for her babies. Out of his great love for us, he offered his own body to save us from the sinfulness in us and in the world. As long as we stay close to him, accepting the love and salvation he offers, sin can’t defeat us, and death can’t hold us. Only our own waywardness can cause us to forfeit the protecting and saving love that Jesus offers.
It can be hard to resist the bright lights and shiny objects the world has to offer and stay safe under Jesus’ wings. But our very lives depend on staying close to the one who offers us real security, real relationship, real salvation. We need to stay close to the one who is willing and able to offer us life—if we will let him.
Another thing I learned about a mother hen is that she will hatch eggs she didn’t lay, and she’ll care for chicks she didn’t hatch. If an egg from another chicken or a chick already hatched are placed in her nest, she will treat them all as her own. Jesus is just as welcoming. He didn’t restrict his love to those who looked like him, spoke like him, lived like him, or even believed like him. He was willing to gather all people under his wings—the rich, the poor; the sick, the well; the believers and the doubters, people who were accepted, and people who were considered sinners and outsiders. He’s just as welcoming today. No matter who you are, no matter who you think you are, no matter who you think you’re not, you have a place beneath Jesus’ wings, if you want it.
Finally, I learned that after a certain length of time, a mother hen will leave the chicks to their own devices. Once they are mature enough, she will begin the process of disengaging from them. In this, the similarities between Jesus and a mother hen end. Because, Jesus will never leave us on our own. Once we agree to take shelter under his wings, he is willing to keep us close forever.
Jesus is ready and willing to care for us, just as a mother hen will care for and protect her chicks, but we have to be willing to place ourselves beneath his wings. The portion of John Wesley’s Covenant Renewal Prayer which is printed on your bulletin reminds us that we have a choice of whether or not to accept God’s gift of love. Wesley begins by reminding us that “through Christ, God has offered to be your God again if you would let him.” And then he continues with this part of the Covenant prayer: “Before all heaven and earth, I here acknowledge you as my Lord and God. I take you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for my portion, and vow to give up myself, body and soul, as your servant, to serve you in holiness and righteousness all the days of my life.”
Like a mother hen, Jesus offered his own body for our salvation. Accepting him and the salvation he offers means offering ourselves to God through him in return. We pledge ourselves to be God’s servants, serving in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives. As Paul wrote to the Romans, no gift we can offer merits the gift of life and love we have been given. And so, we offer ourselves as a holy and living sacrifice—bodies, minds, and spirits. We affirm this is a pledge every time we celebrate Communion together.
The story of how Jesus came to reconcile the world to God is the world’s greatest love story. It’s the love story of God yearning for God’s people and sending the Son to gather us close. It’s the love story of Jesus’s desire to give us protection and salvation under his wings. It’s the story of someone willing to die for his beloved, even if the beloved returns only rejection and unbelief.
But, this love story remains unfinished. The outcome is still in question. Will Jesus and the ones he loves be together in the end? Or will his love go unrequited? Will we accept Christ as our Savior, and let God be our God through him? Will we allow him to gather us beneath his wings, and remain there always?
The choice is up to us. We decide how this love story will end. Jesus is ready and willing to love us and save us, if we will let him. There is still an opportunity for the beloved to accept the Divine Lover’s gift. Jesus is ready and willing. Are we? Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young