Psalm 27

Luke 13:31-35

For the children’s time, we read a story about being scared: Mercer Mayer’s There’s a Nightmare In My Closet.

Grown-ups know about fears worse than nightmares, and many kids do, too. There are monsters in the world, not just in closets. Some fears have names and faces, some have diagnoses, and some live in a general worry about the future (for yourself or another). The worst fears are those we can’t stop, or when our loved ones put themselves in danger and we can’t bear the risk for them. We feel the sorrow Jesus had for Jerusalem, when we want to gather people under our wings, and we feel the Pharisees’ alarm, when we want our loved ones to avoid danger.

I do sympathize with the Pharisees here. Contrast this with their usual treatment as Jesus’ persecutors, but some of them recognized Jesus’ truth, as these apparently did. They knew that Jesus’ truth was trouble. Herod had already killed John the Baptizer, and now Jesus was walking into his trap. The prophetic message of uncompromising righteousness and justice doesn’t play well with the Roman leaders. Just imagine if someone you respect and love were doing this – wouldn’t you want to protect them from trouble?

I should clarify something here. Luke doesn’t believe the Pharisees are wrong because Jesus had to die in order to pay the penalty for our sins. That’s John and Hebrews. There’s no inherent value to Jesus’ death in Luke, unlike in John with the triumphant crucifixion at its center. Luke’s gospel is about prophets, and Jesus is the greatest prophet of all. He goes to his death very deliberately, but goes as the fulfillment of his prophecy. Luke knew that the prophets died at the hands of the people they prophesied to, as did Jesus, John the Baptizer, and Stephen the Apostle. So Jesus made the decision to go to Jerusalem – to death – because, as he tells the Pharisees, he has to go fulfill his prophetic role.

Jesus’ response suggests that the Pharisees’ impulse is wrong. Jesus doesn’t need protection. Not that he had the resources to protect himself, of course. And in Luke, Jesus is not looking to his death as a triumph, but he knows his death will be a consequence of his truth. Death is what happens when power attacks God. We know the rest of the story, but the Pharisees didn’t (and it’s not clear that Jesus even did), so they want to protect his truth and life. Jesus suggests that the impulse to protect the truth somehow misses the mark. We defend the truth because we don’t actually trust in it.

The Pharisees want to protect Jesus because Herod is a threat, as if they had to protect the messenger of the truth from someone with the power to destroy the truth. Jesus knew Herod was powerful, but he also knew that Herod had no control over the truth. Violent might doesn’t make right. Jesus’ sympathizers didn’t trust in the truth. Their defensiveness came from a fear betrayed their faith in power more than in truth. Jesus, unlike his supporters, loved truth more than power, so he had no need to defend the truth. Instead, he had the courage to look Herod in the eye and not back down.

Not that God’s people have no fear, of course. Truth, faith, and love don’t eliminate fear, they only make it less compelling. Jesus pictures himself as a hen gathering her chicks beneath her wings. For the hen, her fear is irrelevant. She’s defenseless against the fox, but she’s sure not running away. (For an excerpt from a far more powerful sermon on this part of the text, click here and search within the page for “Barbara Brown Taylor.”) Our faith and hope overcome our fear of surgery: we can give up our bodies to be cut open, trusting in the healing at work. Some of us fear for values and holy texts that feel under assault, but history shows that this kind of transition usually leads to a greater truth. What if Truth is God, as Jesus knew? If God is in control, our (very real) fears shrink in comparison.

So what is your fear? You may want to stop, close your eyes, and picture it. What are you afraid of? What’s the shape of your nightmare? You may find that just giving it concrete shape has lessened your fear. That’s what I’m getting at, because truth is greater than fear. Or your fear may have intensified because you’re focusing on it. That’s okay too. Take heart and allow yourself to picture it in detail. What are you afraid of? What’s the worst-case scenario? What’s one step worse than that? Picture it in all those details. Make it real in your mind. And then ask yourself, what are you driven to defend? Is it truth? Virtue? Justice? Whose good is it? Yours or God’s?

Remember, if God is God, your job is to be faithful, not to defend anything in particular. This is true even when God’s plans look like they’re headed for disaster. So assume the worst. You’ve already pictured it, right? What might God be up to that even this failure can’t disrupt? In Jesus, God was witnessing to the deep truth of love for all people, to a new life that exceeds all human life. What is God up to in your situation? If some high good is in trouble, what higher good is being served instead? Then (with your eyes still closed), look around you. Which door has been opened while we were here?

What path has God set you on in faithfulness to the Highest Good? Choose that path. Set your face toward it. Have courage and journey on.

Amen.

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