He stretched out his arms – a sermon

You may not know it, but there is some rhyme and reason to the liturgical choices we make around here.  At 10 o’clock, the service music is carefully selected to match the mood of the season.  Now that we’ve survived the Great Litany, for the next four weeks, both services begin with the Penitential Order which is meant to draw our minds to the truth that we should only approach the altar of God having taken stock of our lives, recognizing our sins, and repenting of our unrighteousness.  At 8am, we have switched back to Eucharistic Prayer I, which deals more directly with the reality that sin – the corporate sin of the world and the sinfulness of each individual – ultimately brought Jesus to the cross, and that in the Eucharist, we are recreating not just his Last Supper with the disciples, but remembering the fullness of the events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and yes, Easter Day as well.

The Rite II Eucharistic Prayers are a bit more challenging. None of them carry the clearly penitential tone of Rite I.  However, Prayer A does seem to be the prayer best suited for the season.  In it, as we recount the story of salvation history, there is this peculiar line in which we say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  As the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death unfold, it doesn’t always seem like this is an accurate reading of the situation.  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Judas offer him for 30 silver coins?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees offer him to maintain the status quo?  Did Jesus offer himself, or did Herod offer him out of fear; did Pilate offer him to appease the crowd and raise his stock within the Roman Empire; or, as the prayer seems to suggest, did God the Father require the Son to die to appease some sort unrelenting anger?  While each of these could be perfectly reasonable explanations for what happened in those dreadful hours, it would seem that our Gospel lesson for today is expressly concerned with making us understand that Jesus’ death was his own choice and for the benefit of the whole world.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain top.  It had been about a week since Peter finally confessed Jesus as the Messiah, when he, along with James and John were made privy to the full revelation of Jesus’ divinity.  There, with Moses and Elijah at his side, and the voice of God booming from above, Jesus was fully empowered for the final stage of his ministry. Not long after this encounter, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face for Jerusalem.  The last act of Jesus ministry was about to unfold.  Somewhat surprisingly, Luke then proceeds to spend 10 whole chapters, roughly 42% of his Gospel, sharing all kinds of experiences that happened along the way to the cross.  Jesus exorcised demons, healed the sick, preached the Good News, taught in the Synagogues, and even sent out 70 others to do the same.

Here, at not even the mid-point in that ten-chapter journey, in which Jesus is very intentional about his work and ministry, and just as he has taught that many who think they are in God’s good graces will find themselves on the outside, some Pharisees, the insiders’ insiders, came to warn Jesus that Herod was out to kill him.  This isn’t Herod the Great who had tried to use the Wise Men as spies in order to kill Jesus shortly after his birth.  This is Herod Antipas, Herod the Great’s son, who had married the ex-wife of his brother, who got drunk at his birthday party and ended up having John the Baptist beheaded at his step-daughter’s request.  Herod Antipas shared one fourth of his father’s territory with his brothers.  As the most competent heir, Herod lived in constant fear of revolution.  It was that fear that made him both dislike John the Baptist and yet fear the will of the people too much to want to have him killed.  It was that same fear that made him worry about the increasing power that Jesus of Nazareth had over the crowds.  One who could perform miracles, heal the sick, exorcise demons, and command such a following was one who was clearly a threat to the power and privilege that he had born into.

Luke doesn’t tell us why Herod wanted to kill Jesus at this point, and given that these words of warning come from the Pharisees, Luke’s favorite antagonists in his Gospel, we don’t even know if the warning is real.  Still, the response Jesus gives tells us that he is in no way worried about what the powers-that-be, religious or political, might want to do to him.  “Go and tell that fox,” Jesus says, as if calling the puppet governor of the Roman Empire a fox was something people could do in the first century.  But Jesus has no fear.  Despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is totally in control of the situation.  “Go and tell that fox that I’m doing what I’ve been sent here to do.  I’m not going to hide in fear.  No threat is going to keep me from the mission that God has for me.  Today and tomorrow, I’ll be busy healing the sick and casting out demons.  On the third day,” an obvious reference to his death and resurrection, “I’ll finish my work.”

It isn’t that Jesus was ignorant to the fact that his life and ministry would lead to his death.  He was quite aware that those who upset the way things have always been have always been mistreated, abused, and ultimately killed, whether it is in Jerusalem, Rome, Dallas, or Memphis.  It is just that Jesus knows that no matter how ready the Pharisees might be to get Jesus out of their hair or how anxious Herod might be about Jesus’ increasing popularity, this ministry is working on God’s time and to God’s good and perfect end – the gathering all of the faithful under God’s gracious and loving wings.  No matter how much Herod might believe that Jesus was out for political power and no matter how much Jesus’ own disciples might wish for that too, what God had planned to do through the life and ministry of Jesus wasn’t to recreate the power structures of this world, but to replace them with structures of compassion, grace, and love.  Jesus is in full control of his message, his medium, and the timing such that in the end, even when it looks like any number of other powers and principalities had brought him to the cross, we can say with full confidence that it was Jesus who stretched out his own arms upon the cross, offering himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

It is increasingly difficult in this world of the 24-hour news cycle to remember who is really in control of things.  Fear mongers make millions of dollars a day selling advertising on news channels that would have us believe any number of lies and half-truths.  We are enticed to buy this makeup, drink this beer, drive this car, and use this phone to be happy and healthy.  We are tricked into believing that our value is based only on what others can get from us.  It is no wonder that rates of anxiety and depression are on the rise.  Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and the threat of Herod reminds us, however, that outside powers have been trying to rule by fear for thousands of years.  Jesus tells us that these perceived threats, even to our very way of living and our own lives, are hollow compared to the power of God and God’s dream to restore all of creation to right relationship.  Jesus will spend six more chapters walking toward Jerusalem and certain death.  Along the way, he will restore all kinds of people into community by offering them wholeness and peace.  Even now, Jesus is here offering us the peace that passes all understanding, peace that is more powerful than any fear the world can create. Our Lenten journey reminds us that Jesus stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone, even you and me, might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  Amen.

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