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Saturday, February 27, 2010

True Gospel Scandals: The City That Kills

Luke 13:31-35

Have you ever looked at something you loved with every fiber of your being, and realized that thing – or maybe that person – was not only its own worst enemy, but also yours? Jesus had been teaching in the synagogues, and out on the plains, of Galilee. He was slowly heading south, towards Jerusalem, the capital. While he was in Galilee, Jesus was under the authority of the vassal ruler Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had been ruler when Jesus was born. Antipas had killed Jesus’ cousin, John Baptizer, and had also killed some worshipers in the Jerusalem Temple. This was a bad, bad man. Some Pharisees – who were not the bad people we Christians sometimes make them out to be – came to warn Jesus that Herod was on the hunt for him, to kill him. Jesus blew off their warning: You go tell that fox I’m busy. I’ll be in Jerusalem before long, because that’s where prophets get killed. And then Jesus issued a heart-rending lament over the capital of his world: Jerusalem, Jerusalem: the city that kills prophets and stones the ones sent to it! I wish I could shelter your children like a mother hen spreads her wings over her chicks, but you were not willing. Well, your future is in your own hands. The next time you see me, you’ll be saying ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ If that last sentence sounds familiar, it’s the cry of the crowds on Palm Sunday when Jesus entered Jerusalem.

Jerusalem: the city that kills. It was the place where reformers and prophets, messengers of God, were brought for public execution. The very place that should have been the champion of God’s cause was in fact its worst enemy.

Most of my adult life and ministry has been spent in small towns and rural areas. Since moving to the suburbs nine years ago, Vicki and I have rediscovered our suburban roots. I‘ve especially enjoyed the life of the city: the arts, the food, the energy and vitality of city life. Isn’t it interesting, though, that urban violent crime rates are four to five times higher than in rural areas? People live in the city because they want to be close to each other, but somehow that closeness breeds violence. The very symbol of community is the worst enemy of community.

Sometimes the church, which is supposed to be the place where we encounter God, insulates us from God by allowing us to substitute activity or mere presence for spiritual intimacy. Instead of helping people lose themselves, the church becomes the place where petty jealousies and preferences rule. The very symbol of faith becomes the worst enemy of faith.

Schools are supposed to inculcate a love for learning and a thirst for the truth. But sometimes schools, especially in their need to meet the requirements, teach us to hate reading, writing, and arithmetic. The symbol of learning becomes the enemy.

Marriage is meant to teach us community, nurture, and affection. But some children grow up seeing two unhappy people take out their frustrations on each other and on everyone around them. The symbol of love becomes its enemy.

That’s the love-hate relationship we have with everything that’s important. I have tickets to Orioles' Opening Day in Baltimore. No matter what happens on April 9th, I know what’s going to happen by October: Bart Giamatti said baseball is designed to break our hearts. We give birth to children, knowing they’re going to break our hearts. We adopt pets and love them, knowing they’re going to break our hearts. God loves us, knowing that we’re going to break God’s heart.

Off in the distance, Jesus saw Jerusalem. Jerusalem, city of God, seat of the Temple. David’s City. Mount Zion, dwelling place of the Lord. Countless thousands had died to win, build, protect, and rebuild that city. If I forget you, O Jerusalem, sang the exiles in Babylon, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not set you above my highest joy![1] But this city, symbol of everything that was holy, killed prophets. It would, Jesus knew, kill him.

But Jesus went to Jerusalem. He could have formed a Jewish Tea Party and said, “Jerusalem isn’t the answer, it’s the problem. Stay away from Jerusalem. Stop sending your taxes and temple tithes. Let’s keep ourselves pure, and keep our distance.” Jesus goes to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what’s going to happen there: it’s going to kill him.

At the end of Men In Black, K and J are fighting a giant alien cockroach. The cockroach grabs K’s gun and swallows it. After giving J instructions, K dives down the monster’s throat. Everyone assumes K is dead, and J fights the bug with no success. Suddenly, the bug explodes: K has found his gun and killed the monster from within. That’s always the way monsters are killed: King Kong dies of love; the Martians in War of the Worlds die from bacterial infections; in Independence Day the aliens are killed by a computer virus and a suicide bomb from within.

Jesus has to go to Jerusalem, because he has to confront his enemy. He has to let his enemy kill him, so he can defeat his enemy.

That’s the goal of most psychoanalysis: we spend our lives running away from the scary things inside us. That running consumes more and more of our life. The path to healing lies in turning around – Jesus said repent – going into those dark and terrifying places and facing whatever’s there. Take your best shot, and let’s see what happens. When we do that, we discover that the terrifying thing deep inside isn’t all that powerful after all. But we can’t ever defeat that enemy without going there.

What darkness lives in you, or in your life, that you’re afraid will kill you? A fear, a hope, a dream, a relationship that you want to run as far from and as quickly as possible, but you can’t? What is on the verge of breaking your heart?

That’s what life does, you know. It breaks our hearts. It kills us: no one gets out alive. But the Son of God, knowing all this, forsakes his glory and becomes human, so that his heart and his life can be broken for us. And when he is broken and cold and dead and buried, the love of God proves stronger than the worst that the world can throw at it. So it is for us when we turn from our running and face that which threatens to kill us. Just as Jesus went to Jerusalem, we have to face that illness, face that relationship, face that school or job, face that fear, even face that death, because no one gets around life: we only get through it, carrying one flickering candle of hope.

As the Civil War drew to a close and it was clear that the North was going to win, Abraham Lincoln’s advisors wanted to punish the South brutally for having started the war. Lincoln wanted to reunite the Union. One of his advisors said, “Mr. President, I believe we should destroy our enemies!” Lincoln responded, “When I befriend my enemy, do I not destroy him?”

Jesus neither runs from Jerusalem nor calls down fire upon it. He enters the city, which kills him. We have to do the same with that which threatens to destroy us. The only way to destroy evil is to light a candle deep in its belly.

[1] Ps. 137

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