Sunday, April 13, 2014

Leap of Faith – The Mystery of Goodness


sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 04/13/2014

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How many of us have had the experience of our worst fears (in some dire-seeming situation or another) not coming true? Like you were sure you were about to be fired, and then you weren’t. Or like you were sure going to have to owe more taxes than you could afford to pay, and then it wasn’t all that bad. Or you thought something was going to be impossible, or that you were going to die, or whatever, and then it wasn’t, or you didn’t, or whatever.

[earliest experience – 9 years old returning from Germany, only to discover plane was overbooked and my seat was taken...]

Have you ever thought to yourself, in the aftermath, “Phew, God is good?”

Sure, those kinds of experiences are encouraging, but the truth is, sometimes our worst fears are, in fact, realized. What then? Will we be ruined? Where is God in those moments, in those situations? What do we see of the goodness of God then?

This is precisely the situation Jesus faces in Luke 13. He’s warned that King Herod wants to kill him. And of course, even though Herod ends up playing a relatively minor role, the threat isn’t empty. Jesus will die at the hands of the authorities, and not long from now. How does Jesus respond? What does his response teach us about the goodness of God? What goodness is revealed in him? Let’s read.


31At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”


32He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!


34“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Luke 13v31-35

Before we dig into it, a few things to mention.

This passage has connections to the last week of Jesus’ pre-resurrection life, the week he spends in Jerusalem before he is crucified (we’ll explore those connections in a bit). Here in Luke’s gospel, it shows up earlier, but in Matthew’s, it takes place a day or two after Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday, which we celebrate today in Christian tradition, is the day Jesus enters Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to the acclaim of crowds of Jewish people who recognize him as the long promised Messiah. They lay palm branches on the ground in advance of his path, thus the term “Palm Sunday.”


This is a special season for those of us who keep company with Jesus. Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, when we remember, reflect on, and celebrate the events of Jesus’ life as he approaches the cross, and as he dies, and is buried in a tomb until his resurrection on Easter morning. For us, this is the week in which all the goodness of God that we see shining in Jesus comes head to head with all the horrible darkness of evil present in our broken world, in demonic powers, in institutions of power, even in fearful people. This is the week in which all the longings of our lives are gathered up with Jesus’ fate, and from which all of our hopes for a good future spring. It’s the week which shapes all the joyful possibilities of our lives in the present.

What can you be doing to prepare for and get the most out of this week, and the Easter celebration that follows next Sunday?

Invite someone to church next Sunday. There can be a lot of barriers to someone coming to a church, but a personal invitation goes a long ways toward lowering many of those barriers. Invite them to join you for breakfast at 9; it’s always pretty phenomenal.

We often have a larger turnout on Easter, so please park farther away if you can to make space for new guests, and sit in the middle of the row (the outside seats are the prime real estate).

Blow some money or time on one of your 6 this week, if you haven’t yet. Make it a “Good Friday” for them this year. (Don’t forget about the community-wide Good Friday service, too – the Tenebrae service at People’s should be really interesting).

And finally, if you have the chance to come to the church on Wednesday morning between 6:30 and 8, this is the last of the Lenten prayer hours before Lent gives way to Easter.



We’ve been talking all Lent about the goodness of God. About how Jesus is really good. Which matters to us, because the key to getting life from God is taking a leap of faith on him – it’s trusting in him for help, depending on him, waiting for him, coming to him. Because he’s a God who gets all his glory from working on behalf of those who look to him for everything they need. As Jesus puts it, he’s come to give us life, and life to the full.


Here, in this passage from Luke, we’re going to discover that the goodness of Jesus is both the most visible, and the most mysterious, in the face of the greatest darkness and horror. The mystery of Goodness revealed as Jesus allows himself to be overwhelmed by the mystery of evil.

31At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

We don’t know if these particular Pharisees are looking out for Jesus’ best interests, or just want to get him off their turf, but it’s not really the point. The point is their message – “Herod wants to kill you” – and Jesus’ response.

Herod is a king because his dad, Herod the Great, was the most effective thug around, and the Roman Empire made him king to carry out their agenda in Israel. So in a sense, Herod’s desire to kill Jesus is just the tip of the spear of all the powers of evil out to bring destruction on humanity. He’s a puppet, and a maniacal puppet at that.

If Jesus’ voice is the voice that says, “I have come that they might have life, and life to the full,” Herod’s voice is the voice that wants to silence the voice of life. Herod’s voice says, “I have come that he might die, and die with much suffering.” [some of us hear that voice too…]


32He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ (A symbolic reference to two days of work, with a victorious conclusion on the third day; Jesus is prophetically talking about his death and resurrection.) 33In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! (This reference to dying outside Jerusalem is loaded with sarcasm. Because, of course, Jesus will die outside of Jerusalem. As in directly outside the city walls, on a hill taken over for the purpose of killing criminals outside the city.)

Do you hear the snarl and spine here, the blood and fire and spit and bone? Makes me like Jesus just a little bit more than I already do. He’s just not intimidated at all. Even though he knows the worst is coming.

It’s interesting to me just how free Jesus is of the curse of catastrophic thinking.

Catastrophic thinking is a form of less-than-rational thinking that happens when our brains begin to imagine and dwell on worst-case outcomes, especially when something happens to discourage or threaten us – even if it’s something minor. We picture it as the start of some major catastrophe in the works. Like me at the airport when I was 9. [Other examples…”You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone, Mommy.” …play video …]

Catastrophic thinking is rooted in anxiety. But we often don’t notice the anxiety behind it because anxiety is such a normal state of being for us that we just think of it as normal reality. It’s incredibly destructive because it takes all of our energy away from living life and put it’s into worry or unnecessary defensive and protective actions. It’s like getting the wind knocked out of you – even though you’ll survive it, it feels awful, and you can’t do much else until you get your wind back. And for many of us, it happens all the time, day after day after day, because our world is steeped in anxiety.

But notice how Jesus isn’t caught up in anxiety or catastrophic thinking at all, even though the worst case is coming, and he sees it. He’s free as free can be, responding with humor in the face of threat, pressing on with purpose in his mission, eyes wide open. As we said a couple of weeks ago, clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose. It’s the can’t lose part that’s so extraordinary. He has so much confidence in the goodness of God that even though he knows he’s about to lose, he’s not afraid of losing. Losing isn’t the end of the story for Jesus. What’s up with that? How do we get some of that?


34“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, (city of peace – “Jeru” + “Salem” as in, Shalom – an irony here) you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

A few things here. Maybe the most important things of all.

Jesus is speaking here about two terrible & related events that are going to be happening in Jerusalem. The first is his death on the cross. The second is the bloody sacking of the city and the fiery destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, 30 years or so after his death, when the Roman army invades Jerusalem in response to rebellion by Jewish zealots.

Everyone in Israel at this time understood that a great crisis was coming. Tensions had been building with the Roman occupation. Jewish people were crying out for a Messiah, an anointed leader sent by the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be established as the true king Israel and end the exile and oppression. You could feel it in the air, everyone was talking about it. Prophecies foretold it. All the signs were pointing to it. Many people thought Jesus himself might be the Messiah who would lead them through the coming crisis to victory. They weren’t afraid of the coming crisis; they were embracing it, knowing that Israel had a great calling (the blessing of the whole earth, for Heaven’s sake!) and that with great callings come great tests.

Except. Except Jesus himself was advocating a way of peace, not a way of war. He was saying, in many ways, on many occasions, lay down your arms. Don’t pursue this path of violence, or violence will be visited on you and you will regret taking that path. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than anyone expected. He was offering to lead them through the crisis to victory, but it wasn’t going to be a military victory. It was going to be an offering of his own life at the hands of all the evil powers – Rome included, but also sin, and death, and fear – in order to defeat evil in the most profound and lasting way possible. His instruction to his disciples was not “take up your arms against your oppressors” but rather, “take up your cross and follow me.”


Jesus knew that Israel, on the whole, wasn’t listening. They didn’t want to do what he was proposing. That’s what Jesus means when he says “you weren’t willing.” Jesus saw that they would persist in their violent path, and he would be unable to protect them from the suffering that would sweep in like a wildfire in 70 AD.


Jesus’ comparing himself to a hen – in stark contrast to Herod the fox – is a pretty staggering image of his goodness and love. The metaphor Jesus is using would have been familiar to his hearers, but perhaps not to us. Flash fires were a common threat at the time, and there were no fire departments to stop them. The scene is a barnyard, and animals scurrying to and fro to escape an out of control fire, and a mother hen gathering her chicks to protect them with her wings. There are reports of those cleaning up after such fires have discovering a dead hen, blackened and scorched, live chicks sheltered beneath her wings.

What love! Like a mother, fiercely protective in the face of threat. At the same time, gentle and good down to the bone, laying down her life so her children could live. This is Jesus’ desire, his purpose, his offer. To take all the heat that evil has to offer, so that anyone willing to be gathered up under his wings could live.

You are probably familiar with the Lord’s prayer, the prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray. One line is almost always misleadingly translated: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”


As if we need to worry about a good God tempting us to sin. Many scholars, including N.T. Wright, conclude that a better translation is: “Do not lead us into the Testing (or Great Trial), but deliver us from Evil.”


Jesus, in other words, knew that the Trial with a capital T that was coming was more than anyone could handle, that it would be horrific, the full force of evil unleashed on the earth. The clash of the titans, when God himself takes on the witches’ brew of empire/religion/dark powers. And Jesus knew that it was for him, the anointed one of God, to endure, and not for any other human being.


[Bible geek alert: the phrase “Blessed is he that comes in the Name of the Lord” is a reference to the title given to the High Priest in psalm 118, and a way of Jesus saying that he was to recognized as the true High Priest after his death and resurrection, his entering into the Holy of Holies represented by the tomb, and then emerging from it with forgiveness, having opened the door to a new creation.]

You see, the reality and mystery of evil is the secret, insidious power underneath catastrophic thinking, the thing that gives it its legs.

Most of the time, our imagined worst case scenarios don’t actually happen. And most of the time, even when the worst case scenario happens, we survive it. We discover resources we didn’t know we had within us, or around us, and we actually emerge stronger. It’s called “Post traumatic growth.”

But. But. But most isn’t all or every. We’ve all encountered the mystery of evil in this world. Evil is awful and knows no limits. Sometimes, evil is ruinous. Sometimes it isn’t what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us leaves us with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sometimes what doesn’t kill us cripples us. Sometimes it does actually kill us. What then?

What then? The mystery of goodness is what. The mystery of the cross is what.

We’ve seen Jesus’ goodness in so many ways this last month or so. In his trustworthiness, his humility, his incorruptibility, his lack of fear, his forgiveness, his healing power, his gentleness toward the weak, his love for the outsider, his compassion, his brilliance, his power. Jesus is really, really good. In ways any of us can see and understand and cheer wholeheartedly for.

But the cross is something a quantum order up in terms of goodness. It’s confounding. It’s goodness with mystery at its core.

I’ve spent – and perhaps some of you have too – years and years trying to understand how what Jesus does during holy week defeats evil. Trying to understand why good Friday is good even though it’s so truly horrible. And even though there are so many ways of understanding it, so many windows into the goodness of God on display on the cross, some of them helpful and others decidedly unhelpful, at the end of the day, it’s a deep mystery.

A mystery we can only truly apprehend from the inside as a participant, not from the outside as an observer. Like art, or music, or love. A mystery we are invited to enter into, to experience as goodness, to taste and see, to have its goodness done to us, so that we ourselves are set free from the grip of evil, of sin, of death, of fear. Much in the way a chick experiences the mystery of its mother’s goodness under her wings when the fire comes.

So that’s the invitation today. Are you willing to let Jesus gather you today, under his mothering wings? Are you willing to face the fire approaching you, the evil that threatens you, the people that seem bent on harming you, not by taking up arms against them, not by living in lala land and pretending nothing bad can happen, but by taking shelter in Jesus, and Jesus alone. Not sheltering in violence or defensiveness or trying to escape into something or someone else that offers protection or escape. But sheltering in Jesus. In the mystery of goodness revealed on the cross. The suffering servant who allows himself to bear the full weight of evil, God his only hope, even a God who seems to have left the building and abandoned him.

We see where Jesus’ faith is when evil bears down, and we see his response. We hear his invitation to come near, to gather around him. Are we willing to take a leap of faith that looks a lot more like a waiting in the darkness when everything in us wants to run or fight?


Practical suggestion:

“Get a feel” for the Mystery of Goodness, revealed at the cross.

Not a mere explanation (something you might regurgitate on an exam) but a real feel.

Take the image offered--a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing—and internalize it. Imagine what it would feel like to be covered from harm in this way.


Common image in Psalms: 17:8, 57:1, 63:7, 91:4

Hint: When you see such an image offered, it pays to ponder-imagine-reflect on it.

Ponder the words. Picture what the words signify. Place yourself in the scene.

Notice the details. Stay there for a while.

Take note of the feelings, impressions, etc. evoked and see how that affects your understanding-experience of God.

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