This past week, William VanderBloemen, a consultant to churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations, sent out a letter to all the pastors on his mailing list. It reads: “Thanks for what you’re doing to lead the church in arguably the most difficult few years in our lifetime. It’s certainly more difficult than the years I pastored.”
It continues: “I’ve spoken to many pastors recently who have said something like, “I’m glad we’re finally open and running again… but why can’t the church be as big as it used to be? Why can’t things get back to how they once were?”
It’s no secret that we’re living in a time of profound change, even dislocation. The church used to have a relatively secure place among the institutions of American society. To belong to a church did not exactly make you popular, but at least it made you respectable. That is less and less the case today. And many of us, not only pastors, but also members and friends of churches, are discouraged.
Cultures change. Values change. But God does not change. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:8). For this reason, we, the church, have not changed, at least not in essentials. We still respond to needs in the community, as we are able. We still conduct worship services. We hold forth the same message of salvation, the forgiveness of sins, of new life in Christ.
Why would people not want to hear and accept this unchanging message with joy? Why would they not want to receive the grace of baptism, offering them the gift of belonging in the church, where they could be set apart from the world, and learn to receive and give love in community? In sum, why do people resist the church and the message God has entrusted to her?
These are perplexing questions, but they are not new. On the contrary, they go back at least as far as the days of Jesus himself, as we certainly see in our gospel lesson for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.
Jesus has been sojourning among the people in the region of Galilee, healing, exorcising, blessing and restoring them. But here as elsewhere he encounters resistance. Last time we saw this resistance in the figure of the devil, who tempted him in the wilderness, with the aim of derailing him from his mission. Today we see it in the figure of Herod, the ruler of Galilee.
We have seen Herod before. This is the same Herod who threw John the Baptist into prison and later had him beheaded. Now the Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him too.
We don’t really know what motivates the Pharisees here. Based on what we see elsewhere in the gospels, we can hardly conclude that it’s heartfelt concern for his safety. In fact, the Pharisees also resist him at every turn, even to the point of wanting what Herod wants.
Jesus’ reply to them implies his suspicion that they have been sent from Herod to spy on him. Evidence for this interpretation is suggested in Jesus’ reference to him as “that fox.” We may imagine that once the Pharisees learn about Jesus’ movements, they will return to Herod to give him a full report. Then Herod can plan his next move. In this regard, he shows himself to be as sly or as crafty as a fox.
But this does not deter Jesus. No threat from Herod can intimidate him. He has a mission, and there is no power on earth that can prevent him from accomplishing it.
Resistance, especially from powerful and influential people, can make us unsure of ourselves and our cause. For example, when leaders, or even people we admire and respect, support churches, especially by going to them on Sunday mornings, it is easier to be confident. But when they are indifferent or even hostile and do not go to them, it’s a lot harder, to say the least.
We must not imagine that Jesus is immune from feelings of discouragement, since, as one of us, he feels everything we feel. Only in this case, Herod’s hostility serves only to strengthen him in his resolve. Jesus shows a determination to do God’s will regardless of personal cost.
When we turn to our first lesson for today, we see that it’s a determination that the Apostle Paul shares. He wrote the Letter to the Philippians, from which our lesson is taken, from jail. That fact alone tells us that he also faced resistance to his cause, which, as we have been learning in our Sunday school hour, was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. But that has not deterred him. Even prison itself has not prevented him from spreading the gospel, as he makes clear at the beginning of this letter. He’s been firm in his resolve to complete the mission that God gave to him. And now he appeals to the Philippians to imitate him, and stand firm in the Lord.
When we face resistance, we too have to stand firm. It is significant that this theme of standing firm recurs throughout Paul’s Letters. We should not grow weary in well doing, for in due time, we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9). We should always give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). And we should always remember that God is not unjust. He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them (Heb. 6:10). And if we think that what we do is insignificant, because we are few, with few resources, we should recall the words of Jesus, that even if we give a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who believe in him, we will certainly not lose our reward (Matt. 10:42).
There are tears in the eyes of the Apostle Paul. But they are not for himself. He is not shedding tears over his own suffering, even though he has every reason. Rather, he is disturbed at the sight of many who live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Paul resolved to know nothing among those to whom God sent him except Christ and him crucified, which is what he preached (1 Cor. 2:2). But there were always those who rejected him and his message with hostility. Again, this resulted in harm for Paul. But his tears are for those who harm themselves by rejecting his message.
There will be tears also in the eyes of Jesus. Today he considers the rejection that awaits him in Jerusalem, which is his destination as Israel’s great King, the Son of David, to whom the throne of God’s kingdom rightfully belongs. Later, when he approaches the city, his tears will flow.
This is remarkable. If Jesus is the self-revelation of God, if in him we can say that God has really come to live among us, then we can say that God sheds tears. In his series of meditations on the Gospel of Luke, Pope Francis observes that the almighty God, the creator of an incomprehensibly vast universe, the God who can do all things, sheds tears. But in those tears is his love. “He weeps over people who are separated from him. Even the most wicked person, the worst blasphemer, is loved by God with the tenderness of a father and, to borrow the words of Jesus, is like a hen with her brood.”
Jesus looks to the people, and upon the holy city. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34).
Can we not hear these words reverberate through the emptied-out sanctuaries of so many of our churches today? Jesus wept over Jerusalem, because despite her need for him, she did not recognize and receive him as her king and savior. Later, when actually approaching Jerusalem, Jesus adds these words to his lament over the city. “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).
This is a commentary on the perversity of the human heart. We human beings don’t choose what is good for us, but actively resist it. What we need most, we reject. And the longer we persist in our rejection, the harder it is for us to recognize our need. Psychologists today call it self-sabotage. But long before the psychologists came on the scene, Christians recognized it as sin and symptomatic of sin.
Do people today need Jesus? To be more specific, do people need the church, in which Jesus desires to gather people as does a hen her brood under her wings?
We see it everywhere around us. People are disconnected from institutions, including churches, that once supported relationships, that once fostered a sense of belonging, in decades past.
Just recently, the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, in partnership with the Kettering Foundation, released a study that explores this disconnection, diagnosing it as a “civic virus,” (which, in fact, is the title that they gave to the study). Here is what the researchers discovered:
“People are experiencing a profound sense of loss of reality and control, leaving them dizzied, disoriented, and feeling helpless…everyone seems to be struggling nowadays. This thread runs throughout all that we learned from talking in-depth with Americans from many walks of life. People are in a desperate search for an antidote to these prevailing social and psychological conditions. At the heart of what people seek is acceptance and belonging. Though feelings of intense isolation undoubtedly surged during COVID-19 times, this search didn’t just begin as a result of the pandemic.”
To this we can add that social isolation is a higher risk factor for cardiovascular death than is hypertension and obesity. And this is alarming, because according to the results of a 2020 survey, more than 60 percent of Americans report feeling lonely, left out, misunderstood and lacking companionship.
The answer cannot be clearer. Yes, people need the church! This is glaringly obvious to us. If disconnection, and a lack of belonging and acceptance, are symptoms of the civic virus that has infected us, then the church, in which Jesus desires to gather people, is the vaccine.
We cannot force anyone to get the vaccine. But one pastor has pointed out that perhaps we need to be less fearful of evangelism. We need to be less reticent to tell people that, yes, you can find belonging and hope here. There is still room under the hen’s wings. This too is in the mind of Christ as he speaks of his, of God’s, mission.
Admittedly, the theme for today sounds gloomy. Refusing to make their home under the shelter of his wings, God’s people, as represented by the city of Jerusalem, will find that their house is left to them. In Matthew’s version of the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem, the word “desolate” is added (Matt. 23:38). The image is fitting, since so many of our houses of worship today have been left to us desolate, as we have been saying.
But the gospel lesson does not end on a somber note. There is hope. Even if God’s people do not recognize their king today, this will not always be so. Jesus remains the rightful heir to the throne of his father David and the legitimate king of his people. Even if God’s people reject their king today, in the future they will receive him with the acclamation “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is on this promise that we have to set our hope. For the reception of the king means life for the world and for all creation.
William VanderBloemen, whom we mentioned at the beginning, concludes his letter to the pastors in this same hope. He writes: “Are you discouraged today? I believe that God wants you to hear that…he is building something amazing, and he’s doing it through your hard work right now.”
It continues: “Times have been tough these last few years. But I believe [that the night will soon end and the dawn will come.] And I think the work we all put in these next few years will be remembered by [posterity] for a long time as one of the special ages to be a Christian.
You should be applauded for hanging in there. And you should know I am praying for you and your endurance as the complexities of the pandemic and war [in Ukraine] continue to grow. Keep on keeping on. A foundation is being laid for a finished product unlike any we have ever seen before.”
Stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. Amen.