Our fear of God, of being vulnerable before God inhibits our letting God in, but it is overcome by God’s loving embrace and patient waiting for us to come under the wings of love and life.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, 2 Lent C; texts: Luke 13:31-35; Psalm 27
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The mosaic from an altar in a church on the Mount of Olives pictured on the bulletin cover is beautiful to me. And of course it depicts Jesus’ lament from today that he is like a mother hen longing to gather her brood together under her wings, but they weren’t willing. There is much we could say about this image from Jesus, and this particular mosaic depicting it. But we should notice the striking placement of the words here. It’s Jesus’ quote in Latin (cited from Matthew’s version, but Matthew and Luke use the same words here). But if you notice, the last two words aren’t placed around the edge with the others. Literally translated “and you would not,” the “and you were not willing” phrase is separated out, under the baby chicks. And it has a question mark.
Now we could see the question mark as attending to the whole sentence: how often have I wanted and you were not willing? The NRSV and most English translations use an exclamation point. But the way this is laid out, it looks to me as if the artist is asking the viewer the question: you were not willing? Are you not willing? Almost as if each time we encounter this verse, this art, the same question comes to us: are we willing to let Jesus enfold us in his wings? Almost as if the artist says Jesus isn’t talking to ancient Jerusalem, he’s talking to us today.
It’s also interesting that the way Jesus uses this metaphor of a hen and her chicks only works if we humanize the chicks. Baby chickens are hardwired to run to their mother for protection when a threat comes, to respond to her call. Not so for us, apparently, since Jesus seems to think he has something we need but we aren’t willing to trust him to meet that need.
And that seems to be the crucial question: why wouldn’t we be willing? If we read this as a question mark, as if we are faced with this choice, this offer, every day, what on earth would keep us from running under Jesus’ wings?
We speak of “God’s will,” and say, as St. James invites, “the Lord willing.” But here Jesus declares the mystery that despite his will, we have a different will.
We don’t want what he’s offering. We’re not willing. And it makes him deeply sad to face such rejection.
Now, what Jesus says we’re rejecting is being gathered by him under his wings, being drawn into his care. It’s an image of protection. But it’s also an image of relationship and vulnerability. It’s an image which, if we accept it for ourselves, suggests we are not in charge, we cannot save ourselves, we are dependent upon the mercy and grace of God for everything.
And that might be our dealbreaker. Jesus is saying here that the Triune God wants a relationship with us, but it’s a relationship on God’s terms, a relationship based on a recognition that we need God for everything. And as much as we want God for some things, we’d rather keep some parts to ourselves.
The great risk in any relationship important to us is vulnerability and exposure.
In any of our relationships, if they are to deepen, we need to open ourselves to the other. And all of us have varying levels of openness with varying people. Those closest to us usually know us the best, and we’re more willing to be open to them about our deeper needs and wants and even our flaws. The further out the circle goes, the less free we are with ourselves.
In a relationship like a marriage, where two people commit to lifelong love and faithfulness, that kind of openness and vulnerability becomes central to growth and depth of love. But even there, we can hesitate to share everything we think and feel, to be known completely. There’s always a piece of us afraid of complete disclosure.
That’s the huge risk of any relationship, really, isn’t it? Vulnerability and exposure. How much do I trust you? And can I risk being hurt by you?
So what’s this have to do with the Triune God? Everything. Clearly God knows everything about each of us. So in one sense, there is no hiding. But the reason for confession, for prayer, for openness with God is our finding a willingness to admit our failings, our deepest fears, our flaws, our sins, to ourselves, and so to God.
When we can be honest with ourselves before God, that we cannot fix our lives, that we cannot be who we know we are meant to be, that we are broken and sinful, we’re not telling God anything that God doesn’t already know. But in that vulnerability, our relationship with God is strengthened. Because we’re saying we depend upon God for life. We won’t run to Mother Hen, in other words, unless we think we’re in need of help.
But it isn’t just our fear of vulnerability that holds us back. We also fear being trapped.
I was thinking this week that a hug might be analogous to the wings image in a helpful way. Some people are big huggers, others are not. And it often has to do with a sense of personal space.
Some people like a little space around themselves, are uncomfortable if others break into that space, unless they’re family or loved ones. And in some families, not even then. Others find great joy in physical touch and in hugging, and have no problem letting others into their personal space. Both options are certainly fine for people to choose. But look at what this might mean if we are trying to understand Jesus’ lament.
Whether you’re a natural hugger or not, can you think of a situation where someone’s hug made you uncomfortable? Or have you ever hugged someone who clearly didn’t want it, and stiffened up like a board? Why wouldn’t someone want to be embraced in that way? I think it’s because of fear of vulnerability, but also a fear of being trapped.
If we let someone into our personal space, we risk being harmed by them. We risk being touched, which can be threatening. And most important, we lose our ability to maneuver, we lose our room to move.
So what if that’s the problem with letting our Lord Jesus surround us with his care and love? What if we’re afraid of being so close to Jesus there is no place to hide from him? There will be no such thing as personal space for us any more? What if we’re afraid we’ll have no more room to maneuver under those wings, nowhere to run, nowhere to turn? If we accept his embrace and protection and care, we’re trusting him to embrace us, protect us, care for us, not to harm us or crush us.
And if we get nervous under those wings, we might fear that we can’t run away because he has us trapped. Think of that: an embrace, even between humans, can be freeing and a sign of love. Or it can make one of the people feel trapped. And maybe that’s part of our fear with Jesus.
And feeling trapped is more than just a concern we can’t escape or run. If we let him surround us with God’s wings, we not only put ourselves in God’s care, we put ourselves under God’s guidance and will. We freely give up some freedom to obey and follow his will and way. Going under those wings means giving Jesus, the Son of God, control of everything. It means agreeing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the Triune God, and not ours. And that’s another way to feel trapped.
But freedom is actually key to all of this, because Jesus astonishingly leaves us to our choice.
He says, “See, your house is left to you.” In effect, “You’re in a mess, and you want to stay there because you can’t see trusting me with everything yet. And I will let you stay in that mess as long as you need. See, your house is left to you.”
This is key: Jesus is powerless in the face of our unwillingness because Jesus will not force us to trust, force us to faith, force us into relationship. He will not drag us under the wings of God.
But here’s the promise he says to Jerusalem and to us: “when you’re ready to recognize that I am the one who comes in the name of the Lord, that what I offer is God’s offer of life, that I am life for you, when you’re ready, I will be here.”
That’s what Jesus says. “I will be here when you’re ready.” I will wait for you, however long it takes.
And even more, the promise Jesus makes in dying and rising from the dead is that if we do decide to trust him, to let him bring us into relationship with the Triune God, to deepen in this relationship of trust and dependence, he will not let us down. Just as much as he won’t leave us simply because we keep rejecting his desire to gather us, we can trust that he also won’t let us down when we do let go and trust. He died and rose to prove that.
So the wings are waiting for us. For you. What are we waiting for?
That’s our question today. It’s our question for the rest of life. It may be good to think of entering into a relationship with God, “being willing” to go under those wings as something which takes little steps instead of one giant leap. Little steps like starting to open up just a little in prayer and confession and letting God see the inside, and trusting in God’s love. Steps like beginning to listen to the Word and actually hearing it and the promise again and again, and starting to live in that Word. Little steps like simply coming to this Table once again to be fed today and for at least a moment trusting God enough to forgive all.
And taking those steps means discovering what it is to live with the joy of the psalmist of Psalm 27 who today has no problem trusting in God for all things, in delighting in the shelter and protection the LORD God provides, and in calling God a rock, a sanctuary, a home, a light and a salvation. That joy is where Jesus invites us to go, the life Jesus hopes we will seek.
Because make no mistake, this is where life is, abundant life: under the wings of God’s love and grace, where we are known fully and still loved, and where we are protected as much from our own fears and brokenness as from any outside force. With God is life. Let’s not be afraid to go there.
In the name of Jesus. Amen