Our readings today are very confusing. It’s hard to find anything about them that link them together so that we may find meaning in them.
Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures tells the story of Abram’s continuing conversation with God about God’s promise to him that he will become a great nation. Repeatedly God speaks to Abram assuring him that he will have many ancestors.
But Abram is married to Sarai who is barren. It seems impossible. She has told him to take her maid to provide a family for him in order for him to have an heir. He would be happy to have just one son, much less the multitude that God promises him.
Abram continues to accumulate great wealth, but it is meaningless without an heir. Eventually he does have a child with the Hagar the maid who is Egyptian. This is the beginning of the line that leads to Islam. Through this son Ishmael, another line is established that also claims the covenant with the one true God.
We hear the description of the characters and we may wonder who is this Abram? I thought his name was Abraham? And wasn’t he married to Sarah? Who is this person named Sarai?
After many visits and visions, and words of promise, God renames Abram, Abraham, which literally means “the father of a multitude.” God also renames Sarai, Sarah. But none of this occurs until Abram has continued to be faithful to God over many years.
Our reading takes place before this change of names and before Hagar bears Ishmael and they are driven from the camp.
Upon first reading the offering that is performed sounds very confusing.
"Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
It reminds me of the reading from the school chapel scene in Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life.”
The scene opens with the introduction, “The Meaning of Life, Part two, Growth and Learning.”
We hear John Cleese’s voice:
“… and spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour , and so the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadish Bilgameth by Shor eth ber ragalian to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazdar, he who brought the butter dish to Bal Shazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashamon and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots. Here endeth the Lesson.”
And of course, it is meaningless. Python likes to point out how removed we are from the language of the Bible.
But the ritual sacrifice described today does have meaning, even with the obvious fact that taking particular animals and splitting them in half and laying the halves on each other and burning them, has no meaning in our day.
The important part from this description of an ancient animal sacrifice is the “smoking fire pot and flaming torch,” which represent God’s presence in the ritual. They represent God’s promise to protect Abram, even as he sleeps in dread of the future.
The promise, as we know, is that Abram will become the father of a multitude. It’s earned through the faithfulness of Abram and countless others. Abram dies as Abraham, advanced in years and still not aware of the multitude to follow.
We know further that it is not by Abram’s blood that same great nation is known, but by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. And not just by his blood, but by his life. By this sacrifice, all people are accepted into the heritage that we know in Abram.
But what happens after his death is that many prophets continue to call the people back to the covenant. Each time they are abused by the people, some are slain for their faithful voice calling the people back.
This is how Jerusalem gets the reputation of the place where prophets are killed. And in fact, Jerusalem becomes more than a city, it becomes a character in our story. A character because Jerusalem acts independently from all other influences and comes to represent unbending human will.
Jerusalem is the place where people cheer the prophet one day when they see him finely dressed and riding a donkey and scream for his execution the next when he appears stripped of his finery and obviously beaten.
Our Gospel is really two stories placed together. First we hear Jesus being warned by Pharisees that Herod wants to kill him.
We don’t generally think of Pharisees being interested in Jesus’ welfare. But if we remember the geography of this story it might help.
Jesus is in Galilee. He is far from Jerusalem. He is in the land governed by one of the son’s of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas.
The Pharisees are worried that if Jesus stirs things up, it will go badly for them as well. They warn him out of their own self-interest.
Meanwhile, Jesus responds with an insult to Herod Antipas, “Tell that fox.” This translates easily over the centuries. He is describing the King of that area as one who sneaks around seeking prey. Further the image of fox was routinely compared to the lion which is a way to belittle a person.
And he follows it with a comment that foreshadows his resurrection. He tells the Pharisees to tell Herod that, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”
The third day, just like the resurrection.
Further he says.” Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” He is talking about his way in the sense of his path, his journey, his faithfulness to God; the path he sets for us to follow.
He adds, “…it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
Luke begins his story in Jerusalem and ends it there also. He is making the point that the place where all power resides, both political and religious, is the place where the conflict is pursued and revealed.
Jesus is now on that Journey toward Jerusalem. He can’t be bothered to avoid a king in a land far from the Holy City. He cannot be distracted by a petty tyrant when he must confront the representatives of an oppressive religious elite and distant foreign power.
Jesus knows that he must move on to Jerusalem and in this place and time show us the way to return to the original covenant with God; through consistent faithfulness, just like Abram.
Meanwhile, he speaks of wanting to mother this place like a hen does her chicks, but, “You were not willing.” The Greek word for “will” in this comment, both Jesus’ desire to mother Jerusalem and Jerusalem’s unwillingness are the same. It highlights the conflict at hand, between one who comes to save and the object of that salvation.
In Luke, Jesus has never been to Jerusalem, so what is he talking about? How can he claim to have been rejected?
It is not that Jesus has personally experienced rejection there, but that the life of the city is so counter to God’s call to faithful covenant, that the political and religious establishment is so contrary to God’s creation, that it’s very existence rejects the word of love and peace that comes from God through Jesus.
And what does this mean to us today?
It means that the work of saving our world calls us to be faithful to our covenant with God. Even if, like Abraham we will not see it’s fruition.
That we must see past the craziness of the political structure to know that what is truly important is the lives of all our sisters and brothers and those generations to come.
That it is not just the physical world, but the countless people seeking meaning in their lives.
Just like these forty days that we practice a discipline to help us stay focused on God’s love and redemption in Jesus, we must learn to practice a discipline around our whole lives in Christ.