Come Easter, we will sing out Alleluias and celebrate the good news of great joy that God’s grace and love win in the end. But for the next several weeks, we mostly acknowledge the many ways we stand in the way of God’s final victory.
It is good that we take time to reflect on the ways that we separate ourselves from the love of God, on the ways that we fall short of being the people that God invites us to be. It is good that we confess our sins. It is good that we recognize our need for God’s grace and forgiveness.
But of course that is not fun. Being honest with ourselves about our own weaknesses is hard.
Thankfully, our readings for this morning are encouraging.
But before we get to our readings, let’s pause to think about our image of God.
As you all probably know, the Gospel of John tells us that God loves the world so much that God gave His only begotten Son that we might have life. First John goes a step farther. According to First John love is not just one of the things that God does. Love defines who God is. God is love.
We know that. And yet we—at least I—often have a hard time really believing that God is love. Often we think of God as a judge, which can be terrifying. God is just, and we are sinners, and that is scary combination. I am a pretty good guy. But if God’s standard is perfect righteousness, I am in big trouble!
Sometimes we go farther. We rightly claim that God hates sin. And then we begin to worry that maybe God hates the sinner too. We picture God as angry, even vindictive. That is because we know what human justice can be like.
When my boys were little, I was generally an indulgent parent. Still on occasion I had to punish them for one thing or another. That was their first experience of “justice.”
All the child-rearing books I ever read warned parents not to punish children in anger. Children need limits, but they also need to know that the limits are enforced in love, not anger. I understood that well enough. Sometimes I even followed that excellent advice.
And sometimes I did not.
The sad fact is, my children learned from me that “justice” does not always look like love, that “justice” often gets enforced with anger, that “justice” can be scary. It is an unfortunate lesson that virtually all of us learn.
And we project what we have learned about “justice” from people onto God, which makes it hard to believe that God really is love.
But the good news is, God is love.
We can see that good news in our gospel reading.
Jesus has just been warned that Herod wants to kill him. Jesus is not worried because he is not yet in Jerusalem and he knows that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” But Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem where, as he knows, the people will call for his execution and he will be brutally killed.
Jesus had good reason to be hostile to Jerusalem.
And yet this is what Jesus says to Jerusalem: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Jesus is not angry. Jesus is not hostile. Jesus is not stern.
Instead, Jesus is merciful. Jesus longs for the people of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people of Jerusalem.
It is a simple image and a beautiful image and a powerful image. Jesus is like a mother hen gathering her brood together to keep them warm and safe. And this despite the fact that they will soon kill him.
That is how Jesus relates to sinners. Not as a harsh and angry judge, but as a loving and nurturing mother hen. Remarkable.
In that moment, Jesus is not able to wrap his arms around the people of Jerusalem. Why not? The problem is not Jesus’ righteous anger. Listen again to what Jesus says. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The problem is that the sinners themselves are not willing to be embraced, not willing to receive the love and forgiveness of God. That unwillingness is what sin is.
Sin takes many different forms. But behind all sin stands our unwillingness to be gathered into Jesus’ arms of love, our inability to accept the love that God is constantly pouring out on us.
And the single biggest reason we are unwilling or unable to accept God’s love is that we cannot quite bring ourselves to trust God’s promises. We cannot quite bring ourselves to believe the good news that God really is love, that God really does forgive, that God really wants us to experience full and abundant life. We know that with our heads, but we have a hard time believing it in our hearts.
One of the Apostle Paul’s favorite verses comes from our Old Testament reading for this morning. Paul quotes it in a couple of his letters. “Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” In Genesis, God has just promised Abraham that he will have numerous descendants. That is the promise of God that Abraham believed.
But Paul interprets the verse much more broadly. According to Paul, that verse describes how we can be justified, that is, how we can enter into right relationship with God. And the answer is simple: we just have to trust the promises that God makes to us. We have to trust God’s promise to love us despite our sin, to forgive us through Jesus Christ, to give us eternal life even though we could never earn it. God does all the work. All we have to do is let it happen to us.
One way to describe the entire Christian life is as a big lesson in learning to trust that Jesus was right about God, that God is more like a mother hen than a fierce judge, that God really is love. That trust in God is what faith is.
Back to Lent, this penitential season, this season during which we “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.”
We should take Lent seriously. Sin is real, and sin is bad. Sin separates us from God. We should confess our sins. We should beg God’s forgiveness. We should commit to doing better. All of that is really important.
But we keep going from there. Christian faith is trust in God’s promise of love and forgiveness. The good news of God in Christ is that we are already forgiven, that God is waiting for us with open arms, that God longs to draw us in and to hold us and to shelter us. The question is, are we ready and willing to be gathered into God’s arms?
And so my prayer for us this Lent is, first, that we can be honest about our sin and our weakness. But my prayer is also and more importantly that we can trust God’s promise of love and mercy, that we will be willing to be gathered into God’s arms of love.
And I pray this in the name of the one whose arms are always open, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Passage: Luke 13:31-35