Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Politicians are known for trading insults. Teddy Roosevelt, while serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy to President William McKinley, quipped of his commander in chief, (He has) “No more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” War time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of his successor Clement Attlee, “A modest man, who has much to be modest about.” Even Abraham Lincoln had a way with cutting words. In the famous Senate debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said, “His argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.” We have grown to anticipate insults from politicians, but we certainly don’t expect them from Jesus.
So what are we to make of this story? Frankly, I don’t think that this gospel reading is intended to give us just cause for publicly insulting our enemies and detractors- though it might feel good to do that. I am reminded of the pastor who never cursed or swore. Instead, he would yell out the names of his least favorite parishioners- with feeling. Nor, do I believe that this passage is intended to be a justification for criticizing the messengers- regardless of the inconvenient truth they are sharing. The Pharisees in this story, whatever their motives, were telling the truth. Herod wanted Jesus dead.
Kings in the ancient world were intended to be viewed as lions by their subjects, not as a fox. According to Jewish holiness codes, a fox was not only cunning, but an unclean animal. Of course, there were just reasons for referring to King Herod as a sly fox. The King’s father, Herod the Great was the paranoid builder king, who had purchased the throne of Judea from the Roman Emperor. The family was not considered to be Jewish, but they held onto their power by threats and political maneuvering. Herod the Great was the one whom the Wisemen met on their way to Bethlehem, and who ordered the slaughter of the young boys in Bethlehem. His son, Herod Antipas was just as savage and cunning. In order to solidify his own power, he divorced his wife and married his niece and sister-in-law. Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist was his tireless critic and spoke out against this Herod’s immorality. It was for this reason that he ordered John’s arrest and his eventual beheading. Jesus knew all this, and he grieved the death of his relative. According to scripture King Herod was now afraid that his nemesis John the Baptist had returned from the dead. Perhaps that is the reason that Pharisees came out to warn Jesus of Herod’s plans.
Certainly, we can all find parallels in this story to our present day. Savage political leaders rise and fall with every generation. Mothers and children seek refuge in foreign lands, while fathers and brothers remain behind to fight. People in “pearlied” capital cities, protected by secure and fortressed walls, go about their daily tasks, indifferent and unaware of the forces that are marching against them. Jerusalem of Jesus’ time was no different. Within 40 years, the mighty Roman army would march across Judea into the holy city and leave not one stone upon another. All that was left of the Jerusalem that Herod the Great has built after the Roman military intervention, was the Temple’s desecrated Western Wall.
My friends, you may be wondering, how can this morning’s gospel in this agonizingly and historic Lenten season, possibly be heard as good news? I will be honest. The destruction, brutality and evil we are witnessing every day in Ukraine cannot be dismissed in a good three point sermon. We must wrestle with this painful reality as a nation, as a community, and as believers. Nor can we dismiss the truth the messengers have come to share warning us of the King Herods in the world. Instead, we must ask, What is the sacrifice that God is demanding of each one of us? That, only you and I can answer.
Surprisingly, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, may be more insightful than his political insult. “Go, tell that sly fox Herod, that the fear of death cannot stop me. I will keep doing the work of the God’s kingdom. I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Nothing you do, sly fox, will prevent God’s kingdom from coming.” That my friends is the good news Jesus bring to us this day.
Jesus describes his kingdom in many parables. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.” Jesus teaches us that God’s kingdom is worth every price and sacrifice. You see, “thy kingdom come” is not a geographical place, involving nations and people, nor even the arrival of the new heaven and the new earth. “Thy kingdom come” is much more subtle. Martin Luther wrote in his explanation to the Lord’s Prayer, “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us.” Yes, the kingdom will come secretly, silently, and is unstoppable. We simply pray that we may be a part of the kingdom.
Regretfully, we live in a world where men and women have been led to believe that faith is simply a private matter, and that God’s holy and everlasting kingdom is not on the move. Rather it is a personal reward for embracing this private faith. Perhaps, you accept notion this as well. Let me warn you, such a personal, private faith has little to do with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom he comes to proclaim.
Through the centuries, Christians have been moved to do amazing and courageous deeds all because of the promise and hope of God’s eternal kingdom. Across our nation this week, and of course, in Ireland, churches will celebrate the life and witness of St. Patrick, Missionary to Ireland. His story actually begins in Scotland where he was born of a noble Roman family. When he was 16 years old, Patrick was carried off by Irish marauders and sold as a slave to a tribal chieftain. For six years he tended his master’s flocks. He was discounted as dead. This could have been a period of bitterness and hatred towards his captors, but slavery did not leave an unpleasant mark upon Patrick. Instead, he grew to understand with greater clarity, Jesus’ words of invitation, “If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Slavery and hardship prepared him for his future calling. He acquired a perfect knowledge of the Celtic tongue, and, through his master, he became familiar with all the details of the pagan belief. After six years, he escaped and returned to Britain. From there Saint Patrick headed to a monastery in Tours, France where he devoted himself to the priesthood. It was in these years of spiritual training that he glimpsed his vision and mission. He longed to share the love and strength and power of Jesus Christ with the Irish people. And so nearly two decades after he was first captured by Irish marauders, he returned to the land where he had lived as a slave. He returned as one who had been raised from the dead to proclaim the good news of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ invitation to live the life of a disciple is an honor and privilege. There will be days, however, when it will be a hardship and burden. But my friends, God’s kingdom comes, even without prayers. We simply pray that it comes to us. That is our hope and our trust. Jesus has drawn you and me into his wonderful story of salvation that will one day draw to a close with the joyous celebration of eternal life and the holy praise of angels. It is the promise of a kingdom more glorious by far than anything we have known or can imagine. That is Jesus’ word. Finally, he assures us as well, that he will not demand from you, more than he would demand of himself. “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.