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A Sermon by Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
Most of us are familiar with various expressions about “a fox loose in the henhouse.” While the dictionaries trace this idea back to a medieval proverb and note its similarity to the Roman adage about “the wolf guarding the sheep;” it is probably much older than that. It’s likely that any country that has foxes, chickens, and crooked politicians has a similar saying. Jesus grew up in farm country and often used experiences common to rural life to make his points. Today is no exception. The idea of a sly fox loose in the henhouse coupled with a hen anxious to protect her chicks provides us with a powerful image of the dangers that prey upon us in life, the promise that God seeks always to protect us, and our stubborn refusal to allow the love of God into our lives.
The setting today is relatively late in Jesus’ three-year ministry. He has made it known that he is leaving his small town base in Galilee and heading to Jerusalem for Passover. He has caused quite a stir in the hinterlands, preaching, teaching, healing disease and casting out demons. Word of mouth is a powerful thing in an oral culture and everyone, from little children all the way up to King Herod, has heard something about “the Galilean,” the miracle worker who not only heals but who also proclaims the coming of God’s righteous kingdom.
Jesus’ words about the coming of the kingdom interest the Pharisees – and frighten King Herod. Sometimes we misinterpret the Pharisees, we have been taught to consider them the Biblical bad guys. Remember the youth camp song, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee – ‘cause they’re not fair–you -see.” Well, maybe we’re the ones who aren’t being fair. If the Pharisees weren’t interested in what Jesus had to say, they wouldn’t have kept coming around, asking questions, probing, digging, trying to find out if he is the Messiah, the one sent to bring in the kingdom. Even though they weren’t a part of Jesus’ posse, his entourage; they certainly weren’t as antagonistic to him as we have supposed. The Pharisees who came to him this day had connections, they had heard things, rumors, innuendos, perhaps straight out warnings and plans. However it was that they knew, they knew for sure – Herod was out to get Jesus, to kill him.
Why? Because Herod was the fox loose in Israel’s henhouse. The king was supposed to protect and care for Israel. Unlike many other rulers in the ancient near east, the king of Israel was not considered divine, was not a god. The true King served God as a leader, a shepherd, a caregiver tending to God’s people – and Herod was none of those things. He was a ruthless, conniving, coward. He had forced his brother Phillip to get a divorce so he could marry Phillip’s wife. He murdered John the Baptist because his wife told him to. It is likely he wanted to get rid of Jesus because Jesus had connections with John the Baptist, and because he could not understand what sort of kingdom Jesus was talking about but it seemed like a threat to national security. Better to torture him and kill him than to take a risk. No wonder the Pharisees told Jesus to “Get away from here.” But Jesus was undeterred, sending Herod a message of defiance, “Go and tell that fox for me, I am going to finish what I started here, and then I’m coming your way.”
In what he says next, Jesus weaves together a couple of word pictures. First is the image of the prophets being sent to “Jerusalem;” the Hebrew Scriptures long story of the children of Israel continually rejecting the prophets and turning their backs on God. Second, he continues the idea of Herod as a fox by comparing God to a mother hen who desires to gather her brood under her wings to protect them from the dangers loose in the world. Notice how Jesus phrases this, “How often I have desired to gather your children together. . .but you were not willing.” Desired by God, but defied by the people. God seeks and people scatter. God yearns to protect, but the people yearn to be what they think is free.
And most of us are no different today, are we? Those of us here in church have gotten, or will soon get, beyond the age of adolescent pushing against the boundaries. Most of us try to live good and moral lives. We may not remember all the ten commandments, or exactly understand how they apply to everyday life, but we have a pretty good handle on the basics. Most of us, most of the time are doing all right in the “upstanding citizen, don’t break the law, lend an occasional helping hand to a neighbor, give something back to the community” standard of being a good Christian and a fine American.
But what about when we don’t? What about when we fail? What about when we fall? What about when we do something we knew we shouldn’t and afterward wish we hadn’t? Or what about when bad things happen to those of us who consider ourselves good people who should not be so treated? What about when the fox of the world – its evil, its greed, its random destructiveness, its capacity to push us back and push us down, overwhelms us? Do we remember God then? Do we remember the mothering God who seeks to wrap her soft and protective wings around us? Or are we like the citizens of Jerusalem – unwilling?
The Gospel in this text ad in our lives is in the very last line, “. . .the time comes when YOU say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’” this looks back to Psalm 118, a psalm sung when a new king, a true king, a true shepherd of the people, a leader, not a fox – entered into the temple and into his kingship. It looks forward to the time in the very near future when Jesus will enter Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, lauded by the people as that true king and thus, the Messiah of the Lord. And it looks very much forward with Paul and Timothy to that day when “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11) Every knee, every tongue. That’s you, that’s me, that’s everybody. God made us, God loves us with the fierce and determined love of a mother, God is patient and God waits for us to return.
We may be unwilling, but God is undeterred. That old mother hen will stay out there searching for us, doing battle with the world’s foxes and the wolves, standing ready to receive us when we are ready to come home.
Amen and amen.