A Lament for the City
A Sermon preached by the Precentor, Canon Anna Macham
Sunday 13 March 2022- 10:30, The Second Sunday of Lent
Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 13:31-end
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you [desolate].”
Our Gospel reading this morning is a lament, an impassioned lament for the city that Jesus loves. Jesus has been making his way through towns and villages, teaching people through his parables, and attracting the crowds, as slowly he makes his way towards Jerusalem. Jerusalem is central to who Jesus is, the place where he will fulfil his destiny as the Son of Man, and yet it is hostile to him and to his message, just as it was hostile to the prophets of old. Soon, Jesus predicts, the Jerusalem temple- with its beauty, its traditions- will be destroyed, smashed to pieces along with the city around it. To a city not at peace, Jesus speaks these sublimely poetic words of lament and of longing.
This week, as in the one before, we’ve seen image after image in our media of cities being destroyed: Mariupol, Kyiv, Kharkiv, now Lutsk, Dunipro and many others. We look on feeling helpless to know what to do, at the same time as feeling a deep sense of longing for the fighting and cruel suffering to stop. We’ve read heart-breaking words, of people’s lives destroyed, their jobs and livelihoods gone. We’ve seen images of pregnant women being carried out over a landscape of rubble from a bombed maternity hospital, of thousands of citizens unable to escape trapped without food, water or medical care. Many of us live in cities or have done at some point in our lives – and the destruction we hear of in our media is hard for us to comprehend: all the things that give a city and a people its identity- its traditions and its heritage, its way of life- suddenly gone. One woman, at the end of her long journey to Poland, wrote: “Everything has remained in Kyiv, life, gadgets, everything. But, these are just things. The only things I left behind in Ukraine are my husband and Dad’s body… My husband is a big part of me, he is my best friend, assistant, adviser. Our boundless love is what gives me strength now.” (Guardian, 09/03/22).
Jesus, in our reading, is literally on a journey towards Jerusalem, his own beloved city, and so are we- in a metaphorical sense- as we journey through Lent towards Easter. Jerusalem, when we get to Holy Week, is the place of our dying and rising with Christ. It’s a city doomed to destruction but also, paradoxically, the place of resurrection, of hope. Jesus is relentlessly drawn to Jerusalem as the place where he will both meet his end and be raised. The reference to “today and tomorrow, and on the third day” is a reference to the resurrection, expressed as it is in the Creed, “and on the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.”
At the start of our reading, some Pharisees warn Jesus away from Jerusalem. Herod, they warn, wants to kill him. This could be a helpful warning, or they could secretly be trying to get rid of him. It’s not easy to tell. Yet Jesus is intent on going there. He knows he must go to the city he loves, in obedience to his strange vocation to suffer and to die. On the cross, he will confront the cosmic powers of darkness, taking upon himself the full force of the disaster he is predicting for the nation and for the Temple, and giving himself on behalf of the many. But to do this, he must first take on the powers of this world. That means confronting Pontius Pilate, the embodiment of Rome, the dominant power. And it means confronting Herod, held in thrall colluding with Rome, as well as the religious powers of his day. It is powers such as these that Paul is alluding to in our New Testament reading, when he speaks of those “whose end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.”
Jesus speaks of Herod with contempt. “That fox,” he calls him, a term widely used by the rabbis of his day to refer to someone of low cunning and habitual deception. But Herod’s cunning- for all its swagger and self-importance- is not to be confused with wisdom or intelligence. His cunning is about cruelty. There are obvious parallels we could make here with the situation in Russia and Ukraine, with the lies and deception coming from the Kremlin, as daily evidenced in our media. With his luxurious and debauched lifestyle, Herod, the puppet king employed by the Romans to keep order, was despised. This tyrant, who so far has cast a dark shadow over the pages of Luke’s Gospel, at now poses a direct threat. Yet Jesus’ destiny, at the hands of Herod and the other authorities is set. He must stay focused and set his face towards Jerusalem and bring his saving work to completion.
Our journey to Jerusalem during Lent is to walk with Jesus on a journey of transformation, where all is eventually brought to completion and from which our own dying and rising with Christ can be brought about. In the section just before the passage of Philippians that we heard this morning, Paul describes his eager and relentless pursuit of being Christlike, and in today’s passage we hear of the dramatic conclusion of that pursuit. For Paul and for us, the imitation of Christ calls us to confront the violent forces and powers of our day. For us, this must surely mean continuing to stand alongside the suffering people of Ukraine, not waning in our efforts or concern, but keeping up our active support of them through donations and through prayer, as well as urging our government to do all it can, in supplying arms and offering sanctuary to refugees of the conflict. The conflict also now gives us an added imperative, by reason of democracy as well as sustainability, to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels. These are hard challenges, but Paul urges us to “stand firm.”
We tend to think of Lent as a time for turning inwards, focusing on ourselves and our sinfulness, and trying to develop our personal life of prayer. But this Lent has shown us that prayer is not just about ourselves in relation to God. Two weekends ago, we expected 30 people to turn up to a hastily organised moment of prayer for Ukraine here the Sunday afternoon after the invasion. But 700 turned up, people of different nationalities coming together to show support for Ukraine, joining together in lifting a simple yet powerful public prayer of lament. In Lent, we start with ourselves and see a transformed life in community and relationship, not only with God but with each other. We may feel helpless, but our shared vigil prayers- like Jesus’ impassioned prayer in our Gospel- are strengthening.
Lent reminds us that we are all sinners, the ash a potent sign of our mortality and sin. Each of us, if we are honest, has the capacity to choose the darkness that we see in the world. Yet as Rowan Williams, a former archbishop writes about Jesus’ naming of Herod for what he is in today’s reading, small Gospel events like these “remind us that the whole story is one in which the human map is being redrawn, the world turned upside down.” (Christ on Trial, p.52). Jesus defies the forces of darkness to bring his work to completion. As we reflect on the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainians, as we watch priests celebrating communion in bunkers, may we too have the courage to “stand firm” this Lent as we act and pray for the transformation of ourselves and of our world, and as we bring our journey to Jerusalem to completion.