Genesis 15:1-12,17-18                            Psalm 27                 Philippians 3:17-4:1                Luke 13:31-35

Do you ever find a surprise when you read the Bible?  It happens to me quite a bit.  I’ll be reading a passage that I know I’ve read several times before, yet find something I have never noticed.  A friend once told me that’s why we can read the Bible for a lifetime and never run out of things to learn – “There’s always fresh water in the well,” he said, meaning the Holy Spirit is always showing us a new thing.

That’s what came to mind when I read our lectionary readings for today, because I haven’t previously noticed some of the things that popped out at me. 

In our gospel story, some Pharisees came to Jesus, expressly to warn Him that Herod was planning His murder.  Wow – PHARISEES came to warn him!  But the scribes and Pharisees are scolded by Jesus all over the Gospels.  He fusses and castigates the Pharisees at every turn - but also talks to them, visits their houses, and eats dinner with them.  Joseph of Arimathea was a very wealthy Pharisee who gave up his own grave for Jesus’s burial.  St. Paul was raised a Pharisee.  Nicodemus, both rich and a member of the Sanhedrin, was a Pharisee who often talked with Jesus and eventually brought the embalming spices to the tomb after Jesus died, helping Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a decent burial.  It is likely that both John the Baptist and Jesus identified as Pharisees, by the way – they were cousins, after all. 

The Pharisees were sort of a tribal entity – they were a community within a community, as were the Sadducees and the Essenes within the larger boundaries of Judea.   Pharisees were essentially middleclass people, while the Sadducees were mostly rich and elite, and the Essenes practiced voluntary poverty. The Pharisees are also survivors; the Sadducees and Essenes were killed in various rebellions and suppressions, leaving the descendants of the Pharisees as the legacy of all those factions.  Jewish people living today are the children of the Pharisees.

So perhaps not ALL the Pharisees were bad guys; some clearly felt friendly toward Jesus, maybe even considering him kin.   They came to warn Him that Herod intended to kill Him.  But wait a minute – Herod generally intended to kill everybody!  This would have been newsworthy if it was an unusual thing but sadly it wasn’t.  Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Judea, was not nearly as deranged or dangerous as his father Herod the Great, but he was far from a benevolent ruler.  Antipas was the youngest son of the house, and was an heir because their father murdered his two eldest sons; the third brother, Archelaus, was evidently poor king material so Caesar Augustus fired and banished him.  This family commonly murdered anyone inconvenient to their plans and ambitions, even if the inconvenient one was a close relative.  Killing an impudent shade-tree preacher for stirring up trouble would have been nothing – Antipas didn’t balk at beheading John the Baptist, and there were those who considered Jesus to be John’s successor.  There were also those who wanted Him to lead a rebellion.  Antipas wasn’t entirely wrong to be worried.

So, the Pharisees whom Jesus so often berated and condemned, showed up to warn Him that this ruler, who routinely settled civil rebellions with the sword, had plans for His death.  Most people would have made a hasty exit, at least until things quieted and Antipas had time to calm down or forget.

But instead Jesus sent a message back to his intended executioner – You tell that fox Herod that I’m here to do my job.  I’ll do what God intends, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

Surprise!  Is that the response that the Pharisees expected, do you think?  I imagine them planning on the way over to meet Jesus how they were going to smuggle Him out of sight until the heat died down.  Instead, Jesus issued a challenge, while on His way to Jerusalem to die.  And while traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus lamented over the prosperous city of the ruling class.  This was where the Sadducees held power, where the scribes (the lawyers, journalists, and accountants of their day) operated their business, where the Sanhedrin ruled all the Jewish lives in Judea.  A city of wealth and power - which was sacked and destroyed just a few years later, in 70 AD.

Another surprise, I expect.

In this season of Lent, we frequently talk about giving things up.   Giving up our chocolate, our wine, our impatience.  Yet Jesus mentions something that we routinely give up – our prophets.  Messengers from God, doing God’s bidding, tend to have a short ministry, and we don’t find it surprising at all.   

Let’s consider some of our modern-day prophets, like Dr. Martin Luther King - who was murdered in Memphis on April 4th, 1968, while heading to his Jerusalem.   Or what about Mahatma Gandhi?  He was murdered in New Delhi, India January 30th, 1948 – that was his Jerusalem.   Or maybe Archbishop Oscar Romero, 4th Archbishop of El Salvador.  If you aren’t familiar with him, Bp. Romero spoke out against the injustice, assassinations, and torture that were endemic to El Salvador, so he too was assassinated by gunshot, while standing at the altar celebrating Mass, on March 24th, 1980 in the chapel of the Hospital of Divine Providence, in the city of San Salvador. Also on his way to his Jerusalem.  No surprises.  They may not have known the exact date, but they all were pretty sure that Jerusalem would kill them sooner or later.

Some things may be surprises, but there are also some things that never change.  The prophets are always marching to their own Jerusalem, and that is where they die.  Jerusalem kills them.   That hasn’t changed, even after Jesus called us out for it.  Sure, we honor these dead prophets after their demise, having refused to listen to them during their lives.  Sometimes we even honor them by making the changes they called us to – but not immediately, and sometimes not ever.

This story Luke tells us about Jesus still happens, still occurs in real time.  Prophets go to their Jerusalem to die. Some few of us may call out, warning the prophet to run, to save himself.  Most of us do not.

I wonder who are the prophets living today?  Have we given up looking for them?  Have we killed them with indifference?   Can you separate out all the noise that is generated by our culture, to hear genuine prophecy?  Does it sound different from the fearmongering that passes for politics in the media?  It’s hard to think about, which voices want our conversion and which simply want our allegiance.  Yet the prophets are a stubborn bunch, and refuse to be silenced though they be killed.   

I wonder if, for Lent, we could give up our conviction that God wants us to be safe and comfortable?  Our faith that God intends us to be serene, cozy, and sheltered?  Maybe there is the work of a prophet that needs to be done, and it simply waits for someone courageous enough to take up Elijah’s mantle.   It will not be easy, and it may even be dangerous, because Jerusalem doesn’t change.  While we’re at it, let’s look around for God’s OTHER prophets.  They might be some public social figure like King or Gandhi.  But perhaps the prophet might just be the person next door with a word for us.

It seems that prophets are ALWAYS on their way to Jerusalem.  Sometimes they die of telling us what we need to hear.  But prophets are sent to tell us the heart, mind, and will of God.  We can no more turn off their message than we can turn off the wind, even if Jerusalem puts   some of them to death.  But wait for it – God always has a surprise or two in store, in the Bible and in life.  We need to hear the fresh words of the LORD, to know the new thing that God is doing.  There’s always a new thing.

Just like there’s always fresh water in the well.


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