A beautiful stanza from the Song of Solomon praises the power of love, saying:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave. (8:6)
Lovers know this. Parents know this. There is nothing you would not do to rescue your child from danger; no risk would cause a moment’s hesitation. You would jump out in front of the oncoming car to save her, you would stand in front of a man with a gun to protect him. “Love is as strong as death” – and in fact is even stronger.” You sometimes hear the expression, “I love you to death.”
We have two love stories in front of us today, and death is contemplated in both of them. In both of them we could hear the words, “I love you to death.” Both of them end with the camera turning from the one who confesses such love to the one who hears. The question in each one is the same: will you believe you are loved? Will you respond to the love?
Abraham’s terrifying vision
We begin with Abraham in one of the strangest, but most powerful texts in the whole bible. God comes to Abraham whom he has called and promised to bless, but who as yet is childless. God comes in a vision; it is dark, the sun had gone down, and Abraham fell into a deep sleep and a “terrifying darkness descended upon him.” (Gen 15:12)
In this dark, mysterious, almost creepy, terrifying moment, God tells Abraham to prepare a covenant ceremony. Animals are gathered – they are slaughtered and cut in half – this is a familiar scene to Abraham in the year 2,000 BC. A covenant-making (or, as it was called, a covenant-cutting) ceremony was concluded when one walked down the aisle between the victims, thus enacting a symbolic self-curse: “if I ever break this covenant, may I be slaughtered as these have been. Cross my heart, hope to die.”
Abraham, we have been told, believed God’s promise, in spite of his old age. Perhaps he was thinking to himself that he had already staked his whole future on God, so why not make it clear in a covent ceremony? Abraham was prepared to walk between the pieces of animals and say, “If I break this covenant, may I die.”
But that is not what happened. In this deep, mysterious, terrifying vision, in the moment of deepest darkness, God appears in the form of fire and smoke – as he so often does. The flaming torch and smoke-billowing pot “passed between these pieces”. This was God saying to Abraham, “I love you to death.” May I die if I were to break this covenant. You will have descendants, and I will give you this land.
The whole rest of the Old Testament is about the camera swinging around to Abraham and his descendants to find out if they are willing to be loved.
After 2,000 years, the question still hangs in the air. God has been faithful to the covenant with Abraham – he has given him descendants and land and blessed them – but more often than not the people have not been willing to be loved, creating complications.
So now, 2,000 years later, after many fits and starts, Abraham’s descendants are living unhappily in their land under Roman rule, the covenant partly fulfilled, partly unfulfilled; the land is not their own. What will happen?
The Christian love story
This is where the Christian story begins. The Christian story is a story of God coming to his people again. This time, it is not in a dark, terrifying dream like before. This time God has come to his people as one of them, in human form, as Jesus. As we walk though the text before us today, we will hear Jesus expressing the same “I love you to death” commitment to us. And we will face the same question Abraham’s descendants faced: will you be loved?
In our text we hear Pharisees coming to Jesus with a warning about a murder-plot from King Herod. It’s a lie. If we were reading Luke’s gospel like we read anything else, starting at the beginning and continuing straight through, we would see through this pretense. Herod is not trying to kill Jesus; indeed the Pharisees are well on their way to developing their plot to do just that.
Jesus is not at all taken in by their phony warning. In fact, he turns it against them; if they are so familiar with Herod’s plans, perhaps they are Herod’s boys (they would hate that suggestion!). So, in effect Jesus tells them, “Go back to your boss, that fox, and tell him he is not in charge here.”
In fact, Jesus is not concerned by the threat from Herod the fox; he is on his way out of Herod’s jurisdiction; he “must” he says, as if God is determining events here, “be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.”
Jesus then looks towards the city and laments; it has been, often in the past, a place full of people who would not be loved. People who were so resistant to being loved that they killed and stoned the messengers of God’s love, the prophets of old. Jesus puts himself in their company, and so can see a similar fate awaiting himself.
He pictures Jerusalem and its people as a barnyard full of little chicks. This is amazing – that he can look at people like those plotting, lying Pharisees, not as snakes in the grass to be feared or caught and killed, but rather as chicks, vulnerable, and ignorant.
If they are the chicks, then he is the mother hen. Not at all unsettled by using a feminine image for himself, or for that matter, for God, Jesus pictures himself as the hen. She looks at those chicks, and smells the smoke of an approaching fire.
“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
New Testament scholar, professor N. T. Write tells of an incident in which a farmer was cleaning up after a trash fire had gotten away from him. He came over to the charred carcass of one of his hens. As he was removing it, out from under those burned wings came living chicks who had been saved from the fire by her sacrifice.
Jesus smells the smoke of the approaching fire. How often he has desired to gather the chicks under his wings, but they would not be loved. You cannot save a chick that refuses the wing. “I love you to death” Jesus is saying; will you be loved?
Reasons to refuse love?
Why would anyone refuse love? Why would anyone walk away from the God who was willing to walk between the pieces and bind himself to them with a covenantal oath of self-cursing? Why would anyone walk away from a wing of protection offered by one willing to sacrifice life? If God is saying “I love you to death” why would anyone refuse?
The ancient Israelites had their reasons. The Pharisees had their reasons. Do we?
What if accepting that wing means that we have to get really close to the hen, to become part of the brood, to follow and stay close to her, to learn from her, and to call all the other chicks brother and sister? What if there are family obligations under that wing? What if my vision of the perfect world is one of freedom from just those kinds of obligations and ethical claims on me?
This is an unsettling text. Clearly the Pharisees wanted no part of the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught: the kingdom that was open to tax collectors and sinners, the kingdom that put the needs of sick people ahead of Sabbath laws, the Kingdom that did not come by violently forcing out the Romans. That was not the way they wanted the promise to Abraham to be fulfilled. So when the fires came, their house went up in smoke, and they were not under any wing.
Are we ready to come under that wing? What if it means that our vision of the perfect world is challenged? What if the world we would prefer in which all of us chicks look alike, talk alike, come from the same neighborhood, shop in the same stores, and keep all of what we have for ourselves, is not the world offered under the wing? Would that be a reason to walk away from love?
Or is that version of the “perfect world” of me with my own kind keeping all I have to myself” really a horrible, dark, loveless world, destined for the flames?
Listen, love is on offer today. As one person* put it so well, “wings spread, breast exposed” like Jesus on the cross: arms spread, heart exposed, saying, “I love you to death.” Come; be loved. Come be a part of the brood. This is how the covenant is being fulfilled. Come to love.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, in a sermon entitled “As a Hen Gathers her Brood