Sermon for Second Sunday of Lent

Luke 13:31-35 Love and Fear

In my younger days, over five decades ago, I foolishly got myself involved with the wrong people. I was young and stupid, though that is not an excuse for bad choices and behavior. After a while, I realized what I was doing was wrong. I turned myself into the authorities. The authorities asked me to help them stop the other people from doing what they were doing. I said yes.  When the other people found out, they literally wanted to and planned to kill me. The danger was so real the authorities hid me in a safe house and gave me 24-hour armed protection. To know that someone wants to kill you is not a good feeling. I hope none of you ever have such feelings. I had nightmares for years about this.

Jesus was told Herod wanted to kill Jesus. This “warning” was very plausible. After all, Herod had John the Baptist killed. The motive behind this warning Pharisees gave is not clearly revealed, however, the Pharisees had already decided they did not like Jesus. Thus, this warning was used more like a threat. The Pharisees seemed intent on scaring Jesus.

Yet, if the threat was real or not, Jesus didn’t seem to care. Jesus knew he was going to die violently. Jesus knew this was part of his purpose and destiny. Jesus was not going to be motivated by fear. Jesus was not going to let these warnings or threats make him change what he was doing.

There is a difference between a threat and a warning. Warnings are intended to make people aware of the possibility of danger. Threats are given to intimidate, to frighten. Warnings can be helpful and help a person avoid danger. Threats are aggressive statements intended to cause fear.

God gives warnings. Prophets give warnings. Enemies give threats.

In the past few months, the United States warned the rest of the world that the Russian leader Putin was going to invade Ukraine. In the light of this warning, Putin has threatened the world with nuclear weapons. The United States’ purpose was striving to prepare the world for coming danger. Putin is using threats to try and scare the world.

Sadly, due to the hardness of human hearts and the reality of evil we live in a world in which human actions can and do produce dangers and human words can and are used as threats. Threats create fear and fear has the power to sicken the soul and create despair in human hearts. The enemy of humanity is well aware of this.

Notice, Jesus did not react with fear. However, Jesus was not immune to this very human temptation. There was a time in which retreated because he knew the danger was real not only to him but to the disciples who followed him. But Jesus had a very powerful strength to help him not to allow fear, or threats, to influence his choices. His strength is found in the power of love. We can tap into this strength as well.

John, the disciple who was likely the closest to Jesus writes in a letter to believers, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 Jn. 4:18 NIV)

Yes, fear is a factor in all our lives. Every one of us will face fear at times in our lives. What we fear may be a perceived or actual threat. It may be a physical or emotional threat. It may be an object, a situation, or a possibility that we fear. You might fear losing your job. You might fear dying of Covid. You might fear having to give a speech. You might fear having bad dreams or being abandoned. There is even a FOMO, fear of missing out. Fear has power. Fear can take over our behavior if we are not careful. Fear is one of the enemy of humanity’s favorite tools.

Fear’s power is in what is perceived to be negatively possible. John says fear has to do with punishment. Bad things may happen. We may have pain inflicted upon us. Fear motivates us to try and escape, avoid, or strive to prevent this punishment to be inflicted upon us. Fear of heights is the possibility of falling and being hurt. Fear of public speaking is the possibility of being embarrassed. Fear of an enemy is the fear of what they could do to us. Fear of disease, failure, or death can fill us with anxiety. Fear is not comfortable.

Love, on the other hand, can be more powerful a motivator than fear. As the Apostle John says, “But perfect love drives out fear.”

Jesus, after responding to the Pharisees with courage and resolve, gives us the privilege to an insight into what motivates him and gives him his resolve and courage. Jesus shows his love by turning his attention to the people he is striving to reach with the Good News. Listen to what Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Jesus’s heart is breaking for his people. Jesus’s words reflect the great love he, the Father, and the Holy Spirit have for those whom God had chosen. Jesus has come to help, but many will not listen as they have not listened before.

The words, how long, indicate a love that has transcended time. God had chosen the seed of Abraham to be the source God had desired to show the world his love, his hesed, a word meaning merciful love in the Hebrew dialect. God strives to give God’s love, but the people would often not listen.

It is important to note the imagery Jesus gives us. It is the image of a protective, comforting, embracing kind of love. It is an image used in the book of Deuteronomy and the Psalms. In the book of  Deuteronomy 32:11, this image is given, “Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, That hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His pinions.” Also, the image is given in Psalm 91:4 “He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.” These are good images of God’s love.

Perhaps you have seen how a hen protects its young. If not, perhaps this account from the life of a woman who walked closely with God can help you create a mental picture:

“Descending the steps leading into the garden, she (Thérèse of Lisieux) saw a little white hen under a tree, protecting her little chicks under her wings; some were peeping out from under. Thérèse stopped, looking at them thoughtfully; after a while, I ( a friend who was with her) made a sign that we should go inside. I noticed her eyes were filled with tears, and I said: “You’re crying!” She put her hand over her eyes and cried even more. “I can’t explain it just now; I’m too deeply touched.” That evening, in her cell, she told me the following, and there was a heavenly expression on her face: “I cried when I thought how God used this image to teach us his tenderness toward us. All through my life, this is what he has done for me! He has hidden me totally under his wings! Earlier in the day, when I was leaving you, I was crying when going upstairs; I was unable to control myself any longer, and I hastened to our cell. My heart was overflowing with love and gratitude”[1]

This is how Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ words. This is the love that drives out fear. This is the love that motivated the incarnation. This is the love behind the words, “For God so loved the world he gave us his Son.” This is the love that sustains the Christian faith. It is the very nature of God. It is the love we can discover if we seek to walk with our Lord.

In my deepest darkest times, when hope had died in my heart, when oblivion was all I desired, it was this love that resurrected me. It was this love that restored me. It was this love that brought my faith alive and took away my fear of living. It is the gift of perfect love that God has for me that sustains me now and gives my life purpose.

This love is not whistling in the dark. It is not a guarantee against danger, failure, pain, the anxiousness of trouble. It is a love that can replace fear. It is a love that can awaken acceptance. It is a love that can bring tears of joy. It is a love that can lead us all to say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

This love exists unconditionally however, it is a true love. It is a love that cannot be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It is a love that must be accepted. A love cherished and strengthened by compassion and faith. It is a love we can claim no matter our condition, situation, or background. It is always present the question is for us, “Do we want it or not?”

[1] John Clarke, O.C.D., trans., St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her Last Conversations (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1977), 60.