February 24, 2010

Enduring Desire

by Doug Lee
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Having passed through the devil’s testing in the wilderness in last week’s lectionary text from Luke, Jesus contends next with testing that takes on a decidedly more human and communal face. 

Some friendly Pharisees counsel Jesus to get out of Dodge before the menacing Herod devours him. That villain has already imprisoned and executed Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, and even the not-so astute can foresee that Jesus will share a similar fate should he linger within Herod’s jurisdiction. Discretion is the better part of valor, says conventional wisdom. Dodge the threat, and live to preach another day. 

Jesus himself can see that Jerusalem, the axis around which all of Israel and world history revolves, has turned its back on him and that a prophet’s death awaits him should he complete his journey to the center. Self-preservation dictates that he pull up short of the city and ward off the rejection of those who ought most to receive him.

Even while Jesus “desires” to save his people, Herod “wants” to kill him and Jerusalem “wills” to refuse rescue. By employing the same word in all three cases, Luke sums up the conflict Jesus faces as a clash of desires.

Amid the clamor of this age and the wreckage within the Church’s life, the voice of prudence reverberates within our souls. Our fragile desire to live out the ways of the Kingdom is continually threatened by the desires of others to crush or resist our own. The collision of these desires provokes our stronger, more developed, self-protective reflex. Retain control of your life, and live to fight another day. Maintain your distance from the fray, and preserve your dignity.

Often our self-preservation appears to be the very opposite of disengagement. Our distance takes the form of denunciation of the ills we see, both within the Church and without. Those of us entrusted with formal authority within the Church as well as other forms of social capital (that would be most North American Christians) can employ such power to further insulate ourselves by disparaging those who threaten or stand apart from us.

But Jesus demonstrates that the true prophetic vocation is not one of distance or denunciation. Jesus does not hurl diatribes at people from afar or shield himself from their coldblooded rejection. Instead of closing himself off from a wounded heart, he opens himself wide, like a mother hen spreading her wings for her brood to find shelter from devouring predators. Jesus continues to pursue the redemption of those who reject him even at the risk of making himself vulnerable. The following passage in Luke has Jesus sharing a meal with Pharisees whose lives are constructed in opposition to the ways of the Kingdom. Though misunderstood and rejected, Jesus is undeterred in holding out salvation.

Where our desire to be faithful to our ecclesial vocation gets blunted or thrown off course by the desires of enemies or fellow believers, Jesus persists. He will continue laboring “today, tomorrow, and on the third day” until he finishes his work. What fuels his desire when all signs point to its fruitlessness?

Jesus discloses what steels his will by saying that he “must” be on his way. Divine necessity, the current of God’s desire to redeem that runs through Luke’s gospel, propels Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross. Jesus’ desire is replenished within His Father’s.

When Abram’s will falters against the tide of unbelief, God supplies him with a numinous demonstration of His determination. In the ancient rite, the two parties were to walk between slaughtered animals as a solemn promise to uphold their part in the covenant. But Abram sleeps, and the Lord walks alone between the carcasses. The Lord alone will bear the burden of bringing to completion what He has promised. Divine determination will fuel Abram’s own will to go on.

Paul’s words to the Philippians usher us back into a more recognizable congregational context. Where Jesus laments over the intransigence of the City, Paul weeps over the enemies of the cross of Christ. Paul’s lament is not for the waywardness of the world but the Church. What greater tragedy is there than when the Church is named an enemy of the cross because she will not find shelter within the vulnerability of her Savior?

Yet Paul goes on, and he invites us to do so also: “Stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Against the onslaught of fearsome desires, our resolve to be faithful endures only as it finds its life within God’s faithful determination. We can run to be gathered together under the arms of Christ, even as they are held out in love upon the cross toward a resistant people.


Debra Dean Murphy said...

This is beautifully put, Doug. I've been reading a little Herbert McCabe lately and some James Alison, so these themes of "desire" and "love" have been on my mind, and you have linked them to this week's texts in surprising, hopeful, helpful ways.

SharonRanne said...

I like your approach - I have been reading and rereading this scripture trying for an approach that is somewhat different from what I generally preach. There is an essay by Kierkegaard on followers and admirers that I was trying to weave into this scripture but maybe the followers and admirers are for next week's fig tree.

Stan Wilson said...

Thaks, Doug. Your lines about Paul lamenting not the failures of the world but the church is especially clarifying to me. It's so easy to retreat into pronouncements about what's wrong with the world, especially the broken political parties. It's a much different thing to ask the church to befriend the cross, fueled by God's desire to love the world.

Paul said...

It makes me so happy whenever I hear another person, Christian or otherwise, mention Herbert McCabe. He's still so obscure for most folks, but I think within a generation they'll be teaching stand-alone seminary courses on just McCabe.

Good post.