Wednesday, February 17, 2016

All About Death

For three days, I've read and reread the gospel lesson for this coming Sunday (Luke 13:31-35), and I am still struggling to find something to grab on to for a sermon. It's chaotic. It's bizarre. It's confusing. I find myself wondering, "What's the point of this passage? What is this trying to tell us? How does this fit into Luke's portrayal of the gospel?" I don't have an answer yet, but I've got a new direction.

I went back to the beginning of Luke 13 to see what else that chapter might hold, and, right at the start of the chapter, I see a clear coordinating bookend to go with the passage we have for Sunday. The beginning and end of Luke 13 go together, and I'll suggest that any preacher who is tackling Sunday's gospel lesson should start by reading Luke 13:1-5:
[1] There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. [2] And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? [3] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. [4] Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? [5] No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5 ESV)
It's another strange-sounding passage, but there are important links between it and the end of the chapter. First, we see that Jesus is informed by "some present" that there were some "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Remember, Jesus was a Galilean. Is this a tragic story or a concerned warning or a veiled threat? Apparently, some people from Jesus' neck of the woods were offering their sacrifices in the temple, and Pilate killed them on the spot. Could the same thing happen to Jesus? Might Pilate be preparing to kill him? Should Jesus run away scared?

There's a lot that happens in between this opening paragraph and the end of the chapter, but hear how the first verse of Sunday's lesson picks up where that first paragraph left off: "Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, 'Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.'" Although Luke's geography is a little unclear, Jesus doesn't get to Jerusalem until after Luke 17:11ff, when he is described as passing between Galilee and Samaria on his way there. At the moment of Sunday's gospel lesson, therefore, Jesus is still in Herod's territory--Galilee. This warning/prediction/threat that he receives from the Pharisees is a follow-up from what was said in 13:1. If Pilate doesn't get him, Herod will. But Jesus isn't running away from death. He's embracing it.

Jesus said, "I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem." By saying "impossible" he might be exaggerating, but Jesus knows the fate that awaits him in the holy city. He knows that his death must be enacted on a greater stage. He's not running away from death--he's turning towards it. And he's inviting us to consider the same.

Death is coming to Jesus. As the beginning and end of the chapter demonstrate, it would be wrong to associate that death with punishment, and it would be wrong to see that death as a perversion of God's plan. Jesus is a wanted man. All the authorities are hunting for him. If he stays in Galilee, Herod will get him. If he goes to Jerusalem, Pilate will get him. But that doesn't really matter. What matters is that his death is the journey he accepts. He's not running away from it. That's where he's supposed to go.

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