Lent is an oddly shaped season. It is full of contradictions, opposites and uncomfortable places. It lasts 40 days. 40 is a symbolic number in scripture. There is rain for 40 days and nights. 40 years wandering in the wilderness for the children of Israel. 40 days in the desert for Jesus. 40 is a number that means ‘as long as it takes’. So in truth we walk our Lenten journey of preparation not merely for 40 weekdays but rather for as long as it takes.
We began with Ash Wednesday—a day shot through with contradiction. That day, Pastor Dave said, ‘we play with deadly things’. Ashes. Their gritty inky blackness are the vivid reminder of sin, death, brokenness, destruction and the ultimate annihilation that the world pronounces over us. One of my favorite poems by T.S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, ends with these lines:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.
This poem, a melancholy piece written in 1925, speaks of a man’s helpless and hopeless view of the world after WWI, when humanity saw for the first time on a global scale our capability for destruction and death.
My most vivid memories of Ash Wednesday this year are of marking the foreheads of two girls. One asked me, “What’s that?” pointing to the little bowl in my hand. For a minute, I didn’t want to tell her. I didn’t want to look at her and tell her that she was dust. That she, too, just like me, just like all of us, was a sinful human who would die. Another child, her face so beautiful and innocent as I marked her with the ash. I even spilled a little bit on her nose. The contrast, the deep uncomfortableness of Lent filled my heart. As soon as she walked away, I wanted to pull her back, wipe away that black stuff and tell her I was wrong in what I said. It was just pretend. She wasn’t dust. But I wasn’t wrong. We are all dust and to dust we will return.
And so we began this journey, a poignant reminder of our inescapable humanness. Our mortality, our brokenness. This is the way the world ends. Or is it? Those ashes speak to us of our destruction, but is that the last word? It would seem so. Death has triumphed over life. And yet in that Lenten ash there is a tiny glimpse of what else is to come. Something that gives us hope.
Made of death but in the shape of hope, those ashes remind us of our mortality but are marked upon us in the shape of the cross, the very instrument by which we are freed from death’s dominion. In our second lesson today we heard the words of Paul: “Jesus will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory…” The power of the ashes is transformed by the cross. Our humiliation—our humanness, brokenness, our sin—is transformed by Christ to glory. To life.
In our gospel lesson today we see some signs of our brokenness and hints of a future of hope. First on the scene are those Pharisees. They have come to warn Jesus that Herod is out to kill him and that he should get out of town. How nice of these Pharisees to help Jesus out! What good Samaritans they are! Isn’t it thoughtful of them to warn Jesus that mean ole Herod is preparing to kill him? Hmmmm. I think I smell a rat! Since when have the Pharisees been concerned for Jesus’ welfare? Their primary interaction with him has been, and will continue to be for some time, a constant attempt to trip him up with tricky legal puzzles, question his healing on the Sabbath, and occasionally accuse him of blasphemy. And, although I wouldn’t put it past Herod to think about doing Jesus some kind of harm, so far in Luke’s gospel his only words about Jesus were about his desire to see him. I think this was another plot to trip him up—get him to make a mistake or to frighten him.
So does he fall for it? Nope. Instead, he remains focused on his work, his purpose. Tell that sly fox, he says, today and tomorrow I am working. Casting out demons and healing the sick. And then, on the third day, my work is complete. Yep, I am on my way to Jerusalem because it unthinkable that a prophet would be killed, by Herod or anyone else, outside of that city.
And then Jesus turns his attention to Jerusalem. He laments for its inhabitants. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem he says. How I want to draw you to myself. He uses warm nurturing words. How often I have yearned to gather your children together around me as a hen gathers her young under her wings! But you wouldn’t have it that way. Still, he heads to Jerusalem; the place he knows he will be rejected. The place he knows he will be killed.
So who are the people of Jerusalem? Who are these little ones that Jesus so longs to care, nurture and protect under his wings? Who are the citizens of this city that will stone and kill prophets sent to them?
In just a little bit we will sing a beautiful hymn about Jerusalem. Jerusalem my happy home would God I were in thee. This hymn calls to mind the heavenly city—a city of perfection where God will dwell among God’s people and his peace will fill everything. When we sing this hymn, we are reminded that we are the people of Jerusalem. It is our home, just as Paul says in our second lesson today, our citizenship is in heaven. But it is not only this heavenly city to which we belong. We also belong to this city, this Jerusalem of our Gospel. We are the people of Jerusalem who will kill Jesus. We are the people who reject him. And still, Still, we are the little ones that Jesus wants to draw to him in spite of that.
The Jerusalem of today is torn apart. It is perhaps the most contested and most fought over piece of land in the world. Daily there are reports of terrorism, murder, confusion and fear in this city whose very name contains the word for peace. Like all of our broken world, it is filled with violence, division, anger, revenge and loss. We see this in our own lives too. In the violence found in our schools and on streets as well as violence between family members. Division in our relationships. Anger and revenge that permeates our lives from entertainment to the news to our own back yard. Loss of those we love. Loss of hope. Jerusalem and our lives are filled with places that have only ashes of loss. Sometimes, with T.S. Elliot, we all may feel like this is the way the world ends.
And yet it is to Jerusalem, it is to us and to our world that Jesus cries out. O how I long to draw you all to myself, he says. To cover you over and protect you as a mother hen protects her little ones. He calls to us in spite of all that brokenness and all that rejection that he will receive in Jerusalem, the rejection he receives today from the world. He knows our rejection and yet, he comes anyway. He knows how hopeless it looks, and he comes anyway. He knows that he journeys to certain death in Jerusalem but he comes anyway because he brings us certain hope.
Jesus says “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I finish my work.” This is a shortened version of Jesus’ itinerary on his journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, to the tomb, to death. He is casting out demons—defeating the evils of our world, and performing cures—healing the world. And on the third day his work is complete, literally—made perfect. It is on the third day that he transforms those ashes of the defeated world into the glory of resurrection—the glory of the empty cross and the empty tomb. It is on the third day that he transforms our humiliation, our loss, our sin, our death into hope and life.
The world gives us a crown of ashes but through Jesus’ death and resurrection, it becomes a cross of glory. Through our being conformed to his crucified life in our baptism we are being transformed—our whole lives and through them the whole world—into his new resurrected life. The glorified body of Christ.