Entering the season of Lent is like visiting a Third World nation. The travel advice always includes the caution: “Expect to be uncomfortable.” Right from the get-go Lent is uncomfortable—having ashes smudged on your forehead in the sign of a cross, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”; singing hymns devoid of “Hallelujahs,” hymns which relish the tension of dissonance and minor keys. And like visiting a Third World country, Lent has so many little bugs, annoying reminders of human frailty, of the things which can make a person queasy, break out in a sweat, wondering how soon we can get out of this place.
An expedition through Lent is definitely not for the faint of soul! Ah but for those who take the plunge into Lent, those who do not merely dabble on the surface, biding their time until Easter gets here…for those who plunge into this foreign land of Lent with it’s ruthless self-examinations, it’s self-denials, it’s highly focused intention to slay our old self and raise us up anew…well, for those who brave the season’s discomforts…you walk with good company!
Our Gospel Reading today gives us Jesus’ lament over the city of Jerusalem. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, the lament over Jerusalem comes after Jesus has made His Palm Sunday entry. It serves as a despairing conclusion to His ministry. In St. Matthew the lament conveys the deep anguish of One who loved this nation, but who now must pronounce its doom.
Here in St. Luke the lament comes much earlier, in the middle of Jesus’ journey up to Jerusalem. With St. Luke one can hear, not so much a note of doom, but of determination. It’s the voice of determination that Messiah is not going to stop until God’s plan is achieved, until repentance and forgiveness of sins is preached to all nations, as Jesus will say at the end of this Gospel.
Jesus’ lament in Luke’s Gospel is akin to that Third World travel warning: “Expect to be uncomfortable,” with the element of death thrown in for good measure. In other words, “Expect resistance and rejection to litter your path as you proceed to Jerusalem. Expect your journey to end in death.” That’s Lent!
Placing the lament over Jerusalem this early in his Gospel is St. Luke’s tipoff that it is not going to end well. How could it? Just think where Jesus is going—to Jerusalem, the great city of which so much was expected, but when it fails, it’s fall is equally so great. Jerusalem is the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” How could it be anything other than the end of the road for Jesus?
How could it end well? Just think who Jesus is. He is a prophet like Elisha and Elijah. St. Luke highlighted that parallel much earlier in his Gospel. Elijah raises a widow’s son and Jesus raises a widow’s son. Elisha healed Naaman, servant of the Syrian King, and Jesus heals a Roman centurion’s servant. But, as we learned back in Luke 4 with Jesus’ first sermon in hometown Nazareth, a prophet is not without honor, except in His own town.
And Jesus is a prophet like Moses, given a similar task of shepherding the people of God—which is always a bit like herding cats. And as Moses often suffered for the sins of the people he led and had to step into the breach between them and God, who was intent on wiping them out and starting over…so Jesus must step into the breach, lamenting here in our Reading, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…but you were not willing…” It’s not the voice of judgment, but the voice of deep sadness.
So how could the journey of a prophet to Jerusalem end well? Maybe if the prophet realized the full danger, was so overcome by the prospect of personal discomfort, maybe he would turn back, do a Jonah, and go the opposite direction!
But Jesus is a determined sort of prophet. “I must go on my way…today, tomorrow, and the day following…” A hint of the three days, Good Friday to Easter. There is determination and a kind of inevitability in Jesus’ words about His journey to Jerusalem, His Lenten journey to the cross.
It’s easy to admire that kind of determination. I remember the summer back in 1981 when I had resigned my teaching position in Elgin, Illinois, but had not yet begun work at the seminary. There were days when I was convinced I had made the right decision. Then there were long days when I thought, “You fool! What have you done?!” And when that discomfort just didn’t let go, I’d think, “why did I decide to do this? It seemed like a good idea at the time. This is harder than I thought. I didn’t sign up for this grief.” It was a long Lenten summer getting to the sem!
When a baby is baptized he or she often cries. There are a number of possibilities why. Often the water is too cold. Their fancy white clothing feels too different from the usual. They’re being held in a different kind of way. But perhaps they cry because if they could talk they might say something like, “Wait a minute…what are you doing to me? What am I signing on for? Can you promise me that the life of faith will be easier than a life without faith? And what was that that Luther said about ‘burdening the child with a mighty and life-long enemy’ in the devil? St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism shows clearly that once out of the water, the next stop is the devil’s wilderness.” But babies can’t say any of that, so they cry.
Nobody likes discomfort along the path of life. That’s why we come up with little sayings to help us, like “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” But whether it’s the German philosopher Nietzsche saying that or Kelly Clarkson singing it…it’s a saying which is just a little too easy. After all, there are plenty of things in life which don’t quite kill you, but they don’t leave you stronger either…they leave you bitter, crippled, hardened, making you just not very pleasant to be around.
But that’s not Jesus’ situation here in Luke 13. He has signed on willingly for a journey whose path He knows is going to be littered with resistance, rejection, and death. He’s not whining about it. He laments what lies ahead. The context of His words here is an intense conflict of wills: the deadly intention of Jesus’ adversaries, and the profound determination of Jesus as Messiah, the stubborn unwillingness of Jerusalem to turn in faith, and the divine determination of the Lord God to fulfill His will to save. Who could possibly endure that kind of drama?
“How could it possibly end well?” we want to ask. Yet Jesus’ own faith in the redemptive outcome of this journey to the cross flows from His deep, mysterious relationship with the Father. And Jesus’ own reference to finishing His work “on the third day” cannot but ring those little bells in the mind of Luke’s readers, as a reference to Jesus’ resurrection on the third day, emerging from the darkness of the cross. “On the third day I finish My course,” He says.
“You’re going up to Jerusalem. Expect to be uncomfortable!” It is very moving to ponder Jesus’ faith and His determination as He laments over Jerusalem. Because while He laments, He presses on. In this intense clash of wills, God’s will does prevail; in the city of death, life awaits Him; in the midst of pain, there is glory. That’s the season of Lent, pressing on to Easter.
But here in chapter 13, it’s still early in Luke’s Gospel. There is still time to back out. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He says, “I must go on My way.” In this season of Lent, it’s still early, only the second week. There is still time to drop out and pick up the journey again when the Hallelujahs of Easter return.
But let us tune out those voices of self-preservation, and set our feet on His path, to walk with Him through resistance and discomfort. We will find along the Lenten pathway, that with Jesus as our companion, the path, though sometimes mighty uncomfortable, always leads to a joy we would never otherwise know, always brings us to a love that is so much stronger than any opposition and personal discomfort.