Breaking God’s Heart? (Thinking Through Luke 13:31-35)

Does your heart break when a loved one chooses a destructive path? Your heart breaks for them knowing it is not going to end well. Perhaps in recent weeks your heart has been breaking while watching one nation choose the path of war against another.

When our hearts break, it is a sign that we are created in the image of God. It is another way in which we reflect God. Our Scripture Focus today speaks to God’s breaking heart:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

Luke 13:31-35 (NRSV)

Jesus had enemies who were out to get him. The religious leaders were none too happy with him, but here a key political leader also wanted him dead. With a touch of irony Jesus wanted Herod to know that he was too busy healing people to waste time in being killed by the one who was supposed to be taking care of the very people Jesus was taking care of.

Jesus, however, knew that his enemies would indeed catch up to him…in Jerusalem.

I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

Luke 13:33,34 (NRSV)

Prophets were sent by God to help the people avoid disaster, to help them choose a good path. We often think of prophets as predicting the future, which is part of it, but they did so with a view to influencing present decisions. For example, I might say to my three sons, “if you drive down the highway at 200 km/h, you will lose your license or worse.” There is prediction about the future there, but the purpose is to effect change in the present, to make possible a better outcome, to avoid catastrophe. That is what the prophets did in the Old Testament. God sent the prophets to bring the people back to himself, to help them avoid the disasters that awaited if they insisted on going their own way. God also sent them to point out how he would be there for them when they returned. There was always hope.

We see the heart of God by the very fact he sent prophets. If I thought my sons were driving 200 km/h on the highway, I would say something! I’d say something prophetic, out of love. (Thankfully, I know the son most likely to want to reach such speeds won’t, because he is driving a Fiat 500.)

Though God spoke to his people through prophets out of love, the leaders in Jerusalem had a nasty history of rejecting, sometimes even killing, such prophets. This often happened in Jerusalem, the centre of religious life and devotion to God. The very people who were to lead people to live in the presence of God, in the very place they were to experience the presence of God, were the ones who would ignore, abuse, and kill the ones God sent to bring them back to his presence.

God not only sent them the prophets, he came to them himself, in Jesus. Knowing that he is going to be killed by the people who should be celebrating his presence, at the place where he should be welcomed as king, Jesus said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Luke 13:34 (NRSV)

Jesus did not respond with outrage, as we might expect anyone to do, but with lament.

Lament is the language of a broken heart. Lament is an expression of love. It is the language of love when we see bad things happen to our loved ones, when we watch people make tragic decisions, when disasters unfold and wars erupt.

What is God like?

People have different pictures of what God is like. Some think God just waits for us to slip up so he can squash us like bugs. Others think of God as the supreme judge, and not much more. Some think God set the world spinning, then stepped back, not caring what happens next. Many people have an image of God, where God is heartless.

Let our view of God be challenged by Jesus here.

God is one whose heart breaks for us. God is the one who, far from creating the world and stepping back, created then spoke into the world, through the prophets. God is the one who, far from creating the world and stepping back, stepped into the world though Jesus, to rescue us from the path we were on, a path where we end up separating ourselves from God completely. God is the one who, rather than judging, condemning and squashing people like bugs, allowed himself, in Jesus, to be judged, condemned, and squashed like a bug. In doing so God showed he is for us and not against us.

God responds to our hurtful paths, not with outrage, but with a broken heart, with an offer of forgiveness and reconciliation, with love.

Our view of what God is like has a big impact on what we become.

If we view God as being very mechanical and heartless, we can become very mechanical and heartless in how faith is worked out our lives. We can become heartless even as we strive to be righteous. Many Pharisees did.

The apostle Paul was once a heartless Pharisee whose desire for righteousness led him to persecute Christians. When he met Jesus, Paul did not simply switch teams and start persecuting Jews instead of Christians. Paul’s vision of God was expanded. Paul caught a glimpse of the heart of God through Jesus. Paul changed.

The apostle John also had an expanded view of God which had a huge impact on his view on how life was to be lived:

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:16-19 (NRSV)

We live, not as people who are afraid of what God is going to do to us, but as a people who know what God has done for us. We have experienced the heart of God. We have experienced love. Therefore we grow in love.

Is God’s heart breaking over us right now?

Do our life choices break God’s heart? Are we making decisions that God knows will lead to disaster? 

Could your name be substituted for Jerusalem when we read “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”? (Luke 13:34 NRSV)

Or, when Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…”, could he say “Christianity, Christianity,…” instead? Is Christianity on a path of destruction? Some would say it is while pointing to the statistics of church engagement here in Canada as evidence.

There are two paths that can be destructive for Christianity. First, there has been a rise, across the world and across all religions, including Christianity, of fundamentalism, an expression of faith that is marked by certainty over having all the answers. It often involves a disregard for science, an ignorance about history, and the subjugation of women. Second, there is also a rise in those who claim no particular religion, those who are done with organised religion altogether.

Recently I read about a key church leader in Russia defending Putin’s war on Ukraine as a way of keeping Christian values. Particularly mentioned was protection from having to hold gay pride parades, which are common in European nations but not in Russia. So, thousands of people killed in war is to be preferred to gay rights? People hear this kind of thing and say “if that is Christianity, no thanks.”

Fundamentalism can lead to a heartless God. Turning against faith altogether can lead to a Godless heart. Either way, God’s heart breaks.

Is there a better path?

Yes, we can be on a journey of faith in Jesus that is deep, that is well thought through, that is informed, that allows questions, that is not afraid of the things we can learn from science, that pays attention to what we learn from history, and that recognises the dignity of all humans. We cannot make all Christians choose that journey, so God’s heart will still break as some dive headlong into fundamentalism and others jump right out of Christianity. We can, however, choose that path for ourselves. God’s heart need not break over us for our life choices, including how we express our faith.

In Conclusion…

Does your heart break when you see a loved one go down a destructive path? God’s heart breaks when we choose a destructive path. God’s heart breaks because God is love.

Ready for Christmas? There is a Bigger Day to Prepare For! (Thinking Through Mark 13:28-37)

Which would be the better opening for a sermon on the last Sunday before Christmas? These words?

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

“Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts

You probably now have the tune to this popular carol stuck in your head! However, perhaps these words from Jesus would make a better opening for a sermon so close to Christmas?

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

Mark 13:32,33,37 (NRSV)

I’m guessing that most people would pick the Christmas carol over Jesus’ words about the end of the world. But did you know that the carol “Joy to the World” is speaking about the same event Jesus was speaking about? The hymn writer was not originally writing about Christmas, but about the return of Christ!

We can also note that though we are so close to Christmas, we are not there yet. According to the Church calendar, Christmas does not begin until December 25th. Society begins celebrating Christmas much sooner of course, and since we Baptists are not good at following instructions anyway, we sort of follow along and get into the spirit of things early.

This is not Christmas, but Advent, a time set aside for preparing for the arrival of Jesus, both looking back to his arrival in Bethlehem, and looking forward to his return. At Christmas we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus. We have not really celebrated Advent if we have not looked forward. Today we are looking forward!

As we look forward, there are some things to keep in mind.

The first thing to keep in mind is to keep an open mind.

There are different ways of understanding the Scripture passages that speak of “the end of the world,” especially the Book of Revelation, but also the Scripture we are thinking of today, Mark chapter 13. While many Christians may assume Jesus was speaking about his return, most Bible scholars think that much of Mark 13 refers not to the end of the world, but the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in 70AD.

This makes sense of Jesus’ statement in verse 30:

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

Mark 13:28-30 (NRSV emphasis added)

The NRSV marks in a footnote that the “he” of “he is near,” which may cause us to immediately think of the future return of Jesus, can be translated “it,” as in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem which did happen within a generation. Indeed this is how the conversation began in the first place:

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”

Mark 13:1-4 (NRSV)

Some Bible scholars see a shift in the focus from the destruction of Jerusalem and the need to watch for the signs so the people of that day could get out of the city, to Jesus speaking about his return, of which there will be no sign, no warning:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

Mark 13:32-33 (NRSV)

Looking throughout history, many generations of Christians have had those who try to line up world events with Bible verses. So far every generation that has tried this has been wrong. One generation will turn out to be right someday. The point Jesus is making, however, is, don’t watch for signs, just be ready at any moment.

The second thing to keep in mind is that waiting for Christ’s return is an active thing.

When we use the word “waiting” we might think of waiting to reach a destination. You can fall asleep while waiting, but not if you are the driver! Jesus uses an example that puts us in the driver seat:

It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:34-37 (NRSV)

The doorkeeper had a task, one which required him to stay awake, to be alert. We do not want to fall asleep at the wheel!

We can think of waiting for Christ’s return as actively anticipating, as actively embracing, and leaning into the coming future God has in store for us. While we wait for Jesus to return, we don’t want to fall asleep at the wheel, but be actively stepping in the direction of Jesus.

The third thing to keep in mind are the examples of those who feel asleep at the wheel in the Christmas story, and those who were wide awake.

King Herod fell asleep at the wheel. Herod’s desire to destroy Jesus led to the terrible tragedy of many infants killed in and around Bethlehem. Needless to say, Herod was far from ready to embrace Jesus.

Herod was asleep at the wheel because he did not have a big enough way of looking at things. Herod was concerned about what people might believe about this one “born king of the Jews” and the threat that would pose to his power. Herod himself, did not believe Jesus was important. He was not watching for the arrival of the Christ.

Some people do not have a big enough view of things today. We can be guilty of this as Christians when we think that only the Bible can teach us anything. Science, history, art, and experience get pushed aside as potential sources of truth. We do this to our own detriment as Christians, and unfortunately, often to the detriment of others.

Having a too narrow view of things can also be true for the non-Christian, when, for example, someone claims that only science can teach us anything. Such folk will be found asleep at the wheel, not watching for Jesus’ arrival.

The religious leaders also fell asleep at the wheel, not having their minds open enough to consider that perhaps these foreign Magi just might have something to teach them about “their” Messiah. They were stuck in their own ideas and priorities. They may have been watching for the arrival of the Messiah, but they were not watching for the arrival of a Messiah that did not strictly fit their own ideas.

Some people do not have an open enough mind today. Their own ideas and priorities take precedence and they will be found asleep at the wheel, not ready to embrace Jesus on his arrival.

Mary and Joseph were wide awake. They were waiting and watching for Jesus’ arrival though I’m sure they didn’t feel entirely prepared. Laying a newborn in a manger does not sound near as prepared as a typical new mom in Canada is!

I am very hopeful that when Christ returns, he will understand if we feel unprepared. No matter when Jesus returns, none of us will feel that we have already “arrived.” We will still feel like there is so much more growth ahead. If we don’t then we definitely need to grow; in humility! However, let us remember that Jesus did not tell us to be the holiest person that ever lived, but to be fully awake. We are to be awake to God’s love and grace.

I am ready for Christmas, but not because I have done much by way of preparations. My wife has handled the lion’s share of the preparations. She normally does and is far better at it than I am.

When it comes to being ready to meet our Maker, Jesus has taken care of the preparations. Through his death and resurrection, through the gift of the Spirit, Jesus does a better job of preparing us to meet our Maker than we could ever do. We may not feel prepared, but in Christ we are prepared.

In Conclusion

It might seem strange to talk about the end of the world this close to Christmas. However, it is not Christmas yet! This is Advent, when we look forward, not to the end, but to a new beginning. There was a new beginning at the birth of Jesus. There will be a wonderful new beginning when Jesus returns. With Jesus you are prepared. But are you awake?