Sermon preached at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem on 21 February 2016 by Rev. John Howard.
The Deep love of God for us. Genesis 15 1-12 &17-18, Phil. 3 17 –4 1, Luke 13 31-35. Second Sunday in lent.
What is your earliest memory? Mine comes from when I was only about 18 months old. It is of having a pic-nic on a train, my mother, my two older sisters and myself. I know when the train journey took place because we seldom travelled by train, and were only doing so – to get to my grandmother’s funeral, because my father had not been able to get the time off work, and so couldn’t drive the car there. Behavioural scientists investigating early memory say that it is very often associated with strong emotions of love, grief, or anger. I presumably remember this occasion because of the mixture of emotions, the grief at the occasion, the love of our family unit, the sense that we were going together to this important event. I can think back to feelings that must reflect both the love of my mother for myself and her grief at the death of her mother. Being loved makes a deep impact upon a small child.
Its not just humans that have that deep sense of love for our families and offspring. Many animals show similar affection. I remember seeing a wonderful film some years ago of a family of wolves and the maternal love of the mother wolf. In differing ways we see the care of a bird for its chicks in the nest.
Of course there is a deep love that fathers have for their children as well, perhaps different to a mother’s love but still very strong. However I am sure that it is significant that Jesus’ great expression of his love for the people of Jerusalem is expressed in terms of the maternal love of a Hen for its chicks. “How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.” It is this deep love of Jesus even for those who act terribly – “killing the prophets and stoning those sent to them.” – that deep love of God, that deep love shown by Jesus is the subject of this sermon. We are very used to the image of God as Father – but here Jesus is not afraid to use the feminine imagery perhaps to make the point even stronger than ever. God’s love for every one of us is not a love that simply rejoices in us when we are well behaved, when we act in ways that are right, according to God’s will, but that deep and unfathomable love of God in Jesus, is a love that cares for us even though we live lives totally unworthy of that love. Like a mother who loves her child no matter who they are or what they had done, so God in Jesus loves us.
Many years ago there were a series of murders in England that shocked everyone. They were know as the Moors Murders. I once listened to an interview with the mother of Moira Hindley one of the two people who committed those murderers. Hindley and her lover had murdered a number of children and left their bodies on Saddleworth Moor near Manchester. In the interview Hindley’s mother was asked if she still loved her daughter. Her answer was quite unhesitating, “Yes I love her – she may have done some terrible things but she is still my daughter.” The same is true of God for us – we may have done some terrible things, we may still do some terrible things – but we are still children of God. This Lenten season we are again reminded that Jesus loved us so much that he went to the cross for us, arms stretched wide, as if seeking to bring the whole world and each of us in it, into his embrace, into his protective guard – as a hen gathers its chicks….
The Old Testament lesson takes us back to one of the formative and fundamental ideas of the Jewish faith, the promise to Abraham and to all his descendents, that as a sign of God’s love for them, he would give them a land to live in. To a considerable extent the legacy of that promise is still around us today. It is not the specific promise though that is the most important here, it is God’s dependency and the ongoing nature of God’s commitment to his people. Like the woes of Jesus over the people of Jerusalem, God would come to rue his promise to Abraham’s descendents many times through the course of human history, however that love remained and the commitment to his people, though evolving and different in nature after the life of Jesus remained true, and remains true today. Scripture expresses this commitment in differing ways, and perhaps it’s in the psalms that it has its greatest expression, expressing both the love of God and the failure of the people, yet still more the willingness of God to accept back the people in repentance. Psalm 44 addresses God:
“We are brought down to the dust;
Our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
Redeem us because of your unfailing love.”
Paul writes to his friends at Philippi, expressing his deep love for them, “my brothers whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord.” He tells the readers of the dangers of being ruled by human desires, he mentions “love of the stomach” which surely includes all of the ways in which our bodies, with their appetites for food, sex, relaxation, and entertainment can deflect us from the important things of life. The American Sociologist Maslow has put forward the idea, now widely accepted that after their basic needs of life have been met, food shelter and security, then other concerns predominate and other aspirations arise, a higher achy of needs. It was a conclusion of many nineteenth century missionaries that before you could save souls, hungry stomachs had to be filled, that is an example of Maslow’s ideas. Many aid agencies today address the higherachy of needs through just such an understanding. It is the second order of needs that Paul is focussing upon in his letter to the Philippians. The instincts that apply rightly for survival can too easily dominate people’s attitudes and aspirations even when those basic needs are already being met. Paul encourages the Philippians to work for and aspire toward the deeper qualities of life described by being “Citizens of heaven,” – peace, love, truth, justice, integrity. Taking his example from the God he serves Paul makes it clear that his love for them is not conditional upon their being like this, he wants the best for them, and the best is of the spirit. Their failure to accept this does not diminish his love for them.
This understanding is of course is the story known as the parable of the prodigal son. The Father’s love for the son is in no way reduced by the son’s actions. Though the son in asking for his inheritance is saying he wants his father dead, it makes no difference to the Father’s love for the son. Though the son takes so much that belongs to the father and wastes it all in profligate living – still the father loves the son. Jesus as he tells the story deliberately describes the love God has for his children. Each of us are truly the prodigal – and God awaits our return to the kingdom of love and truth. We began with the love of a mother for her offspring – Jesus looking lovingly over Jerusalem wanting to protect as a hen does her chicks, we now look at a father’s love for his son, but the message is the same – the deep and unfathomable love of God for us his children. Motherhood and Fatherhood at their best, both illustrate God’s unconditional love for us. Recognising this there is only one response. Like the prodigal son who in the end recognised the need to return and do what he could for his father – so we need to recognise that we need to return to God and do what we can do for him – by responding with love and care in all we do in the service of God’s children around us. Working for God’s Kingdom. Making the world a better place. We should try at all times to live with love towards others – never with a conditional love that says I will be nice if you are nice, but loving even those who despitefully use us.
That is the lesson of Lent. That is our calling as we go through the season that leads up to Good Friday. In the passion Jesus was treated terribly even by those who were closest to him, but in the Garden of Gethsemane and elsewhere he demonstrated that no falling short of love on the part of others around him would allow Jesus stop loving. No injustice would reduce Jesus’ love of Justice. No amount of duplicity on the parts of others around him would lesson Jesus’ integrity. That was the way of the one we follow. As we travel through the season of Lent may we learn from Jesus so that on one part we may recognise God’s deep and unfathomable love for us that is quite unconditional upon our actions, and on the other part – our part, make our commitment to others just as unconditional upon their actions to us. Let us love with open hearts, let us be unstoppable in our quest for Justice – even for those who don’t deserve it – in our eyes. Let us adhere to the truth even when others sit light to it. Let us follow Jesus and live with the deep unconditional love of Christ.