Religion and Politics. Those are the two forbidden topics. Guaranteed to start an argument. You can talk about most anything else. Britney’s hairdo, Anna Nicole’s burial, the stock market, the weather, NASCAR. Just not religion and politics. And when you bring the two together, it’s like mixing nitro and glycerine.
In this morning’s Gospel Religion and Politics are set against Jesus. The Pharisees, the paragons of religion, and Herod Antipas, the consummate politician. The Pharisees come to Jesus, who, at the time, was traveling in Herod’s hood. “You better get out of here. Herod wants to kill you.” The Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus too. They’d been plotting for over a year. They just couldn’t figure out how and when to do it.
Jesus seems totally unconcerned. He’s the Lord. His life is His to lay down, and to take up again. When He dies, He does it on His terms. Death threats didn’t concern Jesus. The One who battled the devil in the wilderness with nothing but the Word has nothing to fear from the likes of Herod. “Go tell that old fox I’ve got things to do – today, tomorrow, and the next day. Demons to cast out, sick people to heal. And on the third day I will reach my goal.” Was Jesus thinking of His own resurrection on the third day? You can’t help but think so. He knew that Religion and Politics were going to do Him in eventually, but in His death He would conquer and on the third day rise again. The Divine Fox can easily outfox the foxy old Herod.
Jesus also casts a sideways glance to the religious Pharisees, who seem so concerned about Jesus’ health and safety. “Besides,” He says with more than a hint of New York sarcasm, “I must go on today, tomorrow, and the next day, for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.”
Jerusalem was the seat of Israel’s Religion and Politics, the city of palace and temple, of kings and clergy. Even before there was an Israel, Melchizedek, that strange Christ-figure at the time of Abraham ruled as king and priest in Jerusalem. King David built the king’s palace in Jerusalem and made it Israel’s capital city. Solomon built a temple there. Crown and altar, king and priest. Politics and Religion were ground into the dust of Jerusalem’s streets.
Jerusalem had a bad reputation when it came to God’s prophets. According to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in two in a hollow log in Jerusalem . The first Christian martyr, James the brother of John, was killed by Herod in Jerusalem. So was Stephen. Religion and Politics always want to silence the Word, they always want to kill to Jesus.
Jeremiah understood the price for preaching the Word, and didn’t seem to care either. “Do whatever you want with me, but rest assured, that if you put me to death, you will bring the guilt of innocent blood on yourselves and on this city and on those who live in it.”
Jerusalem was awash in “innocent blood.” It was soaked into its streets. Pilate washed his hands, and said, “I’m innocent of this man’s blood.”. Judas tried to give the money back, because it was blood money, for he had betrayed innocent blood. The priests took the money that Judas had thrown back at them and bought a Field of Blood with it. The mob who wanted Jesus crucified yelled, “His blood be on us and on our children!” The history of Jerusalem is a bloody history – the blood of the sacrifices, the blood of the passover lambs, the blood of the prophets, the blood of Jesus Christ that takes away the sin of the word.
When Jerusalem rejected the Word, it rejected the Word Incarnate. When it stoned the prophets, it was stoning the Word prophets were speaking. When you suffer insult or hardship or persecution because you’re a Christian, remember, it’s about the Word. About Jesus. The world wants Jesus silent, out of the way, dead.
There is a new movie airing today on the Discovery channel, the TV bastion pop-science, demonstrating once again why television, in my opinion, is good only for one thing – sports. James Cameron, whose recent scholarly efforts included the movies Titanic and the Terminator, has made a documentary about some tomb discovered 27 years ago in which they’ve finally gotten around to translating the names on the bones boxes. And of course, what would those names be but – oh yes, you guessed it – Jesus and Mary. (Remember the James bones box a few years ago? The jury’s still out on that one, and many believe it was a hoax by some antiquities peddler working out of the back of his car. Hoaxes in holy land antiquities are as prevalent as fake Rolexes on the streets of New York.) Then they did a little statistical number crunching and found that the chances of getting Jesus and Mary in the same tomb were somewhere around 600:1, not really knowing either their numerators or denominators. (You know what they say – There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.) And to top it off, they did DNA testing on the bones and discovered they didn’t match, for which they concluded they must have been married. (Note to self: Be careful whom you are buried next to. The world may get the wrong idea.)
Mockery aside, I have to say, at least they’re going for the right target. If you want to undermine Christianity, don’t waste your time with creation, the Flood, or the edibility of Jonah. Go for the resurrection of the body of Jesus. As St. Paul said, “If Christ isn’t raised, your faith is for nothing, and you are yet in yours sins.”
Of course, zeroing in on the resurrection actually plays into Christianity’s strong suit. Historic evidence. You’re going to have to be the jury now, and discern whether Mr Cameron has made his case beyond a reasonable doubt, or whether he’s floating a titanic hoax. As our President once remarked to the terrorists: “Bring it on.” Show us the evidence. There is nothing more the world would want than to see the dead bones of Jesus.
The world of political power has no use for a King who rides in humility, who dies for His people rather than having His people die for Him. A king without a palace, whose robes were worn in mockery, who crown was made of thorns, whose earthly throne was a cross. No palace to lay His head. Jesus is the end of politics as usual, as both Herod and Pontius Pilate discovered. They both died in disgrace. Jesus rose from the dead. “Trust not in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”
Religion has no use for Jesus. He ran roughshod over religious traditions. He claimed God as His Father. He interpreted the Law without consulting the experts. He taught that the Law of God was meant to be kept perfectly, to the smallest letter and least stroke of a pen. In thought, in word, in action. Commandments were not bargaining chips to strike deals with God. Trying hard doesn’t count for righteousness. Being good is never good enough.
Jesus revealed the mercy of God to sinners, putting the losers in the front row and the winners at the back of the line. He turned people’s religious notions upside down and spun them on their heads. He taught that it is by mercy and not by merit that we stand justifed before God.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem. Killing prophets and stoning those sent to you. How often I have longed to gather your children together as a mother hen gathers her brood of chicks under her wings, but you would not.” Damnation isn’t God’s fault; it’s ours. God had been clucking like a hen for centuries, through priest and prophet, Torah and scribe. But like little wayward chicks, they refused to be gathered. They would not live dependent on Him. They would not have Jesus as their Messiah. They would not be dependant on the Word that gave them life.
There’s only one way out of the kingdom of God, and that’s refusal to be included. To set your will against God’s will to save you in the death of Jesus. That’s the sad history of Jerusalem and of all Religions. That’s why Jerusalem is the religious mess that it is today. Jerusalem, as Jesus knew it, was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 AD. The place where the temple once stood is now occupied by a mosque, the epitome of Religion in all its worst senses. It’s streets are still soaked in blood. Where there is Religion and Politics, there will always be blood.
It’s the sinful heart of each one of us, that uses Religion to bribe and control God and uses Politics to control others for our benefit. It’s our inborn refusal to be given to, to hear the Word of the Lord, to trust the Promise. Our refusal to deny ourselves, to die to ourselves so that we might live as new people, a new creation in Jesus Christ. It’s the paradox of being sinner/saint – the holiest of cities is also the unholiest and bloodiest of cities.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It breaks Jesus’ own heart. This is His city, His temple, His throne. Yet He is unrecognized, unwanted, hated. “He came to His own, yet His own did not receive Him.” We’re reminded here that salvation is ever by grace, gift unearned, always the mercy of God. The Son of God has to go this way alone. For us. For all. For you. He spreads His wings over the city that wants Him dead, over a world that considers Him a stranger, an alien, a nuisance, an imposter, a fraud. He spreads those arms wide to embrace every sinner and every sin in the only death that saves.
Jerusalem has a future. It’s not the future we see today, as Religion and Politics try to control her. Jerusalem today is a hollow shell, a relic of the past. The next time the holy city appears in the Bible, it comes down from heaven as a beautiful bride dressed for her wedding day, radiant, spotless, glorious, processing down from heaven. This is Jerusalem redeemed, restored, raised up. Her murders have been atoned for in the death of God’s Son. The blood shed in her alleys has been washed by the blood of the Lamb. Her streets once littered with stones cast in hatred are now paved in pure gold. The prophets and apostles she killed are now her firm foundation. And Christ the Lamb, who died at her gates, is the Lamb enthroned, her Light and her Life.
The history of Jerusalem is the history of God’s dealing with humanity. It’s the history of our sin and of God’s grace, of our rejection of His Word and the prophets who preach it, of our acceptance in the Son of God, the Word made Flesh who died and rose to save us. You are free citizens of that city made holy by the blood of the Lamb. Your citizenship is in heaven, as Paul said. Your baptism is your citizenship papers. You are citizens of heavenly Jerusalem, God’s free city – redeemed in the death of Jesus, raised in His resurrection, glorified in Him and soon to be seen in glory when He appears in glory on the Last Day.
Then you too will say, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord!”
In the name of Jesus,