Religion and Politics

Luke 13:31-35 / Lent 2C / 24 February 2013 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

This morning’s gospel is about Religion and Politics. The Pharisees and Herod. Watch out whenever Religion and Politics get together. In the Revelation, it’s the recipe for trouble and persecution. Take one part Religion, one part Politics bring them together with the devil and you have the perfect recipe of “antichrist.” Whether the emperor cult of the 1st century, the kingdom of Mohammed, the medieval papacy, the Third Reich of Hitler, or any other unholy alliance of religious and political authority, whenever the two get together there is sure to be trouble. And bloodshed.

The Pharisees came to Jesus, seeming to be on His side. Herod has a warrant out for His arrest. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. There’s a death threat on your head. You don’t want to get yourself killed, do you? Get out while you can.” Of course, the Pharisees were scheming to do the same thing. They’d been plotting it for over a year. They just couldn’t agree on when and how to do it.

But Jesus seems completely unconcerned by the whole thing. “Go tell that old fox I’ve still got work to do – today, tomorrow, and the next day. There are demons to cast out, sick people to heal. And on the third day I will reach my goal.” It seems that Jesus has tongue firmly planted in cheek here. On the third day. All the important stuff in the Bible happens “on the third day. Jesus knew what was in store for Him in Jerusalem. He’d already predicted it, that He would suffer, die and on the third day rise. Death threats from two-bit kings are of no concern to Jesus.

He is the Lord. He lays down His life on HIs own terms. When the crowd wants to throw Him off a cliff, He slips on through without a scratch. He runs the show. Last week you heard how He battled the devil in the wilderness with nothing but the Word. He fears nothing of Herod or of any king. He is the king of kings. When He stood before Pilate at His civil trial, He offered no defense. He reminded Pilate that Pilate’s authority came from above and that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world. Threats from Herod mean nothing.

Jesus goes on to zing the Pharisees as well. He knows what’s on their minds. He knows they’re plotting to kill Him too, and all this talk of concern for His safety is just a bunch of smoke. “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following (another three days), for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.” Now there’s a shot. If a prophet is going to die, it has to be in Jerusalem. That’s where prophets go to die.

Jerusalem had a reputation when it came to prophets. Just ask Jeremiah, whose prophetic career didn’t exactly flourish in Jerusalem. He was arrested, thrown in to a pit, his books burned. According to tradition, the prophet Isaiah was sawn in two in a hollow log in Jerusalem. The NT didn’t fare any better. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death in Jerusalem by no less than the religious high court. James, the brother of John the fisherman, was killed by Herod in Jerusalem. Jerusalem had a reputation for shutting down the prophets. Jeremiah knew that, counted the cost, but didn’t seem to care. “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 steeped in “innocent blood.” It was in Jerusalem that Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ blood and declared, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” and where the people cried out, “Let His blood be on us and our children.” It was in the temple in Jerusalem, the seat of Religion, that Judas tried to give back the money paid to betray Jesus because he had betrayed “innocent blood.” And the priests refused to take it back because it was “blood money” so they bought a “Field of Blood” with it. Jerusalem had a bloody history from its mysterious origins: the blood of sacrifices and passover lambs and prophets and martyrs and Jesus, God’s Lamb, the final and ultimate Blood, the One that atones for the sin of the world.

Politics and Religion hated Jesus. They eventually got Him crucified. Religion charged Him with blasphemy. He dared to say He was the Son of God. Politics nailed Him for treason. He said He was a king.

The world of political power has no use for a king who rides in humility, who dies for His people, including HIs enemies. A king without a palace, without royal robes, without a crown except one made of thorns. The power brokers of Jesus’ day were Pontius Pilate and King Herod. Those two died in disgrace and disappeared from history. Jesus died and rose from the dead and not only made history but redeemed it. Politics cannot save; only Jesus can. “Trust not in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”

Religion has no use for Jesus either. That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. Jesus is really the end of Religion and Religion knows it. He ran roughshod over the traditions of men. He claimed God as His Father. He interpreted the Law without the need to consult the experts. He unleashed a Law even the most strident pietist couldn’t handle. Be perfect. Be holy. Keep every Law down to the tiniest letter, the least stroke of a pen. In your thoughts, your words, your actions. Don’t bargain with God. Do the commandments and you will live. Trying hard is not righteousness. Self-improvement won’t cut it. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, the religious among the religious, you’re out. You won’t see the kingdom of God. Nor will they, and don’t think that memo was lost. They got it.

Even more so, Jesus revealed an unconditional love and mercy of God to the religious losers, to sinners, to those who couldn’t do religion and keep up with the religious. He put the losers in front, the winners in back, and spun everything and everyone on their heads. He taught that mercy not merit was where the action is, and the way to avoid God’s judgment and to stand justified before God was not to improve yourself but to die to yourself and trust Jesus to do the heavy lifting of your salvation.

It drives our Lord to tears of lament. “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.” He mourns over His city. He mourns over what politics and religion have done to the city that was God’s footstool. He mourns over their unbelief, their reliance on worldly power, their rejection of the Word and the prophets who spoke it.

Notice this. Every time Jerusalem killed a prophet, every time Jerusalem shut her ears to the Word, it was Christ Himself they rejected. “How often I have longed to gather you.” The old mother hen has been clucking away for centuries through priest and prophet, through Torah and scribe, calling to her children, but they would not. They would not trust. They would not believe. They would not abandon their idolatries and adulteries. They would not live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God They would not receive the One who had come to save them.

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.

And so their house once filled with the glory of God is desolate. The mound that once held the temple of God now holds a mosque. The land once called the promised land now is target practice for her enemies. “You would not.”

It’s a warning to each of us. Do not presume on the mercies of God. Do not say we have tomorrow and the next day. Now is the time. Now is the day of your salvation. Now is the moment of repentance. Those tears Jesus shed lamenting over the holy city, He sheds over His church too, whenever she rejects the Word in favor of her silly programs, her grand institutions, her coziness with the world of politics and religion. The Spirit of Christ seeks to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep and if you’re left out of the party don’t blame God, blame yourselves. You would not.

Within each of us beats the heart of a sinner, the old Adam who uses Religion as a means to an end, who uses God as a tool of power, who uses Politics to control others and to bend others to conform to the will of Me. Left on our own, we “would not” too. Left to our own, we would not deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus on the way of death and resurrection. We would not.

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 above, 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 streets has been washed by the blood of the Lamb. Her streets once littered with stones cast in hatred are now paved in pure translucent 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.

That’s your city! 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,