Reformation Day (Gospel reading for 24th Sunday after Pentecost - LCMS Readings Year A)
Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, October 30, 2005
[Jesus said,] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
It’s hard for me to quite get the right passion in my voice when reading these words of Jesus. Jesus knows the history of God’s people, how often God has sent them prophets with messages of judgment and grace, law and gospel, but how often those prophets were rejected, imprisoned, or killed. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the whole world, but He also knows that the very people that He has come to save are the people who will hand Him over to be killed. Jesus wants to take all of His people in, bring them to God the Father, bring them close like a hen protecting her chicks, but many will not. They will reject Him, and the passion and intense sorrow build in His voice.
It’s an intensity that I’m not very good at conveying, so I’m going to let the obscure, 60’s folk rock singer Simon Finn do it. Finn captures that intense sorrow in this song called “Jerusalem,” and while you may find Finn’s voice and song to be strange, the reason I want you to hear a bit of it is because I haven’t found any other example of trying to show how Jesus is very much broken-hearted when He cries over Jerusalem.
“And I’m yelling all I can
Can’t you see He’s the Christ?
Oh, no, no.
And they don’t understand a single word I say,
But I’m crying just the same,
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, oh, no, no.”
That’s the sorrow, passion, and frantic feeling that Jesus had as He looked at Jerusalem, saw the chosen people of God rejecting Him, their Savior. As the insert in your bulletin shows, the title of this sermon is “Jesus the Chicken.” I’m not saying that Jesus is chicken, meaning he’s afraid to do something. No, rather, Jesus describes Himself here as a hen, a female bird, a chicken perhaps. It’s one of the few times that the Bible uses a feminine image for God, but when it comes to that passionate sorrow, there’s not a better image than a hen, a chicken.
The picture of a chicken taking her chicks under her wings is an intimate, motherly, protective image, but here in the words of Jesus, the image is of a chicken, a hen, chasing after her chicks, wanting to protect them, wanting the chicks to be under her wings, but the chicks run and run and run. Foxes come threatening to steal those chicks away, but still the chicks will not seek the protection of their mother hen. As those foxes get closer to her chicks, the hen gets frantic, squawking, throwing up her wings, going after the chicks while also facing off with the foxes. She may even lose her life to a fox rather than letting her chicks be taken. It’s a scene of squawking sorrow, and it’s an image that gives us a glimpse into what Jesus has done for us.
Jesus the Chicken has done everything He can to protect and save us, His chicks. Even when we run away from Him, He continues to fight the evil foxes who threaten to steal us from the true faith. He fought to protect us, fought all the way to the cross where He took the death blows in our place. Jesus the Chicken offering to take us under His wings is an intimate, motherly, protective image for what it means that Jesus has taken us to be His own.
On the bulletin insert you have a picture of the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. This church was built near the spot traditionally said to be where Jesus cried over Jerusalem. The church’s name in Latin means “the Lord cried.”
The reason I found out about this church was because I was searching on the Internet for a picture of a hen with her chicks. You’ve got that picture here. It’s actually part of the mosaic inside the Dominus Flevit church. The mosaic shows a hen putting her wings around her chicks. What is striking, although a little hard to see in black and white, is that there’s a halo around the head of the hen. Paintings and artwork, especially from the Middle Ages, often placed those halos around Christ and the saints of the Church. Here the halo is given to the hen. It’s a clear reminder that Jesus compared Himself to a chicken; it’s an image that jumps out, reminding us that Jesus reaches out to take us under His protection like a hen.
I hope one day to see that mosaic in person, because this image reminds us that Jesus really hopes to take us under His care. No matter how often I’ve run away, He’s still reaching out with His wings, wanting to protect me from the foxes of this world, protect me from sin, death, and the devil. For all of my running around, trying to take care of things on my own, I’ve got this passionate, motherly, protective Lord right behind me, chasing off more foxes than I can know.
Recently, my Tuesday morning Bible studies have been looking at biblical imagery. We’ve talked about a lot of words that are metaphors, comparing the things of God to things from daily life. Why would Jesus compare Himself to something as humble as a chicken? Isn’t that kind of degrading, putting Jesus down to compare Him to the farmyard bird pecking away in the dust? It’s not the grand idea we might have of Jesus, but Jesus uses images like the hen in order to help us understand spiritual truths. He uses things from our world to understand the things that are out of this world. I’ve seen chickens; I’ve never seen Jesus. I’ve seen chickens protecting their chicks; I’ve never seen how God protects me. Jesus gives us a visual for something that’s invisible. Jesus wants to teach us about His love and protection, and He’s not afraid to compare Himself to a chicken in order to make His point.
But now today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, commemorating the beginning of Martin Luther’s effort to reform the Church starting in 1517. Luther had found that the Roman Catholic Church was not teaching the whole truth of God’s Word. The Gospel, the Good News, the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus, was a message that was mainly forgotten. It was a Church built around a message of fear and judgment, of trying to do enough good works in order to get right with God. Luther wanted the Church to realize this and begin sharing the whole message with God’s people. What started as His hope to reform the Church eventually led to a division within the Church. Rome excommunicated Luther and his followers, forcing them to begin their own church. However, that was never Luther’s intention. He was the Chicken like Jesus the Chicken. He stood looking at the Church, crying with intense sorrow that the Church wasn’t teaching the truth about Jesus.
On the back of your bulletin insert, you have a quote from Luther explaining his hope for the Church. This quote shows that Luther was acting like Jesus. Luther wanted to bring the people to the truth of forgiveness, wanted to take people under his pastoral care like a hen takes her chicks under her wings, but the Church refused. Luther says,
That is why I would let everyone who wants to do so, keep the papal and human laws, wherever it is possible for faith and God’s word not to be crowded out by them. But I will not keep silent when fear and despair are created with them and all those who do not obey them are accused of being damned heretics even if they keep all the other articles of faith.(1)
Luther is saying he would’ve been fine with the pope and Church laws as long as those things didn’t change the faith. He didn’t come to do violence to the Church. He came like a hen, wanting to bring the Church back under the protection of the Gospel. Just as Jerusalem rejected Christ, Luther was watching the Church reject Jesus. It is with intense sorrow that Luther sees the Church ignore the truth of God’s Word.
That’s why Luther goes on to say that there’s no other choice when the Church tries to scare him into being quiet. There’s no other choice but to go outside the Roman Catholic Church if they are not going to let him teach that we are forgiven through faith alone. The Church was calling Luther a heretic, saying that Luther was teaching false doctrines. The Church damned Luther to hell. Luther was convinced that he wasn’t teaching falsely, that the forgiveness of sins through Jesus is something taught by God’s Word. Luther was convinced that he wasn’t a heretic, and so are we. That’s why we’re here. We believe that Luther was teaching the Word of God correctly, pointing to forgiveness for our sins through Jesus.
Jesus cried over the people of Jerusalem who rejected God’s love. Luther cried over the Church who rejected the Gospel, but Luther didn’t always understand the Gospel message. Luther was also the chick, the chick who sometimes ran away from the truth of God’s Word. Luther spent many years being a chick chased by Jesus the mother hen.
In another quote on your bulletin insert, Luther remembers how his friend Pomeranus helped him to see that he was running away from God’s forgiveness, acting sort of like a chick running away from the hen. Luther says,
Pomeranus sometimes consoled me when I was sad by saying, ‘No doubt God is thinking: What more can I do with this man? I have given him so many excellent gifts, and yet he despairs of my grace!’ These words were a great comfort to me. As a voice from heaven they struck me in my heart, although I think Pomeranus did not realize at the time what he had said and that it was so well said.(2)
Pomeranus points out God’s frustration with Luther. Luther had spent many years as a monk trying to perfect himself, trying to punish himself enough for his sins, trying to earn God’s righteousness on his own. Surely God is frustrated when we do this, because God has already promised us forgiveness, salvation from punishment and death, and already made us righteous, holy, and innocent through Christ. God was chasing Luther like a hen chasing her chick, and eventually, God caught Luther.
And Luther saw the protection of the Gospel for what it is. Luther realized that the Gospel was what he needed all along. Luther had been so afraid of God, so afraid of judgment and death and hell, so afraid because of his sins. Luther ran and ran and ran, until God finally helped him to see that Luther could come and find protection under God’s own wings.
When are you the chick? When do you realize that you need to be under the wings of Jesus? When you realize you’re sinful, when you’re aware of the devil’s evil plan to bring you to eternal death, when you confess your sins to God, that’s when you are the chick. That’s when you’ve humbled yourself before your God. When you realize that you’re just a helpless chick, that’s when it’s good to know that Jesus is your mother hen. That’s when it is good to feel those wings of the Gospel reaching to draw you close.
When are you the chick that runs away from the hen? Are there times in your life when you’re so afraid of God, feeling like you can’t dare approach God because of your sins? If you’ve felt that fear, than remember the mosaic from the Dominus Flevit Church, remember how Jesus offers to take you under His wings. There’s no need to keep running and running around the barnyard. There’s no need to keep scratching in the dust. Just calm down. Rest. Let Jesus cover you with His wings of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness.
You are little chicks in this big world of ours, especially when it comes to the big spiritual world. You’re not big enough to go out on your own. None of us are. We are little chicks who need their mother hen. Jesus has offered to be your mother hen, so don’t turn it down. Let those wings wrap right around you now.
You will always be chicks, the little ones of Jesus, but there are times when God calls you to be the chicken too. Jesus the Chicken wants to protect His people the chicks. Luther the Chicken wanted to protect the people the chicks. We the Chickens want to offer people that same protection of the Gospel. God will use us to offer His wings of protection, His message of hope and love.
Just as Luther was sorrowful over the Church rejecting the truth of God’s Word, we, too, celebrate Reformation Day with sorrow not cockiness. We do not mention the error in the teaching of other denominations in order to brag. We cry as chickens wishing to take people under the protective wings of the Gospel. If someone is in a church where they are not taught that our sins are completely forgiven by what Jesus did for us on the cross, then they do not know the true freedom and hope and peace of Christ. We stand with sorrow, crying out for those who don’t know this truth. We are the chickens, calling others to come under the protection of the Gospel.
And so in the words of Jesus, we realize we are the chicks who run away, the chicks under wing, and the chicken. We are all three at different times and even at the same time. We are the chicks who run away, the sinners who reject Jesus, the sinners who shake off His protection trying to go out on our own. We are the chicks under wing, the objects of His love, the faithful ones who realize we need His protection. And we are the Chickens who match the heart of Jesus, who cry with sorrow for those who run away from God while offering the wings of the Gospel to those who need it. Jesus cried over your sin of faithlessness, called you to faith through the Holy Spirit, and now sends you to be hen in the world. The chick who ran away became the chick under wing became the chicken who was sent to offer protection to other chicks. Jesus, your mother hen, has called you and He is faithful.
(1) Luther, M. (1999, c1967). Vol. 54: Luther's works, vol. 54 : Table Talk (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 54, Page 15-16). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
(2) Luther, M. (1999, c1970). Vol. 39: Luther's works, vol. 39 : Church and Ministry I (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (Vol. 39, Page 171-172). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.