Hearing the Truth

Note: I preached this sermon on February 21, 2016 (the second Sunday in Lent) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

A woman watching the news gets worried for her father, who she knows has a doctor appointment. She calls his cell phone. “Dad, be careful out there—on the news they say there’s a crazy person driving the wrong way on the Edens!”

“It’s worse than that,” her father says. “They all are!”

A few weeks ago I talked a little bit about telling the truth, and how hard it can be. Today I want to talk about hearing the truth, which is not any easier.

This story has been on my mind lately. I don’t know if it’s just something that comes with a third child or being in the latter half of my thirties or what, but I’m finding myself badly preoccupied when I am driving. I’m still a cautious driver. But I need to leave about ten minutes earlier than usual to accommodate the inevitable moment in any trip when I miss my exit. 

But there’s more to it than that. Anyone can get confused or absent-minded or foolish. The more worrisome thing is our tendency to be stubborn in our foolishness or confusion. It’s one thing to miss the facts—miss your exit, make the wrong turn, end up on the wrong side of the road. It’s another thing to resist the knowledge when it comes. 

The thing about human beings, unlike other animals as far as I know, is that we are very emotionally invested in our errors. You know what I mean? That mistake that you play out so long you can’t really hear any advice to fix it? That pattern of behavior that becomes so ingrained it seems natural or even right, despite what people around you are saying? That attitude, that reflexive response to certain people that you don’t really want to look at or question? I can’t be wrong. It must be everyone else driving the wrong way.

That is what is so beautiful and haunting in the words of Jesus today: “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!”

You were not willing. How many times could that be said?

First a bit of background. Today we are in the middle of Luke’s Gospel. Last week we heard about Jesus being tested in the wilderness by Satan at the very beginning of his ministry. Now, nine chapters later, the struggle has spread out into the whole countryside. Jesus has been traveling through the land. As he says, he has been healing and casting out demons. He has called his first disciples. He has taught the people around him about God’s kingdom. He’s publicly forgiven a woman who was known to be a sinner. He has brought a young girl back to life. And he has sent his disciples out on his behalf. He has fed a great crowd. And he has foretold his own death.

Somewhere along the line, Jesus goes from being an itinerant holy man with a few disciples to being the center of a large and growing movement. 

This Jesus movement is not violent. But like anything else that is new and powerful, it does provoke fear and opposition. And today we start hearing how serious that opposition is. 

It starts when some Pharisees come to warn Jesus. Now we think of Jesus as being totally opposed to Pharisees, but the reality was more complicated. Jesus had similar views to the Pharisees. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were at odds with the civil rulers of the land who were close to the Roman Empire. So some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod, the local ruler who was allied with the Roman Empire, was scheming to kill him. Herod had already put John the Baptist in prison, after all. 

Jesus responds with scorn: Tell that fox, Herod, I’m doing my work today and tomorrow and my work will be finished on the third day,” that is after he is executed and raised from the dead.

That’s the moment when he laments over 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!”

It’s a powerful moment. Jesus compares himself to a mother hen whose chicks refuse the love and safety of her wings. And there is the sadness of knowing, deep down, what lies ahead for him. 

There is something in human beings that powerfully resists goodness. Something that powerfully resists God. They have ears but do not hear, as the Old Testament says. Jesus heals but in healing shows us how sick we are. Jesus forgives but in forgiving shows us how sinful we are. Jesus teaches good news but in teaching shows us how much we don’t know. And it can be painful to see and hear these things. It can be easier to shut them out.

So how can we hear the truth? It’s something to ponder in this season of Lent, as we are called to return to God and be restored in God’s mercy. Where in our lives do we resist healing, forgiveness, and good news? 

The answer is probably different for each of us. But there are some spiritual practices we can all try to help us hear God more clearly amid the noise of the world and the resistance of our own hearts.

First: hearing the truth, like speaking the truth, starts with silence. It is so, so easy to ready our response before we’ve even heard what someone is trying to say to us. We live in an impatient world. I’m an impatient person. I’m old enough to remember having to wait for a letter to arrive, or at least to have to wait to be close to a phone. Not that people were all better back then. But to hear the truth, we need to listen. And sometimes listen again. And sometimes we need to withhold our own desire to justify ourselves or defend ourselves and try to really understand. That requires silence.

Second: hearing the truth requires noticing our own discomfort and rejection. If something angers us or frightens us or makes us anxious, that is a sign. We have to pay attention to it. It’s a cliche that the truth hurts, and like all cliches it’s misleading. The truth may hurt, but not everything that hurts is the truth. Still, when we’re resistant, we need to listen to that and ask why. Maybe there is something we need to hear but don’t wish to.

Finally, hearing the truth requires a willingness to change our minds. That’s what we mean when we talk about “repentance,” changing our mind. Changing our minds about God, changing our minds about each other. Our minds and hearts can get very hard, excluding new ideas and new information. Hearing the truth may mean letting our minds and our hearts be broken open, to see God and our neighbor in a new and more awesome and generous and caring light. 

Now despite all this encouragement, people are still people. Jesus will encounter the refusal of Jerusalem just as he encounters refusal in every place still today. But the awesome thing about this story is that Jesus will not be deterred. He won’t slink away as the Pharisees seem to suggest. He won’t hang back in the countryside where he is more popular and protected. He won’t even lie in the grave after being defeated by human hard-heartedness. He will spread his maternal wings around even the unwilling and unhearing. He will embrace even those who reject him. He will speak to his own in a voice deeper and softer than the ear can hear, and his brood will be safe. Amen. 

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