Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, March 17th 2019
Foxes: I’ve certainly seen a more than a few of those, especially when I lived in Essex. Sometimes, they were no more than a glimpse of a bushy tail disappearing into a hedge when hit by the lights of the oncoming car. On other occasions it was literally closer to home. I came face to face with the fox who thought it ok to use our front garden as a short cut. Another one thought it acceptable for him to stroll into our garage for a look-around, just after I had opened the door in order to put the car away for the night.
I don’t have particularly strong feelings about foxes. I don’t fear them, certainly not as much as ill-controlled dogs out on the streets with their supposed owners. I’ve no desire to hunt them with a pack of dogs. I’ve no wish to eat one, though, given some meat processing scandals in recent years, perhaps I have. For all that, foxes don’t have a great reputation. The only positive title I can think of involving a fox is ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’, the children’s story from Roald Dahl, a writer who delighted in subverting convention about like and dislikes. If you describe someone as being fox-like then you are not paying them a compliment, with the honourable exception of ‘foxy’ ladies.
It’s not a compliment most of the time because in our twenty-first century western culture the fox is seen as a clever, crafty, shifty and untrustworthy character. What human being wants to be described in those terms? When Jesus calls Herod a fox – ‘go and tell that fox’ he says – he is not suggesting Herod is clever or crafty. That’s not how people of his time viewed foxes. None of this is to say that Jesus is paying Herod any sort of compliment. It is just that he is insulting him in a different way. When Jesus calls Herod a fox, he means to say that he is a mangy, weak, second rate creature; no improvement on clever and crafty, shifty and untrustworthy.
Jesus does not like Herod, which is no surprise. Some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that ‘Herod wants to kill you.’ (3: 31) Pharisees helping Jesus may come as a surprise but only if we buy into the simplistic picture that Jesus and Pharisees are enemies. In fact, read the gospels carefully and a more complicated picture emerges, of which this incident is but one piece of evidence. Helpful Pharisees may seem as unlikely to us as good Samaritans were to Jews in Jesus time, but no one would be surprised that Herod would want to kill Jesus.
It’s a case of ‘like father, like son’ as the Herodian family and Jesus’s family are concerned. When Jesus was little, Matthew tells us in his Gospel, Herod the Great, the father of the Herod in today’s passage, tried to do away with Jesus. His attempt at a ‘targeted assassination’ failed, but with “collateral damage” of the death of all the boys of Bethlehem aged two years and under. This evening’s Herod – Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great had previously imprisoned and then executed Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist. Now, Jesus is told, Herod intends to conclude this piece of outstanding family business by doing away with Jesus.
As it happens, Herod would qualify as crafty and untrustworthy. This man divorced his wife so he could marry his brother’s ex-wife. Luke tells us elsewhere about how he lusted after the young girl who he saw dancing at a party; the daughter of his new wife, and therefore someone who was simultaneously his niece and step-daughter. The Herodians were a complicated family. But Jesus’s description of this Herod as a fox is not to brand him as crafty and untrustworthy, though he is both of those. Jesus is saying that Herod is small, weak, mangy and second-rate. For Jews of Jesus’s time, the essential thing about a fox is that is not the lion.
Why is Herod weak and second-rate? Well the reason unfolds as Jesus continues to speak, and to speak of Jerusalem: I must go on my way … because it is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem.’ (13: 33) Jerusalem is where things happen, and Jerusalem is where the really big players in the unfolding story of the people of Israel are to be found. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, but Herod is stuck in Galilee. A real king of the Jews would reign in Jerusalem, but this Herod does not. He is a placeman, an appointee, owing his current limited office to the whim of his Roman imperial masters. This is no king of Israel, resident and reigning in Salem, or Zion; this is no Lion of Judah; this is nothing more than a mangy fox.
As for Jesus, he is off to Jerusalem: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her [from God]! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.’ (13: 34) And ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ look at you today; still fought over by political and religious forces; a place sacred to Jew and Muslim alike; essential element in any political solution to a seemingly intractable conflict. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, see how you have sucked in, how you have expended political and material goods, how human lives and hopes have been extinguished for your sake. It is enough to make a loving God weep.
And the question for us is, “Can or should a place mean so much for a Christian?” Christians too, know the power of place. Many of us know what it is to have a powerful emotional attachment to a church building; to its setting its setting, its style and its contents; to pulpit and to pews, to table and perhaps even to candles. Church Ministers might get inoculated to this feeling by virtue of the fact that we come and we go. So, the settings where they preach and teach are in some ways only a passing part of their lives. Lest I forget, though, I recall the strong feelings that bubbled up within me when there was a passing question about the viability of the church buildings where I spent a lot of the first twenty-three years of my life.
And Jesus, unlike Herod, that fox, is on his way to Jerusalem, the place where the Temple is, atop Mount Zion; the pilgrimage destination for all Jews even these days, celebrating Passover in their homes, but with the aspiration of ‘next year in Jerusalem’.
Along with our sense of the importance of place comes the resurgence of interest in pilgrimage. Today, for Catholics and for others, Walsingham, Lourdes and Santiago de Compostela are popular pilgrimage destinations. For other Christians the preferred places are on Iona in Scotland or Taizé in France. And for the followers of different faiths there is always the ‘Holy Land’, including, of course, Jerusalem. But can or should a place mean so much for a Christian?
Certainly not, if we mistake the destination for the thing that we are seeking. Jerusalem was important to Jesus. That’s no surprise ,for Jesus was a Jew, but its primary importance was as the place where he could be what he was called to be: a prophet. Jerusalem is important, but as the place where Jesus can do the things that he has been called to do; to enter the city in kingly triumph; to face arrest, and torture, and execution. Jerusalem is where he will fulfil his mission of reconciliation between God and God’s world; this world full of craftiness and cleverness, of violence and conflict; a world where people so often settle for living second rate lives and exhibit third rate behaviour. By going to Jerusalem Jesus fulfils his mission but the significance of what he does transcends that of the place itself.
For Christians, it really does go wrong when we get too attached to a place. This is true whether we are looking at the big picture of being part of a worldwide religion or the more intimate setting in which we live our individual and congregational lives. On the big stage, a large blot on the Christian copy book is the medieval crusades, where Christian soldiers really did march to war in order to control Jerusalem. And our fellow Christians were easily reconciled to leaving a trail of Jewish and Muslim bodies along the way. Think how such attitudes might play out in attitudes and actions towards Jews and Muslims on our own day
On a smaller scale, many of us know of the potential that church buildings have to be the cause or setting for conflicts within congregations. Buildings may be vehicles for mission but attempting to change them for new conditions can be a frustrating process that involves conflict.
Yet there is a lesson to be learned from pilgrimage, from journey to a place, whether that be the journey that Jesus’ made, or the journeys that we and other believers make. What matters most to the people who go on pilgrimage, in many cases, is not to do with the destination as such. What matters is what happens to you on the journey and what you do when you reach the destination. Start out on a pilgrimage and you find it becomes powerful tool for change in lives – and this seems to be as true of Christians seeking healing at Lourdes as Jews celebrating Passover in Jerusalem this year as it is of a Muslim making the haj to Mecca.
Of course, for Christians, changes that we seek take a distinctive form, because we are following Jesus, to Jerusalem and beyond. So, this today, looking forward to journeys, to pilgrimages, both literal and metaphorical, we give thanks for Jesus, who went to the right place. Above all, however, we celebrate his journey through life and death to resurrection. Remember, Jesus is calling us to make a faith-journey through life; a journey which is never tied down to or defined by a single place.