|"1984 Mercury Marquis stations wagons" by Hugo90, on Flickr|
As a kid, I had a definite opinion on what the best kind of car was. It was a station wagon with a rear-facing back seat. Not the sexiest vehicle, I know, but as a kid, what did I care about looks? Station wagons were incredible, because you could open up the rear door, and climb onto the bench with a friend or a sister, and spend the whole ride looking out the back window, making faces at the drivers who were following you, and looking out on all the places that you had just been.
These days, however, I don’t like riding backwards. Last week, I went into the city to visit some friends, and rode the el, and when I got on, the only empty seats were backwards-facing. I grudgingly sat in one of those seats, and pulled out a book to read, but the whole time, kept looking over my shoulder. My head and heart wanted to face forward, to see where I was headed rather than where I’d just been.
Maybe it’s because it makes me feel more secure to see what’s up ahead. Maybe it’s because riding backwards makes me a little carsick after a while. Maybe it’s just the nature of the soul to want to move forward and not backward.
In today’s gospel, Jesus has been facing forward toward Jerusalem. Actually, he’s been moving forward toward Jerusalem since all the way back in Luke chapter 9, when he and the disciples begin their journey away from Galilee and toward the city. At the outset, Jesus sets the tone for this single-minded movement toward Jerusalem by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
From the very beginning, Jesus knows that his journey to Jerusalem will be a permanent one. There will be no going back to his own bed, no going home, no settling down in one village or another, but always moving forward to Jerusalem, the city of both his triumphal entry and his crucifixion.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is still on this journey, moving toward Jerusalem, all the while doing miracles and healing and forgiving and teaching and rebuking and rebelling against the established religious order. He astonishes some people and makes other people very angry. This trek to Jerusalem is not a quiet one. He’s not traveling under cover.
So it is no surprise that Herod Antipas has not only heard about Jesus, but also feels threatened by him. Like those foxes and birds that Jesus spoke of at the start of the journey, here Herod is the fox in his hole – sly but small, surrounded by power and protection and security – and Jesus is the mother hen, who longs to gather together God’s scattered people, a task taken on in earlier days by Old Testament prophets and judges, a task that always proved temporary at best.
Jesus knows that he has a destiny. He is the prophet, priest, judge, and king who will gather together God’s scattered people for good. He is the mother hen spreading out her wings to shelter all creation with God’s love and grace. But there is only one way to accomplish this.
He must set his face toward Jerusalem, the city who kills its prophets, and move forward toward the cross, which will be both his death and our life. There’s no time to bother with Herod. There’s no space to leave the path. There’s no good to come from turning back. There is only moving forward, pressing on toward Jerusalem and the cross.
The cross is at the center of Jesus’ story. The cross is also at the center of our story. Jesus, the one sent to save the world, reveals God’s heart not in a blaze of glory, but in a profound sigh on the cross, upon which he brings all creation into God’s merciful embrace, as a mother hen gathers together all her chicks into her care.
The cross is the paradox at the center of our Christian faith. For we see the glory of God in Christ only through the tragedy of the cross. In Lutheran-speak, this paradox is referred to as Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross.” Luther believed strongly that the cross is the only place that we know for sure who God is and how God saves. The cross is the place where we know for sure who God is.
And so it is for our sake that Jesus keeps moving forward toward Jerusalem and toward the tragic, mysterious, life-giving cross.
The cross makes each of us a new creation; the old has passed away, we have been made new. We no longer need to be concerned or weighed down by where we’ve been. The cross releases us from the bondage of looking back, of being stuck in rear-facing seats, of being ashamed or worried or guilty or being somehow held back by whatever has come before. The cross frees us from ourselves so that we might show love for both God and neighbor.
The cross frees us to be forward-looking, pressing onward toward God’s future of hope and promise, knowing deep in our hearts that God is always faithful, even as God was faithful to Abraham and Sarah, to Noah, to David, to all of our ancestors in faith.
The cross assures us that our citizenship is in heaven, and that all of the aches and pains of this life do not have lasting power over us. Even death does not have a final say over us, because God has claimed us for eternal life; there is more up ahead, just waiting for us.
So what is it in your life that keeps you from moving forward?
Do you feel held back by your doubts and fears? The cross is for you.
Do you want to serve but feel like you have nothing to give? The cross is for you.
Do you look back at your missteps and mistakes and feel like you are unforgiveable and have no future? The cross is for you.
Do you feel like you simply don’t have the faith or strength to step forward? The cross is for you.
See, Jesus moved toward the cross in order to free us from everything that holds us back. He turns our faces forward toward the futures that God has prepared for us. And with every step forward that we make, Jesus is with us, as our leader, savior, mother hen, gatherer, and pilgrim guide.
So we press forward in this season of Lent and in our lives of faith with the assurance that we are God’s beloved – and we are sheltered, protected, and embraced.
For Christ the Lord is our light and salvation; whom then shall we fear? The promise of the cross is the stronghold of our life; of what then shall we be afraid?
May God bless you in all of your journeys. May Jesus continue to lead you onward. May you keep your eyes fixed on the cross, and may it bring you hope and strength. And may you always be blessed to keep facing forward.