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Animal Church

3/11/01

In 1946 George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, a satirical novel about authoritarian government and the loss of individual liberty. Orwell set the novel on a farm where all the animals talk. A speaking animal can make some points more powerfully than a speaking human because it catches us off guard. The Affleck insurance commercials featuring a talking goose uses this same device. Our text can be viewed in this way too; it might be called "Animal Church."

The text opens with the fox trying to scare the Hen. He sends messengers to the Hen saying, "Get out of here or your goose is cooked." Foxes are a real threat to hens. A fox in the henhouse is devastating. A fox doesn't do like a dog rushing in killing chicken after chicken. No, he sneaks in quietly, grabs a hen by the neck and slinks back out. He does this time after time till the hens become so nervous they quit laying. In the human world, it's the equivalent as the enemy sneaking into your camp at night and killing fellow soldiers in their sleep.

The Hen really should be a chicken, you know. The Hen really should be scared of the fox. Hens have no natural defenses. They can't fly far like the crow; their claws are not strong like the hawk; their beaks are not powerful like the eagle; they have no camouflage like the woodcock. Hens are pretty much sitting ducks, and so they should know enough to be chickens.

Do you know enough of the facts in this case to know why Jesus (the Hen) ought to have been scared by Herod (the fox)? Herod rules the region Jesus is now in. He has absolute authority in this region. He is only accountable to Rome in the event there should be an uprising that would cost Rome taxes or soldiers. Rome could care less about the death of this or that person. Herod had earlier put to death John the Baptist before witnesses, paraded his severed head around on a platter, and then turned over his headless corpse to his disciples for burial. He made no attempt to cover his heinous crime so great was his authority. He had to answer to no one for such a brutal murder.

Don't you see? The fox has already raided the henhouse with impunity, with brazenness. He went in and grabbed the forerunner of Jesus by throat and bit his head clean off. No earthly power tried to stop him or even questioned him afterwards, and no heavenly power did either. Imagine that; Herod had chopped off the head of one of God's hens and gave it to a dancing girl, and not one single bad thing had happened to him. You tell me; if you were one of God's hens, wouldn't you have been afraid?

But the Hen in our story refuses to be a chicken. He replies to the fox, "Nothing can stop me from what I'm doing. I'm going right on doing what I have always done driving out demons and healing people till I reach My goal. No matter what you do or try to do you can't stop Me from making it to Jerusalem." Here is the hen strutting up to the snarling fox, puffing out its chest, flapping it's wings, and crowing in the fox's face.

From last week's reading, the temptation of Christ, you ought to be able to see that the fox is speaking the devil's language. He is claiming to have total control over the Hen; he can kill him anytime he wants to. He can let Him go or he can hunt Him down. The Hen just cackles with laughter. " Hah! You have no power to stop Me or even slow Me down. I'm not at your mercy."

But that's not all the Hen says. In some ways, I wish it were. Because up till now, it's a great story of the Hen triumphing over the fox. It's like one of Aesop's fable where the weaker animal outdoes the stronger one. It's great when the Hen says, "You can't kill Me!" I just wish He hadn't gone on to say, "Because I'm going to the chicken processing plant!" Yes, the Hen says the reason you can't kill me here is because I'm destined for the chicken processing plant!

Well if that isn't defeatism what is? If that isn't negative thinking what is? If that isn't an ignoble way to go what is? I mean a hen caught by the wily fox is somewhat understandable, but a hen marching willingly into to the chicken processing plant seems pitifully weak. To have as your goal the defeating of the fox is plucky, but to have as your goal to be killed, plucked, and butchered in the chicken processing plant is weak and crazy too. Why would the Hen who refuses to be a chicken willingly die such a helpless death?

Here we come face to face with the two aspects of Jesus' ministry. One is where He is the Lord of demons, sickness, and every power that be. The other is where He is the Servant who suffers and dies helplessly on a cross. One is where He rules over sin, sickness, and Satan as no prophet ever did before. The other is where He suffers and dies a more shameful death than any prophet before. It's easy to embrace the powerful Lord; it's much more difficult to embrace the suffering Servant.

But friend, the suffering Servant is the dominant theme in the ministry of Jesus. He describes Himself as worse off than hens and foxes because He has no place to lay His head. He says that He came into the world not to cast out demons and heal but to suffer and give His life as a ransom for many. No place does He say the Son of Man MUST do this or that miracle, but several times He says He MUST be betrayed, suffer under the hands of the Jewish supreme court and be shamefully crucified.

This being the case how come so much of Christianity today holds up the Hen crowing defiantly in the face of the fox rather than the Hen hanging dead, plucked, and bloody from the chicken processing plant assembly line? Watch any religious TV show you want, and you're going to see the strutting Hen Jesus. There will be talk of binding Satan, of claiming miracles, of glorious victory over the forces of evil. You will hear of mighty deliverance, of the fox not winning, of the Hen triumphantly leading the henhouse in victory. But where is the suffering Hen, the Hen who willing gives His life as a ransom?

Friend, there are two types of churches in this world. One focuses on the powerful, miraculous, victorious Jesus; the other focuses on the suffering, sighing, dying Jesus. One will lead you to a Jesus who looks like He should reign and rule over all things. The other will lead you to a Jesus who doesn't look like He should reign and rule over anything. One will lead you to a Jesus who anyone with eyes can see is a bold, noble Hen. The other will lead you to a Jesus which only the eyes of faith can see is not a Hen at all but an Eagle.

Hold on there; how did we get from hen to eagle! Well, if you think that's a big jump, you're really going to be surprised when I tell you we're going to go from foxes to chicks! That's the goal of this text. Jesus is calling foxes to become chicks. He tells the foxes their house is coming down. If you know anything about foxes, their den is their refuge. Foxes don't stand and fight. They run and hide. They don't make their dens in easily accessible places. They trust in their dens. This is the Pharisees. Jerusalem was their den. It was God's city, and as long as God stood, it would too they thought. They trusted in that city and in the temple there. They thought as long as their ritual in the temple went on, their life, their salvation, their religion was secure.

Don't be too hard on them because this is us too. We have things that we put our trust in too. We tie up our material and spiritual well being in things other than God. We think bank accounts, jobs, or national prosperity guarantee us material security. We think not being as bad as other people provides us spiritual security. But our trust is misplaced; these things are all going to come tumbling down.

That's what the Hen told the foxes. Your den is going to be left desolate. This is a regular theme in the Scripture. A crises comes to every man and woman's life in which no house built on sand will ever stand. The fires of judgement will burn up every human thing made of wood, stubble and straw. There is a crises of judgement on it's way which only holiness and righteous beyond that of the Pharisees can stand, which only perfection can survive.

You and I can't pass the test. The perfect Jesus can. Yet the perfect Jesus willingly marches into the fires of judgment for our sakes. He absorbs in His body all the suffering, torturing, and punishing our sins deserve. He gives Himself over to the butchers who pluck out His beard as if it was feathers according to Isaiah; He gives His back to the whips as if He was a chicken to be skinned alive according to Isaiah. He was so badly marred says Isaiah that you couldn't even recognize Him to be human anymore. Yes, He was so marred and mauled He no longer looked like a hen at all... but an Eagle!

There I go with the eagle talk again. Why? Almost all English translations have "as a hen gathers her chicks," so we think of Jesus as some clucking barnyard bird. But the Greek word is really female bird. And there is no reason not to think of an eagle. In fact, there is every reason to think of one. The Old Testament frequently pictures the Lord as a mighty eagle, not once does it picture Him as a chicken. When God wishes to encourage Israel to trust in Him what does He say in Exodus 19:6? "You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to Myself." And how does Moses describe God's caring for Israel in the desert? "Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that hovers over its young, He spread His wings and caught them, He carried them on His wings."

Jesus marches into the chicken processing plant as if He is some dumb, unsuspecting hen but in reality He is an eagle who would rather die helpless as a chicken than see us die. He doesn't die any different than an ordinary hen.. ..except to the eyes of faith. Faith sees the Eagle in the midst of the suffering and death of this ordinary looking Hen.

This too is in the text. Jesus says, "I tell you, you will not see Me again until you say, "Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord." He tells these foxes it won't be until faith is worked in their hearts making them chickens that they will see the blessedness of the Lord and run underneath His outstretched wings on the cross. Then they will be able to see Him as the Lord and Savior, as the Eagle that He is.

Do the words "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord" sound familiar to you? They should. Since 200 A.D. the Church has been singing these words in the Sanctus right before the Words of Institution. To the eyes of foxes, all that is happening in Communion is a pastor is up there saying words over bread and wine; likewise to the eyes of foxes in the text all they saw was a loudmouth hen. But the eyes of chicks see something else. In Communion the Blessed Lord is coming down to earth to gather chicks into His body. In the text, chicks saw an Eagle before them calling them to safety.

Friends, foxes are not right when they treat Christ as some sort of chicken, but it is true that Christianity is for chickens. That is Christianity is for people who are afraid they cannot stand before God on their own. Christianity is for people who are afraid they're not holy enough, strong enough, or believing enough to withstand judgement. Christianity is for people who have seen the Eagle humble Himself to come all the way down to the filth of the barnyard floor, spread out His wings, and die to provide a refuge for chickens. Amen

Reverend Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Lent II (3-11-01) Luke 13: 31-35