Luke 13:31-35; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
To begin with, some song lyrics:
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away
I had thought of suggesting that we include in our service today a rendering of the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Gimme Shelter’ from which those lyrics come, but on balance I decided that it would probably not sound quite right on the organ. Certainly, however, the sentiments of that opening verse of the song would fit our passage from Luke’s Gospel nicely. For Jesus, a storm is threatening. He is headed for Jerusalem, the capital city that has a long history of persecuting prophets and rejecting God’s envoys. He is going there to give Jerusalem a chance to hear and to respond to his message, to turn from its misguided ways and to submit to God’s rule. But the Pharisees, this religious grouping who are not generally well-disposed to Jesus, come and warn him. Herod the King imposed by the Romans is out to get him. Herod sees Jesus as a threat to his own power and we all know how power deals with those who threaten it. Hence the Pharisees’ warning: ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ So a storm is threatening Jesus’ very life – and he needs shelter. Jesus, however, is not intimidated by Herod. He sends back a defiant message, ‘Go and tell that fox Herod for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work”.’ In other words I must do what must be done; there is a clear plan which I must follow and nothing will deflect me. Herod is a fox, sly and lethal – but I will not be chicken. Or at least I will not be chicken in the sense of afraid. But how I wish I could gather Jerusalem under my arms like a hen gathering her chicks and shield them from what is to come if they follow the path of self-destruction that they are set upon. In other words I will not seek shelter, but how I wish I could give it. I will not play chicken to Herod’s fox, but how I wish I could be the mother hen who protects her fragile brood under her wings.
It is such a beautiful image – Christ the mother hen – and it’s one with deep roots in the Old Testament. Back in the Book of Ruth we find the story of Ruth, a vulnerable and displaced refugee from the land of Moab who seeks refuge in Israel. Ruth is blessed with the words, ‘may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.’ And we find the image repeated in Psalm 91, ‘he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find shelter.’ Here is a picture of divine, protective love. And of course it is significant that Jesus’ use of this image is female: he pictures himself as the mother hen. And Jesus was not concerned with political correctness but the fact is that he took a gentle and deliberately feminine image to contrast himself with the vicious, male fox that is Herod. And there is surely an invitation here to be a little more diverse and bold in our language about God and to join Jesus in giving female imagery its right place – particularly this week as last Tuesday marked World Women’s Day.
This image of the mother hen covering her chicks with her wings takes us deeper into our life with God. Here Christ pictures himself as covering his people, protecting them from their foes – but there are other threats that Jesus covers and protects us from apart from political predators like Herod or like Rome. And, perhaps surprisingly, we could begin with a reminder that we need protection from God. For yes, we talk a lot about being protected by God, but is there not a sense in which we need protection from God? You all know the story of how Moses went up on the mountain and there he communed with God and when he came down again he had to put a veil over his face, as it shone with such dazzling brightness. Just prior to this, indeed, he had been told that no-one can see the face of God and live. And our reading from 2 Corinthians this morning picks up that passage and speaks of us as Christians beholding the glory of God – but not directly. It refers to ‘… all of us with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror…’ In other words we can only see God as deflected and reflected by that mirror who is Christ. He is our Mediator who reflects God – the mother hen who protects us from God’s full, all-consuming and searing glory that would otherwise consume us.
One of the hymns in our worship this morning begins with the words,
Beneath the shadow of thy wings,
My Father and my God, I rest…
But the hymn goes on to says of Christ, ‘forth from his face thy glories shine…’ In other words we may behold the glory of God but only as reflected in the face of Christ.
Thus when we gather in the presence of God for worship we can believe that God is present among us – every bit as present as God was to Moses on the mountain. Indeed, if you open the eye of your imagination, you might just see a large mother hen on the roof of the church, her wings covering us, mediating God’s presence to us – but sheltering us from what would otherwise destroy us.
This leads us, however, to another sense in which Christ the mother hen covers us with her wings. And that is in relation to sin, for when we turn to the Old Testament and how God deals with sin what do we find? Well, we find that God deals with it by covering it. You will have heard of the great Jewish feast and festival of Yom Kippur, and Yom Kippur is traditionally the day of atonement, the day every year when God deals with Israel’s sin. And in the Old Testament there is a lot of blood and a lot of sacrifices on that day. But the root of the word ‘Kippur’ means ‘to cover’ and so Yom Kippur is literally The Day of Covering. So we read in Psalm 32, ‘Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ In the Bible the classic ‘sin story’, of course, comes near the beginning where we read of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and we read how after their transgression they realised that they were naked and sewed fig leaves together and made loin cloths to cover their shame. And perhaps there is an inkling there of our tendency to try to cover up wrong, to hide it. There can be no cover-up with sin – it must first of all be exposed, confessed, brought out into the light, and that can be painful. But then, praise God, it can be covered – and so lose its destructive power. And so to those who feel the guilt and the pain of their wrong, to those who carry the burden of shame, there is no better news than to say, ‘your sins are covered. By the graceful, forgiving wings of the mother hen they are covered over. shelter there.’
So to one last reflection on the mother hen. It is an image of Christ, but might it not also be an image of Christ’s body the church? Could not ‘mother church’ be mother hen, spreading her wings over the vulnerable and threatened? I am reminded of the inspiring story of what happened in the village of Chambon-Sur-Lignon in France in the Second World War. Led by a Protestant pastor, André Trocmé and his wife, this village and surrounding villages sheltered over 5000 people – including up to three and a half thousand Jews – from the Vichy government and the Nazis. And so the church and surrounding community became Christ, the mother hen, sheltering her chicks. Eventually, in February 1943, the leaders of the village including Pastor Trocmé were arrested. When the two policemen came to take them away it happened to be dinner time and so Madame Trocmé invited them to dine with them – despite the presence in the house of refugee Jews hiding upstairs. ‘It was dinner time – the food was ready’, said Madame Trocmé afterwards. Their attitude was summed up as, ‘we did what had to be done’ And that meant not just to give shelter to the Jews and others under threat, but to extend hospitality even to the agents of the fox – to expand the bounds of the nest to the enemy. We are always challenged to go further!
But there is, of course, a story that is unfolding in front of our eyes right now – the story of the thousands of Ukrainians who are having to flee their homes. They are being welcomed by churches and community groups in countries all over Europe. So here again is a brood that sadly needs to seek shelter beneath the wings of the hen. And I personally think it is scandalous that the UK it is not offering the same welcome to these refugees as other countries are and our roles as Christians in this country needs to be that we challenge our government on its humanitarian response to this crisis. But at the time we also need to tell the stories of welcome and support we see elsewhere and hold onto them. In an age of unbelief and hostility to our faith here is where we follow our Lord, as we bear witness to the grace of the mother hen in a world too often threatened by foxes – and where far too many chicks are threatened. May God help the body of Christ to become the mother hen.
Revd Sabrina Groeschel