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2nd Sunday of Lent

04 March 2022

13 March, Genesis 15.1-12,17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17 - 4.1; Luke 13.31-end


REPEATED words in scripture always catch my attention. Few are more powerful than Jesus’s threefold repetition of the name of the holy city. We might assume that he is addressing some inanimate body. Cities do not have feelings; their stones do not cry out. But, in Luke, the stones of Jerusalem do exactly that (19.40).

Jesus talks to Jerusalem as if the city were one of his close family. His repetition of her name has a beseeching tone, as if he must call out her wrongdoing, and yet his reproach is a mere droplet, dissolving into nothing, in the ocean of his limitless love. He yearns for her, like a mother hen with an instinct to nurture her offspring. For Jesus, the utterance of her name is an expression of his love. Each time he speaks it, he strengthens the impression that Jerusalem is not buildings, or geography, or society, but a single being, composed of countless individuals. This is akin to Paul’s conception of the body of Christ: the city as both collective and individual.

My reaction to the sight of a city spread out before me is not like Jesus’s. Looking from above, I see cities as scabs on the skin of this beautiful planet. To my mind, the sight of our own (modest) garden is more beautiful than any cityscape, however impressive or historic; for gardens are living, growing things, changing their mood and clothing daily.

But nor is Jesus exclaiming at the beauty of the city. He is thinking of the inhabitants — and they are wonderful and lovely, together or individually. It a hard thing to make sense of in human existence: that, though we like to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, most of us behave, most of the time, in extremely predictable ways, in accordance with our background, education, and location. Seeing the city’s people as a whole, Jesus wants to nurture them. But they — again, as a group — do not want his nurture; so they reject him, as he foresaw they would.

He never attracted enough followers to change the political reality in occupied Jerusalem, even if that had been his aim. But the movement that sprang up after his resurrection changed history — and it is united not by ideology, but by a citizenship that, we might say, is “out of this world” (Philippians 3.20). In a similar way, the children of Abram — an old man and his old wife — have outnumbered the offspring of many other families apparently more blessed.

Hebrew speaks of “cutting” covenants: with Adam, Noah, Abram. This is probably the meaning underlying the dividing of the animals in Genesis 15. The “cutting” points to the consequences of breaking the covenant. The smoke and fire that passed between the pieces in Abram’s vision tell us that God’s very presence is validating the covenant (Exodus 13.21). The theophany is darkly terrifying.

A covenant is not a contract. God makes a covenant with Abram, who does not pass between the pieces (the ritual equivalent of “signing on the dotted line”). Instead, cutting (in the form of circumcision) expresses his acceptance of the covenant as God has decreed it (compare Genesis 17.1-14 for a different angle). This is a one-sided declaration of God’s commitment to his people. They can choose whether or not to co-operate with it. It is a remarkable act of love from God, who is often oversimplified as angry and judging in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Abram here is first an individual, but he also stands for a collective entity, a nation yet unborn.

Not all the repetition in today’s readings happens within the passages themselves. Two texts have been lifted out of their place within the readings, and used for liturgical repetition. Philippians 3.21 is worked into the funeral prayer we hear when bodies are committed to earth or flame. It declares that “our Lord Jesus Christ will transform our frail bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body.” Luke 13.35 is lifted from the Gospel to take its place beside the Tersanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”, Isaiah 6.3) at the eucharist. When Jesus repeats the name “Jerusalem”, the very word is a love song. When we partake in liturgies built from segments of scripture, we repeat them often, because repeating the words is one way for us to declare — as Jesus did — “I love you.”

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