After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions.15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…
Philippians 3:17 - 4:1
17 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. 18For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. 19Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. 20But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. 21He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.4:1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
22 Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. 23Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, 24‘Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able. 25When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us”, then in reply he will say to you, “I do not know where you come from.” 26Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” 27But he will say, “I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!” 28There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. 29Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
… it is not permissible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.
"To your descendants I give this land from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…" The lectionary softens the affront of this by neglecting to list the ten nations whose land will be taken from them by divine fiat. A deep and terrifying darkness was also to descend upon them.
The story begins with Abram's vision of a God of promise. Does it end with hard-line claims to the land, and with the dispossession of peoples who have live on this land for millennia? To what do we lay claim? "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come," cried the inheritor of one invasion. "… we will defend our borders and we'll decide who comes to this country."
Who decides what is ours? Are we our own masters, little Herods—Lions of Judah sunk to the level of a fox—deputy sheriffs to the Empire, while trumpeting our sovereignty? To whom do we belong?
Paul writes to the "saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi," (1:1) who "share in God's grace." (1:17) He writes from the prison of the Imperial Guard, (1:12) uncertain whether he will live or die. (1:20) He says of the church that we are citizens of heaven; this is to whom we belong. But many— be clear here, the context demands that he is speaking of the church— "many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their God is their belly; and their glory is their shame; their minds are set on earthly things." (3:18-19)
There is a point to note here, especially as we reassess our discipleship during Lent. He does not say they live as enemies of Christ; these are friends of Christ, even those who "ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets." (Luke 13:26) He says "…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ."
Which brings us to Luke: In the middle of the harsh language of "weeping and gnashing of teeth," where his own people are "thrown out," (13:28) there is heartfelt compassion and love. "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
To whom do we belong? "It is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem." We can fight for the Empire and be killed. We can die living for the belly. We may fall foul of the Empire whilst working for the good. But to be a prophet of the kingdom of God, sitting with Abraham, (Luke 3:28) means to come to Jerusalem to die.
Luke's Jerusalem is the centre of Jesus' whole culture: holy city, nation, people, and faith, are all bound up in this symbol. Where else can a prophet die but at the centre of their people? Except that the Greek word which NRSV translates as "away from" is, literally, outside. His cross is planted outside Jerusalem. He is not stoned between the sanctuary and the altar like Zechariah. (Matt 23:29-26) He is an outsider because he is a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
If we will not come to Jerusalem with words of shelter, casting out demons and performing cures— doing the work of loving one's neighbour—then we are enemies of the cross. We are living first for our belly, feeding our desire for survival. Whether we have won and Empire and are king of the hill, or simply share the scraps of its table, all that we have gloried in will be shown to be shame.
These are hard words, and can themselves become imperial. To our shame we have far too often gloried in excluding people from our city. Which means our city it is not the kingdom of Heaven, after all.
To be a compassionate citizen of heaven is not only to stand as victim with the oppressed, and so carry our cross. It is not only to conquer our own desire to be a "someone," a prophet who is at least remembered when most are forgotten. To be a citizen of heaven is also to mourn the city. It is to cry for the people rather than condemn them. It is to learn that all people are descendants of Abraham, all people are God's little chicks. To be a citizen of heaven is to be fierce only for that.
And for that, as poorly as we may live it, we will be crucified outside the city. And the promise which Abram saw far distant in the stars as he faced his mortality—even the lack a son— is that this citizenship "transforms the body of our humiliation." (Phil 3:21)
If we would truly make a mark in the world, do something significant, truly be good, it is only to be done in gentle compassion. The only true glory— therefore hated by Empire— is to refuse the violence of Empire which infects even the church, even the scriptures, and to weep for the city which will seek to destroy us, and seek still to embrace it. And like Abraham, we will be brought to a deep and terrifying place which is yet promise and life.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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