Jesus the Mother Hen

Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

How many of you, when asked to draw a picture of God, would draw a hen?  Anybody?  Probably not.  That’s how Jesus describes himself in our Gospel reading, but it doesn’t really fit the way we think of God.  Most of you, when asked to draw a picture of God, would probably draw a picture of an old white man in a bathrobe with a halo sitting on a cloud.  If we all got together and shared our pictures of God, there would probably be a few shepherds, too; and maybe a flame or a fire to represent the Holy Spirit.  Some of you would probably think of Christ on the cross.  But nobody would think of a hen.

Human beings think in metaphors and images; inside our heads, most of us don’t think literally.  That’s why metaphors and symbols and stories are so powerful to us.  So it’s important to think about what images we have in our heads about God, particularly when we come across an image in the Bible as surprising as this one.

Many of our pictures of God portray him as mighty and triumphant.  God the Father, seated on his throne; Jesus Christ, in glory, with a halo.  If it’s not a triumphant portrait, it’s impressive in some other way: the strength of Jesus’ devotion, or the depth of his agony on the cross.  When we talk about God, we use words like awesome, everlasting, eternal, savior, almighty.  Big words, with big meanings.  And certainly, our God is an awesome God.  Our God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  We use those images because they are true and good, and they are used many times in the Bible.  They fit.  They feel right.

But then we come to a reading like today’s Gospel, where Jesus describes himself as a hen.  A hen?  Hens are, to put it plainly, not very impressive creatures.  Hens are common, ordinary, small.  They’re useful, but they’re not smart or cute.  But they are very maternal, very protective of their children, and I think that’s why Jesus used that metaphor.

Hens always keep a sharp eye out for danger, and they spend lots of time and energy making sure their chicks get enough to eat.  They worry about the safety of their chicks constantly, so much that we call anyone who’s protective a “mother hen.”  When anything’s wrong, they call their chicks back to them and hide them away under their wings or in a nest.  They use their own body to shelter their chicks from bad weather, and keep them warm and dry and safe as they grow.  And when there’s a fox or other predator around, a mother hen will try to draw it away from her chicks even if that means she becomes the fox’s next meal.  A mother hen will die for her chicks, to keep them safe.

Jesus, of course, died for us, just like a mother hen.  He knew there was a fox about; he could have avoided that fox if he wanted to.  But like a mother hen puts the welfare of her chicks above her own safety, so Jesus put our own good above his own.  He faced suffering and death for our sakes, and for the sake of the whole world.  Jesus knew what he was getting into; Jesus chose suffering and death so that the brokenness of the world might be healed.  Jesus chose to go to the fox so that we his chicks would be saved.

That’s the other part of the mother hen metaphor, you see; it means we’re the chicks.  We’re the ones the mother hen worries and frets over, checking to see if we’re safe and nearby.  We’re the ones the mother hen takes care of and provides for.  We’re the ones sheltered safely beneath the mother hen’s wings during a storm.  Of course, the difference between human beings and chicks is that when the mother hen senses danger and calls her chicks to her, they come a-running.  The chicks trust the hen to look after them, to know when something is wrong even if the chick doesn’t know what it is.  That’s something human beings aren’t so good at.  We like to wander off on our own, ignoring the call of warning that there is danger nearby.  We think we can weather the storms of life without sheltering wings.  We think we can outwit or avoid the foxes in the world—and sometimes, we convince ourselves that the foxes are actually pretty good friends.  We tell ourselves we don’t need someone to provide for us; we can take care of ourselves.  We don’t want to be chicks.  We don’t want to be helpless or defenseless.  We don’t want to depend on someone else to take care of us and keep us safe.  And sometimes, we’d even rather be foxes ourselves.

Jesus was traveling around Judea, healing and teaching, when he got word that Herod the King wanted him dead.  He could have avoided Jerusalem, and I’m sure his disciples wanted him to do just that.  But while Herod might have been a danger to some of God’s children and even to Jesus himself—in Jesus’ metaphor, a fox—Jesus knew that Herod wasn’t the only danger.  Herod was just part of the brokenness and sinfulness of the world.  Herod was a symptom of the problem, not the disease itself.  Jesus could have avoided Herod, but that would only have left humanity vulnerable to all the other foxes in the world, including the ones inside of us.  The only way to truly keep us safe—safe forever, not just from any one fox or any one storm—was to go to Jerusalem, to walk knowingly to his death, and to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world.

We hear God calling us to safety, to shelter, and all too often we ignore it.  Jesus knew that, and knew it all too well.  He knew he was going to die for people who would reject him, who would wander off, who just wouldn’t listen, and he did it anyway.  “How often have I desired to gather you together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings!”  He laments our unfaithfulness, our failure to hear and follow God’s Word, and he goes anyway.  He knows we are not worthy of his sacrifice, he knows we fall short, and he goes anyway, because he loves us.  There is nothing we can do that will cut us off from God’s love; there is nothing that will make God stop loving us enough to die for us.  No matter how far astray we go, Jesus will still be calling us to him like a mother hen gathers her chicks.  It’s not a glamorous image; it’s not powerful or awe-inspiring or impressive. But it expresses God’s care for us better than anything else.

In today’s psalm, the psalmist speaks of his trust in God.  The psalmist speaks eloquently of God’s shelter, of seeking refuge in God during the storms of life.  The psalmist knows that God will always be there for him, and that he can trust God no matter what happens, no matter what troubles he faces.  Even in the middle of his enemies, the psalmist never loses his trust in God’s saving power.  There is nothing to be afraid of, since God is his stronghold and his light.  Like a chick listening for the mother hen’s call, the psalmist knows that he is not alone, that he is safe.  The psalmist doesn’t have to worry, or stress about the future, because God will take care of him.  The psalmist doesn’t have to be afraid, for he knows that God is with him, and he knows that to the very depths of his soul.

What would life be like for us, if we could feel that assurance?  What would life be like for us, if we took God’s promises of life and love seriously?  What would life be like if we truly acted like chicks, and listened for God’s call, and trusted God to shelter us through the storms of life?  God is waiting for us with arms wide open, wings spread to keep us safe from all that threatens us.  May we trust in God’s love, and listen for God’s call.



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