Gathering the Captives

By Paul Koch

Though we may not always know it at the time, when we look back over our lives, when we examine our wandering path to the point in life we find ourselves now, we can often identify moments that were crucial in determining our current destination. They may have been certain decisions that helped to reinforce our character, like choosing to help someone in need or pretending we didn’t see them. It could be the way we’ve responded to stress in our lives or our resolve when tragedy strikes. For there are moments in all of our lives where the way we understand who we are, our values and desires, our self-understanding of our purpose will be tried. Like a switch-track on a rail line if we go one way then our life could eventually head down another path altogether, something we didn’t anticipate at the time. Our choices, our reactions, our endurance is checked periodically by these big moments.

Such a moment I believe is what we have at the end of Luke chapter 13. Here, our Lord’s resolve, his endurance and dedication for the path that lays ahead of him is checked. It’s a strange sort of text, but it is important to our understanding of our Lord and just what it is that he has come to do. It begins with a sort of absurd change in the Pharisees towards our Lord. They rush to him to warn him about Herod, “Get away from here,” they say, “for Herod wants to kill you.” And we think, hey isn’t that nice, they’re looking out for Jesus. But I somehow doubt that they so altruistic. Rather it seems as if they are using Herod as a way to stop Jesus from doing his work. But our Lord rises to the occasion, “Tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.’”

Our Lord is heading somewhere. He is on the move driving out demons and healing people and he will continue on until he finishes what he came to do. Now this whole thing is full of foreshadows of what is to come. His journey is not away from death but toward it. It won’t be death at the hands of Herod but death at the hands of the holy city itself, and he will press on until the completion on the third day. He speaks boldly about his longing desire for a city that has made a habit of killing God’s faithful servants. Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers the brood under her wings, and you would not!” He longs for them, he longs to gather them, to embrace them, to comfort them, but they will not come. They want nothing to do with the love, the forgiveness, the hope that is found in the work and words of our Lord.

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What comes to the fore in this odd little piece of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus is on a mission to love those who do not want to be loved. He is to gather under his wing those who want nothing to do with him. He has come to suffer and die to set free captives from sin, death and the power of the Devil – only they would not come. This, you see, is that moment: that gut check for our Lord. What becomes clear in this text is that the problem of man’s sin is far worse than anyone had imagined. You see it’s not just that man is fallen and sinful in such a way that they slip and don’t do the things they know they should be doing. It’s not just that man often engages in things they should not be doing. Much more than that, sin holds mankind in a bondage. Sin is a captivity that is so pervasive and so complete in our lives that we do not even recognize that we are captives. Our whole world is shaped by a lie where we think we are free but in fact we absolutely are not. And into this reality our Lord goes on; today, tomorrow and until the third day.

A few years back I was scanning Google images for some artwork to accompany a presentation I was working on. And somewhere I stumbled upon a painting by Anna Lea Merrit of Eve in the Garden of Eden. It’s a haunting picture that I’ve returned to over and over again. It is a picture of Eve naked and sitting on the ground. Next to her is a piece of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil with a bite taken out of it. Eve has her knees drawn in toward her and her head is bowed low with her hair flowing down to the ground. The world around her has disappeared, the voice of God is distant, all she has is herself, and she is literally curved in upon herself. What I see in this painting is the beginning of our captivity, what I see is one who will now only listen to her own lies. Satan was right; she has become like God knowing good and evil. She has become her own god, and curved in on herself she cannot see her captivity.

Eve - Anna Lea Merritt

The captivity of our sin is not that we are pulled to do something we do not want to do or stopped from doing what we should be doing. The captivity is one we love, one where we do exactly what we want to do. We don’t feel the chains; we don’t notice the shackles. In fact, we believe that we are free the whole time. C.S. Lewis famously wrote that in hell the doors are all locked from the inside. In other words, those who reside there are successful in their rebellion. They have never given up being their own gods, believing they are free they have willingly established themselves in hell. Another version of this is found in the movie “What Dreams May Come” where heaven is controlled by the imagination of the one who lives there and hell is pictured as a sickening bondage where the person is trapped by a world of their own creation.

This horrifying thing is what sin has done. To curve in on ourselves, to turn away from our Creator, is to believe our own lies and forget our captivity all together. And it is into this that Jesus goes. It is to the unlovable that he reaches out his arms to love. And the captives hate him for it. For as Jesus embraces us in our sin, as he declares that he alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we begin to see the chains. We begin to feel the captivity even as he exposes our depravity. But to expose the chains is not enough, to open our hearts and minds to the bondage of sin does not save. No, we must be set free. We must be delivered by another. So thanks be to God that there is one who casts out demons and performs cures today and tomorrow, and the third day will finish his course.

Our Lord Jesus Christ enters the forsaken house to gather captives that despise him and bring them freedom. He declares in our text, “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” And when do they do that? When does this crowd cry out with those words? Well they do so on Palm Sunday on the day he rides triumphantly into the city that kills the prophets. He comes into the city to die for sinners, to love the unlovable. His words as he enters into his own temple will not allow them to simply stay turned into upon themselves. He will reveal their captivity. He will show their chains, and they will kill him for it.

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But here is the twist that we never saw coming. This is the foolishness of God that is wiser than men and the weakness of God that is stronger than men. For it is precisely in the death of our Lord that life is given. It is because he who knew no sin became sin for us that we can know true freedom. When sinful men take ahold of our Lord and wreak havoc upon his flesh they do not know that in that very flesh he has hidden your chains, your shackles, your bondage. When he dies he takes to the grave your bondage. And on the third day his course is finished. On the third day he rises victorious from the grave, victorious from the captivity of sin, death and the power of the devil. And in the proclamation of his resurrection, in the hope of his blessings, we find that we begin to turn away from our own navels. We begin to see the light of Christ who sets us free and gathers us like a hen gathers her brood.

We lived so willingly in that captivity and until the return of Christ we will fall again and again into its comfortable bondage. Thanks be to God that he who came to set the captives free has never ceased to break our chains and gather us to himself. Through water and Word, through bread and wine, through words of love and forgiveness on the lips of another again and again Christ gathers the captives.

He gathers you. He forgives you. He loves you.

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