If only you had listened …


This Sunday’s gospel reading told us of the sadness of Jesus as he contemplated God’s city, Jerusalem.

Genesis 15.1-12; 17-18; Luke 13.31-end

When you’re a teenager, it’s as clear as clear can be that the only role parents have is to annoy you. I remember my teenage years well and it was obvious to me that parents (well, one parent especially) just went out of their way to cause quite unnecessary conflict.

Later on in life I came to see things in a different light. Because when I became a parent myself I came to understand that parents, of course, are always – and I mean absolutely always – right. I should know, having seen three children through their teenage years. Funny how the reality of a situation changes depending on where you stand, what your viewpoint is. Of course when our children were teenagers they didn’t think we, as parents, were ever right about anything. Now our daughters have their own teenage children, though, their viewpoint has also changed as well.

A few months ago our older daughter posted on Facebook, “What’s wrong with teenagers – why is it so hard for them to switch lights off! And why can’t they keep their hands off the walls!” Then, a little later, she added, “Oh dear, I think I’m turning into my father”. I did remind her that she was just as bad when she was a teenager.

These days it’s much easier to cope because the internet is there to help you. So if you have a child approaching their teenage years, don’t worry – there are plenty of people out their only too willing to help and sympathise. Just try Googling the words parent and teenager. I tried this yesterday. The top three results were:

  • 5 mistakes parents make with kids – and how to avoid them
  • A parent’s guide to surviving the teen years
  • Parenting teenagers

That last one is from Relate which people usually associate with marriage guidance! They go on to say Parenting teenagers can be challenging! Well, that’s something of an understatement!

If however your children have already hit the teenage years, or you are a teenager yourself, there’s no need to panic. Try Googling the words parent and teenager and conflict and you’ll find all the help you will ever need to sort things out. And most of them tell you that parent-teenager conflict is a reality that you can’t avoid – you just have to find ways of living with it!

Because as any sensible parent of a teenager soon learns, you can’t run their lives for them anymore. Perhaps the most painful experience of parenthood is to watch our children make mistakes. We know that as they grow towards adulthood we must give them the freedom to exercise choice and to make decisions for themselves. Any parent of teenage children will know the difficulty of watching them beginning to make their own decisions about life, work, friends – and even when you know they are making bad choices you know you have to let them have their freedom. They must make their own mistakes. Just as you did! You try to tell your children as they grow how to make the right choices in life, but so often you find yourself in the position of wanting to say, “I told you so – if only you had listened!”

The relationship between God and his chosen people was somewhat akin to the relationship between a parent and children. The relationship had started when God called Abram, later Abraham, from Ur and brought him all the way to the land that would become Israel. But over the years as Abraham’s descendants grew and became a nation they began to want to ‘do their own thing’ and inevitably started to get things wrong. And like a parent having to stand by and watch in sadness when a teenager exerts their independence but gets things all wrong, so we can see through the Old Testament God’s sadness over the mistakes made by his people. And time and again God tried, through the prophets, to tell them how to live, how to behave. Time and again they ignored him. And time and again, through the prophets, he had to tell them off or say to them, “Why didn’t you listen?”

And that sadness is apparent in Jesus as we listen to him in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

This section from Luke’s gospel is sometimes called The Lament over Jerusalem. And you get a sense that the way Jesus feels about Jerusalem, the way he talks about it, has echoes of a loving parent lamenting over a child who has made wrong decisions, gone the wrong way, in life.

For Jewish people, then as now, Jerusalem was of supreme value. A thousand years before Jesus was born, King David had captured it and made it his capital. Its position, high in the Judean hills, gave it natural advantages as a military stronghold. Once in possession of the city David had proudly brought in the Ark of the Covenant, that wooden box overlaid with gold which contained the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, a golden pot of manna, and Aaron’s rod that blossomed overnight – objects beyond price in the religious history of the Jewish people.

Solomon, David’s son, built the Temple – and so Jerusalem became “The Holy City”, a political and religious centre which was the hallmark and touchstone of Judaism. It became the centre of spiritual life for Jews – truly the city of God. And yet so often it was not the holy city that God wanted. Time and again Jerusalem had rejected the message of the prophets sent by God, who had called it to mend its ways and return to the way of the Lord. And if you’re one of those people who think that the church should stay out of politics, just remember how throughout the Old Testament God called his prophets over and over again to speak out against those who held political power.

And Jesus can see it happening again. He, too, is preaching an outspoken prophetic message, condemning the religious authorities for not seeing the wood for the trees, upbraiding the Holy City for its blindness and its hardness of heart, reminding them that following God’s law is an integral part of following God, but that God’s law is a law of love, not of slavish obedience. Like a parent worrying over a wayward child, he laments over Jerusalem, the city of God. And he can see that he, the latest of the prophets, is going to meet a prophet’s doom in that very city. “If only you had listened”, he says.

What does Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem say to us? It reminds us forcefully that when we, as children of God, go off the rails we do not simply break God’s laws: we break his heart. When that truth comes home to us we see our sins in a new light. They are not just crosses on a check-list of virtues: they are arrows driven into the loving heart of our heavenly Father.

That realisation brings into focus the essential character of our Christian faith and our practice of it. It’s not a legalist code by which we are awarded black marks on the one hand and Brownie points on the other. It’s a love based relationship, an affair of the heart. Perhaps that was the lesson Peter learned when, having pretended not to know Jesus after Jesus was arrested, Jesus turned and looked at him. The look said it all. Peter went out and wept bitterly.

“Michael, John, Susan, Margaret…put your own name in there …  how often have I desired to gather you together, and you were not willing?” The question is rhetorical. If we are touched by it we must make an appropriate response in love.

Children cannot grow into independence without, on occasion, testing our love and asking a great deal of it. That’s a reality of life. Similarly, we often only begin to realise how much God loves us when we have tested that love.

But as we grow in our faith we need to learn to recognise that sometimes we go astray, take a wrong turning. We don’t listen to God. And our sins, far from just being minor infringements of the law that don’t really matter that much truly hurt God because he loves us. And God, like a loving parent, is there reaching out and waiting for us to return to him.

“How often have I desired to gather you together, and you were not willing?”

As we continue through Lent, let us be willing to allow God to gather us together into his loving arms – willing to recognise that we have often got things wrong, and willing to allow God to embrace us in his loving arms.