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There is So Much We Can't Control

It’s human nature to crave control and certainty. It’s literally hardwired into us- we want to know what we can count on, how we can plan our days, how we will set and achieve goals. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing- research indicates people who more strongly desire control are more likely to set higher goals and to come closer to meeting those goals. On the other hand, people who are overly controlling are difficult to be in a relationship with. They also take it worse when things don’t go as they wanted or planned. You can raise your hand or respond on Facebook if you’re brave enough- how many of you have a real desire to be in control? I know I can be like that! And I really like knowing what to expect. Just this week I was complaining about a friend leaving a voicemail on my phone with the ominous “call me back” but not leaving any indication about why they were calling. I need to be ready for whatever conversation we’re about to have!

When we’re being really honest though, we can acknowledge that there is so little that we can control. Your money? The economy is pretty out of your hands. And if you’re in control of money, can you please make some better choices? I know some folks who would be very grateful for lower gas or housing prices. Your thoughts? Sometimes, at best. Maybe a little more if you’ve put a lot of energy into it. Your body? Not really- ask anyone with a chronic disease, a cancer diagnosis, someone healing after an accident- ask someone prone to muscle cramps. Your time? Maybe. Sometimes. Less so if you have a lot of responsibilities and you take your responsibilities seriously. Parents and caregivers know they definitely don’t control the children in their lives- I can assure that if I were in control of my kids, I would not have spent so much time this week looking for a Lego that may or may not be lost somewhere in my son’s body. The list goes on and on. There is so much we can’t control.

Although we crave control and certainty, it’s really a gift that we don’t have to be in control of everything all the time. How long do you think it would take you to forget to breathe or forget to tell your heart to beat? You have something called islets of Langerhans in your body. Do you know how to tell them to secrete insulin and glucagon? Do you know how to make buds grow on the trees? How to wake up the turtles and frogs in the spring? Do you know, really, how airplanes work? Where plastic comes from? The difference between cement and concrete? Do you know what makes you feel joyful and alive? We know, really, in our quietest, most honest moments, that for better or worse, there is so much out of our control. That is what it means to be human. The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book talks about how we must “[accept our] devastating weakness and all its consequences.”[1] There is so much in our lives that we can’t control, change, fix, count on, or know. And that, in a moment of acknowledging his lack of control, is exactly where we find Jesus in our text for this morning.

This odd little passage of scripture comes halfway between Jesus “sett[ing] his face to go to Jerusalem” and his actual entry into Jerusalem. Along the way, as Jesus has gone through Galilee, he has been teaching, healing, delivering, and connecting with people. So here, at the halfway mark in the book’s timeline, we have a pause. The Pharisees, with whom Jesus has had a complicated relationship warn him that Herod has decided Jesus should die, so Jesus should hurry and leave Galilee. You’ll remember that Herod Antipas had previously executed John the Baptist and would later be part of Jesus’ crucifixion story when he and Pilate pass Jesus back and forth. So, Herod has decided Jesus is too much of a problem. “Well,” Jesus says, “you can tell that fox that I’m busy healing and delivering people for the next couple of days and on the third day, I will be finished.” That’s my paraphrase, by the way. “Fox” is not intended as a term of endearment. In ancient Greek and rabbinical literature, to call someone a fox was to call them wily, deceptive, sinister. Jesus isn’t messing around here.

He continues on, again referencing this three day time period that is almost certainly foreshadowing his time in the tomb and his resurrection on the third day. “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready, and I’ll be fine until then,” he says. “I’m headed towards Jerusalem- a place with a long history of killing its prophets and stoning God’s messengers.” Then his tone shifts- it takes on an almost wistful air. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but your desire was not for me.” In the middle of receiving a death threat, in prophetically mentioning his own eventual death and resurrection, even then, Jesus looks on the people with love, with a desire to bring them close to his heart. He continues with another prophecy, “Instead, your house will be desolate- a result of the choices you make. And you will not see me until you are ready to welcome me with blessings and joy.” Our understanding of Jesus’ words is contingent upon us understanding the importance of Jerusalem. Throughout the Old and New Testament, this city is critically important. It is, according to Isaiah 24:23, Jerusalem is the place where God’s glory will be manifest, the place where the Lord will reign. And also, it is the place where prophets have been killed, the birthplace of corruption and sin, the place where the truth goes to die.

It’s a complicated text- one that leaves commentators reeling with questions. The nuances are tricky. But here’s an undeniable message of this strange passage: Jesus does not control the world around him, not Herod, not Jerusalem, not even his own imminent death, but Jesus is faithful, nonetheless. In an era in human history when we are so painfully aware of how much is out of our control, there is an important message in this text for us.

First, we must accept the reality that not much is under our control. It’s a hard pill to swallow. The Pharisees tell Jesus that Herod wants him dead- a less than ideal set up, given Jesus’ lack of political power. But what’s more, half the time, the Pharisees don’t like Jesus either! He has been friendly with some Pharisees, but others have tried to trap him with their language. So, is he sure he can trust them now? And if is true, what is to be done? Go on to Jerusalem where he knows he is to be executed? Jesus’ life is pretty complicated too. There aren’t a lot of good options in front of him in the moment. It’s a feeling many of us have known.

The modern American life is built around the fallacy that we can control our destinies. We have been trained to believe that if we just work hard enough, we will be successful. If we plan right, we will be safe. If we do the right things, life will work out. If we follow the right rules, we’ll be healthy. If we buy the right stuff, we’ll be happy. If we say and do the right things, our kids will grow up to be successful adults. Life bears out different results though, of course. You don’t need me to tell you- hard things come. You don’t get to decide your fate, or the fate of anyone else. Bootstraps are a myth for a lot of people and hard work only counts for so much. We’re just not in control all the time.

And despite all of this, we see in Jesus a steadfastness in purpose. This text reveals as one commentator states, both “prophetic resolve and prophetic pathos.”[2] No, you are not in control of everything, but we must follow Jesus’ example in focusing on what we can control. In the face of a terrifying threat of death, Jesus strengthens his resolve to do his regular day-to-day ministry of healing and delivering people. Jesus doesn’t change course or direction; he puts his head down and stays faithful to the work before him. And not only that- as he thinks about what lays ahead of him in Jerusalem, he doesn’t respond with dread and hatred. He tells of his love for the symbolic Jerusalem, his longing to protect and to gather them up close.

The preacher and author Barbara Brown Taylor beautifully unpacks this metaphor. She writes, “If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world --wings spread, breast exposed -- but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.

Given the number of animals available, it is curious that Jesus chooses a hen. Where is the biblical precedent for that? What about the mighty eagle of Exodus, or Hosea’s stealthy leopard? What about the proud lion of Judah, mowing down his enemies with a roar? Compared to any of those, a mother hen does not inspire much confidence. No wonder some of the chicks decided to go with the fox.

…So of course [Jesus] chooses a chicken, which is about as far from a fox as you can get. That way the options become very clear: you can live by licking your chops or you can die protecting the chicks.

Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.

Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her -- wings spread, breast exposed -- without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”[3]

The image of a hen protecting her chicks, wings spread, heart exposed…the image of Jesus on a cross, arms spread, heart exposed…that is the image of controlling what you can control, showing up in the only way you really can. Jesus is faithful in doing what he can do, healing, delivering, putting himself between the fox and the chicks. May we too be faithful in the work God is calling us to do. May we, in the midst of a world out of control, show up in our small, faithful acts.

There is one more thing that I don’t want us to miss here- it’s subtle, but important. In the swirl of chaos around Jesus in this story, he mentions twice this “third day.” “On the third day I finish my work,” he says. You see, Jesus’ work isn’t about death, it doesn’t end with violence in Jerusalem. Jesus’ work finds its fullness, it’s completion in resurrection. It’s about life, it’s about coming through something hard and becoming.

When we are in moments when we are terrifyingly aware of how little control we have, when our hearts are breaking and we are falling apart, perhaps, even when we face the realities of our own deaths, we too can take heart, rise up in hope. The work isn’t finished until the third day. The story isn’t over until it ends in resurrection. As many great preachers before me have said, “It’s only Friday, Sunday’s coming!” Every day you live may feel like Good Friday, but friends, Sunday is coming! Resurrection is on it’s way, and you don’t have to control it, you don’t have to plan it, you don’t have to fix the meal, or clean the house. Resurrection is coming and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, start it, or change it. Resurrection is on it’s way, and no death, no life, no power, nothing past, present or future can control it. We are not in control, but we can be faithful, and we know how the story ends!

Here’s the truth: you are not in control of much. All you can do is be faithful with what is in your power and trust, trust that in the end, “all will be well,” as Julian of Norwich says. I know there are days and moments where it doesn’t feel like enough- and it isn’t. I know it’s hard to see resurrection when every day feels like Good Friday. I know you may be tired, scared, and worn out. But God is still here, and for today, may that be good enough.

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] “Alcoholics Anonymous,” p. 21. [2] From one of “The Working Preacher” commentaries on this text, I believe. [3] Taylor, B.B. (1986) Religion Online. As a Hen Gathers Her Brood – Religion Online (

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