Folks who have never been to First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, Tennessee, will sometimes ask me what this church is like--is First Presbyterian conservative, liberal, or moderate; what kind of people attend; where will this church be in 15 years?
It's hard to answer questions like these, as they are questions about a group of people, made up of individuals who have differing opinions--so what I usually say is something like--there is a man at First Presbyterian Church who felt so led as to pay for the staff Christmas party out of his own pocket because he so appreciated their ministry.
There is another person at First Presbyterian who was worried about the state of my robe, and so he took my measurements to a seamstress who made me a brand new one.
And earlier this year there was a plan for a month-long fundraising campaign to renovate the local food pantry--only the goal was met by this church after the first week, and so the goal had to be doubled.
First Presbyterian is a church full of faithful people--but some are conservative, some are liberal, some love to hunt, some are petrified of firearms, some struggle to be faithful, some hear God's voice as clear as a bell.
It's hard to tie down any group of people--we're individuals--we're different; but that doesn't stop us from reaching certain conclusions--about churches, about race, about class, about age. And so the first verse of our gospel lesson is surprising: "Some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."
Now, I thought all Pharisees were bad, but remember Nicodeemus, the faithful man of the law who came to Jesus three times in the Gospel of John, going so far as to assist Joseph of Aramethia in preparing Jesus' body for burial.
Then there's the Apostle Paul who completely turns away from his life as a Pharisee to follow Jesus, even unto death.
On the one hand, you have these two--Nicodemus and Paul--on the other, you have those Pharisees who conspired to have Jesus killed; and in the middle maybe you have this group who didn't want Herod to kill him, but weren't ready to leave everything to follow him either.
During a men's Bible study I was leading on this passage, a man named Paul McDonald said, "You might say they were hedging their bets--if he's the Christ, then they've done him a favor; if he's not, then no one has to know we tried to help him."
In some ways that is where I think most of us are. We're happy to be Christian, as long as being Christian doesn't ask us to do anything that might get us in trouble. We're happy to follow Jesus, wear a cross around our neck, maybe even invite a friend to church; and even though we don't agree with everything on TV, we're not lobbying for censorship. Even though we don't agree with everything that happens in public schools, not all of us are ready to pull our kids out to home school or Christian School. Even though we're not completely happy with the culture in which we live, we're not fighting for a wall to be built to keep outside influences out.
For a long time the nation of Israel was different, literally building up the wall between themselves and the outside world. A part of that wall was uncovered just a few years ago by archeologists in Jerusalem--part of a wall built by King Solomon, who also built the Temple, the Temple that was rebuilt by Herod whose son is here plotting to kill Jesus.
While Herod did rebuild the Temple, he wasn't able to rebuild the wall. In fact, the wall came down and Herod, rather than fight against the Romans who occupied his kingdom, bowed to them and became their puppet, maintaining his title while losing all his power, keeping the Temple intact while ensuring that the priests prayed for the Emperor, holding tight to the law and his culture in one hand while adopting the ways of Rome with the other.
I think this is something we all believe is possible, that we can be simultaneously Christian and American, that we can follow our faith without being too odd, that we can be a friend to Jesus without losing our place in Herod's court.
Jesus seems to know that they have a foot in each camp and so can go between the two with his message: "Go tell that fox for me," he says to them, knowing that if they could overhear Herod's plot to kill him, then they must have been close, though they may not have completely pledged themselves to Herod's service, leaking this secret plot. They couldn't just up and follow Jesus; you see, they had kids to feed. They couldn't make the Empire mad or they might lose their influence, and they couldn't make this puppet king angry or they might well lose their lives.
Normal enough, I'd say, and you wouldn't think they'd lose themselves in the process. They weren't doing anything wrong, bowing to Herod, helping out Jesus a little on the side.
I tend to think this way of life is possible, that I can watch TV without falling victim to its hedonism, that I'm not really that affected by advertising, that I can watch shows about sin and vice without falling prey to sin and vice.
But this is a dangerous game to play.
Like fire, it's fine as long as it stays in the fireplace; you can cook with it, stay warm with it, but give it an inch and your house is burning.
Like love that you think you can keep at bay and next thing you know you're doing things you never thought you'd do, saying things you thought you'd never say.
We think we can control that fox, bow to him Monday through Friday while maintaining our true allegiance to Christ, until one day we're asked to choose sides.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
Herod is a fox--and if you think you can serve two masters, if you think you can handle it all, you better be careful because given the chance Herod will eat you, take everything, and leave you empty.
Like the Pharisees before us, we must navigate through two competing worlds. We choose to follow Christ to the cross while watching Olympians journey towards gold, American Idols journey towards fame, and our friends who are willing to compromise their values journey towards success, wealth and influence.
But don't you see--the fox is in the hen house--and the fox is not in this for your salvation.
The fox is in the hen house--as credit cards promise happiness, but only deliver debt and worry.
The fox is in the hen house--as the news assaults us with a continual alarm, fear for who is out there, and painting opponents as idiots and liars.
The fox is in the hen house--telling us working 60 to 80 hours a week will pay off in time, but when the budget gets tight the fox will lay you off and wish you good luck.
The fox is in the hen house--and if you think it isn't real, look where the path led the Pharisees. Their house was left desolate as the Rome they had compromised with destroyed their Temple just a few years after Christ's death.
We are in a difficult position. Like the Pharisees we must, on occasion, bow to the fox, as there is money to be made, children to feed, and we don't want to look too strange or we'll lose all our friends. But do not be fooled. The fox is not worthy of our faith though the fox would like us to believe otherwise.
As people of faith in a culture of fear, we must be about calling the fox a fox, talking about truth in a world of misstatements, talking about what love really is in a world of pleasure and pleasing, prioritizing our lives by what really matters
We must be wise, we must speak out, we must because if we don't the fox will do it for us and lead our children down the path to destruction.
While the fox may be more attractive on TV and ready to offer you quick fixes and easy gain, only the mother hen will lay down her life for her brood.
The fox is in the hen house, and only Christ has laid down his life for you.
Let us pray. O Lord, gather us in together and show us truly who you are and who the world is. If we are asked to choose sides, may we always be on yours. We pray these things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Matti Friedman, "Wall may support Bible," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, A3.