NRSV LUKE 12:49-56
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
It’s the week after our glorious 175th anniversary celebration – a time of deeply felt worship, complete with the Sacrament of Communion and the lofty music the choir shared with us. Then a time of food and fellowship, sitting down to eat with friends and family, hearing Ed Kromer share stories of the church. A lot of planning and hard work went into that service by a lot of people. Every time I try to express my gratitude on social media it seems woefully incomplete. I know you share that. We are more deeply thankful for those folks than we can ever articulate, thankful for giving us a Sunday to remember.
So now here we are, the Sunday after – and it is a lot like other Sundays after; the Sunday after Christmas, the Sunday after Easter. A Sunday after energy and enthusiasm were at a high pitch. When you’ve been to the mountaintop, everything else is a valley, one that may be a little hard to get through. It is a time when we most need a perk-up, an inspirational message, something to get our batteries re-charged so we can keep the momentum going.
And what marching orders do we get from our Lord on this day? “I didn’t come to bring peace, but division.” What’s that Jesus? Did we hear you right? But our Lord reinforces the message, “I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
As I was reflecting on this text there was a part of me, the wise guy part, that wanted to title this sermon, “Jesus, Did You Just Have a Bad Day?” Was it something you ate? Did someone, maybe Peter as usual, do something that just really irritated you? Did some Gentile make a snarky comment, or a Roman give you an evil eye?
Of course these are silly musings from someone living two millennia after these words were uttered. Jesus’ words are deadly serious – and I mean that literally. Remember, he is saying all this as part of a series of teachings on discipleship, the second one since Luke told us at the end of the ninth chapter that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. That is, he is setting his face toward the place where he will suffer, be rejected, the place where he will die. It will also be the place from which he will be resurrected, but you have to keep in mind that the suffering comes first. As it always does with Jesus, and with all of us. There is a disruption in our lives. There is chaos that has thrown our order out of whack. Yes, there will be resurrection; yes, we will be stronger because of this; yes, there will be new life. That is God’s promise. But the reality, the cold, hard, human reality, is that resurrection never comes on its own. There is always crucifixion first. The disorder must be faced before we can be embraced by the wonderful reorder of resurrection.
Just ask anyone who has gone through their own crucifixions. The cross of broken relationships; the families who cannot speak to each other anymore because of political fights, or differences of opinion on how to raise the kids. Just ask anyone who has gone through a divorce, when any kind of reconciliation seems impossible because of all the hurt that has gone on before. Just ask anyone who has been so sure they knew what the Bible teaches and then a new insight comes and their worlds are turned upside down, and their families and closest friends treat them like enemies. There are all kinds of ways in which the reality of Jesus’ words hit home for us. The times when our families break up, and we find two against three, and three against two is not an abstract discussion about mathematics but a very real description of how it is for us now. Conflicts rage, division rules, people are torn apart. It happens in families, it happens in churches, it happens in communities. Disruption is a way of life.
But there are disruptions, and then there are disruptions. There are disruptions because we have stuck to our partisan prejudices and not truly listened to someone with another view. There are disruptions because we have not paid attention to the needs of someone else. There are disruptions because we failed to feel as others might, to consider another opinion, to let the thoughts of someone else be considered. In our world, “it’s my way or the highway” has often become our battle cry, our rules for engagement that seek to control and dominate.
But as Jesus said so often, it shall not be so among you.
Remember that Jesus is not just talking about life in general when he talks about fire in the world or a baptism he needs to receive. He is talking about his resolute march toward Jerusalem, where the act of self-giving love at its best will be played out. The fire is not just a consuming fire, though that should not be completely dismissed. The kind of peace Jesus gives is a demanding peace. He is not one for the status quo. Jesus has looked at the self-righteous religiosity of his time – and any time really – and found it severely lacking. Everyone is looking out for themselves and trying to show off how right they are and how wrong everyone else is. Not the faith that God intended. Not the looking out for your neighbor that the law demands at its most basic. Jesus’ fire is the one that wants to consume that judgmental and self-righteous attitude toward those around us. The fire that needs to burn so that a more compassionate, loving, self-denying peace that is real peace can take place. But it cannot happen without hearts being softened and directed toward God and neighbor.
Jesus also talks about his baptism. Throughout the Gospels, starting with the earliest gospel – Mark – when he confronts James and John and their request for power, Jesus talks about his baptism in the sense of his baptism into death. The baptism where he lets go of everything, including life itself, to be faithful to the One who calls him, the One who calls us all, into baptism, into ministry, into life in all of its fullness. A baptism that gives up self, a baptism that lets go of everything that gets in the way of a healthy and life-giving relationship with God.
Out in Facebook land there is a meme that features a cute toddler holding a phone as if she were having a conversation with someone; and the words, “Some guy in a robe tried to drown me in church today. And my family all stood around and took pictures!”
Baptism in our time. But the little kid does have it partly right. Baptism is a drowning – a drowning to self, a drowning to sin, a drowning to things and habits and lifestyles that run counter to love and service and mercy. Not what a lot of people, even in the church, want to hear. We just want to hear what we want to hear, how our own viewpoints are confirmed, how wrong the other guys are, how the other religions are going to hell because they don’t think like we do. Baptism in the Triune God is not a call to hate the other, and it’s not a call to self-obsession; it is a call to go and love in the name of Jesus Christ, to love all, including the other. This is not the way the world works. But that’s when you know you are really living into your baptism. It is when the love of Jesus Christ gets you to do things you would never have done on your own. Like loving your enemies. Like caring for people who smell funny. Like seeking to understand people whose life situations are different from your own.
But Jesus isn’t done yet. He then goes on to chide them for being so good at looking at the weather and knowing what’s going to happen. “Storm clouds in the west, well that means we are going to be getting some rain. The wind changes direction, coming from the south, well it’s going to be a hot one.” It doesn‘t matter if you live in Farmville, Virginia, or some place in the Middle East, the rules of meteorology are pretty much the same. You can know what’s coming. Just look. Be aware.
So why don’t you use those same smarts to look around you and be aware, Jesus asks. Why not see that all of these folks parading around claiming to be experts on religion may not have a clue about what God is up to? Why not see that a humble walk with God is more important than thinking you have all the right answers? For our own time, why not see that CEOs making 940 percent more than they did 40 years ago, and average workers making just 12 percent more, might be a problem? Why not see that maybe not every human being needs an AK-47 to go hunting?
Jesus gets nosey. Jesus gets in our faces, especially when things are not going the way they need to, when people are not loving, when injustice is ignored, when systems are used to exploit rather than lift up, when the lowly and poor and oppressed are held down. Or as Debi Thomas writes:
“…it’s important to remember that when Jesus speaks of division rather than peace in Luke’s Gospel, he’s being descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not Jesus’ desire or purpose to set fathers against sons or mothers against daughters. It’s certainly not his will that we stir up conflict for conflict’s sake, or use his words to justify violence or war. But his words are a necessary reminder that the peace Jesus offers us is not the fake peace of denial, dishonesty, and harmful accommodation. His is a holistic, truth-telling, disinfecting peace. The kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal. Jesus will name realities we don’t want named. He will upset hierarchies we’d rather keep intact… he will disrupt all dynamics in our relationships with ourselves and with each other that keep us from wholeness and holiness. This is not because Jesus wants us to suffer. It’s because he knows that real peace is worth fighting for. Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met during his years of incarnate ministry. No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand. Jesus himself was considered crazy by his mother and siblings. Still, the status quo held no sway over him; his project was shalom or bust. And so I have to ask myself: when was the last time my faith ‘divided’ me? When was the last time I allowed Jesus to bring me to a point of saving crisis? When was the last time my faith life encouraged holy division, holy change, in someone else’s heart? In other words, what am I most invested in? My comfort or my salvation?”
However we receive these words, we need to remember that God always gives us the opportunity to see things as they are and change; change the way we think, change the way we deal with others, change our outlook on life. Judgment need not be the last word, and destruction need not be inevitable. If there is anything in our heads, in our feet or in our souls that is counter to the way of Jesus Christ, we need to burn it off and follow him to Jerusalem. It’s a demanding peace, but it is worth it. Amen.