SCRIPTURE – Luke 12:49-56 – “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
Jesus Was NOT A Nice Guy sermon series
#2 – Jesus the Arsonist
Wow. Okay. I’m not sure I knew what I was getting into when I decided to preach this sermon series. I think I’ve changed my mind. Can we just sing “Amazing Grace” four times and skip to communion? This is the kind statement that you wish Luke would have forgotten to write down. Why couldn’t his pen run out of ink at the end of Chapter 11? It would have been a lot easier if this saying didn’t make it into the minutes of the meeting.
What is so troubling about this passage is the same thing that is troubling about a lot of Jesus’ edgier statements. This is not what we expect from our Savior. These are not the words of comfort and assurance that we want to hear from Jesus. We want Jesus to divide and separate us from our enemies, to draw a line that clearly marks us vs. them. We don’t want him to say it’s going to be us vs. us!
Remember this passage from Advent? “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Where’s our Prince of Peace now? He’s the one shouting, “Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Can we go back to little baby Jesus, the one cooing in the manger? I liked him a lot better.
What’s going on here with Jesus? We know that these words are being spoken in the shadow of the cross. Like us, Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to the Mount of Olives, and to Golgotha. That foreknowledge has given him a sense of urgency about his mission and has a strong influence on what he says. He is about to be baptized, as he says, to be immersed in the conflict and confrontation that will ultimately get him killed. As he contemplates the road ahead and the effect it will have on his followers and their families, he is troubled, and because of that, his words trouble us.
But this is nothing new for us in the gospels, even if we’ve chosen to ignore it. Jesus has always troubled people. His birth troubled King Herod so much that Herod killed all the first-born males to try and eliminate the threat of Jesus. When Jesus was taken to the temple for his dedication, the prophet Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Jesus troubles people.
One day Jesus stood up in the synagogue and said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Did they throw him a cookie-and-punch reception? No! They tried to throw him off a cliff! As one writer said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
Jesus preached and taught, he healed people, he confronted evil. Did he get a commendation? No, he got a condemnation. Jesus was arrested, tried and crucified for disturbing the peace. So if we’ve been paying attention to his life and ministry, these words today shouldn’t be so surprising. As the Message translates it, “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront.”
While that might not sound as appealing as the Prince of Peace, it is just as needed. In fact, that’s what this time of Lent is all about: disrupting our comfortable lives and confronting the places where we’ve put our faith on cruise control. Jesus didn’t die so we could give up something or make a few changes. Jesus died so we would be transformed from the inside out. Author Marianne Williamson states this eloquently when she says, “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around, and see that you just new a new floor or better furniture, and that everything needs just a little cleaning – and so you go along thinking how nice life is that God is there. Then you look out the window one day and you see that there’s a wrecking ball outside. It turns out your foundation is shot and that you’re going to have to start building it from scratch.”
As a preacher, I love that quote. As a Christian, I hate it because of what it means. It means that if I truly want to open my life to Jesus during this Lent, if I truly want to experience the joy and the new life the resurrection will bring, I have to be willing to do more than let Jesus rearrange a few chairs. I have to let him set fire to things.
That’s an interesting metaphor for Jesus to use in our passage because fire has so many different meanings. You can use fire to roast marshmallows or burn people at the stake. You can use a candle to provide light or to set a cross on fire. You can light a fire in a big wood stove to heat a whole house or use the embers from cigarette to destroy one. In the Bible, we see fire used to call Moses to the Burning Bush and on the day of Pentecost as the Spirit descends.
By invoking the image of fire, Jesus very well could be alluding to John the Baptist, who said that while he baptized with water, one was coming who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In that sense, fire has a refining function, like a flame that is put to a metal to burn away the impurities. One of the things Jesus brings to his followers is a sense of judgment and priority, burning away the things that don’t matter so we can focus on the things that do.
But, as Jesus so starkly tells us, that leads to division. And that’s troubling, because Jesus is supposed to help our families, to be the glue that bonds us. The family that prays together stays together. But what I hear Jesus saying is that if we truly give ourselves over to him, if we truly let him disrupt and confront, we may find ourselves on the other side of the fence from those we love. It’s like two drops of rain coming down side by side that land on either side of a pitched roof and end up oceans away from each other.
That’s the risk of faith that I think we have forgotten. Because being a Christian in America today doesn’t automatically come with costs, we may lose sight of the radical, counter-cultural statement we make each time we come through those doors. Back in Jesus’ day, baptism wasn’t some sweet little thing you do, it wasn’t just a perfunctory rite of passage. In the early church, being baptized meant you were then eligible to be burned at the stake or fed to the lions because you were a professed Christian. Baptism could cost you everything. How many of us would still make that choice today if the stakes were that high?
What Jesus is telling us here is that there is no middle ground with him. You either believe and live your life like a believer, no matter the cost, or you don’t believe. There’s no fence-sitting. If you go through the motions of faith without being willing to pay the price, you’re only play-acting. And that price could include division among families. In the book “Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers writes about Kathy, an American woman who converts to Islam. He tells about the first time she wore a hijab, the traditional Muslim covering, to a family gathering, and how her mother and sisters ridiculed her and implored her to “take that thing off and be yourself.”
I wonder how our lives would be different if we had to wear our faith as noticeably as Kathy? I wonder what divisions we would encounter if everyone could take one look at us and know what we believed and who we followed? Original Christians were excommunicated from synagogues and shunned by their own families. There was a cost to belief for them, which made their faith that much more essential to who they were. Is there a cost for us? Does our faith define us, or is it just one small part of who we are?
I believe Jesus is conflicted in this passage today, because he knows what he is about to go through will cause pain for those who choose to follow him. Those who profess belief in him as the Messiah will be mocked, ridiculed, persecuted, beaten, ostracized, and killed. You could say that if your faith isn’t causing you trouble, then you’re not living it right, because a faith fully lived out will always be at odds with the secular and the status quo in our families, our workplaces, our culture.
Faith in Jesus forces choices, starting with our baptism. It forces us to choose to do the right thing, even if it’s not the popular thing. It forces us to stand up and speak out, even when it would be safer to sit down and stay quiet. It forces us to live out what we believe, even if that means even those in our own families won’t accept us. The good news here, as I see it, is that Jesus Christ has given us something worth fighting about, worth standing up for. Jesus has given us a cause, a focus, a way of life that can do more than just arrange a few chairs, it can transform us and transform the world. Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. He knew that he was causing trouble. Maybe that’s why his first words to the women at the empty tomb were, “Peace be with you.” Until the time when we can claim that peace, which passes all of our understanding, may God give us the strength and the courage to live out our faith, no matter the cost.