a sermon on Luke 12:49-56
preached on August 18, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
When you think of Jesus, what kind of person comes to mind? Do you picture him as a kind and gentle man, always offering a nice word to everyone he encounters, caring for children, and never raising his voice or showing a temper? Or do you imagine him like a fiery preacher, ranting and raving against all the bad things in the world, and always making people mad about something or other? Maybe I just saw too many pictures of a gentle and kind Jesus in Sunday School as a child, but I sure have something like that first image stuck in my head, and I suspect I am not alone. The song “Jesus Loves Me” that marks so many of our images of God suggests a kind and gentle man, not a fiery preacher. The gifted teacher and healer we hear about in the gospels surely only offered positive words that never condemned anyone, right? The quiet and gentle baby that we remember every Christmas was born to be the “Prince of Peace,” not one who stirs the pot constantly!
We could go a lifetime with these simple and peaceful images of Jesus, and many of us do—but then Luke confronts us with the Jesus from our reading this morning. The Jesus who speaks here sure seems like a very different person than the one we sang about a month or so ago when Cristian so wonderfully led us in singing “Jesus Loves Me.” This Jesus doesn’t offer a gentle or kind word—he speaks of fire and division! It feels a bit like a classic bait and switch move, as if Jesus has lured us in with the promise of simple love and grace and then tells us that that is all out of stock—with only fire, brimstone, and family conflict available instead!
His words here are intense and direct. He starts out with a simple promise tied to a lament:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
Now it is certainly reasonable for Jesus to suggest a fire to purify the problematic areas around us, but I for one am not really interested in him bringing great destruction to the entire earth. Either way, his words here are not easy to hear.
Then he turns to the things that are ahead for him. As Luke tells the story, we’re right in the middle of an intense time for Jesus. He has been doing his basic ministry of teaching and healing for quite some time, and after an encounter with Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration, he has set his face toward Jerusalem, knowing that great challenges await him on the journey. So after he promises to bring fire to the earth, Jesus declares that he has “a baptism with which to be baptized,” and that he faces incredible stress until it is completed. He clearly knows that that road ahead for him leads to the cross, and because of that he has little patience for anyone who doesn’t share his commitment to the new things that God is doing in the world.
After this, he clarifies his intentions once and for all:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two and against three; 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.
This is the ultimate bait and switch of this text, I think— the one who has repeatedly been declared the “Prince of Peace,” the one who has said that he comes to inaugurate a new and different way of life in the midst of the deep uncertainty of his time, the one whose mother sang of his mercy and strength even before his birth, for this one to suddenly declare that he comes not to bring peace but rather division is a dramatic reversal!
It seems that we have been deceived into thinking that Jesus is up to one thing when in fact he is doing something entirely different. We have been deceived that Jesus will make all our relationships stronger and better right away. We have been deceived into thinking that Jesus wants us to put our families first and ask questions about it all later. We have been deceived that following Jesus will lead us simply and easily into eternal life.
You see, when you get down to it, the content of Jesus’ message is so radical that it can’t help but bring a divisive response from some people. If we take just the words of his mother’s song, the Magnificat, that help to open Luke’s gospel, there are a whole bunch of potentially angry people: the proud who have been scattered in the thoughts of their hearts, the powerful who have been brought down from their thrones because the lowly have been lifted up, and the rich who have been sent away empty as the hungry have been filled with good things.
All this is only the beginning of what Jesus is up to. As commentator Richard Carlson puts it,
The divinely wrought peace that Jesus inaugurates and bestows involves the establishment of proper relationships of mercy, compassion, and justice between God and humanity. Not everyone, however, wants or welcomes this divine peace plan. Hence the initiation of Jesus’ peace agenda also triggers contentious disunity and fissures among all facets of society, right down to the societal core of the household. (“Exegetical Perspective on Luke 12:49-56,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 361, 363)
So will we be deceived? Will we be deceived into thinking that that we can only focus on Jesus’ message of love without talking about the things that that message condemns? Will we be deceived into thinking that the “Prince of Peace” who comes to bring people together will not stand up to those who continue to beat the drums of war? Will we be deceived into putting temporal relationships with family and friends above the call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God? It is easy to fall into these traps and set aside the more challenging parts of the gospel message, but when we listen to Jesus and take these words seriously, something can and will change for us and our world.
When we listen to him closely here, we will recognize that a full embodiment of Jesus’ way of life will make some people angry, maybe even some people we deeply love. But we will also remember that this is to be expected, and we can’t let others’ responses to our actions turn us back from following him. I find strength for doing exactly this in the example of the thousands upon thousands of women and men who practice nonviolent resistance, where quiet and gentle people simply seeking to exercise their rights to assemble, protest injustice, and live with the full dignity of their humanity insist with words and actions that they will not be moved, that they will not be silent until all people are recognized as children of God, that no one of us can be truly free until all of us are free. In the protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the Moral Mondays celebrated each week this summer in North Carolina, and so many other such things, these women and men do not set out to bring conflict but show that the divine intentions of justice, peace, and mercy stand in direct conflict with so many of the practices of our world and so deserve our condemnation. In drawing attention to the injustices of our world, these people who live out the message of Jesus in this way remind us that those who claim a place of power and privilege for only a few do not speak for all.
And so Jesus’ strong words here can give us the courage to speak up with so many others around us about the places that need the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit, about the people who face a challenging road of uncertainty as they follow the path that Jesus set out for us, about the injustice that remains so pervasive in our city, state, nation, and world, and about the depth of peace that still evades us even when we seek and pursue it each and every day. Jesus calls us, even us, to be a part of God’s new thing in our world, to speak up against everything that gets in its way, and to step into the world proclaiming this way of justice, peace, mercy, and love every day.
So may we trust even the Jesus who seems to bait and switch us and not be deceived along the way, for the path is not easy, but he walked it before us and walks it with us as we join in his work of making all things new until that day when he comes again. Lord, come quickly! Amen.