“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say. There have been meetings and e-mails, phone calls and road trips, people to meet, places to go, and things to do. We’ve cooked meals, done laundry, had maintenance done, and fixed things that were broken. On top of all that, some of us have prepared and taught lessons, or served in a multitude of other ways for Vacation Bible School. We’ve attended funerals and weddings, bought groceries, fed the dog, and picked flowers. Business as usual, right? The constant hum of busy-ness fools us into thinking we have everything under control, as long as we can keep checking things off our “To Do” lists.
And in the middle of our long list of tasks to complete, Jesus shows up and calls us nasty names. Just when we think we know what we are supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it, the King of Kings and Prince of Peace lashes out at us in shrill frustration at our blindness, our foolishness. You think I’m making this up? If a preacher were looking for trouble in a preaching text, this one has plenty. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to us in the Gospel of Luke, twelfth chapter, beginning at verse 49.
Jesus said to his disciples:
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? – Luke 12:49-56
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Not a very cheerful passage, is it? Remember that Jesus and his disciples were on their final journey to Jerusalem. As Jesus moved closer and closer to his destination – his death – a sense of urgency must have been rising in him. There was so much his disciples still did not understand about the Kingdom he had been born to rule. They were still looking for a Messiah who would be a military champion, someone to bring down Rome in a great show of armed strength. They were looking for a king who would restore the throne of David. They were not looking for a King reigning on the throne of heaven, or a king who would be a servant, or one who would be tortured and executed. Not that kind of king.
It must have been very frustrating for Jesus. Here he had been teaching with stories and parables about the way the Kingdom of God works, and they still didn’t get it. Once in a while, there would be a glimmer of understanding, but it would quickly fade, as the disciples who knew Jesus best kept trying to put him into the box of their own expectations. Can you hear the exasperation in his voice, as Jesus breaks out of his mild-mannered Clark Kent persona, and starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?
Jesus, who only recently was rebuking James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them, suddenly declares that he cannot wait to bring down fire himself. (Can’t you just hear James and John complaining, “How come you get to when we don’t?)”
There is a difference between cleansing fire and fire that consumes. James and John were eager to destroy, but Jesus is talking about cleansing, purifying fire. He knows what lies ahead for him, and for his disciples, and he wants to be sure they have been refined and tested, so that they can remain strong when the time comes.
And that time is very near. Very soon, Jesus will ride a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds shout “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” A few days later, these same crowds will cry out “Crucify him! Crucify him!” and he will be led to the place of the skull, hung on a cross, and crucified. There isn’t much time left before the prophets’ words will be fulfilled. The baptism Jesus is about to undergo is a flood of anguish, as he takes on the sins of the entire world.
The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. This is not the sweet baby Jesus for whom the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will to all” back in Luke 2. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes. On the other hand, Jesus has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote. Jesus has come to set into motion God’s radical will for the world. The stress Jesus is under is not anxiety, but a total absorption in his mission. That mission is to redeem a broken world.
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus pits “peace” against “division,” treating them as opposites? We often think of the opposite of peace as war, and the opposite of division as unity. But here Jesus turns the dial a notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without complete unity. He is not satisfied with half measures.
But maybe the confusion and tension of Jesus’ teachings here cannot, and should not, be resolved. If we look at this passage in light of the whole gospel story, perhaps we find it may describe rather than prescribe division among us. That is, it is not Jesus’ purpose to set children against their parent or parents against their children, but this sort of rupture can be the result of the changes brought about by Christ’s work.
Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is not saying that it is his intent to separate family members from one another, but that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, vocation, allegiance, and status. Instead, they will be determined by whether or not that person accepts or denies Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not the covenant of ancestry, but the covenant of blood, poured out for those who find fellowship in the family of God.
The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed. Such social realities and values often end up favoring those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless. The radical purposes of God have completely demolished the status quo. Jesus shatters it with his mission of compassion, mercy, and justice. Staking our claim with Jesus will inevitably separate us from those who deny his Lordship. Coming alongside Jesus in his mission will most certainly divide us from those who fear giving up their positions of power in order to bring peace and justice to others. God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome.
A watershed determines which direction water will flow. The hills and ridges between two rivers set the boundaries between the two watershed areas. The weather on one side of the ridge can be quite different from the weather in the neighboring watershed. Some of you may have experienced this, since New Ulm has one of those ridges running through it, between the Cottonwood and the Minnesota Rivers. I can remember driving from southeast Kansas to Kansas City when I was younger, and about the time we hit Fort Scott, Kansas, the weather would always change. It would suddenly be colder, or hotter, or it would start raining, or the sun would come out. We had climbed to the top of a ridge between two watersheds, and that dividing line made all the difference in what the weather would be.
We are quite interested in predicting the weather, aren’t we? Even those of us who aren’t farmers will check the weather report before we go to bed, and again first thing in the morning, so we can order our lives accordingly. The people crowding around Jesus were no different. They could tell if it was going to rain by noticing the smallest cloud in the west. And if the wind was out of the south, coming off the desert, it was going to be a scorcher.
Jesus is saying that it is nothing less than hypocrisy when the same skills are not brought to bear on recognizing that the day of the Lord is near. In Luke 11, Jesus chastises the crowds because they keep asking for a sign that he is the Messiah. Now, he chastises them for their complete inability to interpret the signs they are given. We are faced with the ridge, the dividing line, between two watersheds. On one side of the hill, the water runs toward destruction and ruin. On the other side of the hill, the water runs toward the new age of Christ’s reign on earth. If we can read the weather cues on either side of the dividing line, why can’t we tell what time it is?
The problem is not so much that we are unable to interpret the signs of the times, but more that we are unwilling to do so. It’s interesting that Jesus uses this word “interpret,” because the root words of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refer to an actor, or interpreter. Just as an actor puts on a character different from his own and interprets a role, so a hypocrite interprets the weather but not the more obvious current state of affairs. This kind of interpretation is superficial, not authentic, just like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup. It is hypocrisy.
So what does the weather look like today, here in New Ulm? What time is it getting to be? What are the current concerns of the Kingdom, which Jesus is so eager to bring to completion? How are we being hypocrites, acting out our own short-sighted interpretation of “the way things are,” and missing the point of the way things ought to be? As I get to know you and the city of New Ulm a little better each week, I am discovering some of the things that we tend to ignore. Maybe we think the problem is too big, like making sure there is enough affordable housing available. Maybe we think the problem has been around so long, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Division among institutions such as churches and their associated education systems is just easier to work around than it is to try to change. Within our own congregation, there has been, at one time or another, division about worship styles, how to do children’s ministry, youth programming, discipleship. While these issues may seem to have been resolved, there may still be scars and even unhealed hurts that remain. On the surface, like an actor dressed in costume and stage makeup, we look fine. But are we really paying attention to what time it is?
Sometimes, the presenting issue that divides us is not the real issue.
I suggested once that it might work better for the organist at a former church if the piano were on the same side of the sanctuary as the organ console, much as we have here at First UMC. A flurry of opposition arose, and the senior pastor heard many complaints about the possibility of ruining the beauty and symmetry of the sanctuary. But it wasn’t the piano that was the real issue. When we said, “fine, leave the piano where it is. Let’s talk about what’s really bothering you,” we learned that the real issue was confusion about a new contemporary service, being introduced at about that same time. There was division, but it wasn’t about the piano.
Jesus holds division and peace in tension, and asks us to interpret the times through God’s clock. What time is it? The same time it was 2000 years ago. Time to wake up. Time to take off the blinders and see what God sees. Time to repent of our complacency, our hypocrisy, our willingness to act one way in public and be something else in private, our willingness to maintain the status quo instead of moving radically into the demands of Kingdom living. It’s time to take a good hard look at who we are, and what we do, and see how far it is from what Jesus asks of us. It’s time to realize that the weather is shifting. In his second letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.