Tag Archives: division

Sign of the Times – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

August 14, 2016

I have had a crazy week – how about you? There have been meetings, and we started a new worship service at Ridgeway on 23rd, plus the County Fair, with our Diaper Depot and Feeding Station, and Thursday night’s concert with 7th Time Down and Bob Lenz… it’s been busy, busy, busy around here! 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 then Jesus shows up and wads up the list 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 and calls us hypocrites – just about the worst thing he could possibly call us. You think I’m making this up?

Jesus said to his disciples (that’s us, by the way):

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  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 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.”
 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. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 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

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. They were not expecting 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 starts yelling – first at the twelve, and then at the crowds that were always gathering wherever he went?

Earlier, Jesus had rebuked James and John for wanting to bring down fire on some Samaritans who had not welcomed them (Luke 9:51-56), and now he 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.

Against this image of cleansing fire, Jesus throws another image, one we normally associate with water. He speaks of his own baptism, not as water to extinguish the flames, but as an example of what purification by fire prepares us to endure. He knows he will be put to the ultimate test.

The Jesus we see in this passage doesn’t seem much like the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. No, this Jesus announces division instead of peace. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.

This Jesus is fed up with the way people keep insisting that their rules are more important than God’s love. He didn’t come to endorse the status quo. 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 another notch. It’s as if Jesus is saying any division is war, and there can be no peace without unity.

Yet he knows that his own mission and ministry will cause division, even between family members. Jesus describes how following him with undivided hearts can set children against their parent or parents against their children, if those we love do not follow Jesus, too. It isn’t that Christ intends to cause ruptures just for the sake of disruption, but he knows that being his disciple carries with it the cost of forsaking everything else, and not everyone will make that kind of commitment.

Did you notice that all the divisions Jesus lists are between generations? Jesus is telling us that family ties no longer determine a person’s identity, loyalty, or status. Instead, what marks us is whether we accept or deny Jesus as Lord. What ties believers together is not our ancestry, but Christ. Jesus overturns the world’s priorities, causing division and clearing the way for God’s divine plan for peace to come to its fullness in the Kingdom of God.

God’s divine plan for peace is not always welcome. Those who benefit from the status quo, who hold positions of power at the expense of the powerless, will oppose any who come alongside Jesus to bring peace and justice to others. It is a sign of our times that political and military power struggles are escalating throughout the world, not just here in the United States. That sign, Jesus says, is something we need to pay attention to.

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. This week, as the temperature and humidity levels rose, I was watching the radar pretty carefully on my phone’s weather app. I was grateful when concert organizers used the same tools to determine we should move Thursday evening’s concert indoors, instead of risking a violent thunderstorm hitting the grandstand during the performance, or someone being overtaken with the heat.

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.

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 word of hypocrite – that nasty name Jesus aims in our direction – also refers 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? 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?

As I listened to Bob Lenz speak at the 7th Time Down Concert on Thursday night, something was troubling me about his message that I couldn’t quite put my finger on until later. I realized that, for all his talk about claiming resurrection power in our lives, he never once said anything about repenting of our sin or how that resurrection power transforms us into people who love more.

Earlier in the day, I had talked with Cathy Townley, who is consulting with our “Boost Sunday Morning” team to help us look at ways we can make worship more meaningful and rich. During our conversation, Cathy said, “You need to look at what makes your church unique in your community, and live into that identity. Don’t try to be the Cool Church or the Hip Church, if that is not in your DNA. But figure out what it is your church is offering that no other church in town offers, and live into it.”

Well, I thought, we have identified that. We are forming our identity around hospitality, because that’s what we’re good at. In a moment, Jerry is going to share with you some of the ways we are already beginning to make changes to help us focus on that identity.

But as I struggled to identify what it was about Bob Lenz’s presentation that didn’t sit right with me, I realized this was also the very thing we need to be sure our identity as a church makes clear to the whole community around us. Bob talked about claiming resurrection power, but it isn’t just any resurrection we are talking about. It is the power of Christ’s resurrection, offered to all who believe in him.

I’m also not just talking about life in heaven after we die. I’m talking about being resurrected from our current state of sinful death into a new life that begins immediately when we decide to turn away from living in ways that are killing us, and begin to follow Jesus into life that is rich and full and filled with joy and peace.

This church isn’t just about hospitality, because you can find that at any of the local restaurants or bed and breakfasts around town. We are about extending Christ’s hospitality to people no one else wants to welcome. We are about showing love to people no one else wants to love, in the name of Jesus. We are about helping people no one else thinks they can help, because that’s what Jesus calls us to do.

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 recognize that Jesus calls us to be more – not in our own power, but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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! (2 Corinthians 6:2)” It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ. The time is now. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

How’s the Weather? – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

“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[1], 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![2]”  It’s time to become true followers of Jesus Christ.  The time is now.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.


[1] Luke 9:51-56

[2] 2 Corinthians 6:2