Sermon I preached at Episcopal services in Beckford Parish, VA 8/18/13
The Day's Gospel: Luke 12: 49-53
“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.”
I can't preach about that!
When I looked at this text a couple of weeks ago, my first reaction was, “No way am I going to talk about this one. It’s too hard.” I was sure I could find something more inspiring, more empowering, more cheerful, for heaven’s sake! I wanted to talk about Jesus the peace-maker, not Jesus the bringer of division!
But as I reflected on it and prayed about it, this text stuck to me like a burr to a sock. It felt like an extremely important message for me personally, and so I’m going to share my own journey with it in hopes you might find something helpful too.
My first tendency was to think there might be some other meaning than what this text really says. Maybe Jesus was just being dramatic to make a point, but didn’t really mean he was bringing division.
Maybe he was speaking in a parable and not really talking about MY family or MY life.
Maybe Luke was just having a bad day when he wrote this.
But guess what?
Matthew 10 has almost the same text, and in case we don’t get it, Matthew adds this at the end:
Matthew 10:37-38 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
No, this is not a text I could sweeten up, so I had to see what I could learn from it.
Fire's conflicting images
Luke 12: 49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
The fire imagery wasn’t so hard to wrap my mind around, since it’s used throughout the Bible and throughout literature, but thinking about fire in our lives, it certainly conveys opposing images – light in the darkness but also destruction.
- A forest fire destroys, but it’s necessary for seeds to propagate
- Fire can cleanse an area of scrub growth
- Fire can purify as in the smelting of iron ore
- When we talk about someone being “On Fire” we mean they’re exciting, inspiring…
We should be suspicious of a religion that promises us all sweetness and light. Clearly, Jesus used this fire image with the notion of its ability to cleanse, purify, and get us moving!
Jesus was fully human!
Luke 12:50b “What stress I am under until it is completed.”
Jesus got stressed out? Wow!
This passage was a powerful reminder to me that when Christ came to earth he was, indeed, all human, even while being all divine. The significance of his birth and sacrifice would have meant so much less if he weren’t also human:
- He got hungry and he ate
- He got tired and he rested
- He suffered
- He agonized
- He wept
- He loved
- He worked
- He got angry
And now we learn he got stressed. Glory be! This guy really gets me!
Did Jesus come to divide our families?
Luke 12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
Here we get to the harder part of these passages. Jesus is telling us he has brought division, right into the heart of our most treasured institution: the family. What could I possibly make of this?
I am an avid reader of Oswald Chambers’ daily devotional My Utmost for His Highest, and often the words are exactly what I need at the time. Yesterday’s devotional was uncannily relevant to today’s text. Chambers says, “Have you ever heard the Master say a hard word? If you have not, I question whether you have heard Him say anything.”
So I shouldn’t be surprised when Jesus talks about struggle in my life. In a way, it’s a relief to know it’s not just me and it’s not just you. Even more importantly, it’s clear God has something else in mind for those who commit to him, but that’s a sermon for another day.
Call for radical commitment
So what’s Jesus trying to get at here? If ever Jesus deserved the label of “radical,” it’s because of this text.
Don’t you think what he’s asking for is a radical kind of commitment?
This is way more than a great commission.
You remember the Great Commission: it was the last recorded personal directive of the Savior to his disciples: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
No, what Jesus describes in this text is more than a great commission. This is a great obsession.
I believe this is a call to be:
- obsessed with Christ
- obsessed with the church
- obsessed with the mission of the church
Let’s not water this down. Watered down wine is so tasteless!
I’m an inveterate optimist. I adore the sweet and inspiring parts of the Bible. If I’m honest with myself, I have to say I want my religion to be easy. But there seems to be no getting around the fact that being a Christian involves struggle:
- Struggle to understand
- Struggle to believe when we have doubts
- Struggle to do what’s right
- Struggle to be persecuted in small and large ways when we declare our faith
- Struggle when those we love think we’re crazy when we take a path we believe God has directed us to
But there’s one thing we know for sure about Christ. He never leaves us alone or in despair. He wouldn’t lay such a heavy lesson on us without the means to put it into service for Him.
So what on earth is good about struggle?
When I was a child walking with my mother in a field of milkweed pods on our farm, we came across a cocoon when the Monarch butterfly was struggling to get out. Oh, how I wanted my mother to run get a little knife and slit that cocoon so the beautiful creature could escape. But what would have happened if she’d done that? The butterfly would have been weak and not lasted long. It needed the struggle of pushing out of that cocoon to make it stronger.
Friedrich Nietzsche said: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
In preaching on this same text, Edward F. Markquart, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Seattle, told of Spanish poet José Ortega's haunting comment about Gauguin, the French impressionist painter who was highly successful early in his career but who became unproductive and ultimately took his own life. Ortega said of Gaugin, “His creative energies degenerated into hobbies.”
This hit me right between the eyes.
Have I let the creative energy of the Holy Spirit degenerate into a hobby?
One more hobby among others?
- Monday, I go to the gym
- Tuesday, I have a finance committee meeting
- Wednesday is bank board meeting
- Thursday is my amateur radio club breakfast
- Friday is my reading day
- Saturday is my Farmer’s Market Day
- Sunday I go to church
Oops…has my church become just one more hobby among others?
I don’t think the message here is not to do the things I enjoy, but to:
- Do them with a fire burning in my heart
- Do them expecting God to use me in some way to minister to someone else
- Do them with the willingness to be late or not go if God puts something else in my path.
So please pray with me
I don’t want to be a weak Christian! So if encountering struggle in my life is like the stone sharpening me for your service, then let me endure the discomfort with grace and obedience.
Let me not be surprised too much nor wounded too deeply by the divisions I encounter in my family or among my friends, but give me the courage to stand in the shadow of your cross, even if it causes division around me.
Help me embrace the faith described by St. Paul: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” [Heb 11:1] Let me “run with perseverance the race marked out for me, fixing my eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith.” [adapted from Heb 12:1-2]
Set me on fire with the love of your son, Jesus Christ, and make me a conduit for your love to those who need it. Use me as an instrument for your peace, even when it surpasses my understanding.
Photo credit: “Stained Glass: Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane” by C. Norcom via BigStockPhoto
Acknowledgements for ideas and inspiration:
Edward F. Markquart, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/