Luke 3:3-6, 15-20; Luke 12:49-56
With the arrest of a suspect following the killing of four Muslim men in Albuquerque and the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie, I was reminded this week of one of the awful ways that anti-Muslim bigotry went mainstream immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11. For those who don’t recall, in those weeks it was common to read articles or hear people on television denouncing Islam as a religion with violence sewn into its DNA. Often professed Christians, these commentators said things like, “Well, if you read the Qur’an you’ll see it includes a lot of militant imagery, celebrations of brutality, and promises of destruction coming to those who deserve it. I mean, come on, their scriptures endorse bloodshed.”
That was one of those times when professed Christians are able to tell you that they have never read the whole Bible without actually saying that they’ve never read the whole Bible. Back in fall 2001 there were many times when I yelled back at the television, “Have you ever even looked at your own scriptures!?”
All religions, including our own, can provide cover for extremists. All religions deserve a measure of criticism for damage they have caused. Most sacred books I know about, including our own, contain difficult, uncomfortable passages that tilt toward trouble.
While the words read from Luke 12 aren’t bloodthirsty, they’re alarming. Biblical passages like this one spawn some of the worst Christian preaching—full of yelling, condemnation, fire, and brimstone.
Jesus wants to bring fire to the earth. Families will turn on each other because of him. He says he didn’t come to bring peace anyway but rather division.
If someone has threatened or harmed you with biblical passages like this one in your past, I can assure you you’re not the only one hearing this sermon who has had that experience.
Obviously we don’t want to spend every Sunday contending with passages like this one, with its foreboding and accusations. But we don’t do ourselves any favors by pretending those passages aren’t there. If we don’t wrestle with them, then other people will do things with them that we won’t like.
I think we can learn from them. In this case, we learn quite a bit about the intensity of God’s passion.
This memory of Jesus that the early church left for us reminds us that the radical, and finally lethal, character of Jesus’s message and appeal didn’t come simply from his deep compassion or an unusual ability to create space for others. He was a charismatic prophet, someone with an acute ability to perceive the troubles that plague humanity, someone with a wild vision for imagining a new state of affairs, and someone with a relentless commitment to turn that vision into reality. Those kinds of people don’t fit neatly into the boxes we design. They rarely strike us as people who are entirely safe.
A writer for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, once compared Jesus to African-American leaders in the early years of the civil rights era. Gopnik says that a popular prophet in their vein is “someone whose aura of personal conviction manages to reconcile a hard doctrine with a humane manner.” They’re complex personalities. Gopnik goes on to observe that those kinds of leaders tend to “oscillate between the comforting and the catastrophic.” Well, today we certainly have some of Jesus’s “hard doctrine” and his view of “the catastrophic.”
Let me remind us, though: we shouldn’t be too surprised about this. That prophetic spirit resides in our religious DNA:
- Every time we light candles during Advent,
- Every time we read Mary’s poetic and prophetic response to knowing that she will give birth to—and nurture—God’s Messiah,
- Every time we read, like this morning, about John the Baptist, who seems to be warning everyone that God’s ready to turn everything on its head,
- Every time in this beautiful building we sing that catchy hymn with the bouncy Irish tune, The Canticle of the Turning (you know the one: “Let the fires of your justice burn… for the world is about to turn”),
…in all of those times we are expressing a yearning for dramatic upheaval.
It’s fitting that the Christian church’s liturgical calendar begins with the rumblings of Advent and finishes with a Sunday expecting the full manifestation of “Christ the king” or “the reign of Christ.” Christian faith is expectant faith. We are waiting people, people whose lives are set during a kind of interval time. We exist in between, on one side, all the grandiose promises we’ve heard from God through the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus and, on the other side, the fulfillment or complete realization of those promises. And, like most people, we get a little riled up when we feel like we’re waiting too long or losing ground. Waiting doesn’t mean passivity. It’s an active waiting. A waiting full of eagerness and occasional complaint. We are restless people. We’ve been told of God’s vision for human flourishing, for all of creation’s flourishing, and we’re eager for God to break in. We’re always looking for something better to arrive… because that’s what God has promised.
Have you ever wanted something to come to fruition so badly that you’ve felt that desire with your whole body? Like a yearning that gets into your bones and won’t leave you alone? Our incarnate God knows that experience.
At least, that’s what Jesus expresses in Luke 12. He says “what stress I am under” until his work can be completed. He’s totally governed by his determination to complete his task; he’s possessed by his drive to see the world changed. God does not, or cannot, or will not transform the world, our lives, and human societies with the wave of a wand. God will labor among us to see change happen. Here God is, in the struggle—in the fray. God is restless, too.
Be sure to distinguish God’s restlessness and single-mindedness from the incendiary political rhetoric we hear these days. The things Jesus says in Luke 12 easily lend themselves to be exploited by authoritarian and apocalyptic bullies and zealots.
It isn’t that Jesus is hostile, or angry, or divisive as much as he is passionate, anguished, and fully committed. He has a fervent, grand desire to see the world changed. This isn’t about destruction or punishment. Don’t be misled when he talks about bringing fire to the earth and kindling it. We’ve seen too much anguished medieval art and been too influenced by Dante’s Inferno or by really mean preachers. Jesus is talking about his longing for fire that refines and purifies. At least, that’s what John the Baptist implies when he talks about Jesus coming to burn away the chaff. Jesus speaks of transforming the world. Very frequently in the Bible images of fire refer to God’s presence and the power of God to bring about change. Unrighteousness, injustice, death—all of these things cannot exist in the presence of God. When God shows up they go up in smoke. Restorative fire.
With all this intensity, Jesus reveals a God who aches to rid the world of exploitation, dehumanization, tyranny, and narcissism, so that the creation and its people can flourish. If the magnitude of God’s intensity unnerves us, we might be underestimating the destructive potential of the oppression and ignorance that Jesus yearns to transform.
What is troubling here, in this biblical passage, and what underscores the difficulty of what we’re talking about, is that Jesus says he hasn’t come to bring peace but division. It’s out of step with what we know about him from other parts of the Gospels, and even from how Luke introduces him to us. Remember what the angels sing when they “proclaim Messiah’s birth” to the shepherds near Bethlehem in the Christmas story? “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom [God] favors!”
But peaceful revolutions are hard to come by, if by “peaceful” we mean pleasant. That’s true whether we’re talking about nations or, closer to home, about our hearts and our relationships. Where are you determined to work for reconciliation, for justice, for wholeness? What are the issues that animate you? What are the relationships that need transformation? Jesus, as well as John the Baptist, seems to indicate that real change requires an honest reckoning with the truth. Those kinds of reckonings often singe our conscience. They require confronting the hypocrisy in our own lives, as well as in our familial systems and social policies. Luke’s original readers surely understood that peace with Jesus sometimes meant conflict with their culture, and maybe a difficult break from the values that had been conditioned into them since birth. Jesus knows how tightly we like to hold onto our advantages.
Sometimes, if we are to see our yearnings through, we have to drag our egos and our core principles into the light. Like a good doctor, Jesus warns it’s going to sting a little bit. So it goes with following a fiery and utterly determined prophet. But that’s good news, because this same Jesus meets us there and carries us through.
I’m guessing none of you have inspirational signs on your wall at home quoting what Jesus says in Luke 12, talking about households divided within themselves. I don’t see those for sale on Etsy. Many churches have learned that this isn’t the most motivational passage in our Bible, but there it is. For the sake of the people who suffer the most from the turmoil Jesus wants to drive away, we must remind ourselves of passages like this from time to time.
After the sermon we’re going to sing a hymn with a somber title: “Where Armies Scourge the Countryside,” which isn’t one that’s in Westminster’s usual musical “canon” or hymn rotation. You probably don’t hum it when you need a pick-me-up. The lyrics are uncomfortable. They allude to warfare, violent crime, and domestic abuse—realities that some of us might come to church to forget or to heal from. But there the hymn is, honestly expressing the world’s dismay and pain to God, and asking for God to deliver us. Notice the refrain, when we sing it; it urges God to hear our complaints and “bring peace to earth again.” With the hymn, we’re answering back to Jesus in Luke 12. We answer, “Jesus, we know you; we know your commitment to peace. We know you share our frustration with injustice. Yet we contend with you to be true to your promises for a new world to emerge. We know that the path toward peace may be difficult. We will learn hard truths about ourselves and about the society we have constructed and preserve. But we cling to the promise that you are our hope.” We do something similar every Sunday when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We get restless.
If all of this sounds too intense to you, as if too much responsibility is being placed on us to shake things up and set God loose and fix the world, you’re entirely right. We can debate the specifics, but I don’t think most of us have much power to transform the world for the better on our own. But God does—God working though us, around us, and even in spite of us.
What’s our role? What’s our message? How should we, as the followers of a tenacious and occasionally hot-blooded prophet, direct our energy? Where do we participate in God’s work?
We get answers at the end of the passage read from Luke 12. That’s where Jesus, like any normal Minnesotan, talks about the weather.
The passage concludes with Jesus saying, “Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” Before that, he says to anyone listening, “Look, all of you know how to observe the atmosphere and adjust accordingly for the sake of your own survival. You know that when clouds come from the Mediterranean Sea in the west that rain is coming. When you feel the winds coming from the Negev Desert to the south you know that it’s going to get hotter. You already know how to be observant. That’s all I’m asking of you. Look around”
The point is, you don’t need to be a meteorologist and understand why the weather is what it is. You don’t need to know what barometric pressure is or why clouds form as they do. Jesus calls us instead to respond to the conditions in ways that show we’re aware of how the world is affecting us and the people around us.
The church is called—you and I are called—to interpret the world in which we live. Like watching the weather approach on the horizon, we’re called to look for signs of relief and signs of danger. Our message has to interpret the world through a distinctively theological lens. Most people don’t need the church to convince them that racism is corrosive, that the environmental crisis poses a real threat, that students shouldn’t be scared of violence in their schools and homes, that the dignity embedded in trusting people with individual decision-making over difficult choices is under assault, or that poverty traps people in cycles of dehumanization. Instead, the church speaks, we speak—aloud, and with palpable restlessness—theologically: wondering where God might be known within the issues of our time, explaining why God might grieve over particular forms of injustice, exploring how God might have shown a better way through the problems that vex us, and insisting that God will be a source of peace even in the gloomiest of times.
“Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?” It’s a rhetorical question. Maybe we do know. Certainly we need to practice doing it more. He asks us to do this together, as a community.
The good news in this passage, the good news in this sermon, the good news in a life yoked to this restless, dissatisfied, visionary prophet named Jesus, is this: what makes the present time so significant, and the promise of new life so urgent right now, is that all of it includes you. The blessings of God are breaking into view, spilling across the horizon. And here we are, walking in both John’s and Jesus’s footsteps, eager for all flesh—including our own flesh—to see God’s salvation, poised to discover ways to assist God in blessing our neighbors, even those we’ve never met.
Stay attentive, people of God. Stay restless. There’s a power in our dissatisfaction with the way things are. And there’s a godliness in that dissatisfaction, too. We’re not alone in this.