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Fire! Ominous-sounding baptisms! Divisions among families! Threatening signs of social disaster!
Sometimes I fantasize about publishing an expurgated version of the Gospel. You can bet the section we just read wouldn’t be in it! In fact, I think most of us operate on a sort of mentally-expurgated version of the Bible, where the parts that threaten us most–or fit least well with our personal experience–just disappear.
Some of you know that my husband used to be the Protestant Chaplain at Napa State Hospital, a hospital for the criminally insane. I asked him whether he would preach on this passage to his mental patients, and he said, “Absolutely not! They need to hear about peace and love and forgiveness.” I knew he would say that. But I couldn’t help thinking, “Isn’t that what I need to hear, too? Isn’t it what all of us need to hear? Peace and love and forgiveness? Why do we have to deal with these nasty sayings of Jesus? And more to the point, what do I think about Jesus–and my commitment to Jesus–if he really said things like this?”
It may be helpful to imagine the audience Jesus was saying these things to. The first part of what we read was directed at the disciples. Jesus is telling them that he came to bring fire to the earth, and he came to undergo a kind of baptism, and he is anxious to get on with it. It sounds like he is talking with his closest followers about his real ministry, right then and right there. He may not know for certain at this point that his path will lead to the Cross, but he certainly knows by now that it is already leading to conflict with the leaders of his society. And that conflict is going to be big. Jesus sees himself as something quite a bit more than just a catalyst for change. When he describes the coming crisis, he doesn’t use “tame,” civilized images like national conventions and ballot boxes; he talks in cosmic-level pictures: earthquakes and epidemics and firestorms and riots. The crisis is coming, and it’s going to be big.
And the fallout for these followers of his will be cataclysmic, too. That is why he goes on to talk about how he brings not peace but division—and specifically, division within the very most basic system of the society, the family. He demands from his disciples a level of loyalty that could mean turning away from those nearest and dearest to them. And in fact, in the history of Christian discipleship over the centuries, there are hundreds and thousands of stories of people who were faced with precisely this dilemma–do I follow Christ or the rules of my father, or mother, or clan?
Why were the disciples following Jesus right then and there? It seems certain that many of them were hopeful that he would be the one to drive out the Romans and restore Israel to a time of independence and prosperity. A return to the kind of stability they associated with peace. The kind of peace that results from military and economic success. The kind of peace that speaks to the world the news that “our people are the most favored.” You know, that kind of peace. So in declaring “I have come not to bring peace but division,” Jesus is warning his disciples about their blindness to what he is really doing. He is marching toward Jerusalem, and the stakes in the game are rising. The great crisis of his time with them is at hand. Will they stand with him or against him? Will they follow him through this wrenching demonstration of God’s truth? Or will they hang back, retreating to the safety of their families, of old structures, old norms, old alliances? Are these disciples really prepared for the difficulties that will beset them in the future?
Now Jesus turns to the crowd gathered around him. “You are plenty skilled at predicting the weather,” he says. “Why can’t you look at the signs of the times and see what’s coming?” Again, he may simply be directing their attention to the increasing resistance to his own mission, right then and there. Or he may be trying to alert them to the overall direction of events in first century Judaea–the events that will lead, not too far in the future, to the complete crushing of the Jewish nation and the destruction of the Temple. There are a number of places in the Gospel accounts where Jesus predicts the fall of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. Here he seems to be saying, “It doesn’t take special powers to see into the future to know that the end is near. If you all would just open your eyes, you would see it as plainly as I do.”
So the rather scary message we just heard can be firmly rested in the specific, limited historical world of the New Testament. Jesus’ powerful images of fire and baptism and weather signs, his claim that he came as a force of division rather than to bring peace–these strong words were spoken to real individuals, operating in a very peculiar, a very particular time and space. We breathe a sigh of relief–maybe it’s “their” message, not really “ours”.
The problem is, if we step outside the frame of that biblical picture—if we hold that world at arm’s length and happily sing about how “then was then” and “now is now”–I mean, we’re not first-century Jews and we’re not physically walking along with a known revolutionary–the problem is, if we abandon all that, then we have to let go of the rest of the story, too. The part about being made one with God in the blood of Christ. The part about “God so loved the world.” The part about forgiveness. We would have to abandon the very basis of our Christian hope–the claim that an event that happened two thousand years ago has direct bearing on the meaning of our lives today.
So if we open our hearts and open our minds to listen to what Jesus was saying two thousand years ago–to those people, in that place–what do we hear him say to “these” people, in “this” place?
I hear him calling us to listen with new ears, to learn new languages. Why were the hearers of his own day in such grave danger? Why was Jesus himself such a threat to the authorities, and why would his fledgling church so provoke the people around it? Because Jesus was demanding that the old vessels be smashed, the old terms be abandoned. You people have tried to tie God up in a box, he says. You’ve wrapped God in a tidy package and covered it with bows and stickers and just the right amount of postage and insurance. And then you’ve begun to worship the packaging! God bestows the blessings of peace, and so we look at the peace itself and fall in love with it and make it into a god. God bestows the blessings of the family, and so we look at the family structures and traditions and relationships and we fall in love with them, and we make them into a god. And God bestows freedom on a people, and we cherish the freedom and revel in it, and make it into a god. We worship the peace, and the family, and the freedom, and forget that they are gifts, and work for them as if they were the living forces undergirding our lives.
But only God is God. And those blessings, wondrous as they may be, like freedom and peace and the security of the home, are only blessings, they aren’t God. But God is alive, and God is moving, and God can’t be contained in any language or picture or package of any kind. God isn’t a tame God! God isn’t a palsy-walsy God! The God of Jesus Christ is full of surprises, full of a power we can’t predict or comprehend! Are we ready to swear allegiance to that? Are we ready to walk with Jesus in humble obedience to a God we can’t comprehend, can’t contain, can’t reduce to simple, pretty, human terms?
That seems to me to be something like what Jesus is saying to us, here and now. And after issuing us this challenge, this warning, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and demonstrates to us, shows us, lives out for us just how outrageous and unconventional and awesome this God is. With Jesus, we live through the most extreme opposite of those blessings we value so highly. Instead of winning military or social success, Jesus lives out dismal failure. Instead of the security of family, Jesus dies abandoned by his closest friends. Instead of peace, his presence brings on violence. Instead of freedom, Jesus is caught in a web of political and religious tyranny.
And yet…that suffering, that captivity, that abandonment brings the very gifts we long for. This awesome, outrageous God of Jesus wrestles joy and peace and life and hope from the most unlikely human events. God showed us how it worked then, two thousand years ago. But even that mighty story can’t define how God will act tomorrow, or the next day. The God of Jesus Christ isn’t tame! The God of Jesus Christ can’t be contained! Are we ready to walk with Jesus in faithfulness to that awesome God? Are we ready to walk with him into the next, unexpected story of God’s power?
In a few minutes, here, at this altar, Jesus will offer us himself, as nourishment for that walk. Let us receive him in faith, our loving brother, the source of our courage, and the living Word that challenges us to open our ears and eyes and minds to the endless possibility that is our God. Amen.