[Jesus said]: "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

Pastor Marc's sermon on the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (August 18, 2019) on Luke 12:49-56. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 


Today’s reading from the gospel according to Luke isn't typically one of our favorites. I haven’t met too many people who have these words written on a piece of reclaimed wood that is now hanging in their family room. It’s a bit hard for us, I think, to connect the Jesus who was born in a manger with the one we hear today. We remember that at Jesus’ birth, the angels told the shepherds to “not be afraid.” Yet here he is, pointing to fire. 1600 years ago, Ambrose, the Bishop of Milian, wrote “are we to believe that [Jesus] has commanded discord within families? ...How does [this Jesus] say, ‘My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you,” if he has come to separate [children] from [parents] and [parents] from [children]...” For a long time, the church has struggled with passages like this one. We’ve tended to ignore them, push them aside, or only use them as a tool to attack those we disagree with. But when it comes to our practice of faith, especially in our families and in our churches, we prefer a Jesus who is softer and more gentle. We want our Jesus to unite us, to overcome the divisions of our world, since we’ve seen how he invited even little children to come close to him. Yet the Jesus depicted in today’s text seems to almost relish splitting families apart. I’ll admit this isn’t the Jesus I turn to in my own devotions and prayers. And when I do see someone use these verses, they tend to weaponize them as a way to justify their own lust for power, control, and violence. It’s not hard to be comfortable with a fire-bringing Jesus when you assume you’re not the one who’s getting burned. So how do we reconcile the Jesus who brings us peace with the one who also burns? 

Now, when verses like this show up, my first step is to admit everything that I’m feeling. I name my discomfort, accept my hesitation, and put my Bible aside as I go find something in my kitchen to eat as a distraction from my general distaste. Once I’ve eaten one or a dozen cookies, I then get back to work. I highlight the verses I don’t like and I try to put them back into context. Because one of the most dangerous things we can do is pull a verse or two out of the Bible and wave it around, removed from all the other words God connected them to. Yet chapter 12 in Luke is tricky. Luke, it seems, took many different sayings of Jesus and sort of haphazardly placed them one after another. We don’t really have the full story of why Jesus said what he did. All we do know is that at some point during Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he spoke these words. So when the immediate context, the words around these problematic verses, does not help - that’s when I take a step back and see how these verses fit into the entire story Luke was telling. And to do that, we need to journey back to the beginning of Luke’s version of Jesus’ life and ministry. We need to return to the shores of the Jordan River - when John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord - and go back even further, to those moments before Jesus was even born. 

Now, in the beginning, Luke showed how Zechariah - John the Baptist’s father; Mary, Jesus’ mother; and John the Baptist himself - told us who Jesus was meant to be. Jesus is the one who will scatter the proud, bring the powerful down from their thrones, and fill the hungry with good things. He will shed a light on those hidden in shadow, overturn every oppressor, and transform our self-centered lives and communities into something new. Jesus will, according to John the Baptist, baptize us with water and fire - a fire meant to refine us as if we’re a piece of metal in a blacksmith shop that’s being transformed into Jesus’ own image. Jesus, through us, will make sure that the poor receive good news; that all captives are released; and that all who are oppressed by our greed and our fears will finally be freed. The fire Jesus brings is a fire Jesus gives to us - to the baptized - so that we, through Jesus, can shift our priorities away from ourselves and instead towards God. The Jesus we know and love promised to bring us peace and hope. Yet the peace Jesus brings is not a peace that always plays nicely with the world because good news for the poor is not necessarily good news for the rest of us. Jesus’ words in today’s text doesn’t contradict the more gentle Jesus we prefer. Rather, his words reveal just how serious it is for Jesus to be in our world. The peace, love, forgiveness, and justice Jesus brings means that our priorities, our goals, and what we think is right - sometimes needs to be transformed into what is actually God’s will. Jesus knows that this kind of transformation isn’t always easy. But it is essential - because Jesus’ presence in your life is meant to do something. His grace, his words, and his love refines you into who God knows you can be. Yet that fire can, and does, sometimes hurt - because its fuel is the truth about ourselves and our world that we don’t always want to see. 

When we come across a Jesus we don’t like, we should resist every attempt to make him more comfortable. We shouldn’t ignore him, downplay him, or use him to attack other people.  Because when we ignore the uncomfortable Jesus, we push aside the responsibilities Jesus gave us for our lives. When we were baptized, we were baptized not only with water - but with His fire. That fire was meant to refine us, to transform us, so that we can see the world more fully. Jesus’ fire lets us be honest about the ways we divide ourselves from each other, the ways we fail to love and serve one another, and how we often act as if there’s never just enough...so we horde everything for ourselves. We tend to act as if the words spoken at the beginning of Luke’s version of Jesus’ story - about a topsy turvey world where power over is replaced by power with; where freedom from is replaced by freedom for; and one where a love that is passive is, instead, made active - we act as if those words of fire were extinguished by the more gentle Jesus we prefer. Yet that true fire - the fire that reveals the world as it truly is and the one that transforms it into what God knows it can be - that fire Jesus brought is, through the Cross, already kindled and it still, through your baptism, burns within each of you. The love and care we give to each other does form relationships that can bridge over what divides us. Yet those bridges will create their own divisions because the world still struggles to accept God’s priorities of love, grace, and mercy as its own. But even though divisions still exist in our world, that doesn’t mean we are called to somehow stop being who God made us to be. We are a community filled with people rooted in love, grounded in forgiveness, filled with mercy, and one that is called to offer grace before it gives anything else. Because the fire Jesus spoke about is already burning. And we are called to be refined by its flame so that God’s priorities, rather than our own, always rules.