I was pressed into service to preach on Sunday because of an illness, and I was delighted (delighted, I say!) to learn that the Gospel text for Sunday was Luke 12:49-56. Oh boy.
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, NRSV
Here’s an example of the way I’ve always heard this text presented in evangelical teaching. It is also, generally, the way I would have preached it when I walked among the evangelicals:
Popular perception in the world concerning Jesus is that He was a man of love who came to bring peace, that His message was peace on earth, peace through love. That’s sort of the pop idea about Jesus…. But Jesus absolutely shattered that expectation.
…So Jesus says He’s come now to bring division. Instead of uniting people in His kingdom of blessing, He divides them and He divides them both in time and eternity.
…You see, the cross divides everybody. You’re either with the faithful or the unfaithful. You’re either in heaven or hell and hell will always be punishment, always cut off from the life of God, always void of peace and joy and satisfaction and fulfillment, to whatever degree it’s experienced. This is such an important text for people who think that those who are ignorant of the Gospel are going to somehow go to heaven. They’re not. The cross is the dividing point of all humanity. What you do with Jesus Christ on the cross in His death and resurrection determines your eternal destiny.
…I understand that the gospel that we believe, the gospel that I preach, cuts me off from people. I understand that it indicts them, that it condemns them by virtue of its message. It is divisive, really nothing new, by the way.
…Beloved, Jesus is the great divider. The cross is the great dividing event and at that point, we’re divided. We’re divided for eternity and we’re divided in time and He calls for sinners to choose blessing and reward in heaven rather than cursing and punishment in hell. He calls for you to make the break no matter what the breach might be in this life…
• John MacArthur
“Jesus, the Great Divider”
What we have here is another example of preaching evangelical doctrine rather than hearing what the text actually says.
From a narrative-historical perspective, this text is not about Jesus, the “Great Divider.” Insofar as it is about Jesus, I would say it speaks of Jesus as “Israel’s Final Prophet.” The warnings Jesus gives here are not about “heaven” and “hell,” his words are not about how “the cross divides people in both time and eternity,” the context is not one’s “eternal destiny,” and there is no call to “choose” which side you’re going to be on. The text, as far as I understand it, is not even about how Jesus divides people at all, it is about their inability to interpret “the present time” (v. 56) as a season in their national life that will inevitably bring turmoil, division, and conflict upon them. There is a “fire” that Jesus’ coming sparked which will tear people apart and immerse them in distress.
What is that fire? Jesus is looking ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans. As Israel’s final prophet, he is warning the people that the fire of war is about to ignite. He also says that he himself will be touched by that — he will be burned by Rome’s fire in a “baptism” he wishes was over. Jesus is not just another prophet, teaching them how to live in peace. His coming and the announcement that God’s Kingdom is at hand means that the people (including himself) will soon pass through the painful birth pains of a new age. But they don’t get it. They can’t read the signs. They are not ready for the crisis to come.
So, how would I preach this passage? Here’s my sermon from Sunday. Let me know what you think.
Through Violence to Shalom
When our Creator God made the world he made it to be a place of shalom. That beautiful Hebrew word means “peace and wholeness” in all aspects of life. However, when we read the Bible, we’re not more than a few chapters in when we read that the world was filled with violence and conflict. And it’s been that way ever since, hasn’t it?
One of the things we often forget about Jesus is that he came to a particular people in a particular place at a particular time in history. And we also forget that Jesus came to the Jewish people at one of the most turbulent times in Israel’s history, a time of impending crisis.
Israel was occupied by the Romans and ruled by their puppet king Herod. Herod rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem, but he was the loyal servant of Rome and the people hated him. All the different groups in Israel, such as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots, wanted the Romans out of Israel. Many Zealots were revolutionary patriots who hid in the hills and made surprise attacks on Roman soldiers. They were hunted down and tried as seditious murderers. It was a time of fear and terror.
Most of us can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a country with enemy soldiers patrolling the streets, checkpoints where you are regularly stopped and asked for identification, and places where you have to pay special tolls and bribes just to go about your ordinary business. But that’s what it was like in Jesus’ Israel. When he said things like, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” and “if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile,” he was talking about daily realities the Jewish people faced as they lived in an occupied country.
And when Jesus talked about a coming judgment, he wasn’t talking most of the time about what we think of as “the last judgment,” at which some people will be sent to “heaven” and others to “hell.” No, he was talking about a day, soon to come, of violent reckoning when the Roman armies would trample Jerusalem, raze the temple to the ground, and destroy the Jewish nation. That is what happened in the year 70AD.
Listen to this passage from Luke 24, where Jesus foretells this coming crisis:
But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written.
God was about to intervene dramatically in history. The nation of Israel was soon to reach its devastating end. Jerusalem would be judged and God would allow the pagan nation of Rome to ransack the country. In the midst of Rome’s oppression, however, Jesus, through his death and resurrection, would be vindicated and exalted as God’s King over all the nations. He would form a new people in his name to carry the announcement everywhere that God’s King had come to rule over all the world and restore it to his original design of shalom.
This background is essential for reading today’s Gospel. Here we hear Jesus reprimanding the people for not being able to recognize the signs of the times. He warns them that they mustn’t view his ministry and teaching as that of just another religious leader, teaching them how to live in peace. No! His coming will introduce a season of profound trouble. Jesus is telling them that he has come to be Israel’s final prophet. He’s the last voice warning them of the fire to come. He himself will have to face a baptism of death under the Romans. This fearsome time that is coming upon the nation will be so stressful that even close families will be torn apart.
This passage reminds us of a couple of important truths. The first is this: although we celebrate Jesus as the Prince of Peace — the Prince of Shalom — shalom only came to us through a time of great distress and suffering. It reminds us that the world is often a violent, hateful place and that Jesus didn’t shy away from talking about that or getting involved in life’s mess. Indeed, he walked right into the midst of this violent world and was baptized with fire himself when he was forcibly arrested, falsely tried, and nailed to a cross as a criminal by the ruling powers. The peace we enjoy in Christ came only because he was willing to submit himself to violent death.
This passage also calls us to be realistic about the world in which we still live today. Whether or not we are facing an impending crisis like Israel would experience, this world is filled with trouble and conflict. Bad things happen. Crises occur. People act violently and hurt others. The ruling powers can be corrupt. Religious leaders can lead us astray. In times of stress, people can turn on each other, even family members. We know this. We read and hear about it every day still. We see it on our TV and computer screens. We lament the daily loss of life, the crisis of people who flee the violence and become exiles from their own homes. We weep over lives turned upside down, children who grow up in chaos and hunger, families torn apart by competing allegiances, uncertainty, and fear.
This gospel text we’ve read this morning likewise describes a troubled, violent world. It tells us about Jesus, who was born into such a world, right at the point of one of history’s great disasters, when the Romans virtually destroyed the people of Israel. We’ve heard how he encouraged them to recognize the signs of the times, to be wise about how hard life in this world can be. I think he would urge us to be wise like that as well.
What this passage doesn’t do is tell us how to live in the light of these things. For that, we must look at the rest of Jesus’ teaching. Here are the kinds of things he taught about how to behave in the midst of a violent and conflict-filled world:
- “Blessed are the merciful,” in a world like this
- “Blessed are the peacemakers,” in a world like this
- In a world like this, “love your enemies”
- In a world like this, “pray for those who persecute you”
- In a world like this, “take food and drink to the hungry and thirsty and clothe the naked”
- And, welcome the stranger
- And, visit the sick and those who are in prison
In a violent and suffering world, the duty of the faithful is to practice sacrificial love. Just like Jesus did. Acts of love and compassion in a world of trouble and violence can begin to mend the torn and tattered places.
As a hospice chaplain, I see it every day. A woman I visit regularly used to be continually serving others. She was active in her work, her community, her family, and her church. Now she’s unable to do that. She’s in the final season of her life and must allow others to serve her. And they do. A family from her church stops by each Sunday after services just so they can give her her “Sunday hugs.” A dear friend flew up from Florida to stay with her and help her get things set up for the days when she will need constant care. Another friend who lives locally has come and painted the interior of her house and got it ready for new carpet to be laid so it can be sold more easily when she dies. A group of friends picks her up and takes her to Bob Evans for breakfast so she can get out once in awhile.
These are simple things, but as Mother Teresa once said, “We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love.” We may not think we are making much of an impact on the world’s problems by such actions, but I think that is a complete misperception. Our ears are bombarded every day with stories that are “out there” and that make it seem like life is falling apart. But your real life and my real life is right here, right now, and it is through tending our own gardens that the world will ultimately be fed.
The book of James in the New Testament says that true religion involves caring for the orphans, the widows — the neediest and most vulnerable people among us — and keeping ourselves unstained by the world — that is, by keeping ourselves from becoming violent and divisive and caught up in the conflicts that keep our world from being at peace.
God’s design for this world is shalom. And his design for us is that we be people of love, people of shalom, people who bring shalom to others. In a world of violence and conflict, Jesus calls us to follow him right into this world, announcing his peace and working toward it through acts of sacrificial love.