Sermon: Are We Living at a Turning Point in History? (Luke 12:49-56)
“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?
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The Lord be with you.
Last year, Sojourners magazine, a publication that exists to discuss “the intersection of faith, politics, and culture,” asked a question in one of its articles. Here is that question: “ARE WE LIVING IN A ‘BONHOEFFER’ MOMENT?”
Do you recognize that name? Sojourners was speaking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the most famous Lutheran theologians and pastors in the last century. Bonhoeffer is famous for his writings and actions in Germany when the Nazis rose to power and led Europe into World War II. Bonhoeffer was part of what was known as “The Confessing Church,” a group of Christians who believed that it was a Christian necessity to oppose Hitler and the Third Reich.
When the Nazis came to power, they tried to unify all the Protestant churches into one state church. In answer, some Protestants, led by such theologians as Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put out a statement called The Barmen Declaration, which said that it is theological heresy to have the State control the Church, and that both Church and State stand under God’s Word and commandments. The Nazis, of course, were trying to coordinate and take over the churches to promote their Aryan and antisemitic views and policies. Bonhoeffer and other members of The Confessing Church would have none of it.
Bonhoeffer had voiced his opposition to the rise of the Nazis very early. When Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, just two weeks later, Bonhoeffer did a radio broadcast, warning that too many young Germans were attaching themselves to a false idea of a leader — or a Führer — who would be the savior of Germany. Bonhoeffer’s vocal and active opposition to the Nazis continued from that point, until 12 years later he was executed as a traitor.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived at a turning point in history. A crisis point. One of those times in the history of the world when people were called upon to take a stand, to take sides, to clarify their loyalties. It was a life or death time, a no-nonsense time, a time when the issues were becoming clear and people would be forced to choose which way they would go. It ultimately turned into a time of world war and deadly consequences for millions of people.
As we look back now, it becomes clear what people should have done in those circumstances. But what do you think you would have done if you had been a Christian in Germany in those years when the Nazis came to power? What would you and I have said or done as one of the most challenging crises in human history was developing and forming into a storm that would ultimately threaten to overwhelm the world?
In our Gospel text today, Jesus is warning the people of his day that they too were living on the cusp of one of those times — one of those turning points in history. He and his fellow Jewish citizens lived at a time of Roman occupation and growing unrest in the land. And now he had come: Jesus, the promised Messiah, at the greatest turning point in history, warning about a coming crisis and calling people to trust him, to follow him and to live out his teachings in the light of the impending storm.
In our text today Jesus indicates that this storm is going to come like fire falling from heaven. The troubles, he says, will include a crisis event in his own life — a “baptism” he calls it that he must undergo. He is certainly speaking of his own death here. He also says that the days which are coming will be so stressful and full of conflict that even households will be divided. Intimate family members will take sides and oppose each other passionately. A time of trouble and war is on the horizon, Jesus is warning, and people must be ready for it.
He is speaking of events that actually took place. Within a generation after Jesus died, the Romans invaded and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, scattering the Jewish people from their land into exile among the nations. It was such a thorough and decisive loss for Israel that it took them almost 1900 years to ever gain a foothold in the Promised Land again. It wasn’t until after the days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and World War II that they came home.
Jesus saw that coming. He knew he had come in a moment of impending crisis. It was of those times in the history of the world when people would have to take a stand, take sides, and clarify their loyalties. It was a life or death time, a no-nonsense time, a time when the issues were becoming clear and people would be forced to choose which way they would go. It ultimately turned into a time of world war and deadly consequences for millions of people.
As the text goes on, Jesus admonishes the people that they must be wise, they must be discerning, they must recognize the signs that are pointing to this coming crisis. People in that land were very skilled in predicting the weather and planning their lives accordingly. But Jesus rebukes them for being unaware of the political, social, and spiritual storm that is on the horizon. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” he says. It’s remarkable how we human beings can be so blind to the dangers in our midst, so slow to grasp the signs of the times.
And so, I would like to ask, along with Jesus and with Sojourners magazine: ARE WE IN SUCH A MOMENT?
Are we living in a time that has the potential to become a full-blown crisis? Are there signs around us that we should be seeing? Signs that a storm is coming? Signs that, pretty soon, we won’t be able to just conduct business as usual? Signs that our faith is going to be tested like never before? Signs that we are going to have to take stands, take sides, and clarify our loyalties in ways that might even upset members of our own families? Are there indications that a “life or death” time is not far away, and that we are going to have to make some extremely difficult choices about what we will say and how we will live our daily lives?
I’m not Jesus. And I’m not Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Frankly, I don’t know if we are facing an imminent turning point in history in our lives, in our country, or in the world. The people in Jesus’ day certainly were. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer was wise enough to see the storm coming in his day — though it is certain that many, many people didn’t believe him, didn’t agree with him, and didn’t heed his warnings. They didn’t heed the warnings in Jesus’ day either.
I’m not here as a watchman today, crying out that a storm is certainly coming. I’m here to say that there have been countless times throughout history when storms did come, and that there is no reason to think we will be exempt. So Jesus is encouraging us today to learn wisdom and discernment about the times in which we live, and to follow him accordingly.
Whether the storm is coming soon or not, it is always wise and right for us to listen to Christ, to trust in him, to follow his teachings, to help our neighbors, to live lives of sacrificial love and service, to take care of the most vulnerable and needy among us.
Whether the storm is coming or not, it is always wise and right for us to nourish the virtues of faith, hope, and love as individuals, as families, and as a faith community, worshiping God together, and leading lives of prayer, humility, and spiritual formation.
Whether the storm is coming soon or not, it is always wise and right to live as concerned citizens, challenging our public leaders and representatives do what is right, what is just, and that which will contribute to the common good.
If we practice these things, and stay open to the Spirit, we may find it easier to have the wisdom to know when a storm is brewing and to maintain the faithful practice of following Jesus when the storm hits.
At one point, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a catechism for the people of his own day, speaking to some of the issues that were pertinent to the storm that was coming upon Germany. He concluded it with one of his favorite quotes from Martin Luther:
“This is the Christian faith: to know what you must do and what has been given to you.”
Whether the storm is coming soon or not, it is always wise and right to remember that Jesus went through the greatest crisis of all for us, dying for us that we might have life, and sending the Holy Spirit that we might have the inner resources we need to follow the way of Christ in all the different seasons and circumstances of our lives. Even if the storm comes. Amen.
May the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.