Good Shepherd, Two Rivers, WI
A pastor friend of mine was looking ahead to these upcoming readings from Luke’s Gospel, and jokingly lamented, “oh great, here comes ‘mean Jesus’!
Certainly there is much in today’s reading from Luke that strikes us as odd, at least goes against our typical conception of who Jesus is.
We often think of Jesus from the paintings - welcoming the little children, lovingly caring for the sheep, maybe even smiling and laughing. Or we think of Jesus humbly dying on the cross, praying the Father to forgive even his tormentors. Or maybe Jesus all bright and shiny and seated at the right hand of the Father - watching out for us, hearing our prayers. And of course, this isn’t all bad. But there’s more to Jesus than all this. Especially when we come across a reading like this.
It might even seem hard to find much good news in Jesus’ words this morning. He’s certainly not sugar-coating the hard truths, or painting a rosy picture of what he is about. “I come to bring not peace, but division. Fire! Family strife!” This is the gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God?
But a closer look reveals that yes, even in what sounds harsh, Jesus is about the business of saving and cleansing and promising good things to those who have ears to hear. And it’s ok for us to bring in other scriptures, to remind us that He is just but also the one that justifies. He is holy, but he makes us holy. He brings a fire that destroys but also purifies, a water that washes away the wicked, and also our wickedness. And he does divide people, even families. But promises those who believe in him will never be separated from him, or from the Father.
He begins, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”
You know, there are different kinds of preachers. Some tell lots of stories - like from Readers’ Digest. Some like to share personal anecdotes about their kids. There are dynamic preachers and expository preachers, and preachers that always seem to be talking right to you. Some When you hear about someone who is a “fire and brimstone” preacher, it’s usually not a compliment. It usually means they come off angry, and are harsh and perhaps even cruel, holier than thou - not a real pleasure to listen to. But here comes Jesus, cracking out the fire himself.
Any true student of scripture knows that Jesus is not all pillows and puppies, but that he can make a whip and overturn tables. He can call out the pharisees just as harshly as John the Baptist. He can preach the fire and brimstone. But this is no ordinary fire, and certainly not an uncontrolled blaze. When Jesus speaks in these harsh terms, he brings the fire of God’s wrath, his righteous wrath over sin.
We may want to believe in a God who is always nice, and never says or does anything unpleasant. A God who is always, only, love, and never scolds or judges. But the problem is there is no such God. God is holy and righteous and hates sin and punishes sin. And we don’t get to create a God to our liking. Nor should we ignore what we says of himself and imagine him in a more palatable fashion.
And the thought of the righteous Son of God casting fire on earth should make us quake and tremble, for we are sinners, and deserve to be burnt up like stubble. We are guilty as sin, and deserve the punishments of sin, death and hell.
But all is not lost. Yes, our God is a consuming fire, but there is also a baptism.... there is cleansing.... Jesus continues:
“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”
Jesus had already been baptized by John in the Jordan. So he’s not talking about that here. But in that baptism by John, Jesus did do something important. He identified with us sinners. He who had no sin of his own, took on our sin, became the stand-in for all sinners. And the baptism he was about to undergo - would be truly distressing. It is the baptism of the cross. The baptism of suffering and death. The baptism of bearing God’s wrath for all sin, being consumed in his body to pay the debt for us all.
The same Jesus who will one day come to judge the living and the dead, who will destroy this corrupt creation in fire, and cast those who reject him into the eternal lake of fire.... is the same Jesus who stands between you and the fire of God’s wrath. And instead of you, he is consumed. He takes the heat, for you.
And so there is peace with God. For in his resurrection from the dead, he proves stronger than death, and paves the way for your resurrection. So baptized into his death, we are also raised in our baptism - raised to life in Christ who lives. So our baptism is only distressing to the Old Adam, who there is drowned, and buried. The New Man in us, the new creation in Christ, lives in Christ forever.
But that doesn’t mean that everything is all a bed of roses for us yet.
On this earth, in this time in-between, as we wait for the return of Christ, the day of judgment and victory... in these end times, there will be trouble. Especially for us who are in Christ. And even, yes, in the family.
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five 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.”
For the word of Christ, by which we live, is a dividing word. It divides truth from falsehood. And sometimes the truth hurts. The letter- the law- kills. But the Spirit gives life. Those who reject the truth, reject the Spirit, reject the life Christ brings, and are divided from you who receive it in faith. There are believers, and there are unbelievers. There are sheep and goats. Yes, sometimes even in our own family.
That doesn’t mean we don’t love our parents and children (and yes even our in-laws) who are outside the church. It doesn’t mean we write them off or scream that they are going to hell. Nor, by the way, does it mean we can adjust the uncomfortable truth of God’s holy word to make us more at peace about the whole situation.
But it does mean we have some praying to do. That God would call the unbeliever to faith, as he’s called us. It does mean that we have some loving to do - for if Christ tells us to love even our enemies, then certainly there’s room to love even the unbeliever under our roof, or at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, or
And it also means we have an opportunity, so share the hope that is within us. To point to Christ in our actions and words, when the time is right, with great humility.
Invite ‘em to church. Pray for them. Tell them you pray for them. And be an example of faith yourself. Maybe even tell them what a big sinner you are, and yet how much bigger is Christ’s forgiveness.
That Christ was baptized into death for you, and raised from death for you, and lives and rules all things for you, and for all.
And he does not promise peace on earth, but does promise peace with God for all who believe. So trust in him, dear Christians, for that peace is yours. That peace not as the world gives, he gives to you. The peace that trusts in him, and in his truth, in spite of all trouble and persecution, in joy and in suffering. A peace that flows only from faith.
And that peace that passes understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, amen.