St. Luke 12:49-59
Last Sunday I dropped into a friend’s open house and before too long I found myself deep in conversation with a stranger, who had noticed from the way I was dressed that I’m a clergyman. The conversation quickly turned to “end times” and I listened as he explained his theories about current events in light of the books of Daniel and Revelation: So-and-so is the anti-Christ, the US and Russia and Israel are important for such-and-such reasons, and he told me how a “Bible prophecy” guy he follows has unlocked the “secret Bible code to history”—all of that sort of thing. And I mostly just smiled and nodded. This is nothing new. This is what comes of reading with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In the short four decades of my own life I’ve already seen numerous “Bible prophecy” schemes that never panned out. I can remember people saying that Henry Kissinger was the anti-Christ and later it was Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein is dead and Henry Kissinger is in his nineties now. Hal Lindsey gathered his followers in Jerusalem on the eve of the new millennium because Jesus was coming back. But he didn’t. But none of this is new. Every generation speculates about these things. Many people at the end of the First Millennium were convinced Jesus was coming back then. The Seventh Day Adventist cult was founded on the idea that Jesus was coming back in 1844, which became for them the “Great Disappointment”. These sorts of speculations have been going on in Christian circles for two thousand years. The Jews had been making similar speculations for hundreds of years before that.
Brothers and sisters, this is the wrong way to read both the newspaper and the Bible. This is the problem that Jesus gets at in our lesson today from Luke 12. It’s been the lesson from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Why does Jesus so often rebuke the scribes and the Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, and all the ordinary people who followed their way of thinking? Because they were interpreting and judging the times wrongly. But there was a deeper problem. Why were they interpreting and judging the times wrongly? Because they didn’t understand God and his plan. They’d been given a light to lighten the gentiles, but they’d abused that light, they’d kept it to themselves. They used it to condemn the people in darkness for so long that they lost sight of what God was all about. Instead of fulfilling their mission of drawing the world to God, they were hunkered down under their basket, waiting for God to come in judgement to smite all their enemies. They’d forgotten that sin and death are the real enemies; not the Herodians, not the Romans, not the pagan gentiles. They thought that God’s plan was to save Israel and Israel alone. They’d forgotten that God had saved Israel so that she could carry his saving message to the rest of the world. In the gospels we read how Jesus came to take up and to fulfil Israel’s failed mission. Israel’s had failed to be light, so the light himself came. That’s what we recall at Christmas. And in the gospel we see Jesus, the light, calling Israel to repent, to turn around, and to carry the light once again.
We’ll look this morning at Luke 12:49-59. Jesus is still addressing the crowd that had gathered around him and his disciples. He’s been talking about what it means to follow him—what it means to be a disciple. He warned against hypocrisy. He warned that persecution was coming, but that we have no need to fear. Even if persecution leads to martyrdom, God will never cease to care for us. He’s warned against finding security in our possessions and money—against finding security apart from God. And in the last section he warned his friends to be ready—just as the Israelites were warned to be ready for the exodus. Jesus is preparing to lead his people in a new exodus, not this time from bondage in Egypt, but from the bondage of sin and death. This is what he’s on his way to Jerusalem to do. Be ready.
Today’s “Bible prophecy” folks reading with the newspaper in one hand the Bible in the other are trying to be ready. The problem is that they’re ready in the wrong way and for the wrong thing. The Pharisees were trying to get the people ready, but they’d misinterpreted God’s plan. They were preparing the wrong way and for the wrong thing too. Look now at verses 49-53:
“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 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.”
Most of us have a tendency to think of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild”. We’re prone to forgetting that when we ask “What would Jesus do?” whipping merchants and overturning tables in righteous anger are amongst the options. We need to remember that there are two sides to Jesus’ mission and ministry. You can’t comfort the afflicted without at the same time afflicting the comfortable. He came to free the captives and to preach good news to the poor. He came to preach love and grace and mercy. But when you free the captives, you tend to upset those who held them in bondage. What’s good news to the poor is often upsetting news to the rich. And the message of grace will always make the self-righteous angry. The poor, the blind, the sick, the captive—the outsiders—understood why Jesus’ message was “good news”. But for those who thought they were already on the inside, those who trusted in themselves, those invested in Caesar’s kingdom, those who thought they were righteous, Jesus’ message was threatening and we see them increasingly opposing him. It’s only going to get worse.
Jesus has been telling the crowd and telling his disciples that they need to be ready and now he tells them why. He’s come to bring fire. That’s an image of judgement that the Jews would have understood very well. And the Jews were expecting the Lord to come in judgement. The problem is that they expected him to come in judgement on the nations—not on Israel. Even Jesus stresses this. He talks about bringing fire and in connection with that being baptised himself. It links the coming tragic events with his commissioning by the Father and the Spirit at his baptism in the Jordan. That was his commissioning, but his mission won’t be finished until he’s gone to Jerusalem, until he’s brought judgement, and until he himself has faced the consequences of that judgement. Before things get better, before Israel receives salvation, Israel is going to face division. Jesus reminds them that he came to preach and to bring peace, but that peace is going to bring division. Again, you can’t preach peace without upsetting the people devoted to war. You can’t preach grace without upsetting the self-righteous. Three times in these verses Jesus stresses that he is bringing division. What does it look like to follow Jesus? What does it look like to a disciple? Jesus describes sacrifice and he describes division. That means that his disciples, as part of their following in faith, are going to be called to commit and to walk apart from those who don’t follow—even face persecution. Think of Abraham. When the Lord called him, it was to leave his country and to leave his family and to follow him into a new land he’d never seen and knew nothing about. The Lord’s call was a call to divide, to separate from old ways and old life and old sources of security and to cleave to the Lord. Jesus now calls his people to do the same and our commitment even in the face of persecution then becomes evidence of our faith. This is a big deal for us, but consider how much bigger a deal it was for the people gathered around Jesus that day. Family and kinship ties were everything in the ancient world. But this only highlights all the more that fact that Jesus is forming a new people and a new family.
It’s not like the people shouldn’t have expected this. Jesus describes households and families being divided and he draws on the prophet Micah when he talks about division between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. This is what the prophets had said would happen when the Messiah came. Israel had forgotten, again, thinking that the Lord would come to smite the pagan gentiles while leading Israel into paradise. Now the Messiah has come, but he’s consistently rebuking Israel for her unfaithfulness, he’s welcoming outsiders and gentiles, and he’s re-establishing or reconstituting Israel into a group of people who have reoriented their lives around him and his call. David Tiede writes, “Those who would reduce Jesus to a sentimental savior of a doting God have not come to terms with the depth of divine passion, of the wrath and love of God which is revealed in Jesus’ word, will, and obedience even unto death.”
Jesus goes on in verses 54-56:
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ 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?”
Jesus stresses how obvious all of this shouldhave been. Everyone in Palestine knew that when you saw a cloud blowing in from the west, from the Mediterranean, that torrential rains were coming. That kind of rain could be dangerous; it often caused flash floods. And the people knew to be on the lookout for the signs. They also knew that when the wind blew from the south, out of the desert, that scorching heat was on the way. Everyone knew these signs and what they meant. They were obvious. And what the people saw taking place in Jesus’ ministry should have been just as obvious. In verse 52 he said that from now on division was coming. Division to be the main characteristic of the present time. In Jesus the Lord was coming to bring judgement and redemption. If they had studied the Scriptures and if they had remembered their mission to be light to the world, Israel would have recognised these signs. The signs were all around them: the occupying Roman armies, Herod’s corruption, the priests in the temple who had sold out to the Romans and to Herod, the wrong-headed agenda of the Pharisees—and now, coming in the middle of all that, this prophet proclaiming God’s kingdom, healing, delivering, and forgiving. It should have been obvious. But because Israel had forgotten her mission she was blind to the obvious and instead of being vindicated for her faithfulness, she was facing the very real prospect of being caught up in the Lord’s judgement right along with the pagans.
And this is what Jesus is getting at in the parable he tells in verses 56-59:
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
Jesus again stresses that Israel should know better. But because she forgot her mission to be a light to the world, since she rebelled against her mission to be a blessing to the nations and instead chose to rise up in violence against the Romans, Israel is going to find herself being dragged off to court. Caesar didn’t deal kindly with rebels. Foreign kings who rebelled wound up in chains, their generals crucified, and their people enslaved. And Jesus warns the people there that day: if you don’t snap out of it, if you don’t recognise the signs of the times and return to God’s plan for you, if you keep thinking that the Romans are your enemies, you’re going to wind up destroyed by them. But if you do turn back to God, there’s hope. If you reorient your lives and your thinking around Jesus, there’s salvation.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Israel’s leaders and the majority of the people rejected Jesus. In a.d. 70 the Romans came, they destroyed Jerusalem, they destroyed the temple, and they scattered the Jews—Israel paid the “very last penny”. All because she failed to understand what God’s call to her was; all because she couldn’t interpret the present time and judge what was right.
We have to ask what all of this has to do with us. Jesus was talking to people about a judgement that has long since passed. But as with last week’s lesson, what we read here in Luke’s Gospel teaches us something about how we live today in light of Jesus and in light of the Good News. The “signs of the time” are different for us, but we still need to watch them. The physical judgement that came on Israel two thousand years ago was a foretaste—a down payment—of the final judgement that the world is still waiting for. Israel stood condemned when the Lord came in judgement because she had forgotten her calling and her ministry. God gave her a light and called her to take it to the nations—to bless them with it and to draw them out of the darkness. Instead she hid the light under a basket, condemned the nations for walking in darkness, and prayed for the day when the Lord would come to judge them. When Jesus came and called Israel back to her mission she killed him.
And now, brothers and sisters, we’ve been given a mission as we wait for Jesus’ to return. At his first coming he took up Israel’s failed mission and completed it at the cross. He became Israel in himself and as we respond to his call to find our lives in him and to reorient our lives around him, we become part of that new Israel. And as God gave the old Israel a mission to be light to the world, so Jesus gives us the same mission. He reminds us that he came not to condemn, but to redeem. The world already stands condemned for its sinful rebellion. Jesus can add nothing to that condemnation. He came to provide a means of escape. He died that those who trust in him, who find their identity in him, can have life. And he calls us to share that life with the spiritually dead.
Our problem is that we often fall into the same mode of thinking that Israel fell into. We forget that we were once sinners. We become self-righteous. Instead of taking our light to the world, we keep it to ourselves and then pray for God to come and judge all the sinners out in the darkness. We forget that our enemies are not flesh and blood. Our enemies are sin and death—enemies of all humanity, enemies that Jesus conquered at the cross and when he rose from the grave. Enemies he conquered not only for our benefit, but for the benefit all humanity.
We see all sorts of examples of this around us, but one rather stark one has passed through my email in-box and my Facebook wall at least a dozen times in the last two or three weeks. It’s a song. The song begins with an explanation that Jesus is the reason for the Christmas season and then launches into a disconcertingly cheery message of condemnation: “If you don’t see ‘Merry Christmas’ in the window, No! you don’t go in that store.” The gist of the song is that to keep Christ in Christmas, Christians should send a message that we will boycott businesses that refuse to say “Merry Christmas”.
If this isn’t the epitome of Pharisaism, I don’t know what is. On the one hand, it seems to be perfectly fine with the way the world has turned the celebration of Jesus’ birth in an orgy of commercialism. It assumes that shopping and buying gifts is at the heart of Christmas for us as much as it is for the secular world. However, if your business refuses to acknowledge Jesus as the justification for this season of commercialism, then we Christians are going to do our level best to make sure that you and your employees starve. Remember Jesus’ warning in Luke 11:42: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God.”
Brothers and sisters, people who know that Jesus is the reason for the season will keep him at the centre of it. People who know that Jesus is the reason for the season will say “Merry Christmas”. The only people who are going to balk at “Merry Christmas” are the people who don’t know Jesus—the very people who need to hear the Good News. Starving them out—and starving out their employees who have nothing to do with their policies—is hardly the way to share the Good News of God’s love and grace with them. Jesus might say to us: “Woe to you! For you say ‘Merry Christmas’ and neglect justice and love of God.”
And we do this all the time. We do this when we condemn this or that group of notorious sinners and evil-doers. We do it when we condemn people caught up in false religions. It’s easy to be rude and nasty when Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door. It’s easy to condemn Muslims, especially when our government is at war in the Middle East. But we need to remember that these people already stand condemned—just as we once did. We don’t stand in God’s good graces today because of anything we’ve done or because we’re special. We stand in God’s good graces only because of Jesus and we need to share Jesus with these people that they might escape condemnation. Yes, we need to address sin and false religion, but we need to address it so that we can then lead people to the Good News that Jesus offers life if they will turn to him in faith as Lord.
It’s all about our orientation: we need a proper understanding of God, of our standing before him, and of our calling and mission. If we get that wrong, as Israel did, we get everything else wrong—and even risk losing our status with God. Think of driving your car. When you look at the gauges, you’ve got to understand them. When you get pulled over for speeding, it won’t do any good to explain that you were doing 120, but were confused and looking at the miles per hour markings on the speedometer. When you run out of gas, it won’t make a difference that you were looking at the temperature gauge and not the gas gauge—you’ll still be out of gas. And just so when the Lord returns. It won’t do any good to explain that you misunderstood your mission.
I started out saying that it’s a dangerous thing to read with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. That’s really not entirely true. The fact is that we should read current events in light of the Bible. The problem with the “Bible prophecy” folks is that they’ve forgotten that the ministry of the prophet in the Bible is not to tell the future; it’s to warn of judgement and to call for repentance. Bishop Wright puts it this way, “If the kingdom of God is to come on earth as it is in heaven, part of the prophetic role of the church is to understand the events of earth and to seek to address them with the message of heaven.” We need to speak the love and justice of God into the events and into the lives around us. That may bring division as it did in Jesus’ ministry—in fact it’s guaranteed to bring division—but in the end it’s also the only way the world will hear Jesus’ call to repentance and the offer of life he gives. As we await Jesus’ return, we sinners redeemed by grace must speak grace into the world, the events, and the lives around us. We must speak redemption to the condemned. We must be light in the darkness.
Let us pray: In the Old Testament lesson, Father, you called on your prophet Isaiah to speak comfort to your people—to call them to repentance and to preach to them your saving grace. Remind us that this is our mission as well. Let us never forget that we are sinners saved by your grace and show how to apply the message of your grace, of your love, of your justice to the events and people around us. Give us wisdom to know how to confront the darkness with your light that we might effectively bring your offer of salvation to those lost in darkness. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.