Ultimate Concerns

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

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!

Not all of you know that my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when I was a boy.  There is a thirty-minute version of that story I have told a hundred times, but let me see if I can sum it up in three minutes:

We were trying to build a volcano in the back yard.  We piled up a big mound of dirt, dug a deep hole in the center of it, and then poured every flammable liquid we could find into the hole—gasoline, turpentine, nail polish remover.  We wanted the volcano to erupt, and it did, spectacularly.  My brother Ed nearly lost his eyebrows but other than that it was very satisfying.  We had some lunch and then went to my bedroom in the back of the house to relax.  I was reading a Superman comic book, Ed was reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Scott was reading Volume IV of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when we heard my mother scream, “The house is on fire!”

We sprang into action and ran to the kitchen where we had heard our mother’s voice.  We didn’t see her, but when we opened the door to the back stairwell we saw that the whole upstairs was on fire.  We threw a few buckets of water up the steps, but when we saw that it wasn’t doing any good we grabbed whatever we could carry and got out of the house as quickly as we could.  The fire department got there soon after and those brave firefighters did their best, but the wood in that house was as dry as a matchstick, and the whole thing burned to the ground.  Nobody was hurt, but our home—that big, beautiful, ramshackle place we had been renting for twenty five dollars a month—was a total loss.

There: I think I did that in less than three minutes.  The thirty-minute version is a lot funnier and if you’d like to hear it sometime I’d be happy to tell it—again!  But I want to go back to that moment when my mother screamed, “The house is on fire!”  That was the moment my brothers and I sprang into action, because that’s what you do when the house is on fire.  You don’t turn the page in your comic book and say, “Did you hear that boys?  Mom said the house is on fire?”  No, that moment is a moment of crisis: it calls for action.

Which may be why Jesus seems so frustrated in today’s Gospel lesson.  Remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die.  He knows it, and has already told his disciples—twice!—that it’s going to happen.  This is the “baptism” with which he must be baptized, the one that has him under so much stress.  He knows that every step he takes brings him closer to his own execution, and yet his disciples don’t seem to get it, no matter how plainly he puts it.  In Luke 9:22 he tells them, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes and be killed….”  Later in that same chapter he says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands” (Luke 9:44).  But Luke tells us “they did not understand this saying; its meaning remained concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it.  And they were afraid to ask him about it” (Luke 9:45).

So now, three chapters later, they’ve moved on.  They’re looking ahead, and beginning to get excited about the Festival of the Passover.  I can picture one of them walking alongside Jesus and saying, “Teacher, won’t it be wonderful when we get to Jerusalem and they crown you king?  When you run the Romans out of Israel, and sit on the throne of your ancestor David?  When you usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity?”  And I can just imagine Jesus turning to that disciple and saying, “You really don’t get it, do you?”  But as long as we are being honest let’s admit that we don’t get it either.

It might help to review what’s been happening here in Luke, chapter 12, because it’s a long chapter and there’s a lot going on.  Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the Rich Fool, and Jesus warned his hearers to be on their guard against any kind of greed, because life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.  And then he told them that they didn’t have to worry about those things anyway, what they would eat or what they would wear, because it was their Father’s good pleasure to give them the Kingdom.  But then he reminded them that the Kingdom could come soon, it could come at any time, and their job was to be ready.  This was not the time to be lying around reading comic books; this was the time to be wide awake, loins girded, ready for action.  “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus says.  “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!”

In her comments on this passage Debie Thomas writes: “Jesus’ words compel us to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship.  Descriptive rather than prescriptive, they declare in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously.  What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the ‘fire’ of God’s word to burn through us.  Bottom line?  If ‘[gentle] Jesus, meek and mild’ is what we prefer, then this week’s Gospel lesson is not for us.  If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the peace of God is about so much more than good feelings.  Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.[i]

I remember getting a call one Monday afternoon from a church member who was still upset about the sermon I had preached the day before.  He had found it a little too challenging.  He said, “That’s not what I want when I come to church!  I want a sermon that makes me feel better, not worse.  I want to go home feeling good!”  I can’t remember what I said in reply, but Jesus might have said, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  In other words, I haven’t come to make you feel good, I have come to create a crisis!

I can still remember learning that word in Greek class.  It comes from the verb krinō, which means “to judge,” or “decide.”  But a crisis is when you have to judge or decide something right then, right there.  In a previous sermon I said, “It reminds me of an old Russian novel, where a young woman is standing on the station platform with her mother and father, her sisters and brothers, when the man she loves gets on the train and then, suddenly, turns around and holds out his hand to her.  ‘Come with me!’ he says, and she has to decide: do I jump on the train with the man I love, or do I stay here on the platform with my loving family?  It’s a crisis, because the train is picking up speed.  She can’t put off the decision forever.  She has to make it in the next few seconds, and she feels herself torn between what matters and what matters most.  She may not even know which it is: the man on the train, or the family on the platform.  But there he is, holding out his hand, and she has to choose.

“The moment is as sharp as a sword.”[ii]

In today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah God says, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).  In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice?” (The Message, Luke 12:51).  No!  Jesus’ words in this passage are like fire, like a hammer, like a sharp sword that would divide us from anything that might keep us from following him.  “From now on five in one household will be divided,” he says, “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” (Luke 12:52-53).

And we know what he’s talking about.

In these politically divided times members of the same family have been unable to sit down together for Thanksgiving dinner, because two of them voted one way and three of them voted another and somehow their attachment to political figures, or parties, or platforms have become more important to them than their own families, so that they can’t even sit down and enjoy a meal in peace.  But then, Jesus didn’t come to bring peace.  He came to ask: “Is there anything in your life that is more important than following me? (And yes, that would include our political affiliations).  Anything more important than God’s kingdom and his righteousness?  If there is, let the sword of my words sever those attachments.  Let me divide you from anything that threatens to take my place.”  And let’s pause to consider what some of those things might be:

  1. Earlier in chapter 12 Jesus warns his disciples that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but sometimes we forget that. It’s possible that the things that threaten to take Jesus’ place in our life are actually things.  We might become so set on having bigger, better, and nicer things that we begin to strive for them (like people who aren’t even Christian), rather than striving for God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  I asked a young woman recently, “If your house were on fire, what would you rush back in to save?” and she said, “My phone.”  She probably wouldn’t say that she loves her phone more than Jesus, but today’s Gospel lesson raises that kind of question:  “What is your most valuable possession?  And is there anything—any thing—that you love more than him?”
  2. But maybe it’s not a thing at all; maybe it’s a person. I remember saying years ago, before my children were born, that it was harder for me to love God than it was to love Christy, my wife.  Because I could see Christy, I could talk to her, I could hold her in my arms.  God is so immortal, so invisible, that I don’t always feel very close to him.  That’s why he came close to us in Jesus.  That’s why they called him Emmanuel: “God with us.”  But there are days when even Jesus doesn’t feel very close, when it is far easier for me to pour out my love on my wife, or my children, or now my adorable grandchildren.  “Even so,” Jesus might say, “I need to be first in your life.  I need you to ask yourself if there is anyone more important than me.”
  3. And then (not finally but additionally), our not-so-humble opinions. Are they more important to us than Jesus?  I’m surprised sometimes by how hard I can dig in my heels when someone suggests that my way is not the right way.  I’m surprised by the way my face flushes and my heart begins to beat faster when someone challenges my convictions.  And sometimes the one who is doing the challenging is Jesus.  He reminds me that I’m not in charge.  He tells me to seek God’s kingdom rather than my own.  He tells me to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.  That’s not the way I would choose to do it but if I’m really going to follow him I need to be willing to give up my way in favor of his.

My friend Don Flowers once spent two months filling the pulpit of a Baptist church in Bali (I don’t even know how you get a job like that).  But he told me about meeting a woman there who had grown up Hindu, one who had, at some point, decided to follow Jesus.  Her family told her quite frankly: “If you become a Christian you will no longer be part of our family.”  She struggled with that for a long time, as anyone would, but eventually she made a choice between what matters and what matters most.  It’s as if she were standing there on the station platform with her family, and the train began to pull away, and Jesus held out his hand and said, “Come with me!”  He created a crisis; he forced a decision; the moment was as sharp as a sword.  But in that moment she decided to follow him, even if it meant leaving her family behind forever.

That’s all Jesus is really asking for in this passage—everything.  He’s asking us to follow him even if we have to leave our friends and family behind.  He’s asking us to open our hands and give up the money or things we are clutching too tightly.  He’s asking us to seek God’s kingdom before any other political entity or figure.  He’s asking us to walk with him on the road to Jerusalem, even if it leads to death.  That’s all.  And as he says at the end of this passage, if you can read the signs of the times you can see that this is the time to decide.  This is the moment of crisis.  Your house is on fire.  You need to decide now what matters most to you, and then spend the rest of your days living as if it does.  Are you ready for that?  Am I ready for that?  God, help us!

And let us pray…

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Disturbing the Peace,” Journey with Jesus, August 11, 2019 (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2305-disturbing-the-peace).

[ii] Jim Somerville, “Not Peace But a Sword,” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on August 18, 2013.