By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 18, 2019
Luke 12:49–56 (ESV)
“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.” 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?
Have you ever been confused about a passage? You are reading through scripture, at least I hope you read through scripture, and you read something that just causes you to stop. You as yourself, “did I read that correctly or did I miss something?” You go back a few verses, and you still do not have a clues what you read, so you go back a few more, and you come to a conclusion that that just does not make sense and you forget about that part and move along. I will admit that through out my life there are times where I do not understand a passage and I will just forget that it is in the scripture and live my life the way I want too, as if it were never there. I know terrible right. I am being honest, because this is the tendency of most people. We get to something that we do not understand and we do not engage it. We do this with most of the Old Testament. I will admit that I am not a fan on meditating on Leviticus or Number. Just the though of meditating on the book of Numbers gives me flash backs to algebra and, well actually it was not that bad because I slept through most of algebra which is probably what I would do if I meditated on the book of Numbers.
All joking aside, I am speaking of something that we all do. We all like passages of scripture and we dislike others. We enjoy some stories and we dispose others. We all do this. I use the lectionary to choose the passage for each week, and the lectionary is a list of scriptures that many denominations joined together to compile that will use the seasons of the year and the church calendar to get the most scripture read in a systematic manner. If we were to read each of the scripture readings of the lectionary during our meetings for worship, you would actually hear around 70% of the New Testament, and 30% of the Old Testament over the course of three years. When I say those statistics it sounds terrible, but this statistic is if we only listen to the bible being read on a Sunday morning and do no reading outside of worship. If we used the daily lectionary the percentage of scripture read in that same three year period would be closer to 85% of the total bible. I mention this because these readings are short, most people can read these in less than ten minutes of their day. Which to be honest is not that much time. With the simple investment of ten minutes you could have a large majority of scripture read in three years. For those of us that are a little more ambitions there are reading plans that can help you venture through the entire bible in a year. But my thoughts on this are, read scripture and think about it. Let it move deep in your souls and allow those scriptures to affect your actions. Sometimes when we read too much at once we rush through and it is like getting five inches of rain on dry soils, which results in a flash flood. All the water runs off the soil and down the contours of the earth, carrying with it debris that can rip and damage the land and structures along the way.
I use the lectionary, You might think that I am limiting the scope of scripture, but the reason I have chose this path in my ministry is because I own my great-grandfather’s bible commentary set from when he was a pastor. I know which of those volumes were the most used, because some of the books are in mint condition and there is one that is barely held together by tape. I choose to use the lectionary because it forces me to preach on some of those passages I normally would not. And I know if I chose things myself, I would only preach out of the Gospel of John. And I have told the ladies that choose the music that if there is an option for which Gospel passage we read and John is one of the options I will probably always choose John.
When we approach scripture we tend to stay with those passages and books we like. We rarely really engage with those portions of scripture we find difficult to understand, and if we do engage with them we often take them out of context because we misunderstand the scriptures around them so we interpret them from our modern perspectives. Today’s passage is one of those passages that we often skip over in our minds. We probably read it because it is in the Gospel, but it is one that just does not fit with our understanding of Jesus, so we do not understand it. And because we do not understand it we look at it out of context or we just leave it alone. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I did not like some scripture. I did not like it because seemed to cut a bit too deep into what I find comfortable in my expression of faith. I do not like today’s passage either, and oddly it comes from the same area of Luke’s Gospel.
Jesus tells the people gathered around him, “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.” This is not what we expect from Jesus, We would rather he said something like, “he who is without sin cast the first stone,” or “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” We do not really like when Jesus speaks in these dark and scary ways.
The imagery in this passage is one of judgment or at least a trial of some sort. When ever fire is mentioned in scripture it usually refers to these things, unless they are cooking fish on a beach. Fire is often a frightful image. We have fire alarms in our homes and fire sprinklers in our places of business because fire consumes and can even kill. Fire must be treated with great respect because we can lose control of fire, and a fire that is out of control can be deadly. I grew up in rural Kansas, and in Kansas we have this odd relationship with fire. We use fire as a way to manage our grasslands, we also use fire at times to manage weeds in fields. To us fire is a tool. It is a tool that can be beneficial, but can easily become unmanageable. When fire escapes control it can become destructive, that last wildfire that crossed Kansas destroyed thousands of acres of land, and killed thousands of cattle. Why would we uses such a destructive tool, because to stop using fire in the prairies would result in greater risk of wildfires. When used properly and in control the fire consumes only that with is unnecessary and unwanted, leaving the ground ready for new growth. When fires are not used systematically there is a massive build up of dead plant material that will fuel even greater fires, which unfortunately happens in many areas, especially in the summer when the temperatures are hot and the weather is dry.
I have gotten a bit off topic, but fire often means trial and judgment. Jesus said that he came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! This is an odd phrase. It is frightening actually. It gives us a mental image of Jesus wielding a flame thrower. But let us take a step back. He came to cast fire on the earth. I mentioned that in Kansas we often use fire as a tool. The point of that tool is to rid the prairie of the dead grass that has little nutritional benefit for the cattle. The dead grass shades the ground causing the new grass to emerge later in the spring. If this dead grass is not removed the amount of new growth during the growing cycle will diminished and there is less nutritious grass for the cattle to eat. Universities have studied methods that would remove the dead grass that would be less frightening than fire, things like mowing, but had found that this does not have as much benefit as fire. The secondary result of the use of fire is it encourages nature to respond, it stimulates the seeds to germinate and the roots to produce. Jesus says that he has come to cast fire on the earth. He is like the Kansas range manager, going out onto the prairies starting a controlled burn. This statement is very similar to Jesus saying that he is the vine dresser that is pruning out the branches that do not produce fruit. He is casting fire on the earth to remove that dead unproductive residue that is hindering growth. But the statement goes on, “and would that it were already kindled!”
Jesus said that he was coming to provide a healthy and nourishing controlled burn, but the fire was already burning. He came to start a fire yes, but when he got here there was already a wildfire raging. I want us to keep this in our minds. There was already a fire burning out of control. The fire was burning out of control for a reason. There was old growth, dead material that had not been removed, there was trash and residue that had been left laying around. As soon as a spark hit this death, the fire raged.
We often look at this passage out of context. I have heard this passage used to promote terrible things. In most cases it promoted a form of arrogance and self-righteous promotion. An attitude where the proverbial my actions are righteous and the fact that I offend others around me is because they are wrong and Jesus is judging them. Even to the point that I will actively persecute those that oppose my ideas because Jesus said that he came to cast fire on the earth.
Jesus is saying these words out of sorrow, not judgmental ism. Jesus came to restore and reconcile humanity to God. He challenged the religious, because they were adding their own interpretations to scripture and making those interpretations the focus of the religious observances instead of letting scripture. The interpretations were not necessarily a bad thing, in fact many of those interpretations inspired and promoted new growth within the faith. But like most things they had run their course and because they were a perspective during a moment they had lost their relevance. Yet the residue remains. It is dead but they left it there, they still held on to it but because they could not say that that teaching does not make sense now, and getting rid of it they add to it with the attempt to make it more relevant again. After thousands of years of this, they have dry dead material that catches fire.
Jesus said these words after an intense discussion with religious leaders. He said these word after correcting the zealous chants of the enthusiastic laity. He said these words after confronting the concepts of civil law and the greed within, All of which came from religious interpretations commonly held and promoted by leaders at the time. Jesus says these words in sorrow because there is so much dead worldly philosophy within the religious community that when the fire burns away what is dead to allow new life to grow it will be painful. And those that have something to lose will not go gentle into the night.
“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus continues. He goes on to say that this lack of peace will cause divisions between the most dear people we know. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and strife between the in-laws. It is a common phenomenon that we often treat the people we love the most the worst. The reason this happens is because we are around them most often. They have become so common to our daily routines that we often neglect them. We begin the relationships thinking we are in this together and every decision I make is based on mutual profit. But as time goes on and we become comfortable with each other, sometimes we begin to assume that what I want is what we want. Often this is true, but occasionally the we is not really considered. This leads to arguments and struggles, which leads to resentment and eventually divisions. And a once loving home is filled with individuals, good individuals that would probably give you the shirt off their back in many instances. But individuals that are just as self centered as they were in the very beginning. Jesus said that he is going to be right in the middle of this struggle.
This passage bothers me. The prophets said that Jesus was going to be God with us, the prince of peace and the lord of lords. He was going bring about an age where the lion would lay down with the lamb, and a child could play around with snakes and not get bit. Why anyone would do that I do not know, but the Messiah was going to make the world better not worse. Yet here Jesus is saying the opposite. It does not make sense. The fact that it does not make sense to me frightens me. I sat and struggled with this over the past few days. I struggled so much that I had to leave my house and get away for a while so I could pray with this scripture. I came and I sat in the pew, I read the passage over and over and just sat in silence letting the words soak into my soul. I do not come up before you in vain. I know that I can be very wrong in what I say and I take that possibility very serious, so I pray a great deal before I speak. But usually I am comfortable with doing this at home. This week I had to go to that isolated place and I sat in silence considering what Jesus meant when he said that he was going to bring division.
Everything about Jesus’s life and lifestyle speaks truth about our relationship with God. Jesus came to the various disciples and he said to each of them in some manner “follow me.” This invitation was either directly from Jesus or was from someone who had already received that invitation. Never once did Jesus attempt to force anyone to follow him. Jesus respected each of them as individuals and they had the opportunity to accept or reject the invitation to join Jesus on his journey. As Jesus walked the pathways throughout Galilee, along the coast of the sea, and through the lands of Judea and Samaria no matter where he walked he never once imposed his lifestyle on anyone, but everywhere he went he invited others to follow. There were times that he became very vocal about certain aspects of life in a certain area and he spoke out against those things, but even in those moments of anger, the anger was focused in a manner of invitation as opposed to exclusion. I considered all of this as I sat with this passage. How does the prince of Peace become the destroyer of peace?
The reality is he is not. Even while Jesus was nailed to the cross he continued to invite people to himself. There were three crucified that day, one ridiculed Jesus, and the other pleaded with Jesus to remember him. Jesus did not reject either but invited the one to join him in paradise. While the religious leaders sneered at Jesus as he hung on the cross, Jesus looked to the the sky and said “forgive them.” Even those that brought the suffering to Jesus, he did not wish to exclude but left an open invitation to them to accept. Jesus did not institute division, everything he did invited people to a different life and lifestyle. Every word he spoke inspired a hope of something greater if we would simply turn. Yet, today we see Jesus speaking to a crowd and he says, “Do you think if have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, rather division.”
I contemplated the divisions of which Jesus spoke. I considered the arguments that I have engaged in, the grudges that I held, the resentment that I have carried. I thought of all those areas in my life that I lacked peace and I realized something, in all of those areas even the areas I felt justified, the struggle was based on me or my perspective. That person did something to me and now I have let that perceived injustice poison my life. I was offended, I was injured, I was disrespected, this all happened to me and now I will hold it against them. The divisions are self inflicted. The war I wage is my war, not Christ’s. Jesus says these words not from his personal perspective but from ours. We want Jesus to support our ideas, our actions, our lifestyles, and Jesus says no. He is saying do you think I came to justify your interpretation or perspective and exclude everyone else? No! If we want Jesus to fight our battles then we will never be at peace, because we are focused on ourselves. We are living our lives in religious self justification to the exclusion of others and Jesus will not join us in that battle.
This was a hard pill to swallow. It illuminated something within me that quite frankly I would have rather left in the darkness. Because I might be wrong. I stand before you all as a religious leader a spokesman for God, and I have to come to grips with the reality that I might be wrong. I may have looked at something, promoted something, encouraged something out of my own selfish desires or justification and I might actually be opposing the very work of Christ within this community. And the reality of this means that each of us may be doing the same.
The things we promote and encourage might cause a branch to quickly grow but wither. Seeds might quickly germinate and grow but as the heat comes we have just dry dead leaves ready to catch fire. We may have resentment and hurts we have carried for years, like a dead branch hanging precariously in the tree ready to fall on someone when the wind is right. We have all this undergrowth and residue laying around that we have not cleaned up, but we are not allowing Jesus to take care of in a controlled manner. And then all of a sudden someone or something sparks and challenges our ideology of life and a wildfire rages leaving behind destruction. We lash out at our fathers because they never listen to our ideas. We lash out at our sons because they are too young to know how things really work. We disrespect our mothers because they just do not understand that times have changed, and our daughters just don’t realize the risks they are placing themselves in. And the in-laws… I love my in-laws but I am often afraid that maybe they might think their daughter made a mistake. It burns, because we want others to do things our way, to see things our way.
Jesus is calling out to us, “repent for the kingdom is near.” but are we willing to turn? Are we willing to accept his invitation or are we going to stand in the middle of our piles of debris? Are we going to hand so tightly to our traditions and interpretations that we will shade new growth or are we going to let God take the rubbish away? Will we nurture that which is growing well or will we allow the wildfires raging in our lives destroy the good around us? Jesus is offering each of us a life and lifestyle with him, but it does have a cost. We have to let go of that of the world within us and embrace that of God. Not only in us but also in those around us.
As we enter into this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends I encourage you to examine your lives. Examine and ask God if the things that disrupt the peace in our lives are based on his will or our own, is it based in our understanding of tradition or on his life giving grace? Are we following him or are we expecting him to follow us? Let us now enter into this time of peace with God.