This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on August 14, 2016.
We live in an era in which we get a daily dose of hard news born in hatred, division and violence. Churches and religious leaders search for words, and communities long for action. Do we have a gospel big enough for this moment?
It is easy to preach the pleasant Jesus – Jesus who heals, loves, comforts, feeds and restores. The problem is that the gospel story is more than one of a pasteurized and homogenized pleasant Jesus. Some of Jesus’ words disquiet us. The temptation is to walk away from the difficult words. But, if one desires to proclaim an authentic picture of Jesus, then one must be prepared to hold in tension the good and encouraging words with the difficult ones.
This lectionary passage draws us into words of fire, stress and divided families – of shattered peace and brewing storms. These are difficult and unsettling words from Jesus. In Luke’s gospel account, one feels a growing intensity from the moment Jesus, Peter and John come down the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:37-43), leading up to the moment in our passage. One finds Jesus offering words of judgement on the generation that stood before him and prophetic words of woe for cities, Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 9:4; 10:13-16; 11:29, 37-52). These strong indictments set the context for Jesus’ difficult words we encounter in the focal text.
Jesus proclaims, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49). The Scriptures the people would have heard taught in the synagogue in that era would have depicted fire as the symbol for God’s judgement, purification and the presence of the Spirit of God. Their religious vocabulary would have been filled with stories like the ones of Moses at the burning bush, the presence of God expressed in the pillar of fire leading the people into the desert, and fire raining down and destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps some would have known the Deuteronomic language “the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Perhaps others might have heard John the Baptist’s pronouncement over Jesus: “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). Jesus’ language beckons and longs for a time when God’s unrestrained work would burn among the people.
Jesus proclaims, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50). There is scholarly debate on whether one should tie this pronouncement to Mark 10:38, in which Jesus confronts James and John on whether they are truly prepared for the baptism with which he was to be baptized. Regardless, this baptismal imagery is certainly not a reference to Jesus anticipating a second water baptism. It is a reference to the sacrificial redemptive work on the cross that awaits Jesus. Of note is the stress Jesus expresses in this passage in anticipation of what he must complete. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, we hear Jesus speak with similar angst: “You faithless and perverted generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear you?” (9:41). Clearly burdened by the weight he carries, Jesus has turned his eyes toward Jerusalem and all that awaits him.
Jesus proclaims, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51). This word is followed by a litany of intimate relationships that would be divided against one another (12:52-53). The list of divided relationships is hard to digest. This word from Jesus stands in sharp contrast to what the Church is accustomed to hearing about peace from the Pauline Epistles (Romans 5:1; I Corinthians 7:15, 14:33; 2 Corinthians 13:11; Philippians 4:9; Colossians 3:15). The picture of Jesus as the bringer of division rather than peace seems counterintuitive. However, as Luke pens his gospel account, these words would have resonated with a people who had to endure broken relationships because of the faith they had claimed in Jesus Christ. These words of division resonate in our current context as our communities struggle with divisions along almost every cultural line.
As the proclaimer prepares to preach this passage, it is worthwhile to note that one cannot extract Jesus’ words on divisions from his words on fire and baptism. The only way for divisions to find healing is when one witnesses God’s unrestrained and completed work through Christ seen at the cross and empty tomb. It would be valuable for the proclaimer to help the congregant understand that the peace which Paul describes requires a redemptive act of God to change the story. Likewise, in a contemporary context, it requires Jesus’ followers to be people of redemption and restoration if the divisions are to give way to community.
The passage concludes with Jesus’ invitation for the crowd to look toward the sky. Jesus leverages a familiar adage on reading weather and how they would respond to what they saw. In the kind of twist one expects from Jesus, he asks them that if they can read the weather, why they are blind to what is going on? This is a worthwhile question for the congregation. Do we have eyes to see what is going on around us and a heart to respond?
First Baptist Church, Knoxville, Tennessee
Tags: judgement, fire, baptism, current culture, eyes to see, family division