Sermon for 11 Pentecost, Year C
Based on Lk. 12:49-56
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Our gospel for today is certainly “a hum-dinger” is it not?! Here during this pleasantly hot summer Sunday, when all we really want and need is GOOD NEWS to help us relax and enjoy life—Jesus turns up the heat on us and speaks his very difficult words. Words that most of us would likely rather not hear! “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!” What tough words these are for us to hear. I must confess, they are equally as tough for us preachers to preach! I would much rather preach a GOOD NEWS sermon than one of fire and brimstone! Who wants to rock the boat? Who wants to upset or offend anybody—including myself by preaching a message of fire, baptismal suffering, and family divisions on this beautiful summer Sunday when as the popular phrase goes “the living is easy”—or at least it’s supposed to be, isn’t it?!
A newly-ordained (pastor) was assigned to his first parish. In his first sermon, he condemned wagering on horses. The sermon went over poorly. “You see, (Pastor)” a parishioner explained, “this whole area is known for its fine horses. Many members of the parish make their living raising horses.” The next Sunday the (pastor) spoke on the evils of smoking, including the harm caused both to the smoker and the smoker’s family and friends. Again, the (pastor’s) words were met with stony stares. Many members of the parish grew tobacco. The third week (the Pastor) preached on the evils of drinking, only to discover after (worship) that a major distillery was one of the town’s largest employers. The frustrated (preacher) went to the parish council. “Good Lord,” he cried, “what should I preach about?” A kindly elderly woman spoke up, “(Pastor), preach against those dreadful, godless Chinese communists. Why, there isn’t a Chinese communist within a thousand miles of here!” 1
Although the story may seem a bit humorous to us, there is some rather sobering truth in it. It really doesn’t matter where we are, on almost any given Sunday, likely we preachers will offend someone by the message of the gospel we preach! The way of God’s Kingdom is very difficult—Jesus places very high demands on us his would-be followers. He did not promise us that being his disciples would be easy! The message of the gospel, and the way of life that goes along with it, shall always be offensive to some; even to the extent that families are divided over it. In addition to this, the story teaches us that preaching an offensive gospel message is okay, as long as it does not apply to me or us personally—as long as it applies to they and them it is okay! They need to change or repent, they are wrong, not us!
Coming back to our gospel for today, what is Jesus really driving at as he speaks these hard words? What sense are we able to make of these words of Jesus today? How do they speak to our situation?
Well, for starters, there is a sense that the word fire here is at least a double-edged sword; there is good and bad news here. The bad news for us all is that fire involves judgement, repentance, changes sometimes that move our lives in directions may at first seem very unpleasant, and difficult. Most of us don’t like to hear a word of judgement—it is too harsh. It can hurt us to the very core. Yet, there is a sense that all of us are being judged each day of our lives in the way that we live or fail to live our lives. One theologian, Eugene H. Peterson, put it this way: “The way we are—the way we spend our money, eat our meals, read a book, treat a stranger—affects our capacity to see the beauty of holiness, hear the word of absolution, feel the touch of love, enter into a prayer life.”2That is a very sobering thought; that we are, each day, being held accountable to God for our lives. How can we endure this? Is it not too much for us to face and deal with? Do we have to live with a sense of overwhelming fear and dread of God the Judge all of our lives?
The answer to that is: BY NO MEANS! Here is where the other side of the double-edged, judgement sword comes in. On the upside, the good news of judgement is that it is like the refiner’s fire. The purpose of the refiner’s fire is to burn off, to purify all of the garbage, the impurities, in order to produce the final product of pure gold. Or, to look at it another way, it is like the forest fire. Yes, when a forest fire strikes, it can leave the area looking like a war zone; like there is nothing left; everything seems burnt and destroyed. Yet, if one visits that same forest, say a dozen or so years later, one shall see a beautiful new, green and flourishing forest. So too, as we face and experience the fiery judgement of God; yes, we will feel at times that we’re suffering from almost incurable burns. The judgement of God may seem too hot for us to endure or survive. However, in the end, we shall, with God’s help and grace endure and survive it. It will not last forever. It will do its purifying work within and among us; then we shall have a new, fresh, beautiful beginning—just like the refined gold or the new forest.
Yes, we will, as followers of Jesus face some very difficult and challenging things in our life-journey. Jesus did not promise us a rose garden. Life is not always going to be easy. People get sick and die too young of cancer or heart attacks. Sometimes marriages and families are divided over matters of faith in Christ and his Kingdom. Sometimes those divisions can and do lead to divorce and family breakdown. Sometimes congregations face conflicts and divisions too over various issues. Sometimes our youth can get mixed up in the wrong crowd, leading them into drugs or crime. Sometimes people do lose their jobs and become unemployed for long periods of time. All of this and much much more can and does happen to fine Christian people. Life is not always what it seems. We, like Jesus himself, shall face and endure our baptism of sufferings and our crosses.
Yet how can it be that Jesus did not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division—or as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, a sword? Does this mean that Jesus is happy when there are wars and every family or church is always fighting and divided? Hardly! Does this mean that Jesus thought that violence should be used to usher in the Kingdom of God? By no means! How could Jesus speak in this way, when in other places, the gospels tell us that Jesus greeted many people on different occasions with “Peace”? After all, is not one of the titles of Jesus “the Prince of Peace”?
To answer such questions, one has to look at the larger story, the larger context of Christ’s life and purpose. Luke tells us earlier, that this teaching occurred while Jesus “set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem.” He was on his way to that final day of suffering and crucifixion. There was a deep sense of urgency to Jesus’ words. He knew the end was near. Nothing was going to prevent him from doing what he firmly believed God the Father had sent him in the world to do. This teaching of no peace but division means that God’s Kingdom is different than all worldly kingdoms, yet paradoxically, at the same time, it is coming into the world as we pray for it to do so in the Lord’s Prayer. It causes division because we as Christ’s followers are called to a Kingdom lifestyle that disturbs all comfortable worldly rules, values, and lifestyles. A Kingdom lifestyle of equality among all peoples—without discriminating against others by class, race, creed, gender and so on; of treating every human being with dignity, justice, kindness and mercy, whether we think they deserve it or not; of looking at and treating every baptized Christian as a family member, not just our blood relations; of loving even those whom we would rather judge and condemn to the hottest regions of hell—namely, our enemies.
Yes, this will bring divisions. But such divisions are signs among us that God Kingdom is coming within us and among us. For that, thanks be to God.
1 Cited from: “Preaching topics,” Connections, 20th Sunday of the year (7 Lantern Lane, Londonderry, N.H. 03053-3905).
2 Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality(Grand Rapids, MI & Cambridge, U.K. & Vancouver, B.C.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. & Regent College Publishing, 1997), p.82.
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