Division on the Way

Published: Monday, 15 August 2016

This sermon, given by Geoff Pound at ABC on 14 August 2016, is the sixth in a series entitled, ‘People of the Way’. Check out the introduction to this series and Study 6 for personal and group study that accompanies this sermon.

Division GP 0816

Reading: Luke 12:49-56

12:49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;

12:53 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."

12:54 He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens.

 

12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens.

12:56 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?

When John Philip Newell was Warden of the Iona Community in Scotland, his family had a dog, named Joe. Being a border collie, Joe lived to round up.

Once a week, those living on the island participated in Pilgrimage Day. On such a day, pilgrims walked the seven-mile route around the island praying for peace and wholeness.

Joe lived for Pilgrimage Day. More than that, on Pilgrimage Day Joe went berserk with ecstasy. Because on Pilgrimage Day Joe got to round up over 100 people, all day long.

This instinct for unity and togetherness is especially bred into the border collie. Joe was ecstatic because he was living according to his deepest instinct.

In the afternoon when the Iona pilgrims approached the ruins of a hermit hut, Joe would concentrate on his work. Like all border collies he’d inch closer and closer to the ground as he brought people together around the ancient ruins.

The pilgrims would gather in a large circle around the hermit hut where they moved into silence for half an hour. During this time Joe would also enter into such a deep silence, he’d lie down and go to sleep. He went to sleep because his work was done. He’d joined them together in the circle.[1]

We are diverse people who come from the One God, and deep within us is this holy yearning for oneness. It’s often hidden. When we are living according to our deepest instincts, especially the yearning for unity and harmony, we too are happy and at peace.

Against this Scriptural backdrop of unity, today we hear Christ’s jarring words:

12:49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

 

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

 

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

With all the conflict in our world, the last thing we need is a Biblical text that encourages division.

We have a great church here at Ashburton Baptist. This is the last place we want to experience conflict.

Don’t let these words get out. For centuries they’ve been used to justify religious violence, intolerance, holy war and jihad.

We prefer a Jesus who is all about love. We crave a Mills and Boon theology because it makes us warm inside.

But it’s difficult to soften Christ’s statements.

It’s impossible to homogenize Jesus’ claims.

We can’t muzzle the messenger.

Because the Gospels tell of One who was a disturber of our peace, One who told people that if they followed him truly, they too would suffer and go the way of the cross.

Let’s examine these ‘I came’ statements more closely:

12:49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

Who is this pyromaniac?

Fire cleanses. Fire purifies. Fire burns up our extra baggage. Jesus often railed against religiosity and now he’s keen to chop the kindling and ignite the blaze.

A man watching a boxing match knew nothing about the sport. His friend tried to explain the rules. As the boxers climbed into the ring, one of them crosses himself. The novice asks, “What does that mean?” The expert said, “It doesn’t mean a thing if he can’t box.”

Today we’re called to do some examination. How much of what we do and believe and say in the name of Christianity doesn’t mean a thing? It’s clutter. It’s fuel for the fire and Christ would rather it be burnt in the blaze?

12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

 

But wasn’t Jesus baptized in the Jordan by John at the start of his ministry? Is this a second dunking? As baptism dramatizes a going down, a going under and a rising, so Jesus is reminding people of his imminent death, his burial and resurrection.

What a thing to so live your life that you’re constantly hearing death threats! Wouldn’t that churn us up! It certainly did for Jesus for he says, “And what stress I am under.”

 I’ve often thought that stress is a modern day condition, but here is Jesus, stressed out to the max. Stressed out by the opposition he encountered. Stressed out by the prospect that someone was going to snuff out his life and terminate his ministry.

When we are stressed by a terminal illness, a loss of job, a deep loneliness or depression—what reassurance to know that Christ has been there and has endured.

What stress I am under until it is completed. That phrase, it is completed is the same word Jesus cried out on the cross: tetelestai in Aramaic. ‘It is finished’.

It’s a commercial term. If in Palestine you’ve been paying off a car or some furniture on time payment, when you make your very last payment, the vendor writes the word, tetelestai meaning ‘Paid in Full’.

It was on the cross that Jesus could sense the satisfaction that everything he’d set out to do was finished. Tetelestai. Complete. Paid in full.

12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

How does this square with our Christmas carols? How do we reconcile this statement with Zechariah’s prophecy that the one to be born would “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79) and the chorus of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favours?” (Luke 2:14)

In such a provocative manner Jesus says he’s come to bring division not peace.

In 1997 Apple created one of their most persuasive and compelling ads. It showed pictures of iconic twentieth century personalities such as Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King Jnr., Maria Callas, Mohatma Gandhi and others.

As these pictures roll you hear the tribute:

“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently…”[2]

The final slide has the logo and the invitation: ‘Think Different’.

If we not only buy the product but follow in the footsteps of these people who knew derision, despair and division, we too will have to be prepared for trouble, and being labeled ‘crazy’.

The life of Jesus was turbulent and tough because he rocked the boat.

He challenged the status quo. He confronted hypocrisy and injustice.

And our lives will be the same if we truly follow him.

This calling is so divisive, it may even sever us from our loved ones:

12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;

12:53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father…[3]

Then to ram home his point he refers to every family combination possible—mother against daughter, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law…

He brings it near. He brings it home.

The division when we really obey the 10 Commandments.

The pain when we truly live the Sermon on the Mount.

The cost when we follow closely the counter-cultural Christ.

In this week of the Australian census, I wonder how Jesus would have answered, if he’d been able to get onto the website.[4] What would he have thought about the way people answered the questions, especially relating to religious adherence?

For the very first time ‘No Religion’ was listed at the top of the options and many were concerned that this ordering would increase the number of Aussies identifying with no religious affiliation.[5]

But what Jesus might have found so puzzling is the number of people who call themselves Christian who rarely have anything to do with His church; the number who identify with Jesus only because they were baptized decades ago; the people who tick the faith box because they resonate with Christian values; the people who only start talking about Australia as ‘a Christian country’ when they hear about plans to build a mosque in their suburb.

Christ’s words about a baptism indicates that he was calling people to dive in deep, to be totally immersed in his mission, to being thoroughly committed to following him. And this will have dire consequences.

In the meantime we know the temptation to tone down our faith, to turn Christ the tiger into a placid pussy cat,[6] to keep the peace with our family and friends rather than keeping the faith.

Isn’t it fascinating how obsessed we are with weather? How much we talk about it when we greet each other and how much time is devoted to weather reports and forecasts on every news bulletin.

Our interest isn’t just to decide whether to take our coat or brolly but farmers, gardeners and outside workers depend on the weather every day.

Even before the advent of TV with trained meteorologists we’ve all become forecasters. We look at the evening sky and say: “Red at night shepherd’s delight.” Or: “red in the morning sailors take warning.” Or: “Hark I hear an asses bray, we shall have some rain today.” Or: “When halo rings moon or sun, rain’s approaching on the run.” Or: “Rain before seven, fine by eleven.”

Some of these weather sayings have a scientific basis and others don’t but Jesus wins his crowd over by picking up on the Palestinian conditions:

12:54 He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens.

 

12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens.

We’re all weather forecasters but when he has them eating out of his hand he says:

12:56 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?

They couldn’t see that when Christ spoke up against oppression he was setting off fireworks. When he challenged cruelty it seemed like a bolt of lightning in the atmosphere. When he thundered against hypocrisy and injustice he raised a storm.

So for us today, the challenge of these tough words of Christ is to allow the God who is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24) to purify our lives.

We’re being challenged to speak out and be prophetic. To look up, scan the sky and know that those following Christ will always face strong head winds.

Last Sunday we gathered around this communion table. We celebrated our unity with one loaf. One cup. To highlight our oneness we drank together.

Today we’ve heard some other words. Perhaps the best commentary on today’s Scripture is not one loaf and one cup but broken bread and poured out wine.[7]

Prayer

Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us when we try and mould you into our image.

When we misunderstand your character and we fail to forecast the storms we’ll encounter when we truly follow you.

You are love. You are the Prince of Peace, yet You are also fire and wind.

Your love has a toughness. You’re the enemy of apathy and your truth has high demands.

So help us to follow, to endure the pain, to withstand the division, to cope with the stress and interpret the times.

For this we need your love and your grace, your truth and your courage.

AMEN

Benediction

Teach us good Lord to serve you as you deserve.

To give and not to count the cost.

To fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest.

To labour and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do your will.

Amen.

 


[1] John Philip Newell, “Our Holy Yearning for Oneness,” St Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 2 December 2012. YouTube.

[2] Rob Siltanen, Quotable Quote, Goodreads. There’s a 30 second version and a longer version. It continues: “They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

[3] This verse continues: mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

[4] ‘Australians vent frustration online after ABS, Census websites crash overnight,’ News.com.au, 10 August 2016.

[5] Lucy Battersby, ‘Census Change: Is Australia Losing its Religion? SMH, 28 August 2016.

[6] ‘Christ the Tiger’ is an expression in T S Eliot’s poem, Gerontion and this theme is elaborated in Thomas Howard, Christ the Tiger, Wipf & Stock Pub, 2004.

[7] This thought is inspired by Bill Loader’s statement, “Perhaps the best commentary on today’s passage is, indeed, the breaking of bread.” Pentecost 13.