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49 Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 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.” 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 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?
If any of you are regretting your decision to come to church today, I don’t blame you.
I came to bring fire and how I wish it were already kindled, Jesus says. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! (because we need more of that these days). Father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.
This is not the Jesus we are accustomed to. This is not the Jesus of oil paintings hanging up in church fireside rooms.
Not exactly the text I’d choose myself, especially on a day of baptism for little baby Odin and likely with many guests. In fact, it makes me wonder, just for a moment, if we shouldn’t rethink inviting baby Odin into this life of faith. Do we really wish this life, this Jesus, for him?
This is one of those Gospel readings that I as your preacher am tempted to protect you from. To shield your eyes and cover your ears. I’m tempted to distract you from it by pointing to the bright shiny thing over there known as the Hebrews reading and the beauty and the comfort of a great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us but who remain examples to us in the faith. Wouldn’t that make a nice sermon?
But to do so would miss the gift of the lectionary (that fancy church word for the bible readings preselected for us each week), which asks us to confront biblical texts that we wouldn’t normally turn to. And then it invites us to be like the great Biblical character Jacob, and to wrestle with such a text until it blesses us, and even if it sends us away limping.
So we wrestle a bit this morning.
A couple of weeks ago, I spoke about the stereotypes we have about the God of the Old Testament. That we think this God is mean, angry, full of wrath.
Well, we tend to have the opposite problem with the New Testament – where we can stereotype the God found in Jesus as always loving, comforting, compassionate. When I was in high school, I can remember shirts started showing up that said, “Jesus is my boyfriend.” Which sort of gets at this stereotype – the idea that Jesus would make the perfect husband or son-in-law.
But today’s Gospel lesson tears that stereotype down pretty quickly. It sounds less like Jesus is my boyfriend and more like, “Jesus is my arsonist.” I came to bring fire and how I wish it were already kindled, he says.
But before we get to thinking that Jesus just wants violence and division, let’s look deeper. Because for those paying close attention in the gospel of Luke, this image of God, this image of Jesus shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is not out of character for Jesus. In fact it is a street has been paved for us for quite sometime now.
Think back to when Mary is pregnant with Jesus, and she sings that song to him. It isn’t a sweet lullaby. It is song about God who will scatter the proud, who will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and God who will lift up the lowly. God who will fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.
Or go to back to when Jesus is a baby and is presented in the temple, Simeon says that Jesus is destined for the falling and the rising of many, and that Jesus will be a sign that many oppose.
Or finally when Jesus preaches his first sermon through the words of Isaiah, proclaiming that he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free. A sermon after which the congregation tries to throw him off a cliff.
This divisive Jesus is startling. But perhaps he shouldn’t be.
In my own wrestling with the gospel this week, I couldn’t help but think of a prayer written by Ted Loder. A prayer which says…
O persistent God, deliver me from assuming your mercy is gentle.
Mercy and grace are not always gentle, but they are good. And I trust that the same is true of this gospel reading and this Jesus. That while they may not be gentle, there is goodness to be found here.
Jesus may be bringing a fire to this earth but it is a fire ignited around that which brings about death and prevents the flourishing of life. And the kindling for such a fire is abundant love and grace and forgiveness and justice for all.
You see sometimes we forget that when God gets involved, things start to change. And from the view of Luke’s gospel, this God-incarnated world is about to turn.
So, no wonder Jesus was divisive. No wonder he was murdered on the cross. To be a follower of Jesus back then was to be part of a movement to unseat the current structures of power and oppression. And to threaten the current power structure is to risk your life. Because it will divide people against people.
But Jesus does not come simply in order to bring division, as if he likes division. It’s just that when you upend the world with the ways of Jesus, division will be a natural consequence.
And if we’ve been paying attention to our own culture, we already know this about Jesus. That he brings divisive. We already know the power Jesus has to turn family member against family member. It’s why religion and politics are on the “No fly” list of conversations at family dinners and reunions.
Let’s face it, too often we try to keep politics out of Christianity, but deep down I think we know that to do so is to cut out a core piece of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Jesus was political. He cares about how we act. He cares about how we do or do not care for each other. And therefore, he cares about our politics and our policies. And therefore, he will divide us. But we don’t want that, so we opt for a peaceful, non-confrontational holiday instead.
But is that really peace, I wonder. Is that really the peace we seek from the Prince of Peace? A silent and avoidant kind of peace? Or is the silent kind of peace more realisticly just delaying a future war?
The good but hard news is that what we do matters to Jesus. How we spend our time and our money matter to Jesus. How we use our power and our love matter to Jesus. And therefore, Jesus actually asks something of us. Of our life. And therefore, he’ll call us out and confront us on it when it fails to love God and love neighbor.
To be Christian today is not to be someone who shows up and sits in a pew for an hour a week. Lest we forget, Jesus never said worship me. He said follow me. Sometimes we need to stop worshipping the comfortable Jesus in our minds and start following the controversial Jesus of the Scriptures. And as one preacher has said, the way to worship and follow this Jesus, is not simply to love and believe in him, it is to love what he loves. What Jesus loves is a wide-welcome for the stranger and abundant love for the neighbor. What Jesus loves is radical generosity. What Jesus loves is justice, and not justice meaning people getting what they deserve but justice meaning that all people get what they need.
Which, in all honesty, will cause division. And very well may turn family member against family member.
A couple of weeks ago, at a Black Lives Matter gathering in front of the Governor’s mansion, a group of us met a young black woman. She was occupying that space in the street because she felt a deep need to be there for the sake of justice and equality for the black community. But her mother – her mother did not want her to be out there at all. Out of fear for her safety.
I come not to bring peace, Jesus says, but division. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother. Not because Jesus likes division, but because division will happen when Jesus calls for change in this world. And we will have to decide if we will follow Jesus into that change or if we will peacefully maintain the status quo out of our concern for what the change may cost or bring.
No one says following Jesus will be easy for this is the way of the cross. It is the life of faith. And because it asks something of us it will cause division among us. Division even within our own hearts. But in that place, where fire burns and turns things to dust is the very place where God is both present and creating something altogether new.
So perhaps what this could mean for us then is that our divisions are not something that we need to stay away from and hide under the living room rug. But in fact might be the very sign that our world is about to turn. That the way of Jesus, the way of life, is seeking to born into this world. And that it is in that soil that the gospel can grow – that truth can be spoken and love can flourish.
So maybe this means we can courageously talk about Jesus and this election and how faith and politics go hand in hand. Or maybe we can confront the broken parts of our marriage or relationships that we’ve been avoiding in order to keep things peaceful. Or maybe it means we can be honest about how we as a community resist taking the risky path of following Jesus in our everyday lives.
But then in the midst of the divisions those things will likely bring, we can trust that God is at work, shaping us into the body of Christ and bringing about the kingdom of God.
More often than not, I find myself praying that our divisions would just stop and we would all be one instead. But perhaps I’m wrong in that prayer. Perhaps we ought to pray not that our divisions would stop, but that our divisions and God’s presence among them would lead us to all be one.
To be a follower of Jesus to the fullest extent of the gospel is dangerous business. As writer Annie Dillard has said, ushers should be handing out crash helmets and life preservers as we head into worship.
So do I really wish this life of faith, this Jesus upon baby Odin in baptism? Do I wish it for you? Absolutely.
But I would not take it lightly.
Which is why we all gather together each week to support, and pray, and walk with each other. To model for each and to learn from each other this risky life of following Jesus that will bring about the kingdom of God here and now.
May God’s mercy shine on us all. And may that mercy not be gentle. But may it grow us into the people of God we’re called to be. Amen.
 Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace, prayer called “Pry Me Off Dead Center”, pg. 102.
 Alan Storey