Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 18, 2019
Luke 12:49-56 Commentary
In the television show “The West Wing,” White House deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman is shot during an assassination attempt on the President. He nearly dies and it takes months for him to get back to work. But one day sometime later, Josh loses it in the Oval Office, raising his voice to the very President no less. His friends are shocked. This seems out of character, shrill, vaguely out of control. And indeed it is: Josh is suffering from PTSD over the shooting months before. (You can see the scene in the first 2:40 minutes on this clip.)
I wonder if some of the people around Jesus that day as reported at the end of Luke 12 wondered if something was seriously wrong with Jesus. I mean, Jesus seems to lose it a bit here, going on quite the verbal tear. We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up. This thing is white hot!
It is quite the capper for a chapter that is chock-full of all kinds of stuff. There are several different themes touched upon in Luke 12, a multiplicity of imagery, a parable thrown in for good measure, pastorally kind words about not worrying about our lives, and a smattering of even still more stuff. The Lectionary has spent three whole weeks in this chapter alone and for this Sunday we come to the end of it all. And it ends with a bang! Jesus here spouts off the kind of thing that could get a person labeled a lunatic, both then and now.
What prompted this from our Lord? It’s maybe difficult to know but from the looks of the passage, it appears that just possibly there were some who were trying to “make nice” by tamping down all possible controversy surrounding Jesus, his message, and the kingdom he was proclaiming. Maybe there were some who were seeing the stir Jesus was causing with the religious establishment of his day and who were therefore saying, “Can’t we just all get along? Come on, people now, smile on your brother! Let’s go along to get along. Live and let live. We agree on more than we disagree on. We’re all on the same team. So let’s get together—Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests, Jesus, Jesus’ disciples—and all start pulling our oars in the same direction, OK?”
Maybe. In any event, there obviously had been some talk about how Jesus should make things nicer and smoother because from the looks of these verses, Jesus is counteracting what he perceived to be a false impression of who he was and what his ministry was about. Jesus did not come to prop up the old ways. He did not come to perpetuate more of the same. His kingdom did not fit in neatly with the kingdoms of this world and so a strong measure of disruption simply had to be expected.
Apparently, then as now, it was easy to turn Jesus into a kind of Rorschach ink blot in which you could see whatever you wanted (and no perception was better than any other). Some people still talk about Jesus in such terms today. Jesus is here to validate the best and brightest of whoever you are and whatever you want. Following Jesus is mostly about being nice, about getting along, about endorsing any and every viewpoint.
To this Jesus says a firm No! To perceive Jesus that way is to misperceive him and his kingdom. To make the point, Jesus invokes a meteorological image to remind people that they are better at reading the weather than spiritual signs. When the wind turns southerly or a dark cloud appears on the western horizon, folks know what it means. But now that the kingdom of God has appeared on the horizon of their spiritual awareness, they clearly have no clue what that kingdom means. They think it means more of the same, the old-time religion warmed over.
But in point of fact the kingdom Jesus was bringing represents this world inverted. This is a point Luke the evangelist has been making from the get-go in this gospel. Anyone who thinks that Jesus’ advent would represent the same-old, same-old need only read Mary’s “Magnificat” in Luke 1. Mary foresaw with startling clarity the reversal of the way things normally go as the poor get elevated and the rich get sent away empty-handed.
Anyone who saw the kingdom of God as representing “business as usual” was misreading the signs just as surely as someone who saw a dark cloud and predicted sunshine or who grabbed a parka on account of a strong southerly breeze.
Jesus knew that his work and the in-breaking of his kingdom would bring a measure of distress, even to the point of cleaving families apart. He certainly was not particularly eager to see such mayhem but what he clearly was eager to see was the arrival of the kingdom itself. Jesus clearly expresses a deep desire to see the fire kindled because he knew better than anyone how badly this world needs the fire of renewal that God’s kingdom represents. And if that new kingdom could come in no other way than to cause the conflict Jesus foresees, then that was the way it would have to be. The main thing was that the kingdom would come.
C.S. Lewis once observed that even Christian people sometimes think that being a follower of Jesus is like being a horse that gets trained to run a little faster than it used to run. But in reality, Lewis wrote, Jesus doesn’t want a regular horse that can run more swiftly—he wants to give the horse wings and teach it how to fly! Jesus doesn’t want to move into the house of our hearts just to slap on a few coat of fresh paint and change the draperies. No, when Jesus moves in he brings a wrecking ball to tear down whole walls, gut the rooms down to the studs and basically build a whole new house.
But that level of change and renovation is hard! We want to baptize the various practices of our lives with a nice sprinkling of fresh water. Jesus’ Spirit comes to us with a baptism of fire that burns up our lives and starts all over. When we resist this level of change and challenge, that is when Jesus has to talk tough to remind us that precisely because things are so endemically and thoroughly messed up in this world, we cannot expect that everyone is going to want to go along with his program. Disagreements are going to arise. Those who remain enthralled to the way life has always been are going to have sharp things to say to those who represent the wrecking ball of Jesus’ kingdom.
The difficulty of all this lies in the fact that dramatic though these differences are, they don’t always run neatly along solid black lines of demarcation that everyone can spy with ease. Rather, these lines and the differences between the world’s way of doing things and the kingdom’s way of doing things zig-zag through our lives such that each of us sooner or later becomes adept at picking and choosing. We’ll let Jesus have this part of our lives but not that part. We’ll let the kingdom influence our decision-making at home but not so much at work (where we are, after all, expected to kowtow to business as usual or we get fired). We’ll let Jesus have our Sunday mornings but not our Saturday nights.
Picking and choosing like this makes life easier. It reduces conflict. It helps everyone to get along better with everyone else. Surely even Jesus would want that kind of peace and serenity for our lives, wouldn’t he?
If the kingdom of God is to up-end our lives and the way the world typically operates, how does that apply to family situations? Well, it minimally applies to the priorities we set in our homes. Curiously, the pace of modern culture–a pace driven by precisely people’s desire to “make a life for themselves”–may itself be at variance with the gospel. The busyness of our lives as we get more and more consumed by work, the yen to make money, the clutching desire to climb the corporate ladder edge out what was once known as “family time.”
Indeed, some families have cut back on church in order to clear out Sundays as their special “family time.” In the past few years I’ve heard from pastors from other parts of the country who lament what soccer is doing to church attendance. Apparently youth soccer leagues, recognizing the hectic pace of people’s lives, have determined that Sundays from 9am until noon are the best time to schedule games. When pastors have complained to these organizations that this zaps church, they have been rebuffed with polite indifference. Worse than that, however, is the reaction these pastors have had from their own members. Some parents have refused to interfere with their children’s intramural sports, choosing soccer over worship because this promotes “family time” (and isn’t that exceedingly valuable?).
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was pretty near the apex of an American success story. He was a high-octane corporate executive working eight days a week and pulling down close to a million bucks a year. But then one day he heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, moved to a more modest house, and wondered what to do next. What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
A preacher once re-counted Fuller’s story but was later approached by someone who asked, “How old were Fuller’s children when he quit his job like that?” It took this preacher a minute to appreciate what lay behind this query: how dare Fuller uproot his kids and subject them to a less lavish lifestyle just so that he could serve God?!
Who, after all, makes such choices . . . ?
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