THIS WEEK'S MESSAGE
August 18, 2019 - Sermon Text: Luke 12:49-56
During a trial, a small-town prosecuting attorney called his first witness; an elderly woman who had lived her entire life in the small community. He approached her and asked, Mrs. Jones, do you know me? She responded, Why, yes, I do know you, Mr. Williams. I've known you since you were a boy, and frankly, you've been a big disappointment to me; you lie, you cheat on your wife and you manipulate people by talking behind their backs. You haven't got the brains to realize you'll never amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher.
The attorney was shocked! Not knowing what else to do, he pointed across the room and asked, Mrs. Jones, do you know the defense attorney? She again replied; Why yes, I do. I've known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. He’s also a real disappointment to me. He's a lazy, narrow-minded bigot who has a drinking problem. His law practice is one of the worst in the state. He can't build a normal relationship with anyone. He’s cheated on his wife with three other women & one of them was your wife Mr. Williams.
The defense attorney nearly died. With that, the judge called both counselors to approach the bench and, in a very quiet voice, said; If either of you lawyers asks her if she knows me, I'll send you both to the electric chair!
When you read today’s gospel, there is a strong sense of disappointment in the voice of Jesus as he begins by saying “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). This sounds more reminiscent of what John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness of Judea before Jesus appeared to him in order to be baptized. John is baptizing with the water of repentance. This sound pretty docile compared to what he says about Jesus. A baptism of repentance only requires us to change the direction of our life. But John announces “after me comes one who is more powerful …. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit & fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).
We often associate Jesus with being a peace-maker; “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9) or at his worst a radical reformer who calls for his disciples to “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). The Jesus described in today's reading does not sound like the same Jesus we find in the rest of the gospel.
But this is a side of the Lord that most of Christianity would rather forget and not deal with. It’s simply easier to skip over this part of scripture and forget that it even exists. Bible scholars might be the first ones to tell you that these words were probably inserted into the gospel by the early church and they were never actually spoken by Jesus – because they are so out of character. It’s always interesting to hear how a scholar living twenty centuries after Jesus is able to better tell us what Jesus said than John, Matthew or Luke who lived at the time of Jesus!
What happens is that we like to make our God into our own image, instead of the other way around. We want a loving and gracious and ever-forgiving Lord and not a God who stands over us and the world as judge and jury. We want to receive mercy when we do something wrong – not judgement. We want to be able to say and do and think whatever we want & know that our God will forgive us no matter what we’ve done. This is what Bonheoffer called “cheap Grace”
One of the most interesting parts about the three ecumenical creeds of the Christian church is that there is no mention of mercy, forgiveness or love in our faith statements while the opposite is true as we affirm that “[Jesus] is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead” (Apostles’ Creed, 2 Timothy 4:1). This task belongs to Jesus as John proclaims “the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgement to the Son” (John 5:22).
Moses prayed saying “a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4). For the eternal judge of all creation, our time is short in comparison to God’s time from creation to the completion of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity when the dead will be judged and when “death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14-15).
Without a doubt, Jesus gives us the impression that he is disappointed with the state of the world when he begins; “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49)! Even the “[devil] is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short” (Revelation 12:12). God’s will is clear in that “God our Saviour [who] wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) while sinful humanity is not only “not kindled” but worse as the apostle John is instructed to write to the church of Laodicea; “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot or cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-17). You see - there is no place for cheap grace at Judgement.
The choices we make in life will have a hostile and adverse affect on our present health and life and also how we will be judged at the end of time. John describes seeing multiple books in the Revelation as he witnesses that “anyone whose name was not found in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Further, “the dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (Revelation 20:12). Sadly, some people will complain saying that they didn’t know they were doing wrong, while others will cling to an even more dangerous belief which the modern church teaches that says “once forgiven - always forgiven”.
Many people today will follow and trust those in authority because they ought to have the truth, even regarding church matters. God was very clear when he warned the prophet Jeremiah about such charlatans saying “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy lies in my name. They say, ‘I had a dream! I had a dream!’ How long will this continue in the hearts of these lying prophets, who prophesy the delusions of their own minds” (Jeremiah 23:25-27).
Sometimes it’s all these unsuspected things and beliefs that can go by completely unnoticed by us that begin to move us into dangerous and deadly places which bring us face to face with the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Consider something as simple as two useful household products like Javex bleach and Draino. They are both very aggressive chemicals that are used for specific purposes. The containers identify them as being corrosive to skin, but very few people are aware that when these two products are mixed together, they produce hydrogen gas - capable of producing death & one heck of an explosion.
Surprisingly, there is no warning to the consumer to not mix these chemicals together. The same is often true of prescription medication. Prescription drugs are often prescribed by a doctor to heal a specific type of problems. But when a person attempts to take two incompatible drugs together those two medicines can interact with each other and cause severe illness and possibly death. It should not surprise you then, when the same thing occurs when we try to mix two incompatible religious beliefs.
After Jesus expresses his disappointment with humanity’s terrible misunderstanding of God’s Law he forewarns his listeners regarding the divisive power that God’s grace and the gospel will have when it is mixed in with people’s every day beliefs and lifestyles. It’s not Jesus’ intention to bring division into the world or into the human family - but Jesus knows that division will happen whenever the gospel is proclaimed. Familial divisions are much easier to see in the first century (legalistic Judaism and Christianity) but the divisions of the twenty-first century are much more subtle and hidden.
“Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29) declares God to the prophet Jeremiah in this morning’s reading. The imagery of fire is often used throughout the Bible to describe division, as chaff is burned when it is separated from wheat or when gold is purified with fire and then separated from the dross. John the Baptist describes Jesus mission to “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11). Unlike John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus’ baptism will be loaded with power as God’s Word will light a fire that will change our lives - if we allow the Holy Spirit into our life.
“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled (Luke 12:49)! When I think of Jesus bringing fire to the earth, I think of the old comedy routine when somebody sits on a campfire. When they realize they’re on fire, they hop, jump & run around frantically looking for water. Holy fire ought to also produce a lot of activity in a person’s life. And, I suppose that is why Jesus is disappointed today. Jesus wants to produce a lot of activity in our lives. Jesus wants to set us on fire with the gospel and the Holy Spirit but instead our Lord finds that we aren’t even kindled yet. We’re still cold or worse - lukewarm. We still want to hold onto our old familiar ways or we want to play on both sides of the fence.
Without a doubt, the message of the gospel and God’s grace hit orthodox Jewish families “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jeremiah 23:29). Judaism was a legalistic based system of rules and regulations which were followed in order to have a right relationship with God. There were specific rules for what was and was not allowed on the Sabbath and specific instructions for seating in the synagogue, as well as for what was required of the people on religious holidays and festivals. There were even rules in place to separate the righteous and the unclean of society long before the final Judgement. Jesus happens to be that unexpected Jewish boy who would bring about a divisive effect to an unsuspecting and orderly Jewish religion.
Imagine, a young Jesus telling the elderly religious leaders to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also” (Luke 6:27-29). Jesus challenges the teachers of the Law with questions like “which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it” (Luke 6:9) and then proceeds to heal a man with a withered hand! Jesus’ teachings, was like a hammer that breaks a legalistic rock into pieces and because of Jesus the apostle John describes how even “they [the Pharisees] were divided” (John 9:16).
The Gospel brought division to Judaism. The Gospel brought division to Jewish families. Christianity brought a new way to look at life as Jesus brought freedom from the servitude to religious rules. But Jesus did not do away with the rules as some modern Christian churches teach. Jesus brings a radical approach to being right with God through the grace he gives all-the while reminding us saying “do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). This happens when the gospel enters into the heart of someone who is willing to receive the Word of God – as fire and the Holy Spirit begin to change us from the inside-out. We no longer want to be like we were.
Sadly, the taste of the gospel makes some people want to spit it back out because they don’t want to change. We simply like things the way they are and we don’t like or want to change. They want nothing to do with or they want to stay in the middle, in the lukewarm section and chance not getting spit out by the Judge of the universe at the end of time. But, those of us who have allowed ourselves to be hit by the gospel hammer, to be refined and be continually refined by fire know that the Word of God will have adverse effects on our lives. Living the gospel can be painful and bitter, as Bonhoeffer discovered with ‘costly grace’.
The purpose of the Law is to convicts us of our sins and help us to see where we have fallen short. When we are open to the power of the gospel to heal us, this is the point where we will expose those areas of sinful behavior in our lives to the refining fire of God who will help us to change. But we can’t change until we allow the gospel to open our eyes to see where we fall short of the glory of God. Then, the gospel enters our life and it frees us from the power of sin and slavery to the Law. We no longer have to obey the Law and Commandments, instead we fulfill the essence of the Law, to love God and one another, in response to what God has done.
As we continue to daily persevere, “let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” … “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1). It’s because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for you that your name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. This is the unmerited Grace of the gospel which is freely given to you as a gift. It is only because of Jesus Christ that our name is in the Book of Life and that we are destined for heaven. As such, like the cloud of witnesses of Hebrews, we should also fix our eyes on Christ and follow in his footsteps in order to avoid being found “neither hot or cold” (Revelations 3:15) at the final judgement.
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