49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they 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.”
54He 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. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is?
Throughout my 25-year career in the classroom, I taught courses in public speaking, first at Boonsboro High School in Washington Co., MD and then at Princeton High, with a short foray at tiny Bramwell High School. My PHS kids frequently competed at regional forensic tournaments. One of the most nerve-wracking events was Impromptu Speaking. Competitors randomly drew topics out of a hat – or box—and then had 5 whole minutes and one index card to prepare a speech on that topic.
The topics ran the gamut from current events to famous people, to history or popular culture. You could get something easy, like Barack Obama or the Summer Olympics. Or something impossible, like the North American Fair Trade Agreement. It was the luck of the draw.
I must admit that, for me, the established lectionary texts for the church year are like that! We’re progressing through the Gospel of Luke, talking about healing, grace, not being greedy. Those topics aren’t too difficult. And then I draw today’s passage: Luke: 49 – 56. It’s the North American Fair Trade Agreement all over again.
Here it is: Lue “I came to bring fire to the earth. 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother . . . “
The gospel of Mathew contains a very similar passage? “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-38)
What is this hard saying? What is Jesus talking about? Bringing fire, a sword? What am I to make of this statement that sounds nothing like the Christ I know? What does it mean for us?
Confronting this difficult reading, I do what I taught my students to do when they struggled with a hard passage of literature: Study it. Put it in context. Read everything leading up to it, and everything following it. Figure out who is speaking and who is being spoken to. Where and when was it said? In other words, ask good questions of what you’re reading.
After all, there is an explanation, and maybe it starts with the author himself. You probably know that Luke was a physician, but he was also a historian. His gospel is historiography – that is, the life of Christ, written a half-century after Christ’s death, and told in a way that positions the messiah as a pivotal figure in history, sent at an appointed time to redeem humankind. This foundational understanding is important.
Historians are keenly interested in time – certainly clock time, but also historic time, cosmic time, and –in Luke’s case—“eschatological” or end times – when God’s kingdom will come. Remember the old Chicago hit, “Does anybody really know what time it is”? I would say historians and prophets do. And Luke shows us that Jesus did, too, to a point.
So, let’s start an easy question: Who was Jesus talking to? I think we have been led to think that every word written in the Bible was spoken or written directly to you and me 2,000 down through the ages. I’ve heard people say that they frequently open the Bible and randomly choose a verse, believing that that single verse is God’s message to them in a situation or crisis. I would say that this perception is faulty, and even dangerous.
The 66 books of the Bible were written or spoken to different peoples in different ages and situations. And the words of Jesus, recalled by writers a half century later, were likewise spoken to specific listeners in specific times and places.
Today’s words of Christ were spoken as Christ and his followers journeyed toward Jerusalem. Luke says Christ addressed crowds of thousands gathered along the way, but mostly Jesus taught his small band of disciples. It is his disciples, his “little flock” whom he addresses in Luke 12. To his disciples, he says “Do not worry about life, what you’ll wear or eat.” To his disciples, he says, “Keep your lamps lit and be dressed for action.” To his disciples, he says, “To everyone to whom much is given, much will be required.” And, in today’s passage, Christ says to his disciples, “I came to bring division, not peace.” In the intimate presence of his disciples, Jesus confesses that he must soon face a terrible trial, a baptism by fire, and he is under great stress.”
But to the larger crowd of thousands, Christ says, “You hypocrites, you can predict the weather. But you can’t interpret the times.” You know all the adages: A halo around the moon means rain, wooly worms predict a bad winter; red sky at night, shepherds’ delight. You have no clue what time it is or who is standing among you! It is time to WAKE UP! // Will you be alert when the master returns? Or will you still be parading out a show of religion without the substance of faith!
You see, Christ and his first century followers believed that God’s kingdom was coming soon, within their lifetimes, even. In Matthew, Christ says, “Of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Yet, it is clear from Christ’s words that he believed that his painful baptism on the cross would surely usher in the Kingdom . . . soon, even within weeks or months. Therefore, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus speaks with urgency: Wake up! Time is short! Listen to what I am saying. Don’t return to your homes as though nothing happened!
Fortunately, some would hear, some would be radically changed as a result of their interaction with this Christ. Some would choose to stand with Christ. And Jesus was not naïve about what would be the result: CONFLICT. Conflict in the heart, conflict at home, conflict in the synagogue, conflict in the Jewish nation. I can imagine the conversations when some of his listeners got home: “Honey, I heard this amazing speaker today, and he said we are to sell all we have and give to the poor.” “Father, I am leaving my books and preparations for the priesthood in order to study at the feet of an amazing young Galilean rabbi.” “Mother, this Jesus travels with a small band of disciples – men and women. I want to go with these women, to care for the master.” “Fellow Jews, this Jesus of Nazareth, says that it is okay to pick grain, to forgive, and to heal on the Sabbath. Doing the work of Yahweh is more important that keeping every tittle of the law.” “My fellow Pharisees, I have seen this Jesus, and he is the Messiah for which we have been waiting!”
These radical understandings will not be easily accepted. They will cause conflict, anger, alienation, punishment, and death! The Jewish authorities will not accept this young rabble-rouser! The Roman Empire will never tolerate such talk of a messiah!
Jesus knows that his words, his very presence will pit mothers against daughters, fathers against sons, priests against congregations, Pharisees against Pharisees. It isn’t what Christ wants, but it is what will happen! The conflict will lead to his crucifixion. . “How great is my distress until it is accomplished,” he says. The torment is felt long before the whip lashes or the crown of thorns or the nails pounded into the cross. As Jesus looks about him he sees, on that hillside, those for whom he must endure all this. “Wake up,” he tells his followers. “Wake up,” he tells the crowds. “I am going to die for you, so at least hear me out.” //
“Does anybody really know what time it is?” Christ seems to be asking. “Does anybody really care?” the lyrics continue. “If so I can’t imagine why. We’ve all got time enough to die.” But that’s the point. Jesus says to the crowd, “You don’t have time enough to die!”
Now, I want to return to something I said at the start of this message: That the Bible was not written directly to you and me in the 21st century. In fact, the Bible was not written as a “Bible” at all. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Bible did not come down to us as a single, complete document. Rather, our scriptures are like constitutional amendments and court interpretations – written at various times to address the needs and problems of that time. And, contrary to the ignorance of many, the Bible was not written by God. Rather, the various speakers, authors, and recorders of our scriptures believed themselves to be inspired by God to write their histories, poems, biographies, accounts and letters. Further, they had no idea there would even be a compiled Bible, let alone dozens of editions and translations in hundreds of languages! They likely could not envision descendants 2000 years later; they would have had no inkling of what our brains and lives would be like – just as we can’t imagine our descendants 2000 years from now. So, no, the Bible was not written to us. But I believe that the Bible has been preserved for us — for our instruction, inspiration, encouragement, and spiritual building up.
The job of people in every generation is to discern the Bible’s truth for them, who they are, where they live, and what they face. So what is the take-away message from this hard saying of Christ for today? Think about that? What is Luke telling us in these 5 verses? (Think, pair, share.)
Two things: (1) Wake up. Acknowledge that Christ is the son of God. Follow him. We do not know when our day of judgment will come – whether our death or the coming kingdom. (2) Understand that following Christ will cause conflict:
When you stand for something, you will be opposed by those who stand for nothing. When you choose to practice love, you will come up against those who practice hate. When you advocate for peace, you will confront those who thrive on conflict. When you defend the little guy, some very big fat-cats will try to stop you. So it has been from the beginning. Expect it. It’s going to happen. It’s not what Christ wants, but it is what will happen.
But take heart! At some point, a time known only to God, love and peace and compassion and Jesus will prevail. Hear the words of Jesus: “For thine, God, is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”