First Reading Isaiah 5:1-7
Second Reading Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
Epistle Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Gospel Reading: Luke 12:49-56
Sermon: “Interpreting This Present Time”
This week we hear strong words from the both the prophet Isaiah and from Jesus. The words of the prophets are sometimes achingly tender, sometimes brutally honest, always speaking truth and almost always making us a bit uncomfortable. Prophets are God’s spokesmen – so what should we expect to hear when they come from God’s own lips? That is precisely what we get to hear when Jesus speaks. Jesus’ words from the reading this morning certainly fit into the category of word that make us uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they speak God’s own truth and they are words we need to hear just as much and the crowds that originally heard them.
Lets begin with the last few sentences. Jesus says to the crowd “When you see clouds beginning to form in the west, you say, ‘Here comes a shower.’ And you are right. When the south wind blows, you say, ‘Today will be a scorcher.’ And it is. You fools! You know how to interpret the weather signs of the earth and sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the present times.” (Luke 12:54-56 NLT) Since School is just about to start perhaps we should hear how Jesus speaks of himself and of people’s response to him as a test being given: do you know how to interpret the present time? What does Jesus’ ministry indicate? What does he mean when he says the Kingdom of God has come near? The time of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God?
What did he mean when he read from Isaiah in his home synagogue saying “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come.” What can we know about the time when he concluded and said “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:18-19,21 NLT) It’s not a difficult test, he says. You already know enough to observe the weather and predict accurately what’s coming next. With those kinds of basic powers of observation you should be able to tell, from the things that Jesus has been saying and doing, what’s going on and what you need to do. So, what is it? …. Time’s up. Pencils down. Turn in your papers!
Jesus doesn’t tell us the answer. Preachers get to try to do that. We preachers also get to try to apply these words to our own time and offer words of challenge and words of hope that the Kingdom of God is still very near and still demands our allegiance. In order to do that, we go to the pages of scripture knowing that the very best commentary on the Bible is, in fact, the Bible itself. So what does Luke say about Jesus’s day and what can we conclude for ours?
The first thing we have to confront in a passage like this is some bad theology that was popular in the early church and remains so today. The expectation of the eminent end of the world has been with us for a very long time. Each generation now for 2000 years reads passages like this and begins to try and figure out just when God is going to bring history to a close. All of this in spite of the fact that Jesus warns against it many times and tells us that no one will know when. So what is wrong with this? Scripture is very clear that God will in fact return to judge the earth and restore creation to the perfection and sinless fellowship for which it was originally created. There are two opposite mistakes to be made here. The first is to be so convinced that the end is eminent that we quit doing what we are supposed to be doing – loving God and loving Neighbor – Spreading the Gospel, making disciples and working for peace and justice in this world and just wait for the big show. The opposite mistake is to ignore it entirely and live as if judgement were not a concern at all.
So what does Jesus mean when he says in “I have come to set the world on fire, and I wish it were already burning! I have a terrible baptism of suffering ahead of me, and I am under a heavy burden until it is accomplished.” (Luke 12:49-50 NLT) First of all, let me assure you that Jesus is not an arsonist! I don’t believe he is fondly wishing for the fires of hell to be unleashed on the world – quite the opposite actually – what he looks forward to and promised was the fire of the Holy Spirit, and the fires of revival and repentance. This means removing those things in our lives that hinder the Kingdom so that we can truly live for God. That’s what John the Baptist was talking about when speaking of Jesus this way in Luke 3:16 NLT saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am-so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus yearns for “the kingdom of God” to break forth into the world in all its fullness. The transformations and outpouring of justice that Zechariah, Mary and Simeon sang of at his birth are the things that he wants, too. That means that oppression has to go. Greed has to go. Idolatry has to go, pride, exploitation and dehumanization have to go as well. And the other evils you can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation according to the will of God.
Bad theology has trained folks to hear passages like this as a description of a God with an itchy trigger finger who just can’t wait to consume sinners with righteous fire. As a result, people duck their heads and wait until Jesus calms down and a nicer passage comes along. Isn’t the Parable of the Prodigal Son coming soon?
Fire indicates the presence of God in the Old Testament in the Burning Bush, In the Pilar of fire that lead Israel during the exodus, on Mt Carmel and the summit of Mt Sinai. The prophets and the Psalm speak of the refiners fire which separates and purifies precious metals from the slag. Fire represents the power of God to effect change in the face of formidable resistance and the power to overwhelm God’s enemies. No wonder fire becomes symbolic also of judgment, because judgment is another way of speaking about how unrighteousness, idolatry, and injustice cannot exist in God’s presence.
As Matt Skinner says in his commentary on Working Preacher, “The fire Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. No wonder he is so eager to strike the match.” That change was made possible through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus – that is the baptism that Jesus is telling his listeners he is about to undergo. The time or moment that Jesus was trying to get the religious folks of his day to understand was simply that God had chosen to show up in the person of Jesus and was standing in front of them, calling them back to love and forgiveness and obedience to the will of God not merely tradition. How the various folks reacted to this earth shaking message was diagnostic of the Spirit that lived in their heart.
This brings us to an uncomfortable spot in this reading is when Jesus says “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other!” (Luke 12:51 NLT). Now wait a minute, Isn’t he the one that Isaiah named the Prince of Peace and about whom the angels proclaimed at his birth “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” ? Why does he say that his coming brings division, not peace? Didn’t he tell his disciples in the upper room “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”?
The grace won for us through Jesus does indeed give us peace with God – but what about those who resist the will of God? You see, God’s Kingdom doesn’t just spring into existence because everyone wants it. First, the truth must be told. Fire is, after all, about refining. And refining hurts, especially for those of us who have a lot of impurities and slag sticking to us. Because we mistake those impurities for things we value, and because we lie to ourselves, we resist Jesus. Jesus isn’t against peace at all, its just that he points out that his message of repentance, forgiveness and transformation is bound to be divisive. His words about fractured families likely resonated with Luke’s original audiences which likely included some who were estranged from relatives because of their commitment to Jesus Christ.
So what time is it now? We could be really depressed. The church is closing, we are planning yet another funeral; war, diseases and political division dominate the news. It seems indeed that a metaphorical harsh, dry wind is blowing; that we, like Isaiah’s vineyard are facing a period of desolation. Let me reframe that picture for you for a moment though. We serve a resurrected Lord. One who has conquered sin and death and who brings new life and promises streams in the dessert. But it all involves a word that we hate and dread. I’ll tell you that word as the punch line to a very old joke: How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? …. CHANGE!?!
We have come to a time in the life of this body that we have to change, and we know it. This old way of being and doing is coming to a close, and that naturally brings us grief as we think back over the years. There are things that we should have done and did not. There are things that we did that we should not have done. There is always in hindsight more, or less or different things that we wish had gone better. Of these things we repent and ask for forgiveness. But, on the other side of this ending is new life and new beginnings, new possibilities and new challenges. On the other side is new relationships and new responsibilities but always the same Lord and always the same eternal Spirit to accompany and guide us onward.
Each of us will be asked shortly what’s next for us, how will we seek to be faithful in new ways with new life and new companions on the journey that does not end with the removal of a name on a building. Do we understand that this time is God’s time, just as surely as when Jesus walked on this earth? We don’t have to wait until he returns to be about his business. Jesus asks us today – can you see what is going on out there? If not yet then look and listen more closely and then step out in faith where God is calling you to go.