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Jesus Tells the Truth
Luke 12:49-56…Proper 15C
Rev. Deb Mechler
When you read the stories of Jesus or hear them in worship, how do you perceive him? Do you have some images in your mind from your childhood? Perhaps a meek and mild Jesus, who eventually ends up bleeding on a cross.
The trouble is that Jesus was not meek and mild. He said a lot of things that made church people very angry. He accused them of getting religion all wrong, misrepresenting God and exploiting the people they were supposed to care for. He said their rules were not God’s rules. They were pretty sure they were following God properly. The people had been trusting them to do that on their behalf. These were the good guys, and Jesus rattled their cages. So they got him killed.
Jesus gets a little cranky in today’s gospel lesson. I sense some frustration in his voice. He has been teaching the same things over and over, and people just aren’t getting it. He has told them, “Trust God for everything you need. Share what you have with the poor; God will make sure you have enough too. Don’t follow the Pharisees blindly; they say one thing and do another. They aren’t interested in what God wants, only what they want.”
The people sensed Jesus’ authority and wanted to believe him. They kept flocking to him not only for healing but also because what he said had the ring of truth to it. But maybe they were afraid.
Jesus wasn’t afraid. He always said what was true, no matter the consequences. And he refused to be domesticated. “I didn’t come to make everybody feel good and agree on everything. What I’m telling you will create tension, because some people just don’t want to hear it.” That’s my take on it when Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
One problem with these verses is that when some people hear Jesus say, “‘I came to bring fire to the earth,” they instantly interpret this as God’s fiery judgment. Yessiree, they think, all you who have been sinning are headed for the fires of hell if you don’t straighten up!
But that is not the way Jesus has been using the image of fire in Luke’s gospel. Through John the Baptist we are told that Jesus’ fire will purify and refine, not condemn. It will bring out the best, burning away what is unnecessary and corrupt.
Jesus came to kindle a fire of change on the earth. He came to push the reset button on the ideas about God’s ways. His consistent message was about grace and love and forgiveness. He revealed God’s character to us not as a divine bookkeeper waiting to catch us out or some sadistic, trigger-happy warden who is eager to punish us.
Is that the kind of God you were taught to fear? That is not a God you can love. There are plenty of misguided leaders who urge you to love a God who only cares about obedience and purity, but that is not the God of the New Testament.
I can hear the wheels turning. “But what about sin?” you ask.
Try this on for size. Why would God not want us to sin? Why does the writer of Hebrews urge us to “lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely”? Is it because God wants good Christian people to show off as trophies?
Think of it for a minute. What are God’s rules? Respect your parents, don’t steal, don’t destroy your marriage, don’t be consumed with envy, don’t kill or even have murderous thoughts. If you do those things, you will hurt people. Focus on me only, God says, not all those other idols that keep you running errands for them and don’t do anything for you. Stop working once a week to refresh your life and give thanks for all the good things I’ve given you.
Doesn’t that sound like a wonderful life? That sounds like what a loving Father would wish for his children.
Jesus boils it all down to love. Love God (who loved you first), and love each other. What a gift to have it spelled out so simply. What a God who only wants the best for us.
If you decide instead to be greedy and use people and lie and invade other people’s lives with your selfishness, people get hurt.
God doesn’t want us to sin because God wants everyone to feel safe and loved.
So when Jesus wants to bring a fire to burn away the greed and shame and everything else that hurts us, that should be good news. But it is not good news for the greedy, shameless exploiters whose power is threatened. Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness screws up the whole system of rewards and punishment that religious leaders need for their bread and butter.
What kind of world do we live in where love is bad news? When is the last time you heard the word love used in a political platform or speech? People who follow the way of love and even choose to give up their power as Jesus not only taught be did himself, these people are considered weak and stupid.
How interesting, then, that this is how today’s passage ends: “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. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 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?”
How do we interpret our present time? We scratch our heads to figure out how to solve our society’s problems when the answers could not be more plain. We just don’t like them. Give up your greedy ways, Jesus says. Quit your practices that keep the poor suffering. Stop fighting and start loving. This is not complicated.
If you really think harsh judgment is what God is about, then consider this final word. God’s judgment is less about punishment and all about setting things right again. Turning this upside down world back to its goodness where people feel safe and loved, and everybody has enough. Getting rid of oppression and violence and greed that only end up killing God’s beloved people and destroy God’s beautiful world. The fire of God’s love will burn away everything that is itself destructive, and will preserve all that is good. Thanks be to God, for that is the world God invites us to live into.
For our prayer now I would like to lead you in a different kind of confession and forgiveness. I will guide you in a meditation, allowing some silence for you to listen for the Holy Spirit and observe what appears in your mind’s eye. Please take a deep breath, close your eyes, and join me in a season of prayer. (Leader: Be sure to allow long pauses between sections. It takes time for people to do this work.)
Picture in your mind the image of a burning fire, the fire of God’s love. What does God’s loving fire need to burn up in you? What is keeping you from loving? This can be called a source of sin in you.
Is it fear? Fear is usually about some kind of loss or
hurt. Let it go. In Jesus you will always be safe, because
nothing can touch the reality of God’s image and life in you. (Pause)
Is it the memory of some hurt that needs to be burned up? You have been hurt because you are alive, and pain comes to all of us. You are tired of letting that memory keep hurting you. Let Jesus burn it away and replace it with his love. (Pause)
Do you need to do away with some resentment? You have given power over to someone else’s opinion of you. Let it burn away and live as God’s beloved. (Pause)
Maybe it is the need to control that has to go. You will never have control anyway. It is an illusion that is cutting you off from joy and relationships. Let God burn off this useless thing. (Pause)
Let Jesus burn it all away with the
fire of his unstoppable love. (Pause)
Now, let the waters of baptism flow in. Let them wash away any remaining ashes and soot. God forgives you. You are God’s beloved, alive with God’s life!