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"Distress, Division, and Holding It All Together"

Sept.22/13 Lk.12:49-59


On Wednesday night, several of us enjoyed Susan and Bill's photos from their Mediterranean and Holy Land trip. Several locations featured paintings or statues of Mary the mother of Jesus. The early paintings were somewhat rough yet realistic; however the later statues, while more professionally polished, appeared stylized, idealized, and increasingly remote - it was harder to identify with the figure as a day-to-day human.

We may have a tendency to do the same thing in our minds with our mental picture of Jesus Christ. It's easy to classify Him sitting peacefully with little children on His knee, or as a distinguished-looking shepherd holding a sheep. We may be geared subconsciously to want to "stow" Jesus on a shelf, safely out of reach of our everyday rough-and-tumble lives. And so doing, we distance Him from our reality.

But that's not the Jesus who comes to us in today's lesson from Luke 12. Jesus comes addressing us, on fire, challenging us to answer, full of questions for us. There are some obvious questions He poses in the text: v51, "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?" Another question in v56, "How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?" A third in the next verse, "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" These aren't simple or easy questions. Then there are others, less straight-forward, that arise as we read the text and wrestle with its meaning. V49 "I have come to bring fire on the earth..." What kind of FIRE is He talking about? He adds, "How I wish it were already kindled!" What's that mean? What's He want lit? V50 "I have a baptism to undergo..." But He was already baptized once by John the Baptist - what's this supposed to mean? What BAPTISM? He says, "How DISTRESSED I am until it is completed!" How come Jesus is distressed - isn't He Mr.Walk-on-water, Mr.Calm-the-Storm-and-Raise-the-Dead? What could possibly 'distress' someone supernatural?

V51 He says He didn't come to bring peace on earth - what's more important than PEACE? V52 there'll be DIVISION in families - what's doing the dividing? V56 "You don't know how to interpret this present time" - what "SIGN" of "this present time" is Jesus referring to? He doesn't say! And v58 "As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate..." What ADVERSARY is He talking about? We're not being hauled off to court - are we?

So this whole passage is rife with unanswered questions. Jesus comes at us firing questions for which we have no answers. He's not being safe, predictable, controllable, fitting in our established categories. His heart is clearly passionate about something big here, we'll need His help to unpack the images and the queries. Robinson comments, "Suddenly Jesus lets the volcano of His own heart burst forth." Dangerous and powerful as Vesuvius that buried Pompeii - this is not your safe, sanitized, stained-glass Jesus that we've got all figured out and analyzed. Instead it seems He's analyzing US!

Another comment of Robinson contrasts how our feel-good worship style (dare we say sometimes emotionalized, feminized?) may clash with Jesus' statements: "It is no namby-pamby sentimentalism that Christ preaches, no peace at any price...For Christ the kingdom of God is virile righteousness, not mere emotionalism."


This week, news stories featured the "raising" of the Costa Concordia in a 19-hour procedure off the coast of Italy. I use the term "raising" loosely because the photos show that, while it's now sitting upright, it is still largely "sunk" - sitting on an artificial seabed, not actually floating (at least not right away). While righted, the ship is still not seaworthy; it is still bound to be towed away and sold for scrap.

When we wonder why Jesus goes on about "DIVISION", keep that image of the Costa Concordia in mind. There is no concord aboard the Concordia, and that parallels greatly the grim truth about our society. Jesus says He came to bring not peace but division, then details in vv52-53 division amongst family members (perhaps siblings), amongst generations, and amongst the extended family: "From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law." Three times in 3 verses (51-53) He emphasizes "division". What's the source of this turmoil? (Greek word is like cutting a pie into pieces)

There's a parallel here to a passage in the Old Testament, about 700 years before Jesus: Micah 7:2-6. Micah describes the corruption of society in Israel and Judah before the invasion of the king of Assyria, and overthrow of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Read between the lines here - what's he describing? What parallels are there today? "The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains.All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net.Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire-- they all conspire together.The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge...[THAT DESCRIBES THE RULERS; THEN HE TALKS ABOUT THE COMMON PEOPLE] Do not trust a neighbour; put no confidence in a friend. Even with her who lies in your embrace be careful of your words. For [AND HERE WE SEE THE PART THAT ECHOES WHAT JESUS SAYS MUCH LATER] a son dishonours his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- a man's enemies are the members of his own household." (Micah 7:2ff)

What's he describing? General lawlessness and violence. Recently I reported to the OPP the theft of my MP3 player and FM transmitter earlier this summer; the officer confirmed there has been an increase in vehicle thefts, even in smaller communities like Blyth; after 14 years here, I guess I'm going to have to get used to locking my car doors! Next Micah describes corruption in the governance of the country - judges and rulers accept bribes and distort justice. Today, activists would say big corporations pay lots to lobby officials in order to obtain desired results. Then the prophet states this lawlessness has seeped down to the family level - children dishonour and rebel against their parents; there's friction with the in-laws. Has much changed in comparison with life today? The problem ISN'T just on account of the officials and big-wigs: selfishness and sin destroy families and alienate us at the most personal level.

Bill and Susan noted the tour guides seemed to take every opportunity amongst the ruins of Pompeii to point out the houses of the prostitutes. Sad that the eruption freeze-dried for permanent inspection even the seamiest aspects of our existence, highlighting the universality of our wanton hankerings and imperfect marriages. If those men had known Vesuvius was going to explode that day, would they perhaps have decided not to go, and stayed home with their wives instead?

"Do not trust a neighbour; put no confidence in a friend." Micah describes the fundamental rottenness of society in terms of not being able to trust anybody - we're all "out for ourselves", manipulating for our own selfish benefit, every one.

Back to Jesus in Luke 12:56A: "Hypocrites!" He cries. "Phonies! Pretenders!" We're masters of faking it, making things appear other than they are on the inside. We're oh-so-good at putting on a show.

57 "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" KJV "Why even of yourselves judge ye not what is right?" The phrase in Greek "even of yourselves" is significant. Robinson again: "Without the presence and teaching of Jesus they had light enough to tell what is right (to dikaion) and so without excuse as Paul argued in Romans 1:1-3:31." Jesus is suggesting, "Even without my teaching, based on just your own conscience and the innate sense of right-and-wrong built-in to your human makeup, you should be able to appreciate what's right, and judge accordingly." People don't need the Bible or Jesus' teachings to know there's something wrong with the world; God has wired us with an innate sense of fairness (what CS Lewis calls "the Tao", evident in all the major religions). But even conscience and the basic morality of pagan religion can't keep us on the right course.

Think of some "Costa Concordia" relational situations you may be aware of. On the surface they look vertical, but truthfully, below the waterline, they're in bad shape. A family member has been working with a friend, a young mom with 2 boys, whose current live-in is verbally abusive; the family member's trying to help her find a safer place to live, but the young mom's caught, not ready to leave because he's not physically abusive and is a provider. It's complicated.

Systems are imperfect too. This week I had the privilege of shaking hands with all 3 major provincial party leaders, and they all seemed very human when you get up-close! My 93-year-old father, honoured to officially open the plowing match, appealed in person to both the premier and the PC leader on behalf of the current dismal state of the local nursing home - struggling with doctor shortages, cutbacks, and claw-backs, it used to be an excellent facility, but in the past couple of decades Dad has watched it decline in service to the point he doesn't want to go there anymore, and is considering putting his name in further away. The politicians of course have no easy answer, given our current economic restrictions. But innately one gets the feeling something's wrong with this picture, it 'shouldn't BE'. Judging for ourselves what's right leads us to conclude something's OFF - in society, in our families; we need help!


Jesus' volley of verbage in this passage is meant to jar us to 'wake up and smell the coffee'. To amplify the volume, He uses two word pictures. Vv54-56 apply to the Judean weather situation and interpreting the signs of the atmosphere: a cloud from the west, over the Mediterranean sea, would be bringing moisture; but a wind from the south would be originating in the desert and be harbinger of a 'scorcher' of a day. We have similar adages - "Red sky at night, sailors' delight;" an east wind in southern Ontario is often associated with the leading edge of a low pressure system and stormy weather; (or one my dad told me just recently) "Rain before 7, done before 11; rain after 7, rain all day" (the skeptical side of me questions reliability of THAT one!). Jesus concludes, "You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky.How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?"

What's He referring to in "this present time"? Old Testament prophets had foretold a Messiah who would proclaim freedom to captives, good news to the poor, open the eyes of the blind, make the deaf hear, and the lame to leap (Is.35:5f; 42:6f; 61:1f). Jesus was performing these very miracles before their eyes, yet they could not seem to put 2 and 2 together.

Vv58-59 change the metaphor: there is a magistrate or judge; there is an adversary; there is a prison we're being dragged off to - and we have nothing with which to pay the fine! Things are NOT going our way in this analogy - we'd better try to be reconciled to our opponent or we won't get sprung from debtor's prison until we've paid the last penny. Stakes are high. No mention of a lawyer or advocate, someone to represent us or speak on our behalf to make things right. If Christ is referring here to an Almighty, holy, perfect, absolutely righteous Judge, the Eternal God - how could we sinners ever 'make it up' to Him?

But before you despair, remember how Jesus began this passage. V50 "I have a baptism to undergo" - the same baptism he spoke about with James and John in Mk 10:39, a baptism not under water but into suffering and death on the cross. Giving His life for us, absorbing the punishment for OUR sin. "How distressed I am until it is completed!" Knowing you're to be crucified would make any human distressed; but perhaps Jesus also means the alienation of man from God bothers Him, is such a strain that He's eager to get the cross over with so there can be true communion. By His wounds, we are healed (Is 53:5; 1Pet 2.24). He knows that reconciliation can't be realized "until it is completed" - same verb as when He emitted His dying words on the cross, "It is finished!" (Paid in full; Jn 19:30)

V49 "I have come to bring fire on the earth..." Yes there is the fire of God's judgment: 2Thess 1:7f "This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." As John the Baptist put it (Lk 3:17), "His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." The fire of judgment burns up chaff, yet the same fire refines precious metal. But there is also the symbolism of fire associated with Christ's giving of the Holy Spirit: John predicted "He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." (Lk 3:16; cf Acts 2:3) Jesus' mission was in fact to 'cast fire' on the earth, to bless those who would trust in Him with God's very Spirit dwelling inside them, a new birth. He was yearning towards the new community of saints in close relationship with Him and the Heavenly Father, the Spirit-filled church.


I'd like to close today with a video illustration from the Billy Graham "My Hope" project - just a sample of the quality materials that will be used in the November presentation. This excerpt features illusionist Jim Munroe whose life took a dramatic turn when he discovered he had a fatal medical condition...[DEFINING MOMENTS 3:20-5:34; 13:58-20:25]

...Leukemia prompted Munroe to do some serious evaluation of his life. Thankfully a donor was found who could extend his earthly life. But as it points out, our hearts are fatally infected with the cancer of SIN; we need a substitute. Jesus offers His blood so we can experience new life - forever with Him! Let's pray.