On Luke 12:49-53. The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
When our pastor asked me to cover for him today I hadn’t looked at the Gospel text yet. When he did, I wanted to say to him, “You just didn’t want to tackle this one did you?”J
Jesus says: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
Just what you wanted to hear, I imagine. We have enough division in our nation, in the realm of things political, but you expect peace from the Prince of Peace, right? You expect Jesus to focus on our unity, to bring all of our family together, because, after all, the family that prays together is supposed to stay together, right? Yet here He says He’s going to set father against son, mother against daughter, in-law against in- law, and divide houses of five, three to two. And will you be in the majority or the minority? And which will be on Jesus’ side?
What the heck is going on here? This is the same Jesus who at His birth the angels sang of “Peace on earth”. This is the one who said “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” The One who said, “Peace be with you” to His frightened disciples.
In today’s Gospel, the Prince of Peace speaks of three things: A fire, a baptism, and division.
And so Jesus says: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on the earth?” And we respond: “Well, to be honest, yes, we do think you’ve come to bring peace on the earth. In fact, we expect you to bring peace in spite of our own efforts to the contrary. We expect everything to go just splashingly well when Jesus shows up. We expect world peace, peace in our neighborhoods, peace in our congregations, peace in our homes. And we get all anxious when peace doesn’t arrive with rainbows and unicorns, and we start to wonder what went wrong and why isn’t Jesus doing something about it.
But our reading from Luke this morning is a piece of Gospel reality from Jesus, what Luther called the “theology of the cross”. It’s about our temporal life lived under the cross of Jesus. Jesus has a fire to cast upon the earth. He has a baptism with which He must be baptized, and He is absolutely driven to accomplish it.
The fire Jesus speaks of here is Pentecost fire, the fiery wind of the Spirit. Gospel fire. Like the pillar of fire that led Israel through the Sea or the fire of the burning bush that did not burn up, the fire Jesus casts upon the earth is a refining, purifying, illuminating fire that saves. For that fire to be kindled, there must be sacrifice, a whole burnt offering, a sinless Victim for the sinful many. For this peace that passes our understanding to come to us, there must be a death, and not just any death, but the death of God in the Flesh. He alone can kindle this fire.
No amount of rubbing the sticks of our good works together can accomplish this, no matter how many merit badges we accumulate to our credit. Only Jesus can bring Pentecost fire to the earth, but first, He must die and rise. There is no other way than the way of the cross. And in the words of today’s Gospel, He is driven and compelled to go this lonely mission. His eyes are fixed to the cross like Michael Phelps in the Olympic swim room, or a runner with his eyes eying the “It’s finished” line. (Sorry, like many of you I’ve gotten caught up watching the Olympics.”)
If you recall, when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, John was outraged. “You’ve got to be kidding, Jesus. You’ve got it wrong. I should be baptized by you. You’re the greater One. You’re the One whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie. I shouldn’t be baptizing you. This is ridiculous!” But Jesus insisted. “Let it be, John. Let go of your preconceived notions of what I’m about. This is how it goes down. I become the Sinner. It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” You see, His baptism set Jesus on a road to Calvary. It was the washing of the Sacrifice. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And Jesus was compelled to see His baptism through to the end and its fulfillment when He could cry out, “It is finished.”
There, in that dark death of Jesus, is Pentecost fire. Gospel fire. The burning passion of God to save sinful humanity and a fallen creation. There, in that death, is a peace that the world cannot give, a peace the world does not know, a peace the world cannot broker. It’s the peace of sins washed away by the blood of the Lamb, the peace of God in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them, the peace of God’s justifying Word that declares us righteous for Jesus’ sake alone, the peace of a quiet conscience knowing that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. You want peace? You have’ got it? In Jesus. And in this way and this way alone.
That’s the baptism into which you are baptized. That’s the fire that has come to you with the Word and Spirit. A baptism that drowns and births, a baptism that kills and makes alive. A fire that destroys sin and the sinner in Adam and refines the pure gold of the saint in Christ. That “division” of which Jesus speaks not only cuts through families and the closest of our relationships (and that can hurt like hell), but it also cuts right through each one of us as sinner/saints simultaneously sinful and righteous (and that can hurt like hell too). Hebrews calls the Word of God a sharp, two-edged sword that can divide soul and spirit, joint and marrow. It’s a division that brings unity in Christ, a death that brings life, a drowning that leads to resurrection, a fire that delivers pure gold, a violence that brings peace. Lasting, eternal peace.
But your old Adam wants something completely different. He wants peace on his terms. No one wanted to listen to Jeremiah’s preaching of seventy years of exile. Who wants to listen to that? It’s depressing, bad for national morale, it’s negative, it’s soooooo… 600 BC. We naturally plug our ears to that kind of message.
No, bring us the kind and gentle Jesus, the focus on the family Jesus, the 8 lb 6 oz fleece diapered baby Jesus, the God will grant you all kinds of favors because you’re so special Jesus. Don’t dwell on the cross and Jesus’ death. We already know the old, old story so why bother repeating it? Tell us something new. Make us feel good about ourselves. Encourage and uplift us. And the Jeremiahs of our day? Well, let’s just toss them into a pit somewhere and shut them up.
But the way of baptismal faith in Jesus is the way of the cross. There is no other way, folks. Faith is a race set before us, not a ride in a recliner in front of the television. And it isn’t a 100 m sprint that is over and done in a matter of 11 seconds but a marathon that lasts a lifetime. “Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Just as the runner fixes his eyes on the finish line and the prize, just as Jesus had his eyes on the prize of your salvation in His death, so faith looks to Jesus who endured the cross with your sin to save you. Run the race. The life of faith is not a spectator sport in which you watch others run. You are in the race. You are running. In other words, Keep your eyes on Jesus.
Don’t look back at your past. Runners who look over their shoulder trip and crash into stuff. Look forward. The past is redeemed, reconciled, and forgiven in Jesus. Look ahead to the finish line, to the resurrection of the body and eternal life.
Don’t look at your feet, how you are running. Faith in Christ looks to Christ and not to itself. Shed the dead weight of sin and guilt. Be done with it. Confess it and be forgiven and free. Don’t try to bear the burden of your sin. Jesus bore it. Leave it with Him and run your race in His freedom. Christ didn’t hang on a cross so that you would have to carry around two bags on guilt on your shoulders. You are forgiven and free. Run as a forgiven and free child of God.
And un your race knowing that there are those at the finish line cheering you on. They’ve run the race before you, they’ve endured in the faith, they trusted the promise of God in Christ even when that promise appeared to fail. Abraham, Isaac, Moses, faithful Israel, Rahab, the hooker of Jericho. Yes, Rahab the prostitute! What a motley bunch it is that cheers you on as you run the race set before you.
Run your baptismal race with joy, with endurance, with patience, with hope. Focus on Jesus. His joy was to save you. Your joy is to receive the salvation He won for you, to be welcomed at the end of your race into the open arms of the Savior, to have Him put the victor’s wreath on your head. And when you become weary or become discouraged, fix your faith-eyes on Jesus and let everything else recede into the periphery. Jesus will sustain you; He will give you strength; He will see you through from death to life. And of course, receive your peace here, in this meal that truly surpasses all understanding because through it your sins (all of them) are truly forgiven and you are refreshed by your Prince of Peace.
The apostle Paul wrote these words from a dark Roman dungeon as he awaited his own impending execution:
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”
That’s how the race looks. No peace in this world yet eternal peace that surpasses our understanding. No life in this world yet eternal life in abundance. No joy in this world yet eternal joy overflowing. So run the race knowing that in Christ you already have the victory. “It is finished.” Really, it is finished.
In the name of Jesus, Amen.