Rev. Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin.
Sermon delivered at Woodstock Christian Church, August 8, 2010.
Reading for the day: Luke 12:49-56
"There was a knight of Bethlehem,
whose wealth was tears and sorrow;
His men-at-arms were little lambs,
His trumpeters were sparrows.
His castle was a wooden cross,
On which he hung so high;
His helmet was a crown of thorns;
Its crest did touch the sky."
This is a sweet, sentimental statement regarding Jesus….but we must remember, he did not remain on the cross. This was not the end of the story. It is difficult to reconcile this meek and unpretentious image with Jesus' own words in our text this morning, words spoken as the anointed One of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Jesus clearly did not understand himself in such tender terms. The NRSV translation of the Scripture for this morning reads:
"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" [Luke 12:49-51, NRSV]
The contrast, between one who dies as a sacrificial lamb and one who says he brings fire, division, and conflict to the world, is stark, even shocking. It seems impossible to reconcile, particularly when we read Jesus' words in the actual Greek text, which I will do in a moment.
Have you noticed how words can express ideas just by their sound? For example, the Greek word for fire is pur. We may not know a word's meaning, but the sound-image conveyed to us is pur-ify, because fire refines and purifies. If the gospel quotes Jesus as saying he came to bring "pur" to the earth, we can guess the purpose of that fire, can we not?
So, let us look closely at this statement Jesus makes. If we translate the actual Greek text, it reads like this…"fire I came to throw on the earth." Notice that "fire" is emphasized as the first world in the sentence. It is followed by the powerful movement of throwing. It's not as if Jesus just happened to have a little fire-pot that he brought to earth. Assuming the ancient Greek text is the most accurate representation, which it is, Jesus did not say he came to merely "bring" fire to the earth. Jesus said He came to throw fire upon the earth. But there's more. If you consider the verb "to throw" in its proper tense, the act of throwing is continuous. It's more like Jesus is turning a blow-torch upon the earth. Are you warming up to this situation? Jesus came to blast the earth continuously with fire. Wow! This doesn't sound very peaceful and meek to me. Does it to you? Face to face with such a person, I would be fearful, even terrified.
But there is more. The next thing you can imagine is the earth reeling under the impact of this continuous blast of purifying fire, which is meant to be synonymous with the idea of God's judgment. It's a collision of judgment that scorches and shakes the earth to its core. A final element in our translation of Jesus' proclamation is the nature of the word "to throw." It is an infinitive without any framework of time. Thus, we can envision this fire that Jesus Christ has kindled by his crucifixion as being like a blow-torch continuously scorching the earth….forever, or until the end of time. Things are beginning to get pretty hot about now.
It makes me want to walk around with an asbestos umbrella over my head. We might imagine that the earth itself is not happy about this situation, since the Scriptures make it clear humanity and nature are in this sin-situation together. I find myself wondering if, through all the natural disasters we are hearing about today, the earth may be groaning under the pressure of God's judgment directed at humanity? It's not very scientific, but as the psalmist says, "Selah," pause and consider.
Jesus continues….(read Luke 12:54-57a).
Indeed, as it is written….(read Jeremiah 31:31-34).
Those who were listening to Jesus knew there is no excuse for disloyalty to God. Like them, we know in our hearts what is right. We know at the center of our "emotive self" what is right and wrong. So, why do we choose that which is wrong, or believe we must tolerate that which is wrong? Much is said in Scripture about the human heart. The heart is a metaphor for our emotions or feelings. It is usually our heart that motivates us to action, sometimes even conflicting with our intellect. Therefore, Jesus asks this critical question. "Why don't you judge for yourself what is right?" You have the ability to choose. God has given you the tools. Why don't you use them and judge for yourself?
The Apostle Paul lamented this situation within himself. Remember? (Read Romans 7:15-20,24-25.) But then, Paul continues….and recall what we considered last Sunday about slavery, liberation, and freedom? (Read Romans 8:15-17.) The only one who can liberate us from sin and set us free is God acting through Jesus Christ.
In our text today, we see Jesus in one of those rare moments when his divinity seems to over-ride his humanity. There is more than a hint of power ready to burst forth upon the earth. There is a clear sense of judgment and even divine impatience with a people who are blind and deaf to God's presence in the world, with a people who assume there will always be a divine tolerance of our continual rejection of God's Spirit. The ominous words from the past come to mind…"when the time was fulfilled," God's judgment fell upon Israel and Judah. Jesus Christ was born.
In today's world, we must not be confused or deceived by the godless, secular promotion of the word, "tolerance," which means to suggest a willingness to accept, although perhaps with reluctance. Such tolerance in the world today can actually enable evil. Thus, God does not tolerate but instead forbears for a time with the presence of evil in the world. God even forbears for a time with the unfaithfulness of his people. But God does not accept or tolerate either evil or unfaithfulness, and it is a fatal mistake to confuse his momentary forbearance with tolerance. Since the crucifixion of Jesus, the world has been under the fire of God's judgment. God's forbearance will one day come to an end. So, Jesus says in frustration, "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?"
Perhaps we would prefer a Jesus who just comforts us, who soothes our anxieties, who gives us an easier course to follow. But today's Jesus stands squarely with the Old Testament prophets declaring that, before there can be a new life in God's kingdom, there must be the abandonment of the old life in the world. Jesus' crucifixion kindled a fire that is blasting the earth. He is turning up the heat. He intends to purge, to smelt, and separate the impurities from the gold. No more Mr. Nice Guy. It's going to be tough love, baby.
In this century, we spend too much time listening to the world. Yeah, I know. It's hard not to listen to the world with the media reflecting back into society the agenda of secularism….with television advertising pounding us with the world's messages. An hour or so on Sunday morning is not enough to overcome the monopoly the world holds on us. That's why we need time for prayer, Bible reading and reflection, and community worship. We need the support of other Christians and the Holy Spirit. Without these, Christians are weakened and vulnerable.
For example, why do we freeze up when Jesus says "judge for yourselves what is right"? God has given us the guidelines, the principles, and the values, writing them on our hearts. We know what is right. But secularism has brainwashed many Christians into believing it is wrong to "judge." I hear people saying, "Oh my goodness, we can't judge what is right because a pluralistic society says judging others is wrong." The "politically correct police" say, all are entitled to their individual opinions about right and wrong. There is no overriding authority. In fact, there is no right and wrong anymore. They say there is only an individual's right to do whatever he or she wishes. But let me tell you God's truth. Without the overarching reign of God and the principles and values God has given us for living, there are only the powerful and the powerless, there are only masters and slaves. With the politically correct in charge, you will no longer have choices or freedom.
So, set your minds at ease. Let the truth set you free. In the kingdom of heaven, only God does the judging and His judgments are final. Don't get on the wrong side of that one. In the Greek, this word people are so afraid of is "krino," translated "to judge." It means, among other things, to choose or to determine for yourself. To judge for yourself, as Jesus says, has nothing to do with, repeat, nothing to do with, imposing your judgment on someone else. The action in this word is all about you and no one else. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
The problem for secular society is that Christians who choose for themselves, that is, judge for themselves what is right and know for themselves what is right under the reign of God, usually choose contrary to the will of secular society for everyone else. So, secularism tells Christians they must not choose for themselves the right that God has placed in their hearts, because, in choosing for yourself what is right, you are "judging" others who choose wrongly when they ignore or reject what God says is right. And with that subtle maneuver, secularists attempt to deny or discourage Christians from using their right to choose; they take away Christians' freedom to choose, and imply that anything goes in a PC world. In this way, secular religion is making its move to bury Christianity in a field of relativism.
Therefore, Jesus is saying to us, interpret the present time and boldly choose for yourselves what is right. God has given us the knowledge to know the difference between right and wrong. God sets the standard for righteousness in the world. Make no mistake, God will hold everyone responsible for their choices. Don't let a secular world that hates God make critical choices for you. Choose for yourself what is right and expect dissension.
Now that's a tough one for Christians who are "peace mongers." You know them, Christians who want to avoid dissension at any cost. I love them, bless their hearts, but these are Christians who stand for nothing for fear of offending others with their choices. Disciples must be careful with this one. Somehow, I don't hear Jesus saying, "We have to go along to get along." Somehow, I don't' hear Jesus talking compromise. Jesus didn't mind upsetting the social order. He welcomed conflict with the Pharisees, who were the PC police of his time.
Honest dissension is good. "Conflict balances power relationships, promotes flexibility and adaptiveness, and prevents stagnation," argues management consultant Linda Putman. There can be no loss of nerve where Christians are concerned. What is required here are faith and courage. If you are one who likes to stand on the porch when a storm moves through, feeling the power that is pushing trees around and moving clouds, then you are one ready to be moved by the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit moves in our lives, setting our heads on fire. The Spirit rearranges things, opens things up, challenges the legitimacy of secular religion, and confronts God's people who have affairs with the gods of this world. Can you feel the heat? Jesus asks with a strange twinkle in his eyes, "Do you think I came to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, division." Interpret the times, and choose for yourselves what is right. God will take care of the world. Amen.
“Divine Perspectives II” (2 of 2)
Rev. Eugene C. Buie, Jr., DMin.
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