Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
“All religion does is put up barriers between people.” Have you ever heard that? I’m sure you’ve encountered at least something similar to that line of thinking, because our 21st century, post-post modern world lives and moves and has its being in “truth” as a subjective or relative concept. In other words, everyone gets to pick for themselves, and who are you to tell me that your truth is somehow better or truer than my truth? “All religion does it put up barriers between people.” In a way, that’s observably true. When it comes to religion, the people on this planet are neatly divided into synagogues, mosques, churches, and for those who have no preference, their living rooms. And even those are subdivided into denominations, and further still into groups, cliques, and clubs. Is this just the way it is?
Last week, I heard a story about a man named Dan Stevenson who lives in Oakland, CA. Dan was sick and tired of looking at the vacant lot across from his house, because people would constantly dump their trash there – garbage bags, loose trash, old mattresses, you name it. No matter how many times Dan petitioned the city to do something about it, they didn’t. So, Dan and his wife, Lu, came up with a plan. Dan and Lu admit they are not at all religious, but they went over to the vacant lot, tidied it up a bit, and placed a statue of Buddha there. Lo and behold, within a few days, the trash went away and something else showed up – one day it was an apple. The next it was an orange. Someone was leaving offerings to Buddha, this someone eventually “adopted” this Buddha and built a little house for it and a pretty shrine around it. Now instead of garbage and drug users occupying the corner, beautiful flowers and worshippers come to say their prayers. It’s pretty remarkable! So, the natural question comes – if you’re not religious, why put Buddha out there? Dan replied, “If I’d have thought Christ would’ve pulled it off – except Christ is so controversial with people. Buddha is a neutral dude. When Ace Hardware is carrying Buddha, it’s pretty neutral.” For as many theological issues as we’d have with Dan Stevenson’s way of thinking, he’s absolutely right about one thing.
Jesus said as much. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” How’s that now? In our gospel lesson from Luke 12, we meet a Jesus we don’t immediately recognize. Usually when we think of Jesus, we think of him bouncing toddlers on his knee or Good Shepherd Jesus, carrying a runaway lamb in his arms, close to his heart. Or the Jesus who puts his hand on a sick person’s shoulder and says, “Take heart, your sins are forgiven.” But here, this is no “gentle Jesus meek and mild.” This is a Jesus who says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus is talking about what happens when his Word comes on the scene, and particularly, what happens when two different people have two different responses to that same Word of the gospel. So far, Jesus and his disciples were no strangers to the opposition and division that Jesus caused by his preaching and teaching. Everywhere they went, people were divided because of him. You remember how this works. At some places, people are lining up in the streets just to get a chance to see Jesus. At other places, the crowds drive him out of town and try to throw him off a cliff. Even members of Jesus’ own family weren’t sure what to make of him. And now, Jesus promises his disciples that this dividing fire of his Word would burn even brighter and hotter in the future. The fire of the gospel message would not always bring peace and unity – because some would reject it. Inevitably, the gospel would also bring division - even within families living under one roof.
This notion seemed backwards to the disciples and still sounds a bit off to people today. You can almost hear the objections, “But I thought the promised Savior was going to bring peace. He was supposed to restore Israel to its former glory, to suppress our enemies on every side, to usher in an era of peace and prosperity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” That’s the kind of Savior many people were looking for back then. What about now? Jesus said so much helpful stuff about being loving, helping the poor, and reaching the outcasts. He’d never say something that upsets my personal sensibilities about truth! Jesus had to step in and correct that understanding, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” But wait a minute – Isaiah had prophesied that this Savior would be called “Prince of Peace.” On the night he was born, the angels in heaven sang because of Jesus, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests!” When he rose from the dead, the first words out of his mouth to his depressed disciples were, “Peace be with you!” Did Isaiah have it wrong? Were those angels speaking out of turn? Would Jesus bring peace? Yes, Jesus would bring peace on his terms, not the world’s. Jesus would bring spiritual peace between a holy God and sinful humans through his death and resurrection. But that didn’t guarantee peace between people on earth.
I don’t think any of us expects Jesus to set up a kingdom on earth and bring in a time of world peace. But that’s not really the root of the problem here. The issue is this – do we believe that Jesus is who he says he is and that his word will have the effect he says it will? Sometimes we fool ourselves like those people in our Old Testament lesson listening to the false prophets in Jeremiah’s day. “I had a dream! I had a dream!” they’d cry out, and the people would flock to hear this new message that was a whole lot more fun than the stuffy old law of Moses. We imagine that the word has the power to do what WE want it to do – whether or not that coincides with God’s promise is beside the point. We ignore the divisive power of the gospel because we just don’t want it to be true. We want everyone to get along, which is a fine desire, but Jesus doesn’t have any room for such a diversity of opinion about the truth of the gospel.
Jesus is divisive, precisely because he makes a claim on ultimate truth and doesn’t leave wiggle room for the sinful nature to try to save self. The message of Jesus is doubly offensive. First off, it is universally inclusive – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no escape. Secondly, the message is offensive because it is utterly exclusive – I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. Jesus is the only way to God. And ultimately, most offensive and divisive of all, the whole business is out of your hands, because it is a conviction of sin worked by God’s law and a comfort of the gospel brought by God’s Holy Spirit as a gift. It’s sad to see people and whole churches walk away from the truth of the gospel, but this is the inevitable result when the truth of God gets unleashed on the world. By the Spirit’s grace, some receive it with joy. Others reject it as nonsense. And so, Jesus brings division. Buddha might be neutral. Jesus is not.
We don’t like the idea of a controversial Christ, so maybe it’s just easier to go along with the world and try to meet them where they’re at with their ideas. “Just let them do what they want! Even if Jesus says he’s the only way to the Father, surely “our God is big enough to welcome all sorts of people who don’t agree.” So what if God designed marriage between a man and woman, that worked back then, but now it seems like people know better. I really like the idea of the forgiveness of sins, but I don’ think I have to get on board with everything Jesus said. Standing up for the truth of God’s Word will inevitably bring division. Often we’d like to avoid the divisions that Jesus promised. Sometimes we do that by not speaking God’s truth at all because we don’t want to deal with the fall out. So we let our sinful natures try to make compromises with clear Word of God. God forgive us! And he does. And to show us, he carried out the most profound division in the history of the world.
Jesus said, “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!” Jesus had a baptism to undergo; not a baptism with water, but something else. This was a baptism of suffering the wrath of God and the punishment of hell in our place. On the cross, Jesus took upon himself everything that divided us from a holy God. He took on our own embarrassment of the gospel, our denial of the Word’s power, and every sin that stained us and paid for all of them with his very life.
Jesus knew exactly what this baptism involved – the pain, torture, suffering, torment, and the end result: death. He knew all of this, yet his mind could think of doing nothing else. He said, “Let the fire begin!” Why? Why wouldn’t he run away and save himself? Because then he couldn’t save you. His love for you is so great, so complete, so self-sacrificing, that he went to the cross thinking only of you – how deeply he loves you, how fully he forgives you, how much he wants you to be with him forever in heaven. When everything around him would scream and tell him, “RUN!” Jesus only thought of you and how to make you his own forever. Jesus endured the fiery baptism of God’s wrath so that your baptism and my baptism into his name could bring with it all the blessings he promises – forgiveness for all sin, assurance that no matter what happens I am his and he is mine, a place in God’s family, even when my own might reject me, and eternal life in heaven. Jesus cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was divided from his own heavenly Father, so that you and I would never have to be.
That message of Christ crucified and risen for salvation is the heart of the gospel. That’s the message that Jesus promises will bring division – maybe even in your family. Even if there isn’t always “peace on earth,” we know for a fact that there is peace in heaven between us and God through Christ. Because of that truth of the gospel and what it gives us, we can say, “Let the fire begin.” We don’t need to be afraid of those fires of division because we know who’s on our side, Jesus.
So, is Jesus a divisive person? Of course, but don’t misunderstand. Jesus divides you from your devotion to sin, self, and Satan and brings you to be with him. Jesus divides you from anything that would try to separate you from him. Is Jesus’ claim on being the only way to the Father exclusive? You bet it is. But don’t miss the beating heart of the gospel behind it. Rather than let you, me, and every other human on this planet flounder about in uncertainty about who God is and what he thinks of me, Jesus put a laser focus right on himself. So we can know that even thought all the world might leave you, Jesus never will.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen