Fire on the Earth (a sermon on Luke 12:49-56)

When you come back to your parish after being away for four weeks, you kind of hope that the lectionary will give you a nice upbeat text to preach on – something that will sound a positive note as you get back into things. And then instead you find out that we’re in Luke chapter twelve, which is full of warnings and dire predictions and fierce-sounding sayings and things that don’t sound like ‘our’ Jesus at all!

What do I mean by ‘our’ Jesus? Well, we all have our presuppositions about Jesus, about the sort of person he is and the kind of thing he would say and do. When I was a little boy we used to sing a hymn that called him, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’, but he seems to have lost that meekness and mildness in our gospel for today! Or we might see him as ‘Jesus, the upholder of traditional family values’, and then our text today tells us that he wants to divide families, not unite them. We think of him as ‘Jesus the prince of peace’, and now he tells us that he’s not interested in peace at all – he’s come to bring division. And then there’s always ‘Jesus the therapist’ whose mission in life is to soothe people and make them feel more comfortable. Well, he seems to be nowhere in sight in today’s Gospel!

So what’s this text all about? As always, we need to see it in its context. Luke chapter twelve is all about ultimate questions and fateful choices. We’re asked to choose carefully who we will fear – not just the one who can kill our bodies, but the one who can cast people into hell after death. We’re told to choose not to accumulate possessions but to be rich toward God and seek his kingdom instead. We’re told to be dressed for action and have our lamps lit, like servants who know that their master is coming and want to be ready for him. We’re even warned that if we know the master is coming, but we goof off and don’t get ready, we’ll get a beating!

What’s this all about? Two verses sum up the message of the chapter. In verse 31 we read: “Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”, and in verse 56, “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?” – or, as the Revised English Bible brilliantly translates it, ‘this fateful hour’. What fateful hour? The Greek word is ‘kairos’, which means the significant moment, the time everyone has been waiting for – the coming, of course, of the kingdom of God.

The Christian faith sees world history as being divided into two ages – the present age, and the new age, the age to come. The present age is an age of rebellion against God, characterized by human pride and autonomy, selfishness, war, injustice, oppression and violence. The Jewish people experienced it as a time of oppression by foreign armies, and a time when the rich and powerful in their land made common cause with those oppressors. We continue to experience it today when so many live in poverty while we live in affluence – when war and hatred seem to be proliferating around the world – when people are encouraged to be out for themselves, instead of thinking of the good of the community as a whole.

Isaiah describes this present age in our Old Testament reading. He talks about Israel as being like a vine God planted in a vineyard, hoping for good fruit. He says, ‘For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (5:7). And he goes on to describe other symptoms of this present age: ‘Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!… Ah, you who rise early in the morning in pursuit of strong drink, who linger in the evening to be inflamed by wine… Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness…’ (5:8, 11, 20). It all sounds very contemporary to me.


But the Bible also looks ahead to the new age, the age to come, the age of the peaceable kingdom, the time when God will set the world to rights and when evil will be no more. Isaiah also describes this, in chapter two of his book: it’s a time when the Lord’s house in Jerusalem will be honoured above all others, and the nations of the world will stream to it to learn the ways of the Lord. They will accept the Lord’s arbitration in their disputes, and they will turn their weapons into farm implements and stop learning the ways of warfare. In other words, human rebellion against God will end, and the kingdoms of the world will be taken up into the Kingdom of God.

Jesus assumed all this, but with a significant twist: he saw the two ages as overlapping. There wouldn’t be a clean break between the two; rather, the seeds of the new age would be sown while the old age was still running its course. The new age was inaugurated by his life, death, and resurrection – so in that sense, we could say, the kingdom of God is already present, in Jesus and his people – but it will not be complete until the day he is revealed as judge of the living and the dead – and so we still pray, ‘your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.

So here’s the challenge Jesus brought: you are invited to choose which kingdom you want to be in! Will you live out of the old values of the past, the kingdom of selfishness and pride and greed and violence and autonomy? Or will you take the risk of living into the values of the kingdom to come – the kingdom of justice and peace, of nonviolence, of seeking the Lord and learning his ways? Because this is the time of choosing – this is ‘the fateful time’.

Not everyone will want to choose the kingdom of God, and this will bring division. I think of the story of William Wilberforce, the British politician and Christian leader who led the fight against the slave trade in the British Empire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Wilberforce chose to live into the values of the kingdom of God, and he was hated and reviled for it. People protested that if the slave trade was abolished the empire would be ruined, and the ship owners and merchants and planters and financiers were up in arms. The famous Admiral and war hero Horatio Nelson said, “I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”.

So you see, in Wilberforce’s time his work for the kingdom of God divided the house of the British empire – set admiral against politician, preacher against slave owner, and so on. The final aim of the kingdom is peace, for sure, but the journey to that peace is anything but peaceful, because in the present age some people are making a great deal of profit out of injustice and oppression. That’s what Jesus meant when he said he came to bring fire on the earth – the fire of God’s justice against evil and oppression.

But don’t expect the oppressors to cheer about the fact! After all, they didn’t cheer for Jesus either. That’s what he means when he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized” (v. 50). He’s using ‘baptism’ in the literal sense of being ‘immersed’ or ‘overwhelmed’ by a flood of water, like people caught in the huge tidal wave of a tsunami. Jesus knew he was on a collision course with the authorities, and he knew that there was only one possible outcome of that collision – his own death. But he accepted this willingly, because he valued his Father’s kingdom above all else.

And so today, even though we Christians are called to work for peace, we know that the journey to peace will be anything but peaceful. Habitat for Humanity decides that they want to build some low-cost housing to help people who are struggling to find a decent place to live, but the property owners in the neighbourhood are up in arms – this is going to lower my property values! A group of churches want to start a program to help homeless people in winter, providing shelter in the church basements and food for those who need it, but the neighbours complain that this is bringing the wrong sort of people into their neighbourhood. And so our house is divided.

You often see it in a family. One member of the family chooses to become a follower of Jesus, and the rest of the family find this annoying or embarrassing. Why does she have to go on about Jesus all the time? Why can’t she be a bit more discrete about it? Or in another family the parents put their foot down and say, no, we’re a Christian family and we’re going to church together on Sunday mornings, and the kids start to complain because they have to miss out on sports teams and all the rest. Or in another family maybe some of them are involved in unethical business – after all, the market is pretty cut-throat and you have to do what you have to do to make a profit – and others choose to make an issue of this. and so a house is divided, father against son and son against father, and so on.

Please understand, it is not Jesus’ ultimate goal to divide families. The vision of the kingdom of God is a vision of love, where people are united in joyful submission to God and his will, and strong families are a vital part of that. But to choose family unity over obedience to God and his kingdom is to make an idol out of the family – to worship what God has created rather than the Creator himself. Jesus is simply saying to us – when you make the ultimate choice to seek first the kingdom of God, don’t expect everyone in your world, even in your own family circle, to start jumping for joy about that – and don’t be swayed by their opposition either.

Because these are fateful choices. There are no insignificant decisions in these matters. Every day the choices we make are shaping us into the kind of people we are going to become, and shaping our world into a different sort of place as well. Read the signs of the times, Jesus tells us. The kingdom is coming, as sure as the sun rises each day. The end is fixed in the plan of God – the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea – and the resurrection of Jesus proves this. Read the signs, and live accordingly.

The passage ends on a note of judgement. This note has been left out of our lectionary reading today, for no good reason as far as I can tell. In verses 57-59 Jesus says,

“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny”.

We sometimes hear that the Old Testament God is all about judgement, but Jesus is all about love and forgiveness. That’s a drastic oversimplification; there’s plenty in the Old Testament about the love of God, and Jesus has a few scary passages of judgement too! This particular one is set against the background of the debtors’ prison. In the ancient world you could be thrown into prison for failing to pay your debts, and you would be kept there (at your own expense) until you had paid what you owed – perhaps by the sale of some property.

How does this apply to us? Well, of course, in the Lord’s Prayer sin is seen as an unpaid debt: the original language says ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors’. What we owe to God is to love him with all our hearts and to love our neighbours as ourselves; to fail to do that is to incur a debt. And these debts are not arbitrary, because love of God and neighbour is precisely what the kingdom of God is all about. God isn’t being mean; if we have no intention of learning to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves, how can we truly say that we want to follow Jesus? It would be like claiming to be conservatives while all the while we actually believe in the principles of socialism!

The note of judgement underlines the urgency of our decision. The kingdom is coming, but the choice is ours – are we going to live out of the values of this present age, or are we going to live into the values of the kingdom of God? It’s a risky choice, because we can’t see the kingdom of God at the moment – at least, not in an obvious way – whereas the signs of the old kingdom are all around us still. So to choose to love your enemies and to live in a nonviolent way can be dangerous in a world where lots of people still carry weapons and are quite willing to use them. To choose to live a simple life without accumulating possessions can attract some attention in a world where the unspoken motto is that the one who dies with the most toys wins. To choose to forgive instead of taking revenge can be unfashionable in a world where the prevailing attitude is that if you don’t retaliate they’ll only do it again.

And so, as always, Jesus is challenging us to live by faith in things we can’t see. He’s challenging us to believe that to choose the way of God is in fact to choose to live in line with the grain of the universe. That’s the good news in this passage, even though at first it doesn’t sound as if there is any good news. A choice for the kingdom of God is not a futile choice, even though it may end in the short term with a cross – or a division in the family. Because after the cross comes the resurrection, and after the night comes the day, and after the kingdom of darkness comes the kingdom of light. Evil will not have the last word, so even though evil may try to shout you down, keep speaking your truth and keep living the way Jesus taught you, because you know, as Paul says, that in the end your labour for the Lord is not in vain.


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