A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on August 15, 2010
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:49-56
If you ever wonder why some people take issue with the Bible, wonder no more. Our reading from Luke’s gospel provides us the perfect example. It is just chock full of contradictions, and these contradictions come straight from the mouth of Jesus. I can cite you chapter and verse, if need be.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus says, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” My goodness, where did that come from? Doesn’t sound like the Jesus who offered living water to the woman at the well, does it?
I’ve heard some preachers talk like that. My guess is that a number of you have as well. In fact, I grew up on that kind of stuff. Why, we’d have evangelists come to our church for revivals who could scorch the hair off your head with their stark images of hell, a fiery eternity that was awaiting those who rejected Jesus. Is that the kind of fire Jesus is talking about? Those evangelists surely thought so!
And he says, Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Is this the same Jesus who said, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you”? Doesn’t sound like it, does it?
This is the language of alienation, coming straight from the same mouth that gave us the parable of the prodigal son. Jesus is proclaiming separation when he is the one who made a hero out of a Samaritan. Conflict is being fomented here with these words, when at the outset of Luke’s gospel we are told that the Coming One would “guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Would the real Jesus please stand up?
I wonder, if Jesus’ mother had been standing next to him, she might have given Jesus a scolding look and said something like, “Now, Son, be nice.” Somehow I’m not sure this is the kind of Jesus we have much interest in. If Jesus is the template for our lives, as one commentator has put it,1 when it comes to this passage, we’re tempted to look for another hero.
We’ll take the Jesus who came to save our souls, but we’re not too keen on the One who challenges us and says things that make us uncomfortable. We are certainly troubled by the Jesus who seems to contradict himself by saying one thing one time and something else entirely at another. Maybe that’s because, when it comes to things religious, we like to have it all bundled up in a nice, tidy little package. And that means we want Jesus to be peaceable, predictable, pleasant... and nice.
John Killinger says that Jesus is “often portrayed as a weak, effeminate man with slender hands, delicate features, and soft, flowing hair that would look marvelous in a Clairol ad.”2 Is that something like the way you picture him?
There have been times when I’ve talked to people who don’t have much use for any kind of religious expression in general, nor do they care much for Jesus in particular. So I ask them to tell me what kind of Jesus they think he might have been. Inevitably, when they tell me, my response is, “I don’t believe in that kind of Jesus either.”
Here’s why. Jesus came into a tough, tough world. If we think our world today has its problems, we’ve got nothing on those who labored under the heavy-handed government of the Romans. Think about it... for centuries the Hebrews had not known any peace. In fact, things began pretty much unraveling when King David died. They never were the same after he was gone.
They had been taken into exile, not just once but a number of times, largely because of weak, ineffectual leadership from their kings. If it wasn’t the Egyptians it was the Babylonians. If it wasn’t the Babylonians, who took the Jews into exile twice, it was the Assyrians. Israel had more political enemies than Carter had liver pills (boy, that’s a blast from the past, isn’t it?).
Now, it’s the Romans’ turn to lord it over the Jews. They may not have taken the Hebrews away from their homes, but they have taken over their homes, run roughshod over their villages and towns, made them adopt their language, forced them to put up with their culture and their rules, and turned God’s chosen people into their indentured servants. And all the while, the Romans managed to find unscrupulous Jewish leaders, like the Herods, who would collude with them in placing an even harder burden on their own people.
All the while, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer, the powerful gained even more power, and the weak continued to labor under the thumb of those who lorded it over them. It was a miserable, miserable world into which Jesus came, and he decided to do something about it. If you have a picture in your mind of little Jesus meek and mild, you might want to think again. He could have blended into the woodwork and not made any noise. But instead, he chose to confront the inequities of his day and throw his shoulder against the evil he encountered. In the process, Jesus created crisis because “...crisis is that edge where change is possible.”3
He knew the message he proclaimed would be controversial and would divide people, even those of the same household... “three against two and two against three,” is the way he put it. “Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law...” well, you get the picture.
Up to this point, Jesus has performed miracles and told his wonderful parables of the nature of the kingdom. He has offered healing to the sick and hope to the hopeless. Now, his message has taken such an abrupt turn from what he had been telling his disciples that Peter asked him, “Lord, are you telling this... for us or for everyone?” (12:41). It is during Jesus’ response to Peter’s question that he spoke that well-known truth, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (12:48). Strong words, aren’t they? Especially when you consider them in their context.
Most of you know that my older brother Hugh had major surgery Thursday in Houston. It was a procedure that took more than ten hours to perform. When the surgeon came out that night, to tell us how the surgery had proceeded, we were taken aback by his lack of a warm and congenial bedside manner. In fact, his manner was rather arrogant. But after he left, we decided that we would prefer an arrogant surgeon who knows his business than a humble one who is mediocre.
Sometimes, I think, we would prefer a mediocre, humble Jesus than one who knew what he wanted, and was willing to go after it. What kind of Jesus do you want? “O pale Galilean,” the poet Swinburne said. I don’t think so. Jesus knew what he wanted, and what he wanted was for his heavenly Father to be exalted, for God’s kingdom to be known here on earth just as it is fully revealed in heaven. When Jesus encountered people who stood in the way of his Father’s kingdom, he set them straight in a hurry.
You recall the story of his cleansing the temple. He overturned the stacks of bird cages, let loose the tethered animals that were to be sold at great profit for the temple sacrifices, and put a whip to the buyers and sellers. Do you think a pale Galilean would have the moxie to do that?! Jesus knew what his purpose was in proclaiming his Father’s kingdom, and he would not stand for anyone’s making a mockery of it.
And he was incredibly demanding of his followers. “Whoever would come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow after me... Anybody who puts his hand to the plow and turns back is not fit for the kingdom.” And now this. “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three...”
Divided, divided, divided. Why would Jesus do such a thing? Why would he say such things?
With Jesus it was all or nothing. All or nothing. He didn’t give a quarter to anybody, not even himself. He knew what he believed and what the kingdom demanded and nothing or nobody could turn him from it. The devil tried and finally gave up in disgust. His disciples tried, as we’ve mentioned, and Jesus accused them of being on the side of Satan. The Roman government, the Jewish Sanhedrin... everybody tried to keep Jesus from fulfilling his task as the Son of God, and none were successful.
When the time came for him to go to Jerusalem and confront the religious power group that spoke for God while keeping the people from God, Jesus, according to Luke’s testimony, set his face toward the holy city. “He didn’t merely gravitate toward the conflict. He didn’t wander into an unexpected war zone. He set his face like flint to go there, to take on the forces of evil, to stand them off in a final showdown.”4
After saying this, Jesus turned to the crowds who had been following him. Some, no doubt, had been doing so because of what they thought they could get from him. Perhaps a few were there out of curiosity, maybe some others because they had nothing to do and up to now the Nazarene had been the best show in town. Jesus said to them, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; (rather timely, don’t you think?) and it happens.”
Is Jesus going to take it easy on these weary, misbegotten souls who are looking for just a bit of good news in the bad news world that surrounds them? Not on this day. On this day Jesus is not prepared to show his tender side. Not at all. “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?”
They just don’t get it! He is on his way to Jerusalem to confront the forces of Rome and everything that is wrong with his religious tradition, and those following him are concerned about where their next meal is coming from. Will Jesus perform a few miracles today, will he show his evident power, will he give some of his power to them, will he tell them what they want to hear?
Jesus has no patience with those who aren’t willing to grasp the significance of his mission. There’s a storm a-brewin’ and the people are thinking in terms of eternal sunshine. They just don’t get it, do they? The question is, do we?
I read a recent op-ed article that was published in The New York Times. The subject is clergy burnout, and was written by a pastor. What are the causes of clergy burnout? Is it overwork, lack of exercise, not enough time off, poor management abilities, bad habits? Maybe. But those aren’t the major contributing factors, according to this pastor. It is because religion has become a consumer experience. Churchgoers, he says, “increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.”
He tells about the time the advisory committee of his congregation came to him and told him to keep his “... sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear,” he says: “give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.”
He continues: “Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers. Pastors believe they’re called to shape lives for the better, and that involves helping people learn to do what’s right in life, even when what’s right is also difficult. When they’re being true to their calling, pastors urge Christians to do the hard work of reconciliation with one another... They lead people to share in the suffering of others, including people they would rather ignore... At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.”5
So, if it was Jesus standing in this pulpit today instead of me, what do you think he might say to us? To be honest, I don’t know. But I would think he might remind us he wants followers and not admirers.6 He might also tell us to leave the weather to Ned Perme. We’ve got another job to do. Admittedly, sometimes that job is not an easy one to do. The journey together is figuring out what that job is, and the question is, are you willing to travel?
Find us faithful in listening for your message, Lord, even when it is not the one we want to hear. Then, give us the spiritual courage to follow you wherever you lead us. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, “Something About Jesus,” The Christian Century, April 3, 2007, p. 43.
2John Killinger, "Jesus In a Plain Brown Wrapper" (unpublished sermon, April 23, 1989).
3Teresa Berger, “Disturbing the Peace,” The Christian Century, August 10, 2004, p. 18.
5G. Jeffery MacDonald, “Congregations Gone Wild,” The New York Times, August 7, 2010.
6Soren Kierkegaard, cite unknown.