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  • Rev. Diane Curtis

Fire of Change

Luke 12:49-56

New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:

father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain,’ and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 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?

Before I read the passage, I want to provide some context because, in and of itself, this text may seem like an outlier to all that we know or think we know about Jesus. Prior to this passage we read the parable of the Rich Fool. Then Jesus tells his followers to not worry and to be watchful for the Lord’s return. Following this text, Jesus begins his ministry of teaching and healing that we are familiar with, that we feel more comfortable with. He tells some of the familiar parables – the Mustard Seed, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son.

But wait! Before I read, I am going to ask you to do something. Stand up if you are able. Now, I want you to switch seats. Move across the aisle but not straight across. Move forward or backward. Sit near someone you don’t normally sit with. If you are at home, move your tablet or phone to another place on the table or try a different chair, or move it to a different position.

How does it feel to sit in a place you don’t usually sit? Look at your surroundings. What do you see that you normally can’t? Your view is different. Do you feel comfortable in your new seat?

Most of you sit in the same place every week. You count the pews to find yours or use a window or other feature as a marker for your seat. Of course, there a couple of radicals who move, but not many.

Change can be difficult. As you sit in your new seat (I imagine most of you will be back in your usual place next week), focus on the words of this passage from Luke 12. Jesus says:

[Read Text]

I imagine you might find this a surprising text. One that ought to have a sign that says, “Enter at Your Own Risk.” This is not your Sunday school Jesus – the kind, gentle shepherd who invites the children to come to him, tells stories, and shows compassion to all.

This Jesus is like one of those villains in a Marvel movie shooting fireballs from his hands at the people who are running for cover. This is the Jesus of Simeon in the Temple, the one who told Mary that her son would be the cause of the falling and rising of many people and a sign that would be opposed. She had no idea what was ahead.

I don’t think we had any idea either. We know that he was going to criticize the religious leaders, tell people a better way of life was available to them, be beaten and flogged, and go to the cross to die. These things are what came to mind as we read the prophecy from Simeon a couple of weeks ago.

We never thought it would be this Jesus we would read about this week. The disruptive Jesus who comes not to knit things together but to tear them apart. The One who comes to upset the status quo. Jesus comes to change the core of life, even the family relationships that are held so dear.

Why these relationships mentioned here? These three particular ones. All are duty-based, an obligation in the relationship that ties them together.

The father and son relationship was the obligation of inheritance. The eldest son would be responsible for keeping the land and to ensuring that all continued to run smoothly to preserve that inheritance for the family. The eldest son was duty-bound to follow his father’s instructions and do what was asked of him.

The mother/daughter relationship refers to the situation where the daughter is living at home prior to her marriage. Her responsibility was to remain chaste so she could be given to a good husband in marriage. The mother’s responsibility was to ensure that her daughter was prepared for the marriage. To keep her daughter under her thumb so she wouldn’t be led astray and to teach her how to run a household.

The mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship was different but still built on obligation. This relationship was unlike the experience those of us who have or had a mother-in-law or daughter-in-law. We know that that relationship can be tricky. At times it can go smoothly and at times, not so much.

In Jesus’ time, the daughter-in-law usually moved into her husband’s family home. (Imagine being newly married and moving in with your in-laws). Her role was to take on the various household chores that were assigned to her and to maintain the marriage contract to the benefit of others. She was to be the wife she was trained to be and to participate in the overall functioning of the family as required. She lived on the fringes of the family, often feeling an outsider. Her only value came if she bore a son to carry on the family line.

Society at that time was built on these relationships. Expectations were met and balance was maintained as each person fulfilled their obligation in the family system.

Jesus enters the picture to say that maintaining obligations was only part of the story, only a piece of the whole. He tells the people that they were choosing the comfortable path.

You are probably familiar with these words from Ecclesiastes chapter 3: there is a season for everything and a time for every matter under heaven. The writer gives us a list of either/or that describe the nature of life. He says there is:

a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break down and a time to build up; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to sew; a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.

You can’t pick and choose which season or at what time you want to live. You can’t look at the list and decide which ones you want to do. For example, you can’t say that I only want to plant. Someone else can weed or pull up the dead plants. Or I only want to be in the background in silence. Someone else can talk. We can’t pick one side of the equation and choose that one as our mode of operation. We are bound by everything under heaven and every season of life.

Jesus comes to tell his people and tell us that we are to accept the time for every matter whenever it comes. Just because we are happy with what we are doing and where we are right now doesn’t mean that won’t change. Just because we are comfortable and want everything to stay the same doesn’t mean that is what will happen.

Jesus comes as a refining fire. Not a fire meant to incinerate everything and then throw away the ashes. One who comes to burn away the old notions of life, the old ways of living, the ways we are comfortable with to bring a new life.

In Hinduism, the belief is that the goal of life is completion, not perfection. Human flourishing is tied to being complete. To be complete entails wisdom gained through experience and hardship. It is only through brokenness that completion is found.

A good message to hear. Many of us think perfection is the goal. Being exactly who we and others think we are supposed to be. Doing the right things and making sure that everything looks exactly as they ought to be becomes our focus in life.

Jesus comes to wipe those expectations away and tell us that his way of life is not about being perfect. For Jesus, the goal for himself and for all of us is completion.

We’re not supposed to be those who are sitting on the sidelines in comfy seats while Jesus does all the work to bring everything to completion, including us. We aren’t to be sitting in those seats attempting to maintain our status quo. We are to do more than get up and move to seats we aren’t comfortable with (just like you all did a bit ago). Rather, we’re to be in the trenches with Jesus. However, to join Jesus there, we need to the refining fire that takes away the obstacles that prevent us from entering into the muck. We have to let go of our preconceived ideas of what it is like to tromp through the mud, of what we need to wear to jump in. Saying, “I don’t have my wellies (tall rubber boots) with me today so I can’t go. Jesus, I’ll watch now and come back when I have the right boots or the right pants (the old cruddy ones I garden or paint in).”

Jesus tells us to come into the trench with open minds and open hearts, letting go of our preconceived our previous notions. This only happens when Jesus’ refining fire comes over us.

Of course, Jesus’ hope is that we are already doing his work in the trenches. Yet we are hesitant to step out and do things that we aren’t used to or are uncomfortable doing. It’s much easier to sit where we usually sit, to do the things we do as a matter of course, and to maintain our schedule. To do whatever is simplest for us.

What we need to remember is that Jesus’ goal is completion for himself and for us. Jesus challenges our comfortable faith, the Sunday morning faith. We expect the service to follow a certain order, to sing hymns we know, to hear scripture passages we are familiar with, and to hear uplifting music. We don’t want to think too much. On Sunday’s we come to affirm our faith, to pray, and to confess our sins.

Our Sunday morning faith is predictable. But we don’t always take this faith out into the world with us. We may take pieces of it, primarily those that are comfortable such as paying attention to others and their needs when it is convenient for us. Yet we don’t use our faith wholeheartedly or well. At times we are in a hurry or caught up in our own issues and problems. Paying attention to others is not on our radar.

Our comfortable faith is also personal. We like to keep what we believe to ourselves. Telling someone else is a frightening experience even if someone asks us about our faith. We may hedge our bets, talking around what we believe so that no one gets upset with us. At times we treat our faith as an “as you like it” type of faith. We pick and choose the pieces that work for us, that which helps us maintain our status quo. We pick and choose what season we want to be in and what matters to us under heaven.

Jesus comes and upsets the apple cart. We spend time running down the aisles chasing the apples, forgetting why we are really in church and in the world. Jesus upsets the apple cart not so that we can chase the apples and put them back in the cart so that we’ll be happy that everything is neat and clean, back where it is supposed to be. But Jesus changes the game by telling us that we don’t need to pick up the apples because there are other fruits that are more important for us to put in our cart than the apples, we thought were the ones we needed.

Jesus comes to create a type of order we are not used to. A new freedom where old obligations are cast aside even when we don’t want to cast them aside. This new freedom is not possible under the old rules. As long as we hold on to the things we are comfortable with, the ones we think are important, we can’t see or understand what Jesus has come to do. We can’t ever enter into the process of completion that he has come to bring.

Maybe what we need to do is change our glasses. Get a new prescription and put the lenses into a brand-new pair of frames unlike any you would usually wear. Those of us who wear glasses know this is hard to do. We are likely to choose frames we are comfortable wearing frames that are similar to what we always wear. We don’t pick large garish frames or ones that are bright pink if that is not we have worn before. Yet Jesus tells us it’s time to get a new prescription and choose new frames that make us uncomfortable. Do something that causes you to be radical and let go of all you are used to.

Jesus comes to bring us new life, to change our status quo, to help us to see other possibilities. In our congregation, these new possibilities go beyond our normal life together as a church. Beyond sharing fellowship. Beyond packing backpacks with school supplies. Beyond collecting food and toys and preparing hygiene kits. These are all good things to do that help others and mission we ought to be doing.

But Jesus tells us to go beyond doing these things. He says we are to step forward. Step out of your comfort zone. Throw away that which you think is important so there is room for what Jesus considers to be important.

Get ready to do more, to help more people, to have your life changed, and to change the way you look at the world. There are needs out there that may not have been visible to us before. Needs of people who seem like they are A-okay, who walk happily down the street, who are fit, and that we think are healthy. The needs of parents and other adults who walk their children to school every day. We look at them and tell ourselves how wonderful it is that these children have someone to walk them to school. They must come from a happy family that cares for them and provides for their every need.

We make assumptions based on our view of these people and others we see. Yet behind closed doors, people are lonely, don’t have what they need to survive. Some may be living in housing set aside for low-income households for all we know. We make many assumptions about people. We think we know them, what they are like, and what their needs are, but we don’t.

When we take time to look around, we see people who were invisible to us before. For us as a congregation we look around, noticing we don’t see children in our midst. Is God calling us to find them and bring them to sit with all of us gray hairs? There just may be people out there who are more like us. Those in our age range who we can identify with, we understand, and we know the challenges they face as they age. We understand their health issues. We understand that eating healthy meals and being alone are significant issues for those who are in our age group.

There are those out there with other needs. People who feel unsafe. People who have been criticized for their lifestyle or even attacked because of it. People we may not notice because they have been invisible to us in the past.

Jesus tells us that there is a time for every season. We might be in a different season than we thought. A season of life, a season of ministry, a season of following Jesus that is far different than what we ever thought. A new season where we are moving forward towards the completion that Jesus offers with all of the imperfections that we have gained along the way.


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