I am reasonably certain that most of us have a mental image that we conjure up when we call to mind the second person of the Holy Trinity. This may be an image of our own making, but more than likely it is that of an image that we have appropriated from somewhere else that is to our liking. Perhaps it is an image of Jesus embracing children, or one of the risen Christ knocking on a closed door with no outside handle. It may be an image of Jesus with a small lamb reposing peacefully upon his shoulders, or maybe one of him praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps we see Jesus calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee, or walking along the road with his twelve disciples. In some cases, we may even imagine him suffering in agony as he died on the cross.
But usually the images that we conjure up of Jesus portray him in the most positive light that we can imagine. We see a calm, gentle, soft spoken young man who exudes warmth, compassion, love and peacefulness. In our images of him, he may or may not be wearing a beard, and he may or may not be looking as if he is of Palestinian birth, and he more than likely is attired in finer clothing than he could possibly afford.
We have preferences when we call to mind images of our Lord, and so rarely do we imagine him chastising and rebuking his disciples for their unbelief and slowness of heart. Almost never do we want to see Jesus acting the role of the economic terrorist in the temple as he angrily tipped over the tables of the money changers and drove the vendors from the sacred places with a whip, even though he may have done this twice in his ministry. We are uncomfortable with this image of Jesus. It seems out of character for him. It is perhaps unbecoming to this gentle savior and this prince of peace that we have come to love. We may even have come to functionally disbelieve this aspect of his character. We may acknowledge it, but we certainly aren’t happy with it.
We are looking this morning at what has come to be known as an obscure passage. It is obscure though, not because it cannot easily be found, but rather because it is not often looked for. It is often ignored. But worse, it is often explained away as if it did not matter. In the whole scheme of things, these words of our Lord seem out of place and very much out of character. We would very much like to ignore them, or at least explain them away. But we can do neither. As in all of the recorded words of our Lord, we must take them seriously.
In context, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has already begun his long march to the city of Jerusalem, where he will die. The reality of his upcoming suffering and death is beginning to sink into his heart, and it is distressing him. He has spoken on many occasions previous to this of his eventual death, but he has been met in those discussions by incredulity and even outright disbelief by his most trusted disciples. Like us, Jesus’ disciples had opinions of Jesus’ role as Messiah, and suffering and death did not fit into those cherished notions. And so like us, they ignored or disbelieved those character traits of Jesus that they did not like, or found difficult to accept. Unfortunately the real Jesus has suffered much from cherished opinions, from the moment he called his first disciples up until the present day. Frankly, I’m not sure why we feel the need to re-create Jesus in our own image, when it is he who created us in his image. But we do persist in that.
And so we have in our passage this morning an angry rant that is bursting with truth that we must face. There are three elements to this rant. The first is fire, the second is baptism, and the third is conflict, or division.
Fire, in the Scriptures, can represent many things. Fire can signify the presence of God. We can call to mind the burning bush that summoned Moses, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness, and the tongues of fire that gave birth to the Christian church. Fire can also represent the all-consuming anger of God in judgment and in punishment. When fire represents the anger and judgment of God it is understood to be all-encompassing, inevitable, and inescapable. Fire can also be symbolic of purification and re-creation. And while purification of this nature is always dangerous, the result is always extremely beneficial.
Which fire, then, is it, that Jesus has come to bring? Is it God’s presence, is it judgment, is it purification? It is all three. Jesus is the incarnate presence of God on the earth. He is God in the flesh. In some respects this is the warm, fuzzy character of Jesus that we yearn for. But, on the other hand, the very presence of Jesus on this earth calls forth judgment. We must judge for ourselves whether we will accept him or reject him. His very being demands a crisis of decision on our parts. If we choose to accept him, we will discover that in his suffering and death he has removed the threat of God’s judgment and God’s punishment from us and taken it upon himself. If we reject him, we welcome the fiery judgment of God, and pass up on the benefits of purification by fire. Faithful servants of Jesus Christ are constantly subjected to the fires of purification, and we welcome them, for they create us anew in the most holy image of God. Yes, Jesus did come to bring fire on the earth.
Next, Jesus speaks of baptism. In the Scriptures, baptism can be either a horrible ordeal or a glorious initiation into new life. In both cases, it is also symbolic of death. In this passage Jesus is speaking of the horrible ordeal of his passion. He is distressed about it, he is anxious and afraid in spite of the fact that he knows that it is his mission. He wishes that it was already over and done with. He is sharing the agonizing of his heart with us. Will we hear him, will we allow him to weep over the prospect of his suffering and death? Can we accept that he knows that his fate is inevitable, but that there is nothing about it that can make it tolerable or attractive? Will we allow him to be fully human? And yet, even though baptism can be a horrible ordeal, and this baptism of suffering and death was indeed horrible for Jesus, this baptism led to resurrection. This baptism conquered death, and it conquered it forever. When we are baptized, we under go death symbolically, for a moment. We identify with the passion of our Lord, and then, in a foretaste of the resurrection, we burst up out of the water, and we are raised to new life. We are initiated into the everlasting family of God’s covenant.
Which brings us to the third element of our Lord’s words this morning, and that is division. Most of us would readily answer Jesus’ question in verse 51 strongly in the affirmative. Yes! Jesus did come to bring peace on the earth. This very thing was announced by angels at his birth! He is called the Prince of Peace! Jesus himself blessed his disciples with peace and imparted to them and to us a peace that transcends all that the world has to offer. The peace that Jesus gives is a supernatural peace; it is beyond this world. It can only have come from heaven. Of course Jesus came to bring peace to the earth.
And yet, Jesus says, nay, nay, I did not come to bring peace to this earth, but rather division. Two weeks ago, Jesus refused to become embroiled in a family dispute. This week, he seems to be instigating one. And, as if to drive home his point, he goes to great lengths to delineate all of the possible combinations of potential conflict that he intends to stir up.
It is a mess. It looks nasty. It isn’t at all how we might imagine that Jesus would behave. At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks a very important question. In my opinion, it is one of the most important questions asked in all of the Scriptures. The question is directed at Simon, who is, at the moment, completely estranged from Jesus. The question is this: “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?” That is the universal question of faith. That is the question that all of us must answer, at some point in our lives. It is a question that creates division, rather than unity. It is a question that cuts to the very core of our beings and it forces us to declare our ultimate allegiances. In many families, some will answer as Simon did: “Yes Lord; you know that I love you.” And sadly, in that same family, others will answer that question either in the negative, or with silence. This creates an eternal division in families that is as wide as the chasm between heaven and hell. There can be no greater division than that which exists between those who believe and those who do not.
Just about every week, during our worship service we pray for the salvation of our unsaved friends and loved ones. And we do this because we wish for that great divide that Jesus has created to be abolished. We want our loved ones to meet the Prince of Peace, and so we pray, and at times we preach, and sometimes we even use words. Preaching without words is oftentimes far more effective. Our loved ones may not listen to us, but we can be assured that they are watching us with eagle eyes. If faith is so important to us, what do our loved ones really see of our faith? Is our allegiance to Jesus Christ true? Are we faithful in our service to Christ, are we regular in our worship, do we continually give love and encouragement to our brothers and sisters in Christ? Does our faith have feet, does it take us places to which we would not normally go, does it bring us real joy and supernatural peace; Is our faith worth imitating? These things our loved ones know about us with a surety. Thankfully, the task of evangelism isn’t completely up to us. The Holy Spirit plays a major role in bringing the truth of the gospel to those who disbelieve. But we wouldn’t want to be hindering that work, would, we? Let’s always pray for the salvation of our loved ones, but let us also be genuine and visible in the expressions of our faith. Let’s always be working with God.