Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies


Sunday 14th August

“I came to bring fire and to divide”? – What’s that all about? Luke 12:49-52

The great composer Beethoven sometimes used to play a cracking trick on his polite high society salon audiences – especially if he thought they weren’t really listening seriously. He’d perform a piece on the piano – one of his beautiful, gentle, lyrical movements – lulling everyone into thinking the world was a cwtchy,  cosy place to be – relaxing them and enfolding them so they’d be almost falling asleep. Then just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his whole forearm down with a crash across the keyboard – and then have a good laugh at the shock reaction he’d caused.

Perhaps a wee bit cruel and impolite – and Beethoven found more effective ways of telling his hearers that the world was full of pain as well as beauty. But it’s  a pretty good image for what Jesus had to say at the end of Luke chapter 12.

You can imagine people thinking “But I thought he was supposed to be the Prince of Peace” – why is he turning all the nice stuff about caring for others on its head by talking about bringing division?

If Mary Jesus’ mother had been in the crowd that day, I don’t think she’d have been in the least bit surprised by her son’s words. She knew from the beginning that Jesus was going to be controversial. Before he was even born, Mary knew that he was the key to God’s plan to ‘bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty’. We get that in what we know as the Magnificat in Luke chapter 2 (v52-53)

And then there was that day in the temple – Candlemas - when Jesus was just a little baby. Do you remember the old man Simeon holding the infant Messiah in his arms, relishing the moment that he’d waited for all his life. He looked Mary in the eye and said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

And Mary was there when Jesus was preaching his very first sermon, confirming her fear—or rather her expectation—that her son was embarking on a rather turbulent ministry. Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry begins in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth with Jesus reading from the prophet Isaiah that day, and the congregation was so comforted by his peaceful words that they drove him out of town and tried to throw him over a cliff! (Luke 4:16-30) So if we think about it, the preaching and teaching of Jesus, Prince of Peace, routinely brought about division.

So his own mother wouldn’t have been at all fazed by Jesus’ apparent lack of regard for family loyalties. He’d already denied her, his own mother, in public on at least one occasion - when Mary and Jesus’ brothers came to see him but couldn’t get near because he was being mobbed. When he was told that they were waiting to see him, he responded, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:19-21). So:

·         already Jesus was redefining what family was all about.

·         already Jesus was demonstrating, in his own life the primacy of the call to discipleship over any other relationships—even his closest ties. (Whoa this is tough stuff this morning! Couldn’t the lectionary have given me something nice to preach on?!)

But here it is: Jesus didn’t come to mollycoddle us. He came to bring fire to the earth! To set it alight! To make all things new! In a book by Rudy Wiebe he gets us thinking about this totally new way of thinking:    
“you show wisdom… by trusting people;
you lead…(by lording it over?) – no! - by serving;
you handle offenders, by (labelling them, punishing them and locking them up?) No – by forgiving;
you handle money, by (buying stuff &  storing up things  for yourself?) – no by sharing and giving it away;
you deal with enemies by (fighting, declaring war...?) no – by loving them;
and you handle violence, by (getting them before they get you?) no – by suffering.

(Wiebe, Rudy, The Blue Mountains of China, McClellan and Stewart, 1970.)

Luke shows that the tension is rising in Jesus ministry. Jesus came to preach the kingdom and embody ‘shalom’ in all its fullness – and this will come like a fire he says (v49). This kingdom and peace is no inner calm sentimentality, where spirituality is a form of escapism or a bit of psychic comfort when we feel like it. True Christian spirituality is about being immersed in the world - with all its tension and mess (its muddle) – a world where there is a clash of powers - the kingdom of light versus evil and darkness.

Jesus way of bringing about his peace and establishing his kingdom is not the way of the world – which (if you think about it) is all about war and violence – and the abuse of power. But there’s no ‘soft-soaping’ either. Establishing God’s kingdom will involve exposing sin and corruption; challenging hypocrisy and shallowness, self-obsession. This will mean people will be divided. Evil systems will respond to challenge and threat. Sometimes truth is painful. But, says Jesus, we must keep alert to those times when this division will come and not be afraid. Read the signs and not be hoodwinked. But don’t be afraid to speak out. Don’t be afraid to act.

It’s all a huge paradox: peace which comes through a Cross; power and strength found in submission and weakness; greatness demonstrated in humility, and service.

But the more you read the gospels the more you realise that this is a completely upside-down kingdom. (Or the right-side up if we start looking from God’s perspective). The gospel always tends to subvert what we’ve learned and got used to in our world; and in church terms what we think we’ve got nicely boxed up and safe.

Maybe that’s why this text is so, so hard: it reminds us that the decision to follow Jesus is not a stroll in the park. It’s not about just being nice, and polite, and minding our own business and doing what we like provided we’re not hurting anybody. To follow where Jesus leads is to be picked up and turned upside-down! And when that happens it’s going to be painful at times, and people around us—maybe even our own families—are not always going to understand. There’s going to be friction. “Aren’t you taking this Christianity thing just a little too seriously?” Jesus is simply telling the truth: that following him wasn’t – isn’t - meant to be easy or comfortable.

But let’s not misunderstand either. The peace of Christ is not about courting opposition for the sake of it – it’s not about being an obnoxious tub-thumping killjoy – like that Harry Enfield character – “You don’t want to do that”. The peace of Christ – in fact the purpose of the Church - has only one agenda—to make all things new in accordance with the promise of the Kingdom. Following Jesus means living each moment of each day with him at the centre. To say that Jesus Christ was Lord in those days was to say that Caesar was not! Today we’re supposed to bow down to all sorts of modern idols of success, fame, money, self-importance, financial security. So for us too, to say “Jesus is Lord” is to proclaim that contemporary idols are also – not to be worshipped!

When Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, had the opportunity to leave Germany. He chose to stay and resist. For him, following Christ brought him into conflict with his world. He vocally opposed the Nazi regime and its policies, spent two years in a concentration camp, and was executed a few days before the Allies liberated the camp.

So if the cost of discipleship is potentially so high, if the decision to follow Christ inevitably leads to division, why on earth follow? Why did the disciples leave everything behind and follow Jesus at the sound of his call? Why did the early Christians suffer persecution and death to follow him? Why, throughout the centuries, have there always been those who willingly accepted the cost of standing up for the downright subversive and dangerous upside-down ways of the kingdom? (We don’t need to look further than the list in Hebrews)

Maybe there are few tangible rewards; little promise that life will be smooth. But what deep joy and adventure and excitement there is when hooked up to Jesus – sharing friendship with him and knowing that whatever life throws at us … we belong, we have an identity, a purpose for being - we matter – we’re loved unconditionally – we’re forgiven, even when we blow it (as I tend to continuously)!

The call of Christ overrides any other loyalty, any other commitment, any other relationship. The call of Christ overrides worldly logic – but then that’s often just about me and my own importance. The joy of being in a relationship with Jesus overrides any pressure of having to be at the centre – because it’s then all about him. What a relief – and what a joy!