About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

44-Ord20-G-C-2004 Divided Households

Luke 12:49-56

August 8, 2004

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

There is no way to sugar-coat this passage. The man we think is the Prince of Peace proclaims that he comes to bring fire to the earth. Do you think he brings peace? Get real. He comes not to bring peace, but division. Exclamation point. Do you think the family that prays together automatically stays together? Fasten your seatbelts. From now on it'll be father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. The Prince of Peace? Sounds more like the King of Family Crisis.

Which is not how most of us would expect Jesus to sound. Oh sure, there are people we'd like Jesus to go off on. Some of them in our own families. A son or a daughter, parents or a parent in-law who's making us nuts. Some of them could use a good motivational zap from the Lord.

But in his sermon, Jesus isn't setting himself up to take sides. He's also not opening up shop as a family counselor to mediate our bickering. Completely the opposite: Jesus says he has come to bring division, two against three and three against two in a household of five. (Households of more than five apparently can provide their own division.) Furthermore, by his own words, these divisions aren't just an unintentional side-effect of Jesus' appearing. He intends – intends – for divisions to break out between people, even between families.

I say these things – and I read this scripture – and I think, “Whoa there, preacher-boy. This can't be right. You can't say stuff like that. Jesus can't actually mean stuff like that.” And yes, there is a danger of lifting out one or two lines of scripture as if they're telling the whole story, when we know they're not. But these words remind us that Jesus is a complicated guy. And the Bible's a complicated book. And as often as we want Jesus and the Bible to reassure us and make people be nice to us, there's more to the story. And a lot of times there are parts of the story we don't want to hear, or even a part of Jesus we don't want to know.

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus comes to bring division. We don't like that. It doesn't sound like he's too crazy about it, either. But that's his job. And he will see his work through to its fulfillment. Scripture, then, puts the question to each one of us: Are you brave enough to follow Jesus into those battles? Are you courageous enough to endure the troubles he intends to cause you, for the sake of the glorious and everlasting big picture God proclaims?


What kind of trouble does Jesus intend to cause? At Montreat this summer I heard again a wonderful quote that the church “ought to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Which is a neat saying. It was actually said about newspapers, but it applies to the church, too.1 If you put yourself in the sandals of an early Christian, it's easy to see how being a follower of Christ would bring trouble. Your parents and/or your kids and/or your spouse and/or your mother in-law, daughter in-law and third cousin once-removed would probably think you were crazy, selling off everything in the house and giving your money to a traveling preacher with only 12 members in his church. Following Jesus brought horrible troubles to early believers, many of whom paid with their lives for their faith. The first people to read this scripture would have nodded their heads and wished along with Jesus that their baptism of fire was already done. I would imagine that this very day, when Christians in places like Iraq or China read these words (as they are), they hear Jesus speaking directly to them, and know that he shared (and shares) their torture in a physical, as well as spiritual sense. If we American Christians complain that we're sorely troubled because we don't get two minutes a day to pray in a public school, we by comparison are just whining. Back when this scripture was written down, faith in Jesus brought life-or-death divisions, and in a sad number of places still does.

But even if he – Jesus himself – doesn't like it, even if it causes him nearly unbearable stress, Jesus will stay obedient to his purpose. God sent Jesus to afflict the earthly comforts of everyone who hears his word. God sent Jesus to make everyone uncomfortable. God sent Jesus to throw everyone off-balance. God sent Jesus to make all-of-us think of more-than-us. God sent Jesus to make us decide where our faith lies – in us or in God.

When you go out today, take a look at the cross on top of this sanctuary. There's a cross on top of our building, but on top of our cross there's another piece of metal, sticking up even higher. I don't know if the designers of the church had this in mind, but I think they got it right, maybe without intending it. Always and forever the cross of Jesus Christ is a lightning rod. And before the cross can dispel trouble, it has to first attract it. The cross is not a pillow. The cross is not a soundproof booth. The cross is not a flashing neon sign (at least not here) that makes the church look like a Holiday Inn. The cross of Jesus Christ is a lightning rod for hard decisions and shocking ah-ha moments, the kind that make us see beyond our brightest wisdom and beneath our darkest sins.

Some of you are struggling with hard decisions. Some of you are struggling with hard decisions made harder because you're people of faith. You want to know “what would Jesus do,” while you're just doing the best you can. Even Jesus – even Jesus had days when he put his head in his hands and said, “What stress I am under!” and “I wish this this was already done.” Jesus brings trouble because he brings us to face our troubles. Like Jacob in the Old Testament, we have to wrestle with God. And like Jacob, we may walk with a limp ever after because of our wrestling. We pray that like Jacob, when we emerge from our wrestling match, God will give us a new name, and make us new people, and turn all our scars into crowns of glory.

As the Apostle Paul wrote, what then are we say about these things? Are we supposed to hobble around with frowns on our faces because that's what Jesus wants? Are we supposed to dwell on our troubles because anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger and God is making some of us stronger than Governor Ah-nold of Cal-i-fornia? Dear Lord, I hope not. I want the church to be a place of gladness. I want us to greet each other with the joy of Christ. Jesus himself said, “...do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting....” (Mt. 6:16-18) But -- if the church is a place where people's main goal is to avoid pain... if the church is a place where people are ashamed to cry... if the church is a place where people have to paste on smiles... then we aren't the church of Jesus Christ and we aren't true to the baptism with which Christ was baptized. Jesus brings trouble because he brings us to our troubles, to face them, to wrestle with them, to put our energy into conquering them, instead of pretending they don't exist. The church's promise to itself is Jesus' promise to the church: Whatever your stresses, whatever your problems, I will be with you. We will be with you. You are not alone. Not now. Not this minute. Not ever.

You do not have all the answers. You can't figure everything out. No matter what you decide, there's always going to be a mother in-law – or a daughter in-law – or a brother or sister or someone – who's going to remind you that you messed up. You probably don't need the Bible to tell you that. But what you do need the Bible to tell you – what we all need the Bible to tell us – is that the lighting rod of the cross dispels exactly as much trouble as it attracts. Jesus brings the weight of decision; but Jesus also brings freedom. Jesus also brings relief. Jesus also brings the assurance that no matter how big our burdens, they're only a small, small part of the eternal glory which is to come.


“What, then, are we to say about these things?” “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us,” wrote Paul. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us (and, we might add, endured the pain therein), will He not with him also give us everything else?” The danger of lifting out one or two lines of scripture is the same danger as lifting out one or two horrible days and thinking they're the story of all our lives. They are not. There is more than trouble. There is more than pain. There is infinitely more than the sufferings of this present time. When we stop fighting our troubles and start making peace with them -- just as Christ makes peace with us – we begin to see a bigger picture. We stand up and follow the Jesus who leads us into trouble, and carries us through to its other side.

In heavenly places of peace and calm, praise God when we get the taste of a little slice of heaven. But in those places where three are set against two and two are set against three, especially in those places, Jesus promises, we'll find him there, too. In places of crisis, in places of division, that's where we'll find Jesus. The great good news is that even though we may be scared to death of a situation, Jesus will walk into it. And if we but look around, we'll find him, already there, holding our hand and hoping right along with us for the day when our baptisms are complete, and no one has to fight against anyone over anything.

1Actually, it was said by Peter Finley Dunne (1867-1936), about the job of newspaper writers such as himself.