The Hard Words of Jesus
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Luke 12: 49 – 56. Focus on why Jesus brings division to the world. Check out Kelly Crandell and Mara Adler O’Kelly’s duet – You Are Holy.
These verses were Luther’s favorite image for the law – “a word, which brings fire to burn and a hammer to break a rock in pieces.” Luther said that the law exposes our need for Christ, brings us to a point of crisis, a time of decision, when we are forced to decide if we are going to face our sins or not. When Jesus asks in this text if we think he has come to bring peace on earth, he is really asking, “Do you think I have come to protect the status quo?” Because the answer is no!
There is no word of grace here. There is no word that proclaims God’s love or intent to save all. The only question for us is “can these hard words which do not offer protection for the status quo at the same time be a word of grace?
Hard words but hardly an exception for as far back as his birth Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be “a sign of contradiction.” After delivering his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. He causes such an uproar that the congregation wants to throw him off a cliff and a riot ensues. According to Mark even his family thinks he is out of his mind. (3:21) His detractors said he was demon-possessed and the religious elite wanted him dead, which Rome was only to happy to oblige for fear of the crowds who demanded it.
So much for our soft and fluffy version of Jesus. This harsh opposition to Jesus runs throughout the entire New Testament. Peter describes Jesus as “the stone of stumbling and the rock of offense.” Paul called him “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his followers: “I have given them your word and the world hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.”
The letter to the Hebrews confirms these harsh words and gives us a glimpse into why Jesus said them and to whom they offered hope. Scholars are always trying to nail down when these texts in the New Testament were written in order to see what historical circumstances might have given rise to them in the first place.
And most scholars believe that the words spoken by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel and reiterated in the letter to the Hebrews were written by second generation Christians. People who had heard of Jesus but were not personally connected to him as the first generation disciples were.
These second generation Christians were people experiencing severe trials and tribulations, which was not the case for the first generation of Christians immediately following Jesus’ death and resurrection. For the first 60 years Christianity flourished with little notice from the Roman Empire but all of that changed in 64 AD when a fire broke out in Rome, destroying half of the city, and emperor Nero seeking to deflect criticism from himself, blamed the Christians for the fire. From that moment on a systemic persecution of the second generation of Christians began that would last for the next 120 years.
During this time the early Christians experienced the confiscation of their property, imprisonment, public ridicule, torture and death. Many of these Christians were tempted to shrink back so to speak and deny their faith. And it’s no wonder. A Christian who had lost house and home, endured public ridicule, or saw a loved one mauled to death in the Coliseum might ask many hard questions about God’s promises. Does God keep his promises? Exactly what does he promise? And what does it mean to believe in those promises?
And the letter of Hebrews particularly chapter 11 gives a glimpse into the lives of these early Christian martyrs: “(Some) were tortured … some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.”
And this description could apply to the life of Christians not only under Nero’s persecution but also under the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Isis today. These examples of faith remained sure of what they hoped for but did not see in their lifetime – the realization of God’s kingdom. And to these faithful folk Jesus’ hard words in Luke’s Gospel would have offered hope that their suffering was not in vain, but would some day be vindicated.
And in chapter 11 of Hebrews we see how the sufferings of the early Christians were likened to the faith of the first wanderer for God, which is Abraham. Abraham is offered as the example for how believing isn’t always about realizing all of the promises of God in one’s lifetime. At 90 Abraham went from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange. He left family behind to wander around a strange dessert land called Canaan.
And for this radical obedience to God Abraham is commended: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country.”
Abraham just like those whom Jesus was speaking to in our text died, “without having received the promise.” (Hebrews 11:13) In the words of the Apostle Paul with the promises of God still unfinished in his lifetime and the promises of God unfulfilled, Abraham became “the father of us all.” (Romans 4:16)
And to those who remain faithful to this day Jesus’ hard words, who still wait for God’s ultimate promises to be fulfilled, these words still offer hope and come as good news. Amen