Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 08/14/2016

I was thinking that it seems like every year during the lazy, hazy days of summer, when you might like a series of warm, feel good sermons, instead you get a stretch of gospel texts that don’t make you feel very good, texts that convict you, texts that challenge you, texts full of things that you wish Jesus hadn’t said. The reason, of course, is that during this “Sundays after Pentecost” non-festival part of the church year, at this point we’re always into portions of Jesus’ teaching material, his parables and other sayings, and an awful lot of it is provocative and challenging if you take it seriously, more about afflicting the comfortable than about comforting the afflicted and, with today’s reading, the beat goes on.

In my Bible this section of Luke is titled, “Jesus the Cause of Division” and with that you get all the sayings about father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and so forth. We can understand and maybe even accept Jesus and the level of commitment he calls for as the cause of this kind of inter-family division; with this text though, it reads as if such division isn’t just a by-product of what Jesus says, it sounds like it’s what he wants: “How I wish the fire of division were already kindled, what stress I am under until it is completed.” Living as we do in a world beset by all kinds of division, a Jesus desiring division is not what we want. What we do want is the Prince of Peace, the Jesus who crossed many of the boundaries that caused division; we need the Prince of Peace to help overcome the division that’s out there, but that’s not what we get today.

It’s safe to say that this text reflects what was happening during the years of Jesus’ ministry and what was happening at the time Luke wrote his gospel some 40 or 50 years later. There was a division between those who believed certain things about Jesus vs. those who didn’t, a division that still exists. These days we might also make it about those who go to church vs. those who don’t go or who are indifferent to church, the kind of division we all experience within our own family and others we are close to.

But is there more to it than that? On a summer Sunday morning 2000 years later are we missing something if we just make this text about proper belief and church attendance, us vs. them? If Jesus has come not to bring peace but division, what might the nature of that division be in 21st century America? How should we hear this text? To use Jesus own words, “How do we interpret the present time?” Was even Jesus himself getting at other kinds of division?

They are legitimate questions, the kind of questions that prophets call us to wrestle with and remember, especially with his teaching material, Jesus was very much playing the role of a prophet. Old Testament prophets weren’t fortune tellers who predicted the future. They spoke out of and into specific situations, sometimes speaking words of judgment, sometimes words of hope, sometimes with implications about what could happen in the future.

The “back in those days” background is of interest, but at the same time it’s important to remember that while the prophets did address specifics, their words were intentionally poetic and open ended. They were not talking about absolutes; they were not announcing hard and fast truths or set propositions that should always be heard the same way. They were using a particular context to explore issues and to provide insights that might be applied in other situations and contexts as well. As we consider them, the words of the prophets are never just about the past. They were and are living words that bring us into the present and lead us beyond that and into the future.

Jesus did the same kind of thing. He too was addressing specific situations as they came before him, but his words are also living words that are always open to interpretation in changing contexts. In his case, what is important to remember is that as he responded and as he taught he very consistently set up an alternative vision, a challenge to the accepted ways of the world, especially an alternative and challenge to the established power structures that controlled the world. He modeled his vision by crossing boundaries but of course by doing so and challenging division on one level, at the same time he created division by raising questions about the status-quo vision of the political and religious leadership. When Jesus spoke about desiring division, he might have been getting at the need to sort this out, the need to move the world closer to his vision. That would and still does cause a great divide.

As he taught though, what Jesus regularly hammered away at though, was fear. The alternative that he proposed and lived was the vision of a world not dominated and controlled by fear. “Do not be afraid; why are you afraid?” is a constant refrain. Just last week we had “Do not be afraid little flock.” Jesus offers us an alternative to a world dominated by fear.

Think about the recent political conventions. I didn’t watch either of them but you can’t help but see clips or read about them and with both it seems like a big part of the message is that we should be very afraid about what will happen if the other candidate gets elected. Rather than Jesus’ “Do not be afraid,” the message is, “Be afraid, be very afraid.” They know that fear tactics work as a means to influence people and you know that drumbeat of fear will continue with even greater frequency in the increasingly ugly ads we can look forward to over the next few months.

It’s not just politicians though; the various terror organizations also understand and use the power of fear. They know they can’t win a war in any conventional sense, but they can disrupt life and create fear and that’s what they do. They win when we let them make us afraid. To be fair, the church is guilty too, using fear of an angry, wrathful God to frighten people into submission.

I’m not naïve; it’s not that there aren’t reasons to be afraid. The question though, is which vision is going to order your life, the vision of fear that is the dominant one that is out there or the vision of hope that Jesus consistently presents, a vision of hope that is really the vision of the whole Bible. In our time and maybe in his time too, that is the great divide that Jesus puts before us. In a world of fear it’s increasingly important for the church to proclaim and make known Jesus’ alternative vision of hope. In a culture of fear, we must be practitioners of hope.

This gospel text today is paired with a reading from Jeremiah. When I think of practitioners of hope Jeremiah is not the first name that comes to mind. His words can be harsh, his grief concerning the message he is called to proclaim is often not far from the surface. Hopeful is not the first adjective that comes to mind regarding Jeremiah but if you keep reading, he does open the possibility.

Today’s reading is interesting, leading as it does with three rhetorical questions. Number one, “Am I a God nearby and not a God far off?” Number 2, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” Number 3, “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

With most rhetorical questions, no answer is required because the answer is implied and obvious but that’s really only the case with question number two here where the obvious answer is no; no one can hide so that God can’t see them. With number one though, you could go either way. The best answer is probably just “Yes.” “Yes you are a God nearby and yes you are a God far off” because we do imagine God both ways, so that answer isn’t quite so obvious. For us today though, as we consider hope and fear, it’s question number three and how we answer it that is probably of greatest interest. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

As we consider a vision of hope vs. a vision of fear, how we answer that question is critical. In the immediate context for Jeremiah, the obvious implied answer is “Yes Lord, you fill heaven and earth.” However, the fear side of the great divide wants you to answer “No. No Lord, you don’t fill heaven and earth.” It’s an answer that says that we’re on our own, that it’s all up to us, that God is absent or indifferent and that keeps us in fear.

To answer yes though, says that while sometimes hidden, God is indeed filling heaven and earth, active even in the brokenness that seems to make up most of the daily news. To answer yes means that we remember that in the cross of Jesus, while apparently absent and defeated, God was in fact active in bringing new life out of death, bringing hope out of fear and despair. To answer yes means believing that God’s answer to us is also yes, that life for us has been redefined so that fear and death can never have the last word. To answer yes means we acknowledge fear, but we won’t submit to it. Instead, we’ll live on the other side of the division that Jesus wants. We’ll live on the other side, in his vision of hope.

Amen.

Pastor Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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