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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 08/18/2019

If you were to make a list of things you wish Jesus hadn’t said, today’s gospel verses would certainly be on it, starting with, “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” to which we might respond, “What is that supposed to mean? Didn’t Isaiah prophesy about a Prince of Peace? Didn’t the Christmas angels sing about ‘Peace on Earth?’ Didn’t you, Jesus frequently send people away with a word of peace after healing them? Didn’t you tell your disciples to bring a word of peace as they traveled from town to town proclaiming the good news? What do you mean, not peace but division?”

From there, if anything, it just gets worse with households divided, son against father, mother against daughter and so forth. We prefer to think of Jesus as bringing healing and reconciliation into such brokenness, but here he says that he will be the cause of the brokenness. It’s not the Jesus we want. We prefer the “Jesus loves me this I know” Jesus of grace because our salvation depends on it, but we also sometimes need the Jesus who reminds us of life’s hard realities.

One explanation then is that these verses are descriptive not prescriptive. In other words they describe what is going on, but that’s not to say that what’s going on should be going on. Your doctor writes you a prescription that tells you what you should do in order to get healthy or stay healthy. Jesus does sometimes do that kind of prescribing, but the thinking is that that’s not what he’s doing here. He’s describing the reality of the division his presence and teaching can and does cause.

Think about the context though. With any biblical text context is important and there are three contexts that can influence how a text is read and interpreted. First of all, as we think about today’s verses, there’s the context in which Jesus spoke these words. Remember that a couple of chapters earlier he had set his face to go to Jerusalem where he knew there would be trouble. He knew that while many had welcomed him and followed him, he also knew that there was division; there were those out to get him because they saw him as someone who was upsetting what they saw as the proper order of things, order which would keep the powerful in power. With that as the background, Jesus was just describing what he knew was happening; there was division.

As kind of humorous aside on that, Kathy and I have been watching a show called Good Omens. A few weeks ago we bought a smart TV so now we have access to an assortment of streaming networks that offer a multitude of new shows and also old ones that we’ve never seen or haven’t seen in a long time; so you go from feeling like there’s nothing on TV to having so much to choose from that it boggles the mind. We’ve had to limit our screen time.

Anyway, Good Omens, is about a 6000 year relationship between an angel and a demon who have wound up as friends and are now trying to prevent the coming of the Antichrist who will set off the battle of Armageddon, the final battle between heaven and hell. It’s kind of a humorous, fantasy send up of apocalyptic, end of the world fiction, not usually the kind of thing I pay much attention to, so I blame Kathy for sucking me into it. In one scene though, as they travel through time, the angel and the demon are present at the crucifixion of Jesus and watching Jesus being nailed to the cross, the demon asks, “What did he say that got everyone so upset?” The angel says, “He told them to be kind to each other.” The demon says, “Oh. That would do it wouldn’t it.”

Moving right along though into the second context which is the time when Luke wrote the gospel. It’s thought to have been written around the year 80, so about 50 years after Jesus was physically present. At that time there was division and conflict between Christians and others who found fault with them for a variety of reasons and as a result, Christians were being persecuted. Again Jesus’ words as reported by Luke were a description of what was going on at the time he wrote.

Moving into our present day context, Jesus continues to cause division, not so much with Christians being persecuted like they were at the time of Luke, at least not around here, but there is division. There are divisions within families like those described by Jesus but there are also the divisions within Christianity itself, a lot of which have to do with how the teachings of Jesus are interpreted. The result of course is the huge number of Christian denominations all of which think that they’ve got Jesus figured out, that their interpretation of him and the rest of the Bible is the right one, that their way of responding to the teachings of Jesus is the right way so again the text provides a description of what is going on in the present context.

There is description in this text, but I’m not ready to dismiss it as only being descriptive. Despite the fact that we might wish that Jesus hadn’t said these things, despite the fact that they give us a Jesus that makes us a little uncomfortable, there may be an element of prescription in here. As is so often the case with Jesus though, the prescription is not clearly stated but left open as he acts more as a prophet.

With many of the things that make our list of things we wish Jesus hadn’t said, I imagine him as playing the role of a prophet. The prophets of the Old Testament said a lot of things we wish they hadn’t said and today’s first reading from Isaiah is an example. In this Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard as it is called, you get the image of a gardener who has done everything right; the land was fertile, stones were removed, choice vines were planted and a watch tower was built to keep an eye out for predators. Rather than producing good fruit though, the fruit was rotten.

The love song for his vineyard becomes more of a funeral dirge and the gardener asks, “What more could I have done?” and the answer is nothing. In verse 7 we find that Isaiah’s vineyard imagery represents Jerusalem, the house of Israel and the people of Judah who have failed to follow the way of the Lord despite the Lord having cared for them like the gardener cared for the vineyard.

All of this is descriptive of what was going on, but with it comes the frightening notion that God has given up: “I will break down its walls and make it a waste. It will not be pruned or hoed but be overgrown with briars and thorns. No rain will fall on it.” Talk about things you wish someone hadn’t said! We’re used to God who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love but here there’s the suggestion that God has limits; there’s the suggestion that God could give up!

Here though is where a reminder of the role of a prophet is useful. The prophetic word is not the announcement of settled truth. The poetic mode of most prophetic speech is not accidental because poetry is not about announcing settled truth. The words of the prophets are better understood as telling the truth but telling it slant as Emily Dickinson said, so their poetic speech is often unconventional and unpredictable; that’s why trying to read the prophets literally is pretty much an exercise in frustration and futility. The words, images and themes of the prophets are carefully considered to get the attention of the community and to inspire changes in lived reality. In the case of today’s Isaiah verses, the suggestion that God could give up on a community that has not produced good fruit certainly has an impact; the words are hard to ignore.

That’s a good description of what Jesus does in today’s gospel. Without question his words have some shock value that should raise questions about the nature of the division he causes whether in his time, Luke’s time, our time or anytime and…I don’t think we assume that all division is bad. For the sake of the gospel division can wind up being a good thing if it causes people and institutions, especially churches, to look more closely at what they do and why they do it and to ask whether or not it conforms with the teachings of Jesus.

In our time, our church body, the ELCA, represents a good example. Over the years decisions have been made that have caused division. At times it has been painful and the possibility exists that mistakes have been made. The hope though, is that as a church body we continue to move closer to being a community fully grounded in God’s grace and welcome do that, as Bishop Eaton says, “we become an alternative face of Christianity in the culture—one that moves across divisions, is meant for all, and that is a free and liberating gift.”

Moving across divisions is the goal, but paradoxically, it can’t happen without the kind of division Jesus spoke of. Moving across divisions though sounds like new life out of brokenness. Isn’t that our story? Isn’t that the truth we proclaim?

Rev. 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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