August 14, 2022
Jesus and his call for repentance and announcement of God’s kingdom bring about a crisis: the need to decide for him or against him. Each person must make that decision, while recognizing that it is God who makes it possible for us to make the right decision.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” to set the world ablaze, the man cries. He speaks about baptism, and his hearers might think of Old Testament readings about being overwhelmed by the waters. He says that he has come to bring division, to set family members against one another. It sounds like the language of terrorists, of people who will ruin the world if they can’t rule it.
But the one who is speaking is Jesus, the one who is supposed to be the Prince of Peace. “Love your enemies,” he told people; and “My peace I give to you,” he would say to his disciples.”1 The contrast between his proclamations of peace and his words about fire and division make us want to challenge him. Why are you offering us peace and then telling us that war is coming?
But there is nothing to be gained by challenging Jesus. His words will remain as his challenge to us. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky” — that is, to read the weather for when storms are coming — he says a few verses later. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”2 Why are you unable to understand the meaning of the fire that is coming? Don’t you want to understand?
Jesus came to proclaim the peaceful reign of God and to make it possible for people to share fully in shalom, the peace of God. But what will happen if people don’t want to accept the gift of peace because they can benefit from conflict? Jesus announced the nearness of the kingdom of God, a realm in which “no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love.”3 But how will that do any good if people reject the peaceable kingdom? How can there be peace then?
Jesus began his ministry with by announcing that kingdom, along with calling people to turn away from sin and back to God. “The time is fulfilled,” he said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”4 That was a call for decision — to turn back to God or continue in sin. It is, in one sense of the word, a crisis, a decisive moment — we must go one way or the other. If you think you can put off making the decision, you’ve made the wrong decision.
Jesus’ very presence — who he is and what he does — provokes a crisis. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,”5 he said. What Jesus means by “interpreting the present time” is recognizing that this is a time of decision so that we can make the right decision. To ignore the choice or to put it off is to reject him.
When the fire blazes
What is it that provoked a crisis? Jesus and his message clashed with the way society operated. The leaders of the religious establishment had their own ideas about righteousness and the true way to serve God, and they saw Jesus as a threat. And apart from religious considerations, Jesus’ sayings that the first would be last and the last first and that the poor were blessed didn’t sound like things that people who were already well off wanted to happen.
The larger Roman Empire already was a kingdom with Caesar at its head, and Jesus’ language about a coming “kingdom of God” sounded disloyal. If the God of Israel was going to be king, Caesar couldn’t be. When, after Easter, Jesus’ disciples went out and started to win converts who refused to acknowledge Roman deities or sacrifice to the one who was supposed to guide the emperor, the world was set ablaze.
Today people in this country aren’t being persecuted for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Despite declines, Christianity is the predominant religion here. But the message that Jesus proclaimed, which isn’t always the same as what’s offered as Christianity, is in tension with common ideas that many Americans hold. His teachings that we are to help those in need, and that the poor are blessed, clash with the popular slogan “God helps those who help themselves.” (That, by the way, doesn’t come from the Bible but from Benjamin Franklin.) And the point that Jesus made with his parable of the Good Samaritan is in glaring contrast to the attitudes that many in our society have about refugees and people of color or other religions.
So, there is tension and strife. There are divisions, bad feelings and sometimes fighting among members of families and groups in society. Sometimes the fire dies down, but then it blazes up again somewhere else.
But Jesus wasn’t an arsonist, a firebug who puts a torch to a building and stands back to enjoy the flames. He is the first one upon whom the fire of judgment falls. His words about a baptism that he had to undergo might have reminded people of scriptural references to such troubles as a mighty flood, but those who had heard John the Baptist would think of his promise that the one to come after him would baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire”6
Those words about family members being divided against one another are loosely quoted from the prophet Micah,7 but Jesus could say them quite accurately about himself. His brothers didn’t believe in him, and his family once went to try to get him home because people were saying that he was out of his mind. Jesus would eventually be abandoned by his closest disciples, betrayed by one and denied by another. His passion and death on a cross were the conclusion of his fiery baptism.
The crisis, the time to decide, for Jesus’ hearers was 2,000 years ago. But his challenge to us is still “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” The crisis for us is today, and Jesus’ words are not about a time in the past. And when I say “today,” I mean today. They are not just about something that happened to you in the past, whether it was your baptism, inviting Jesus into your heart, having a born-again experience or however you put it. Each day we are called to follow Christ.
And choosing to follow Christ is not automatic. Before Jesus’ person and message cause divisions and clashes in society, they cause divisions and clashes within each one of us. We are faced with the choice between putting Christ first and putting something else first — ourselves or some other idol that we choose.
We are called to make that choice: either Christ or something else. And making the right choice confronts us, paradoxically, with a subtle temptation. It’s easy to think that making the right decision is the way we do our share in the work of salvation. As one tract put it, “God decides for you, Satan decides against you. How will you decide?” As if God and you each do your share.
But what saves us is simply the fact that in Christ, God has decided in our favor. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit,” Paul tells us.8 The Holy Spirit doesn’t believe for you, but you can’t do it without the Spirit’s gift. If you wish, you can engage in debates about free will, bondage of the will, predestination, and other topics that theologians have engaged in for centuries. But every day, when the gift is given, make the decision to simply receive it thankfully.
1 Matthew 5:44; John 14:27.
2 Luke 12:56.
3 The Book of Common Prayer (Church Publishing, 1986), 815.
4 Mark 1:15.
5 Luke 11:23.
6 Luke 3:16.
7 Micah 7:6.
8 1 Corinthians 12:3.