Sermon – 15 August 2004

The gospel reading that we have just heard comes in two paragraphs. One apparently easier on our ears and easier on our minds than the other.

After all, Jesus says, ?When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens?.

Well, after the week that we have just had, after the deluge and the mud slide, it is hard to argue with the Lord at all.

But what about the first reading ? Jesus seems to be saying all that we least expect him to be saying. One family member will be set against another. There will be fire, there will be discord. There will be no peace.

“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! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

What are we to make of this? What good news is there here?

Well, let us see.
This passage is indeed one of the most difficult passages for people to understand ? it might be helpful to look at a couple of different ways of trying to understand it. Perhaps then, we can make our own minds up ? or blend them together and come up with something new. Let us think about a few different ways of understanding this.

I?ve thought of three was of thinking about this, though doubtless there are countless more ways.

Firstly, there are those who read this passage and say ? yes! See how well the Saviour knows what family life is like. There are those who instinctively read this as being Jesus?s comment on how hard family life can be. I?ve even heard someone say ? this sounds just like a family wedding. (Fortunately it wasn?t like that here yesterday when Denise and Graeme got married!)

Now this points to something which is undoubtedly true ? that family life is hard. And it seems to get harder, not easier when there are big decisions to be made in life. And it is hard, when some members of a family get religion. Any religion. Especially Jesus religion.

For the God whom we worship does make demands on us.

And that can make real family life hard.

If that is what Jesus is talking about here, what is our response?

Well, recognising that things are hard is a part of the answer. If we are in relationships which are threatened because one partner is trying to be a friend of Jesus, it is worth remembering that just as this passage shocks us, so too can any mere words.

The word of the Lord is as true whether it is preached or whether it is not. No-one ever calls us to force-feed people with the Word of the Lord. Kindness, gentleness, patience and love ? these are the ways in which the Spirit dances the message of divine, eternal Love between people.

Now back to the Gospel reading. There are those who say, yes, this is simply true ? Jesus does divide people one from another. And, so goes this kind of thinking ? there is a material difference between believers and unbelievers. More extreme versions of the faith than ours would even try to live more separately from unbelieving relatives and refuse to countenance friendship with those who are unbelievers. These are those who divide up the world, as though it were theirs to divide, into the saved and the damned.

When we hear this kind of religion our response to this must be patience, gentleness and kindness and all the things I mentioned above, and perhaps one more thing ? very quietly and gently, saying the word ?No?. For, I think, that no God worth believing in damns people and excludes them from his love.

Yet, Jesus says that his coming will bring division, and all this upset and pain? What does he mean?

Well, we must remember something that I have said before. Jesus comes from a very distinct preaching culture ? hyperbole was a part of that culture ? going over the top with words. He does it time and time again ? how many times Rabbi must we forgive, seven times? No, seventy times seven times.

It is that kind of verbal culture. Words and ideas are extended far beyond the way we would use them.

So, Jesus is using forms of words which we might not at first be familiar ? is he then just saying: life is hard and religion causes even more division? Pull yourselves together believers and get on with getting to know God.

Maybe he is.

If that is an attractive reading to you, I ask you to consider this week when you are listening to the news and you hear the preaching of some of the Muslim clerics reported. Does it come from the same culture of hyperbole or does it come from those who regularly use western restraint and quiet persuasion? That is maybe a hard thing to think about.

And so is my third reading of the text.

This is for those of you who like a bit more of a challenge when you are reading the bible. Again, this will appeal to some of you and make others uncomfortable. (No-one, least of all the Lord promised you a comfortable faith remember).

This way of reading the gospel passage is to ask bigger questions about what Jesus was saying within his culture.

I tell you this ? however shocked you are to hear these words coming reported on the lips of the Lord about family division, it was far more shocking for Jewish people to hear all those years ago.

This was a real challenge. We seldom stop to consider that one of the reasons that people found Jesus so difficult to deal with (even unto death) was the challenge that he brought to received ideas of the family.

Despite the completely family orientated nature of his culture, Jesus has little good to say about it. He recognises believers as being as close to him than his mother and brothers, he says that there is no love greater than that when someone lays down their life for a friend.

Now, here is the challenging bit ? does Jesus come to telling us that family life is not all it is cracked up to be? Does he rank the love of friends as higher than family commitments?

These ideas rarely get an airing. No wonder they put him to death if he said things that were so unsettling.

No. There is no ?if? about it. He did say these kinds of things.

He did get put to death.

So there you are.

Three approaches to mull over.

1. That Jesus is in the thick of family life and describing it as it truly is.

2. Alternatively that his challenge is real and that when people believe, they will be cut off from loved ones.

3. That he is saying something important about the way we know God ? that we know God not by being born as someone to particular parents in a particular place at a particular time. But that friendship matters over family and that friendship with God matters more than anything else in the world.

In his preaching, Jesus seems so often to have given more questions than answers ? something that I have done today.

But he also gives people the chance to make their own response to him.

So I ask you this. How do you hear the voice of the Lord today? How do you judge the signs of the times.

When you see the clouds rising in the west, you know it is going to rain. You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky.

But how do you interpret the present time?



  1. Kelvin says

    Re: Sermon – 15 August 2004

    The Collect for Morning Prayer for Tuesdays just reminded me of your sermon (or vice versa):

    O God,

    Who set before us the great hope

    That your Kingdom shall come o­n earth

    And taught us to pray for its coming:

    Give us grace to discern the signs of its dawning

    And to work for the perfect day

    When the whole world shall reflect your glory;

    Through Jesus Christ our Lord

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