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Division & Fire

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

A common theme in the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus’ ministry is gonna turn the world upside-down. We see it as early as Mary’s Magnificat where she sings about God casting tyrants from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. We see it in Simeon’s oracle when he meets baby Jesus and tells Mary and Joseph their boy is destined for the rise and fall of many, and will be a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. Jesus’ ministry from the very start was bound to turn society on its head and set things right, healing human selfishness and sin; and dismantling corrupt power structures, reconciling the world with God.

And now in chapter 12 we hear Jesus talking about division within the most basic human institution: the family. Father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother. Families dividing, people in conflict, not peace but division! Is this what Jesus came to do?

To answer that question I think it’s first important to realize Jesus isn’t against peace. Jesus says over and over again to live nonviolently. He says things like blessed are the peacemakers. He’s clearly against war, violence, and oppression—and he never encouraged violent revolts. So he’s not against peace. What Jesus is against is false harmony. That kinda peace that comes from avoiding difficult conversations. Ignoring important issues because they might upset someone. Or not following the Spirit’s call for fear it will cause conflict. It is this false harmony, this false peace that Jesus came to disrupt. Jesus is profoundly aware that his message is bound to be divisive. And many in Luke’s original audience were literally disowned by their families for following Jesus. For those of us who follow him today—if we don’t think Jesus’ message is divisive, if we don’t find Jesus’ message challenging, we’re probably not hearing him correctly.

The other disturbing image Jesus uses here is that of fire. Now in the Bible, more often than not, the image of fire doesn’t mean destruction. It’s an image for purification. The refining fire John the Baptist speaks of earlier in this Gospel. This fire will purify us, but at great cost. Sometimes leading to painful division.

At our Thursday evening worship services this summer we’ve been working through the book of Galatians. This week we heard about the Fruit of the Spirit and how just as a healthy tree naturally bears good fruit, so too the mature Christian naturally bears the Spirit’s fruit. It takes a lot of healing and transformation before we become healthy trees though, and God’s got a lot of pruning to do in us. I think this image of the purifying fire Jesus talks about here is another metaphor for this pruning process.

Think about times when the pruning process has happened in your life. When has this purifying fire swept over you? Has it been a cause of division? Has it been a cause of pain? We all have these experiences at some point. Perhaps you’re experiencing one right now. Difficult situations have a way of waking us up to what really matters, even if we don’t see it at the time. The loss of a loved one. A broken relationship. The end of your career. A terminal diagnosis. While none of these things are caused by God, the potential for suffering is built into the fabric of the universe because the chaos of life promotes the growth of the human spirit. At least that’s how I look at it. Jesus never really explained why there’s suffering. But Scripture makes it clear that suffering leads to transformation.

There will be many dark nights of the soul for each of us. And many things that happen that we don’t understand. But what Jesus’ words do for us in this passage is show us that the fires and trials of this life aren’t without meaning. Even if we can’t understand it, Jesus’ lessons on fire and division show us that even in the midst of the most troubling situations, God is still in control and we can trust Christ to guide us through the darkest nights.

It is our privilege this day to say farewell to our brother Kurt as he leaves us to begin seminary. And in a way it’s fitting that this Gospel passage is what comes up today. Wherever the Spirit takes him, Kurt will be ministering to a broken world in need of hearing Christ’s message of healing and transformation. And it’s important to remember these words of Jesus too—that sometimes the Good News of God breaking into our lives feels more like fire and division than it does peace and love.

The Christian journey, after all, is not an easy one. Jesus never promised us wealth and happiness. What he did promise his disciples was a lot of suffering and cross-bearing, fire and division. But the Good News is that these trials will be healing. Such fire and division will be transformative. Both for us as individuals and for the world.

This fire and division is the breaking through of the Kingdom of God. Jesus taught us to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. And so this refining fire, this pruning experience, the birth pang metaphor found elsewhere in the Gospels, all point to this truth: that the inbreaking of God’s kingdom will be a struggle for us, the transformation of this world will be challenging. But these fires will refine us and transform us, like gold in the fire. We will be pruned and bear fruit, and God’s vision of shalom will be born in this world.

It’s exciting to be a part of this! Because on the other side of fire and division is the healing of the nations. The transformation of our hearts and of this world. Jesus came to transform the earth and everyone on it, not just to provide some escape hatch to the spirit realm. It’s essential that we take his call to healing and transformation seriously. To submit to the refining fires of life and allow ourselves, as the prophet Isaiah said, to be refined like silver.

On the other side of the refining fires there is no longer false harmony keeping the peace. There will be true harmony, found through courageously entering the fire and coming out the other side. Trusting in Christ, we will walk through the troubles of this life and be refined, healed, and transformed. So while this world may be full of fire and division, Jesus is with us through it all, and promises to bring us through the dark nights to God’s bright dawn.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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