The gospel passage for this morning is a distressing one, and one that cannot be ignored. Jesus, as He often does, inserts himself right into the middle of everything. He says that because of Him, fire will come to the earth and division will come to families. He will not be silenced or sidelined. He says that how humanity relates to Him is the one burning question of our existence. What a thing to say about yourself.
This passage reminds me of the now famous and still germane Trilemma posed by C. S. Lewis. An honest appraisal of the life, teaching, and work of Jesus of Nazareth leaves you with only 3 options concerning Him. Many people want to relegate Him to the category of great moral teacher. Lewis won’t allow that. Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord.
“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool… or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.”
Jesus will not go away. I watched the 1972 movie Deliverance last week. 4 men from Atlanta take a canoe trip down a river in the north Georgia mountains for what they think will be a nice weekend. But, the river terrorizes them and the men they meet in the hollows of the mountain do worse. By the end of the canoe trip, they have killed one of the mountain men in self defense and dumped the body of a their slain friend into the river to hide the evidence.
The county sheriff suspects and questions them, but can’t find enough evidence to arrest them, so off they go. But in the final scene, one man bolts upright in bed screaming from a nightmare, having dreamed about a pale hand rising up from the river to grab him. As much as he would like to ignore what happened, it will not go away.
I realize that the movie Deliverance is a gruesome comparison to the Savior of the World, who will also not just go away. But given what Jesus actually says in this morning’s gospel, it may not be too far off the mark. Jesus says he comes to burn the earth and he wishes it were already ablaze. He takes the most sacred of institutions – the family – and says he will detonate it with division – father against son, mother against daughter.
Almost every family is familiar with family division, although they might not recognize Jesus as the divider. Sometimes He is more obviously the reason for the division. Believing members of the family worry about their non-believing kin – what will happen to them when the die? But the non-believers also worry about the believers – how could they just check their minds at the door and fall for a religious fairy tale?
A little girl asked her mother where people came from. Her mother said, “God made us all.” Then she asked her father the same question. Her father told her that we all evolved from monkeys. This confused the girl, so she asked her how it could be that she said God made us all, but her father said we came from monkeys. Her mom answered, “That’s simple. I was telling you about my side of the family, and your dad was telling you about his.” Sorry, that was worse than the Deliverance analogy.
Sometimes Jesus is less obviously the cause of division. But Jesus is there when one member of the family dares to speak the truth about a family secret or the family’s settled, but dysfunctional way of operating. Jesus says, “I am the truth”, so when truth is spoken, He is there.
Often a spouse will enter into a family system and be able see what is so clearly wrong and “call a thing what it is.” “It” might be Mother’s drinking, perhaps, or dad’s verbal abuse. When someone names it for what it is then the “family” turns on the whistleblower with vengeance. Usually, as I said, it is an “in-law”, just as Jesus says that mother-in-law will be against daughter-in-law. Like in a totalitarian state, questioning the status quo of the regime will get you expelled.
So, where are we? The one known as the Prince of Peace asks if we think He has come to bring peace to the earth. And then he immediately answers his own question: “No, I tell you, but rather division!” Why does Jesus speak like this?
Well, one reason is that He is under enormous stress. He says so Himself. “What stress I am under”, He says. The term “stress” is from the Greek verb meaning “squeezing tightly” or “holding on to a sickness.” Luke, the author of this gospel, was a physician; he would be especially attentive to the physical effects of duress. Think about yourself when you are stressed. Think about how tight your stomach is and how short your temper is. The world looks dark when you are under stress.
Remember too that although Jesus is fully God, He is also fully human, susceptible to all the anxieties that come with living life. But the cause of His stress is particular to Him. He says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” The baptism to which He refers is His death on the cross.
In 1849, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky was given a death sentence for criticizing the Orthodox Church and Russian government. He and the political agitators were marched outside, given last rites, hooded, and then heard the click of loaded rifles. At the last minute, a reprieve from the government came. It was no act of mercy though; the execution had been staged to terrorize the offenders.
This experience obviously had a profound effect on Dostoevsky. A scene in his novel “The Idiot” seems autobiographical. Prince Myshkin discusses how the rapid execution by guillotine may even be worse than longer, drawn out methods. “Think: if there’s torture, for instance, then there’s suffering, wounds, bodily pain, and it distracts you from inner torment. The strongest pain may not be in the wounds but in knowing for certain that in an hour, then in ten minutes, then in half a minute, then now, this second — your soul will fly out of your body and you’ll no longer be a man.”
Of course we can’t know what was going on in the mind of Jesus, but clearly His own impeding death is haunting Him, tormenting Him. It will not go away. Even on the eve of His own execution, He asks His Father to take this cup from Him. He was under such stress at that moment, that Luke says, “being in such anguish that he prayed more earnestly and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” This is the rare physical condition of hematidrosis: under extreme stress, tiny capillaries can rupture in the sweat glands, mixing blood with perspiration.
All that Jesus did and said in His life was important. Evaluating His life and teaching bring us to Lewis’ trilemma: liar, lunatic, or Lord. But the most important thing about His life is His death. Jesus’ death is what saves us, what gives us our deliverance.
In His death, Jesus is divided from His Father, echoing His own words, “father against son, son against father.” No longer addressing God as Father, Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Our sin deserves the kindled fire of God’s judgment. But, in His great mercy, God is so for you as your defender that He is against Himself as your accuser.
Christ was “delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” This is the great act of love that will not go away. It is what has caused millions upon millions to fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.