During the recent Lutheran Week in Indianapolis, I tried to eat a sandwich made with the kind of crumbly, disintegrating bread that used to give gluten-free a bad name. After lunch, Wayne asked me about the diet I had to keep in light of Celiac Disease and a heart attack I had nine years ago. As we rode down an escalator, I told him, “You know, some days I can’t wait to be with Jesus in eternity, partly because I’ll be able to eat whole wheat bread and run and play baseball again.”
Some people near us on the escalator giggled when they heard me say that. And it is funny. I chuckled too. But don’t all Christians sometimes fantasize about the things we’ll do in eternity with Jesus once we’re free of the constraints of sin, death, and darkness that pervade this life?
But there’s a danger to our lives as Christians in focusing too much on eternity: It may cause us to ignore what Jesus calls the crisis of living each day in this world, in this life, as followers of Jesus Christ.
We can get so accustomed to thinking that Jesus is on our sides, taking Him and the free gift of eternal life with God He gives to all who believe in Him, for granted, and thus, feeling free to do, say, and live any way we decide to.
Listen: Jesus has not set us free from sin and death so that we can ignore His will.
He has not set us free from sin and death so that we can ignore the needs of our neighbors or the injustice, bigotry, or hatred with which the world treats them.
Jesus has not set us free from sin and death so that we can view our church membership as a get-out-of-hell pass while ignoring the need our neighbors have for Jesus’ salvation, ignoring that about a quarter or more of our neighbors have zero religious belief.
This means that every day a Christian lives on this earth faces a crisis. I’m using that word as Jesus does in John 12:31, where He says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world,” which is more literally translated from the Greek in which all the New Testament writers originally composed their books: “Now is the crisis [κρίσις] of this world.”
Here, Jesus is saying that, in this life, in each moment of this life, you and I deal with a decision point, a moment when we must make a judgment. And the judgment we must make is this:
Will we turn to Jesus or will we turn away from Him?
Will we turn to the world, to what’s easy, to what’s socially acceptable, to what’s safe, to what’s advantageous to us if heedless of the needs of my neighbor, to go along to get along or will we turn in repentance and faith to Jesus?Our gospel lesson for this morning, Luke 12:49-56, finds Jesus turning abruptly from answering questions about the end of earth’s days after which all who have trusted in Him will live in His fully perfected kingdom, to the crisis the confronts us each day: the judgment you and I must make as to whether in this moment--at work, in our relationships, at home, in the world--we will turn to Jesus and live or walk away from Jesus and experience death.
Take a look at our lesson, please. Jesus begins: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
These words don’t fit with the world’s usual image of Jesus, the Jesus of the sentimentalists who think Jesus was a wonderful guy, but not someone they have to answer to.
Fire, an image that Jesus and the early Church used in talking about the Holy Spirit, is a symbol of judgment and of cleansing.
Jesus, to be sure, has come into the world to bring salvation and peace with God to all who believe in Him.
But He has also come to singe us in the purifying flames of God’s judgment, to burn away all that’s evil, unwholesome, and unloving, in order to refine us like precious metals, separating us from sin and death.
To truly trust in Jesus begins with truly understanding, daily, that we are sinners who need to confess our sin, divesting ourselves of our addiction to sin. Then, purged of death and darkness, we can rise to newness of life.
This is what happens to us in Holy Baptism: first, our old selves are drowned, then our new selves, God’s brand new creatures, rise.
Because the old self still lurks until the days of our physical deaths and resurrections, the Christian life is composed of returning each day to the Lord of the baptismal font for this same death and resurrection to happen again and again.
Romans 6:4 reminds us, “We were therefore buried with [Jesus Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” This new life is what God wants to give to all people through faith in Jesus every single day!
Then Jesus says: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”
Jesus wants to bring each person who hears His name to the crisis point to which we all need to come in order to receive Him and the life that only He can give to us.
But before that could happen, Jesus had to undergo the baptism of death on a cross.
His mission on earth would only be fulfilled when He did this and could say, “It is finished.”
On the cross, Jesus shares the death that belongs to every human being from the moment we are born: the death of separation from the One Who gives life. It was from this place of separation that Jesus cried from the cross, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me.”
But because God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, in the waters of Baptism, we share in Jesus’ death so that the Father too, can raise those who trust themselves and their whole lives to Jesus. It was to accomplish this for you and me that Jesus couldn’t wait--He felt constrained to go to the cross, set His face for Jerusalem--that Jesus went to the cross.
Jesus then says: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
In this life, anyone who dares to follow Jesus, who daily turns to Jesus to seek the death of their old selves and the creation of their new selves, who live in what we Lutherans call “daily repentance and renewal” can expect that even members of our own families will turn against us.
Or that, at any rate, they won’t understand us.
Likely, everyone here has taken shots for following Jesus from someone in their family: siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren. Or, they have experienced not being understood. I know that I have. It’s just part of following Jesus.
At this point in our lesson, Jesus addresses the end of this world when He will return to judge the living and the dead in light of how we address the crisis--the judgment points--we face every day. “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?'”
Where Jesus lived in the first century AD, if people saw clouds in the west, they knew that rain was coming in from the Mediterranean and if they felt hot winds coming from the Negev to the south, they knew were in for a heatwave. People knew how to read those meteorological signs.
But here is Jesus, God the Son, standing right in front of these people, His identity as God and Savior repeatedly confirmed by miracles, signs, and wonders, by His words, by His compassion, by His sinlessness, yet they ignore all these signs.
They don’t see that they need to turn to Jesus now and believe in Him.
It’s as though they’re holding out for more proof, which will soon come in His death and resurrection, though most of the crowds who thronged to Jesus during His life on earth would never believe in Him even after He rose from the dead.
It’s as though too, the crowd is waiting for a better offer. “Maybe,” they seem to think, “we can follow Jesus, but from a distance, getting just enough of Him to get the blessings He offers, but not close enough to actually have to give up the old sins we love so much, not close enough to actually hear Him call us to a life of love of God and love of neighbor, of worship and prayer, of witness to others for Jesus. Maybe we can have Jesus without being changed by Him, without being His disciple.”
Folks, it doesn’t work like that. As you’ve heard me say before (and as I need to be constantly reminded myself): We will either have all of Jesus or we will have none of Jesus at all.
I’m guessing that the hesitation of the crowd surrounding Jesus that day is no different from the hesitation felt by most people in most churches in North America. They don’t perceive the crisis of each moment, the need to turn to Jesus for life and forgiveness right now in every right now of life because life in this world can end in the blink of an eye and then there will be no more opportunity to turn to Jesus and live.
It’s because of this hesitation in the churches of the US, Canada, and Europe that,
Today, there are nearly as many Lutherans in Ethiopia as there are in the U.S. There are now more Baptists in Nagaland (an eastern state in India) than there are in [all of] the southern states of the U.S. There [are] more Christians worshipping in China [on this] Sunday than there [are doing so] here in the U.S. or in all of Europe!Christians in America have largely lost their sense of urgency about being and making disciples--about turning to Jesus and inviting others, despite the possibility of rejection, to turn to Jesus too.
We have forgotten the moment to moment crisis that is the permanent state of being in this fallen world.
But Jesus’ call is still urgent, folks. He says: “The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
There isn’t a better moment to follow Jesus than right now, in this moment in which God allows you to live on this earth.
There isn’t a better moment to share Jesus with others than right now on this earth.
Because Jesus saves us by grace through faith in Christ alone, may this always be our prayer:
Jesus, what do you want me to do or say, who do you want me to listen to, pray for, or serve right now?And then may we do what He calls us to.
We don’t have to wait for a perfect time to live in the freedom Jesus gives to His disciples.
In the crisis moments--the decision points--of each day, may we always turn to Jesus. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]