Every now and then, when Scripture is read in worship, people listen closely enough ... to
It happens sometimes in Advent, when Luke wraps up his report of John the Baptist.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of
Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?"...
On and on he goes, preaching repentance and fire and fear, which may be why no
one ever called him John the Lutheran.
"One who is more powerful than I is coming, he thundered.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat
into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
So, with these and many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
Ha ha ha.
It's the same joke I told earlier, after reading Jesus's words: the gospel of the Lord.
This terrifying craziness is the good news.
Those paying close enough attention to laugh will hear the echoes immediately.
Jesus' words today sound like the promise of John coming true, and so they are.
He is bringing the fire and baptism and division; he even insults his crowds.
He is everything John promised, or warned, he would be.
So why do Luke and the pastor name this good news?
It doesn't feel good at all, and it isn't news.
Destruction and division are the same, tired, old story; nowadays we are daily
adding names to history's enormous scrap heap of powers dividing people from
each other, whether virtually on Twitter or literally in Mississippi.
We don't need Jesus to separate families; we're doing just fine on our own, thanks.
The Romans called it divide et impera—divide and rule.
We know it so well we're desensitized to it, so the shock value is lost on us.
But why is this mundane poison spewing from the lips of Jesus?
Jesus knows what is coming, and he knows what the reaction will be.
What's coming is hard for the human brain to comprehend, much less trust.
He calls it his baptism, which is a terrifying passage into a completely new identity, like
adolescence on spiritual steroids.
He has set his face to Jerusalem, and the journey is long and stressful, like getting on the
101 during rush hour to go to the dentist.
He is now on his long, slow climb to the cross to crucify the system that will crucify him.
He is walking into the teeth of violence to do violence to violence itself.
He will win by losing, by changing the game instead of playing it.
He will overpower the bullies by forgiving them.
He will steal a thief into paradise.
He will face the brunt force trauma of death and kill it with new life.
He will not baptize us with water until he has been baptized with our wood and nails.
In doing so, he divides division itself, as the author of Colossians explains:
In him all things hold together...
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was
pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace
through the blood of his cross.
The author of Ephesians elaborates:
For he is our peace: in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has brought down the diving wall, that is, the hostility between us...that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and
might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting
to death that hostility through it.
God's end game is union, reconciliation ... but getting there is a long, slow climb, and it
meets with natural resistance and predictable division.
Our world is too addicted to distinctions and divisions.
Roman society, like so many before and since, was built on a system of who
compares to whom.
Is this actress A-list or B-list?
Is this player an all star, a hall of famer?
Is this person worthy of our family?
The Jesus movement set fire to the whole system.
He touched the untouchables, and his followers treated slaves as equals.
Women were respected, wealth was suspicious, and Christians drew close to the
dying and the disgusting.
It was the kind of indiscriminate behavior and blatant disregard for social order that many
people with proper honor could not abide.
So fathers disowned their sons and daughters turned away from their mothers, because
Jesus brings division, but not in order to rule.
Remember God's end game.
Division is part of the long journey to reconciliation.
When you have been stabbed, you might fight back or call the cops.
Or you might wake up and say to your surgeon, Thank you for saving me.
It all depends on who is holding the knife.
Two years ago, my Dad kept calling me.
He wanted airtight assurances that his property had been fully, legally transferred
to my brother.
What stress he was under until this was completed.
I went with him to Bakersfield, we researched the records, filled out the forms,
and I delivered them by hand to my brother to sign and submit.
He let it slide, so Dad kept calling him, then calling me, so I kept trying to kindle a fire
under my brother to get the deed done.
Dad knew his days were numbered, and was interpreting the times.
He was desperate to give a gift to his son, who did not understand the urgency.
So Dad persisted in every way he could, in spite of his uncooperative child, for the sake
of his uncooperative child, because his love was even stronger than his frustration.
Now my brother owns the land, and Dad is at peace with all the other thieves in paradise,
because God feels the same way.
The gospel of the Lord.