The Season of Advent
“Am I a God nearby, says the LORD, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” says the LORD.” Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the LORD.
“I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back– those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal.
Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets– who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented– of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Jesus said, “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.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
The Mystery of Division
Can you believe he does it to us again? He gives us a lesson that leaves us scratching our head and then asks the dreaded unanswerable Why Question, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
We all know it is impossible to answer a Why Question in any way that will satisfy the asker. It’s not usually a question at all, is it? It’s a criticism, a challenge, or a statement of frustration. In this case, Jesus presents us with a contradiction and then challenges us to figure it out. He tells us he has come to bring division and fire, which flies in the face of his Advent identity, Prince of Peace; then in his frustration, asks why we cannot figure it out!
Personally, I think Jesus does it to make us think! It’s much easier to throw up our hands and go on to something simple and clear. But no, our beloved church fathers will not tolerate avoidance or an oppositional “I don’t know!” excuse. Instead they give us two readings to help us along in our quest to understand what Jesus wants us to take away from this lesson. So, let’s do what our church fathers intended and start with Jeremiah.
Jeremiah addresses the children of Israel on behalf of God’s question, “What kind of a God is God? Is he a god that’s nearby or far away?” God answers his own question with another question. “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?”
Obviously, the God of Abraham is the God nearby. He is close. He is so close that he sees into the secret places of our life. From the contents of those secret places he makes judgment on whether we are a person of faith or not. He doesn’t go with lineage, Abraham notwithstanding. When he sees wheat stacked in there, he takes that to mean that we are a person of faith and will speak his word faithfully. On the other hand, when the secret places in our life contain straw and rocks, lies and false dreams, God will make the judgement call. He will see to it that the straw is burned by the fire of truth and the rock is broken into pieces by the hammer of his word. The division between prophets faithful to the word and prophets not faithful is clear to the eyes of God who fills the heaven and earth.
Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, continues this discussion of division: people of faith as divided from people who are not. For example, by faith the fleeing Israelites passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to do the same, they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. By faith, warriors like the prophets, Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, Samuel and David conquered kingdoms. By faith, they administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war and put foreign armies to flight.
Also, by faith, others were tortured, suffered mocking and flogging; even chains and imprisonment. Others of faith were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, went about in skins of sheep and goats destitute, persecuted, tormented, wandering in deserts and mountains and living in caves and holes in the ground. These too were people of faith who like Christ, suffered.
Then we come to the gospel reading for today and hear the words of Jesus that echo the sentiments of Jeremiah and Paul. He says, 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 I came to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division!
Immediately we get a picture of events to come. Jesus, the Word, is the bearer of God’s fire, and He will be the hand of fiery division between those who would believe and who would not. How Jesus wished that fire was already kindled and the job of burning straw was done. He knew the pain that would come to people of faith. He knew that he himself would not escape the bloodshed of a baptism by fire on the cross.
We are harshly confronted with the dichotomy of who Christ is and what Christ does in our lives. In the season of Advent, we hear the triumphant voice of Isaiah, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Every Sunday, we sing the beloved hymn , O Come, O Come Emmanuel, “O come Desire of Nations, bind in one, the hearts of all man-kind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.” How does that work with a quiet Jesus who asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I think there are two kinds of division in the world: the kind Jesus brings and the kind bred by humans with too much straw and rocks in the secret places of their heart. These are the sad and proud divisions: political and ideological, racial and socioeconomic, and gender and age just to name a few. Proud divisions give rise to estrangement, rejection, prejudice, tyranny, genocide, torture, warfare and bloodshed, existing long before Jesus arrived and continuing despite his coming.
I’m of the opinion that the division Jesus brings is the kind that is innate and inevitable, but not proud and sad. He knew that not everyone in the immediate family or circle of friends was going to follow him. Some would; some would not; and that would create division, especially when God is present and active in both our public and secret places.
Let me give you an example. When I leave my home on Sunday mornings to drive to Church, let me tell you what I do not encounter. I do not encounter traffic. There are no traffic jams slowing my drive to church. The majority of people are sleeping in, or enjoying a quiet morning, or catching up on chores.
Then there are those cars on the highway with me, with only one person in the car, the driver, driving to church alone, and not in the company of the rest of the family. In our own homes, we are divided: Christian against doubters and disbelievers, denomination against denomination, style of worship against style of worship. These are sad divisions.
Or are they? C. Andrew Doyle, an Episcopalian Bishop authored his take on division in his book, Unabashedly Episcopalian. On the cover is pictured a hairy forearm with a brash tattoo stating the title. Inside is a brash unashamed confession of the excitement and thrill at being different, divided from the world at large. That is what God expects of us in a world full of divisions. He wants us unabashedly to be children of love. That is a different division from the proud divisions that block others from Christ’s love and joy.
Proud divisions do not have a place in our home, neighborhood, country, or world. While we remain unabashedly Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, nondenominational, or whatever, it doesn’t matter, as long as we are unabashedly people of faith. We are called to live this division of love gloriously; no proud divisions, no walls between us and others. You have children who have strayed to a different denomination or completely away from the church? You remain in love with them. You have a neighbor from different cultural and religious paths? You live in love and peace with them.
This is the challenge that taunts us because a world divided by hate, misunderstanding, intolerance, and fear has become the norm, the practice of the majority. That does not keep Jesus from challenging us. He wants us to figure it out. He wants us to interpret his words in the context of who he is and what he has done for the world then and now.
Interpreting the words of Jesus in the present time is a challenge only the foolhardy would attempt. Because I am unabashedly foolhardy, here is my take on it. We are children of God, followers of the Prince of Peace and the King of Division. Therefore, we must live our lives in love and acceptance, our hearts bound in one with the hearts of all mankind. We are to be a reflection of the very light that Jesus shines into a world darkened by the tragedy of proud divisions.
Too hard to understand? No worries. No Why Questions. Jesus may have been frustrated with our cognitive shortcomings, but it didn’t keep him from loving us, and from suffering, dying, and gloriously rising again. Jesus gave us the model for living the mystery of division unabashedly. All we have to do is follow his model, whether we understand it or not.
Thankfully, understanding is not a deal breaker.
Dear God, you sent your messengers to help prepare the way for your entry into our world.
Give us grace to listen to their words with faith and acceptance so that even when we do not understand, we are never divided from your love and power. Amen.