The Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ
August 14, 2022
“Whatever happened to our Sweet Jesus?”
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
It is hard to square the sentiment contained in the words of a Christmas carol — “Away in a manger, no crib for His head, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head” — with the harsh words of Luke 12:51 — “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Whatever happened to our sweet Jesus?
Indeed, this passage is so shocking that we who have pledged to seek to serve and to follow Him forever, must take a step back and gain an understanding of what this passage portends. Do you agree? I couldn’t just read this passage and move on. I had to look for an avenue of understanding, so I turned to a commentary and found that she shared my concern. Jerusha Matsen Neal is an Assistant Professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School. This is her opening paragraph:
During a season of aching division in church and society, this passage seems to affirm precisely the wrong tendencies in human communities. It also seems off-point for a gospel that begins with an angelic promise of “peace” on earth (Luke 2:14). But the specter of division has always been present in Luke, even in those early nativity texts. Mary’s Magnificat delineates the powerful from the lowly (Luke 1:46-56), pointing to God’s just sorting of power and privilege as a manifestation of faithfulness. Simeon describes Jesus as a sign that will be “spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
What she sees in this passage that we find problematic, is a continuation of the distinction between the way of humanity and the way of God. Rather than these words being out of place, they belong exactly where we find them.
But she goes on:
The child is a sign that will pierce even Mary’s soul. Raymond Brown argues that, in Luke, this piercing does not refer to the pain of her son’s death. It points to the judgment that Mary will undergo in struggling to respond faithfully to God’s Word. Jesus will be a sign that divides one’s motives and inclinations like a sword, requiring a piercing spiritual discernment. When Mary and Jesus’ brothers are rebuffed by Jesus’ redefinition of family as “those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21), the cost of this discernment becomes plain. Even the hallowed category of “family” is rearranged in light of God’s larger covenantal priorities.
Even Christ’s family is pierced by the division Jesus brings. And what was true to them ought to be true for us. Look at this world. It is a place of great beauty and brutality, a realm of light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. One can choose to ignore the sordid and see only the ethereal, but Jesus stands as an uncomfortable reminder that the cross demands a reckoning. One cannot say one follows Jesus and then step out of the way He trod.
This is how Jerusha Matsen Neal ends her commentary:
The fire Jesus describes is costly, but it serves the purpose of life and love. It does not, however, serve the purposes of comfort. Jesus’ fire is not like the fire of a hearth, safely controlled and tightly bound for the somnolent pleasures of a single household. In the words of Mary Oliver’s “What I Have Learned So Far,” this is not light that leads to “indolence.” It is light that leads to “action.” This fire of love burns away our obsession with self-preservation, our idolization of kinship, and our false sense of control. It is a fire that, like Simeon’s piercing prophecy to Mary, tests the heart—revealing the thoughts of many and calling for a baptism of commitment. Oliver minces no words: “Be ignited, or be gone.”
Oh, there is a place for a softer Jesus, one who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. He, too, is here. But today we are reminded that Jesus was more than kind. He was demanding, that wherever He went, division followed. As we come to this table to commemorate His death and to take stock of His life, remember, too, that in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, we bear witness to a burning vision of a kingdom not yet fully come. Let us pray….
[i] Luke 12:49-56
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53they 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.”
54He 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. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?