Luke 12:49–53 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 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.”
I grew up like perhaps many of you did. In my Sunday School classroom hung a picture of an effeminate looking Jesus. You can maybe even picture that in your mind’s eye. He’s got those soft facial features. He’s got that perfectly manscaped beard if he has one at all. And he’s always got long brushed out blondish hair and strikingly blue eyes. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why anybody ever thought a middle-eastern Jewish man in his 30’s looked like that. But, then again, I don’t think anybody ever did. No critically thinking person would ever recreate the historical Jesus on canvass like that. They wouldn’t. What they would do is slap onto a canvass a projection of Jesus. What they wished he was like. What they hoped for in him. So he’s a white Jesus. A blue-eyed Jesus. A Jesus with no hard edges. No expectations for his followers. No challenges to belief systems and no declarations of truth that might be different than those already held. A totally benign Jesus who like a chameleon blends into various postures, beliefs, and attitudes that are most convenient to his hearers.
So you’ve got to hand it to the historical Jesus. Like him or not he always manages to defy our expectations of him and to shatter the beliefs we desperately try to project onto him. I mean I don’t think I have to work too hard to show you that here he’s blowing up any projection or hope we have for him to be an ancient Ghandi or the first of a long line of peace-loving Hippies. Just look at the vocabulary here. Fire. Division. This is no tolerance pushing, peace-at-all-costs teacher. This is a fire starting, baptism undergoing, dividing, lightning rod of a spiritual figure. You actually never get away from that with Jesus. Definitely not when he says his more controversial things like, “You have to eat me. You have to drink me. If you don’t you won’t have any real life in you.” And not even when he says comforting things like, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Because he immediately goes on and he says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s the historical Jesus who’s also here saying, “I came to cast fire on the earth and I can’t wait to get it started.” “I have a baptism to undergo and I’m so pained until it’s done. Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? Because I didn’t.”
This is a Jesus who is apparently so secure in that message that he’s even willing to let it speak to what for most people is their most sacred cow: biological family. I don’t mean for that to sound too brainy. Because it’s definitely not that. For many of us, our family is our heart. It is us. At least, that’s what the Barna polls say. When we’re asked candidly who we identify with, three times more of us choose biological family over Jesus. Barna also says that – again when we’re being our most honest selves – 7 out of ten of us think our relationship with our families is more important than our relationship with Jesus. But Barna isn’t the only thing that’s convinced me of this. My experience as a pastor has too. I’ve preached on this topic on a number of occasions and I can tell you that it is the single topic that always receives the most push-back. Usually it comes sort of passive aggressively. Nobody complements the sermon or if they do it’s a sort of a sideways complement like, “Pastor, I’m going to be out of town again this weekend doing AAU basketball with the kids. Is Jesus good with that?”
But what’s even more convincing is what I find in my own heart. Because I get this. I really get this. Because I love my family. And I’ve got a good one. One of the best. I have so many good memories from growing up – great parents. Awesome siblings. I’ve got six of them. I even like my mother-in-law! I even have what many of you don’t have. I have an identical twin. I’m living proof that the stories about the power of biology and the closeness that that literally breeds are incredible and powerful. I shared a classroom for well over 20 years with my twin. I shared state championships, GPA’s, a crib, and even a womb with my twin. I currently still share a look, a set of DNA, an age, racial, and even a religious demographic with him. I am currently a man who loves his wife and adores his daughter. So if there’s anyone who can understand the power and draw of family, it’s me. Why do I tell you this? So you know I’m not here working out my daddy issues or not really understanding the incredible safety and love and fun that God gives in a great family unit. I get this topic and I’m right there with you on it.
And so I get that it’s tempting. That it’s oh so tempting because family is such a wonderful and safe place to elevate it to a place above Jesus. In fact, most people when they’re candid tell Barna that they do. But you know where that will ultimately leave you? Forever alone. I stream music these days off my Prime Music app. You know what the top song on Prime Music was just last week? A song called Seven Years by a guy named Lukas Graham. He didn’t mean to, but in that song he illustrated how family always has to ultimately leave you. In his song, he goes decade by decade of a human life and shares his greatest hopes for what might happen. So he works through the decades of his life and then gets to the last one he’s willing to sing about. The sixties. Now everyone apparently except him knows that’s when living really starts, but this is what he sings, “Soon I’ll be sixty years old, my daddy got sixty-one. I hope my children come and visit, maybe once or twice a month.” And that’s the highest hope he has for biological family. He wants visits from his kids once or twice a month.
But what’s even more thought provoking is this: he refuses to sing about what happens to family after that. It’s like he can see what’s going to happen to all those relationships and he doesn’t want to wreck his pop song. So he has to drop off so we won’t ever think about it. You know what he is perhaps only subconsciously realizing? They may not even want to, but his family will all have to leave him. They will have to because people die. Such is the way of this world. Having ultimate hopes for earthly families will leave people ultimately alone. Thank God for the Jesus who did not come to make peace with that. Thank God for the Jesus who came, “to bring fire on the earth,” (v. 49) and who wished, “it were already kindled.” (v. 49) Thank God for the Jesus who didn’t come to make peace with our pain, but came to divide us from it. Do you see that that’s what Jesus is saying? He’s saying, “I came to burn away the pain and purge the evil from your midst.” He’s saying, “I came to bring fire on family endings and divide you from sin, from death, and from the hopeless hope that you have here.” Thank God for the Jesus who refuses to accept any of it, who is tough and hard edged in all the right ways. Thank God.
But – oh – what pain it would cause Jesus to purge and divide people from that sin and from that death. This is something Jesus really wants us to get. In a very rare moment, Jesus is letting us in here on his psychology, his personal stress, and his agonizing pressure. When he looked at what he had to do to destroy death he knew that it would destroy him. That’s why he said, “what constraint (What pressure!) I am under until it is completed.” (v. 50) He even went so far as to call it a baptism – something that spiritually was going to take him all the way under. Under sin. Under God’s fire. Under God’s judgment. Under God’s wrath. He was going to be God’s lightning rod for the world’s sin. For the sin in our biological families and for the sin given to us by our biological families. He was going to receive it as God’s lightning rod in his biology, his body. That’s, in fact, the heart of the gospel. Jesus went all the way under in a baptism of suffering and death to bring us all the way up to the God of heaven. That coming baptism caused him great psychological stress, pressure, and anguish so much so that it’s already gripping his soul right here and right now.
And Jesus wants you to know that. You know why? He wants you to see him as your ultimate family. Do you see that that’s what he’s up to? When we hear his heart, how can we not get that home is not ultimately where the heart is? That the ultimate heart beats in Jesus. And when we picture his anguish, how can we not get that momma isn’t the one who loves me best? That that’s Jesus. And when we see him struck with God’s wrath, how can we not see that it’s his blood that’s thicker than water. That’s the big New Testament truth that Jesus is teaching here. Handed to you through Jesus’ great agony, suffering, and death is a new family. One we needed because our earthly one will ultimately have to fail us. So Jesus came and handed you one that never will: an eternal Father in God and a perfect brother in himself. And it’s the job of the Spirit to create around you a spiritual family to know, love, and defend the real you. So you’re the most blessed of all. You get two families. An earthly one to enjoy, and a heavenly one to ultimately depend on. A biological one to spend time with, and a spiritual one to spend eternity with. A physical one that you can appreciate as an important connection here, and a spiritual one that is your primary connection even here.
And Jesus does think it needs to be primary. He’s amazingly consistent and stunning on that point. Take this saying, for example. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Let’s be clear. Jesus is not advocating hate. He never advocates hate. What he is doing is being Jesus. He’s being striking and memorable and table turning. He’s being Jesus. He’s always finding ways to get through to us on topics we’d rather him not get through on. What he’s saying is that you cannot possibly understand what he did – his agony, his suffering, his death – what he’s saying is that can’t possibly understand that and not have it impact the way you relate to your family. He’s saying that when you get how much more he’s sacrificed and how much he has given you and how much longer he’s going to stay by your side and how much better he knows the real you then your commitment and your feelings for family will look like hate in comparison to what you have for him. Not that you won’t care for your family, but that you’ll care for Jesus that much more.
And that will have consequences for your immediate family. Vast consequences. “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” (v. 51) See, ‘cause that’s the thing. Jesus wants us to recognize that our commitment to him will have consequences within our biological families. When he’s valued more. When he’s treasured more. When he’s pursued more you will see consequences. Sometimes massively positive. You connect with your cousins in ways you never did before. You won’t expect nearly so much from your kids or your mom or your dad because you already Jesus. Positive stuff. But Jesus thinks what we really to do is brace ourselves for the negative consequences. For division. “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.” (v. 53) You see what Jesus is saying? He’s saying that he will always be the most divisive, polarizing figure in history and that will show up in your own house. He’s the world’s lightning rod. Jesus is saying, “Everyone will fall into one of two camps. They will either love me for my love or will despise me for telling them they need it.” And there is no Switzerland. And there are no neutral parties. There are only sides.
So you do your best. You want to share your heart with those who have your heart. And so you pray. And you plan. You want so badly to communicate to your son the beauty and the safety of Jesus’ teaching on sexuality, but your son – shall we say – didn’t end up seeing it that way. Father against son. And you want so desperately to share your faith with your daughter who lost hers. To reconnect with her. To talk to her about what really matters. And no matter what strategy you try she always ends up angry and seemingly more dug in than before. Daughter against mother. Most recently for me, it was my aunt. Super sweet aunt. She traveled through Aiken a few months ago. We did the family thing and in a way it was nice. We joked, told family stories, and cared about each other, but we didn’t truly connect. She got up strategically at the restaurant when we prayed with Elliana. And even though she’s retired and wasn’t even sure how far she wanted to get that day she left my house at the exact same moment I was leaving to preach at the service I had invited her to. Nephew against aunt.
And then I arrived home. 15 minutes later, I arrived home. I left behind my biology, my family stories, my memories of ice skating in my aunt’s backyard – all of it – and came home. To people I hadn’t known nearly as long. To people I didn’t share biology, blood, or history with. But I did come home to family. We may not share history or biology or blood, but because we share Jesus we share everything that matters. We may not have the same last name, but you know what really matters to me better than anybody who does. We may not be able to give each other a kidney transplant, but we can give each other the medicine of immortality called the forgiveness of sins in the gospel. We may not have decades of shared history between us, but we will share our histories forever. Here’s what I’m saying. We have to know the divide exists, but we don’t always have to always stare at it. Sometimes we can just enjoy the family we get to keep. The holy family. And, no, I’m not talking about Mary, Joseph and Jesus right now. I’m talking one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Family that transcends biology. Family that outlasts time. Family that outlives this earth and is looking forward to the ultimate family reunion. Amen.