August 18 2013 Sermon
Luke 12:49-53 (54-56)
ESV Luke 12:49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, 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 her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
As we continue our study of St. Luke, and Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem to die on the cross, he continues to explain to his disciples why hypocrisy and the love of possessions are dangerous distractions from waiting for the coming of the son of man. The past few weeks we have heard what Jesus had to say about greed and covetousness and about loving the things of this world and storing up treasures on this earth. Today he explains that our life in this world will be filled with divisions, hostility, and persecutions all on account of his cross.
Our gospel text today is a private conversation between Jesus and his disciples. In this text he reveals the innermost feelings of his heart, makes some very passionate statements, and tells us things that seem to be quite contrary to our understanding. Yes, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways. His Word becomes a stumbling block to us when he tells us things that run quite contrary to our ideas and beliefs.
Jesus tells us in verse 49, “Fire I have come to cast on the earth.” The emphasis is on the word “fire.” Verse 50 is a parallel verse, with the emphasis on the word “baptism”. “A Baptism I have to be baptized with…” Fire and baptism: these two words stand together in parallel. Then we have two cries of utter agony, which also stand in parallel to each other, exposing his true feelings, “How I wish the fire were already kindled!” “How great is my agony until this baptism is completed!” Our English translations soften this up quite a bit. This is a passionate plea, an earnest, heartfelt desire, “How I wish it were already done!” It is painful for him.
The Greek is clear and to the point: the word translated “distressed” here means, “I am totally governed by this; completely held in its grasp.” Literally “held together,” It means to exercise continuous control over someone, to hold a prisoner, hold in custody, to hold within certain bounds. And the passionate cries: “How I wish….” “How great is my distress….” Here we have a window into the suffering and pain Jesus went through for us, “…until it is finished.” We are given a hint that sometime it will be completed; a foretelling of his words on the cross: “It is finished.”
Then in verse 51 we have another pair of words in parallel: “You think I have come to bring peace on earth. No! To the contrary, I come to bring division.” These are hard words indeed for us to understand. We all have the peaceful, pastoral image of Christmas Eve with the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth Peace and good will to men.” Jesus is a man of peace, he reconciles us to God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.” This verse doesn’t make any sense to us, “I have come to bring division.” The word used here isn’t merely division, it means “super division.” It is hostile division, opposition, dissension, it means to be divided into hostile and opposing groups. From now on there will be five divided in one household. Three against two and two against three, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and so on. Here he describes the divisive impact of his presence in the world from his baptism until the day he returns at the end of the world. The world will be divided. There will be hostility between people all on account of his cross.
This text is hard to understand. We must immediately ask, “What fire, what baptism, what peace, what division?” All these words form parallels with each other, and all in the context of Jesus’ most vivid language and passionate pleas. “How I am in distress! How I wish it were finished!”
We have two pairs of words: fire and baptism; peace and division. The presence of Jesus brings fire and division. From the time of Christ until his return, the time of our watchful service will be a time of division. However, our patient perseverance and the anguish we will endure as the people of Christ, are put in perspective by the immeasurably greater anguish and perseverance of our Lord himself.
Fire recalls John’s preaching and baptism where fire refers to God’s wrath and eschatological judgment. John’s baptism is preparation for the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus which entails the pouring forth of God’s wrath on the earth. Already with John’s baptism the world is asking, “When and on whom will this eschatological wrath be poured?” Jesus in his baptism, in his Nazareth sermon, and in his response to John’s disciples shows that he comes in solidarity with fallen humankind, bearing in himself the wrath of God against sin. The fire of God’s eschatological wrath is poured out first and foremost on Jesus, the one who comes in solidarity with sinful humanity and as our substitute. It is upon Jesus that the fire is first poured out. It is Jesus who bore the fiery wrath of God in our place.
Fire does two things in the Bible, it either destroys or it purifies. The fire of God’s wrath laid on Jesus will lead to his death and will destroy the power of sin and hell. This fire is first laid on Jesus when he enters the waters of his baptism. From the time of his baptism he stands under God’s wrath and continues to stand under it until that wrath is satiated in his crucifixion and he cries out, “It is finished.” It is this wrath that Jesus is talking about when he cries out, “How I wish it were already finished!”
From the time of his baptism, every sickness Jesus heals, every sin he forgives, every dead person he raises, he is both releasing creation from its bondage and absorbing into his body all sickness, sin, and death. This is how he puts himself in the position to receive God’s wrath against sin. From the moment of his baptism this process begins.
For this he came. Jesus knows that he is to bear this fiery wrath and eschatological judgment, and his passionate pleas express his wish that it were already accomplished. He knows that the fullness of God’s wrath is yet to fall on him and he yearns that his substitutionary atonement on the cross would come soon.
This desire provides a transition to the next statement, “A baptism I have to be baptized with.” Jesus began his ministry with a water baptism in the Jordan where he placed himself under God’s wrath on behalf of all humanity. Jesus completes his ministry with a bloody “baptism” on the cross where the full wrath of God is placed upon him as he atones for the world’s sin.
Hence, water and blood stand as a frame around Jesus’ ministry. It recalls that both water and blood flowed from Christ’s side at his death, and that water and blood testify that Jesus is God’s messiah (I John 5:6-8). It is this same water and blood that come to us in the Sacraments. Jesus baptism in water and his baptism in the shedding of his blood show how baptism and the Lord’s Supper are related. Both are rooted in Christ’s ministry as humanity’s substitute. Jesus came by water and blood as he identified himself with sinful humanity both in his baptism and in his table fellowship, especially at the last supper.
Christian baptism and the Lord’s supper both flow from Christ’s atonement. Jesus appeased the Father’s fiery wrath both by his perfect life of obedience and by his suffering on the cross. The ministry into which Jesus was baptized and his passion are both completed at his death, when both water and blood flowed from his side (John 19:35-37).
Thus, in speaking of both fire and baptism in our text, Jesus speaks of his own destiny in Jerusalem. Fire is cast upon him, and he submits to baptism. Like the burnt offerings or holocausts in the Old Testament, Jesus is to be offered up for the sin of the world as the fire of the Father’s wrath is laid on him. The fire of wrath brings a result that the disciples would not have anticipated: they do not lead to peace in worldly life, but to division, hostility, dissension.
Fire cast on the earth is in parallel with peace because the baptism with which Jesus is to be baptized leads to division. For us this seems ironic because Jesus is supposed to bring peace. And indeed he does bring peace to sinners and the sick throughout his ministry. As Jesus entered Jerusalem the crowds sang, “Peace!” Jesus weeps because the people do not know the things that have to do with peace. And after the resurrection, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth is “Peace to you!”
How can Jesus the peace bearer be reconciled with Jesus the divider? Jesus does bring peace on earth for those who are members of his kingdom and who receive his heralds of peace in faith. But the peace he brings is peace between man and God. Peace between you and God. This peace between God and humanity is made possible because God’s wrath has been placed on Jesus.
But the means for administering the peace, a watery baptism and a baptism into death will cause division and conflict among people. The theology of the cross brings peace with God and absolves those who are marked with the cross in baptism. But the cross also brings enmity from the world.
Opposition to Jesus may split families, pitting father against son, and son against father. Familial division reappears in many other discourses of Jesus: you will be betrayed even by parents. These references show how division between the disciples and the world will increase as Jesus nears Jerusalem. And it will be no different during the time of the church, as the eschatological judgment draws near.
Yet the disciples will not stand alone. Even if forsaken and persecuted by their families, they are part of the family of God, their true family, through the new kinship of all who hear the word of Jesus and do it. Because Jesus was baptized with the fire of God’s wrath against your sin, you are forgiven. Because Jesus absorbed your sins and division and hostility into himself, you are released from the power of sin. You are at peace with God. It was accomplished on the cross. It will be fulfilled at the resurrection.