Sermons, Uncategorized

Jesus Comes to Divide

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[Jesus said:] “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“This is the Gospel of the Lord,” we say each week after reading the Gospel, but there is no good news in these words from Jesus this week. It’s a hard text to preach on. The difficulty stems from a dominant (and often unquestioned) cultural assumption about God and His relationship to us. As a rule, Americans tend to believe life is primarily about the pursuit of happiness. They also believe that God, if and when they consider Him, exists to help them in their pursuit. This is why most prayers are for good things—like healing, favorable weather, economic growth, reconciliation, wisdom, strength, and … peace.

But here is the rub. Jesus is clear in this text: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51). That’s not quite what we would expect Jesus to say. And I must admit it would be easy to pass on the Gospel reading this week and go with a different text. But I would suggest that our difficulty with this text means we need to hear it and take Jesus’ words to heart and ponder them all the more closely. This text confronts some of our deeply held views about God and our desire for peace.

As a pastor, I see more than enough division—divided families, divided congregations, divided denominations, a divided nation—and I work hard to bring peace. I’ve counseled families who are divided. I’ve met with couples who are in deep conflict, even contemplating divorce. I’ve seen firsthand what division can do to a congregation. Sadly, our own synod is divided—some calling themselves confessional, others missional. Some conservative, others moderate. And in our nation? The politics of personal destruction and partisan division rule the day.

Yet, Jesus states clearly that He is in the business of dividing. Jesus comes to divide—houses and families. 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.

This needs to be unpacked, of course. God’s ultimate purpose is not to divide spouses or separate parents from their children. His chief goal is to separate us from our selfishness and our sin, and in doing so, to unite us with Himself and all believers. His words in the reading today describe what happens when that division does not take place. To use a theological term, Jesus’ dividing work is His alien work. It is, indeed, His will and His work, but it is not His primary will and work. This division serves to accomplish Jesus’ ultimate will and proper work, which is the redemption and salvation of mankind.

For those who were originally there to hear Jesus say these things, His words would not have been as jarring. Luke 12 falls in the middle of the travel narrative in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, teaching the crowds. His message was not soft and flowery. Much like Jeremiah in the Old Testament reading for today, Jesus was calling them to turn from their sins and repent.

Jesus came to save us from sin. That is why He became flesh. That is why He lived a perfectly holy life. That is why He submitted Himself to endure His death on a cross. That is why He rose again three days later and ascended into heaven. All of this was for you and all the world—to open the gates of heaven once more, that “whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

However, this grace is—by definition—a gift. Jesus offers it to all by means of His Word, but He forces it upon nobody. Not everyone will hold onto the gift of life He gives. Many in their sinfulness will reject it, throw it away. There will be those who repent and those who do not. There will be believers and unbelievers. That is the division that Jesus brings, that Jesus gives.

It is a blessed division. Apart from Christ, all would be lost. Because of Christ, many are saved.

But you know how it often goes: When division arises, it’s the Gospel that gets the blame.

It doesn’t make sense to blame the Gospel. Picture the aftermath of a shipwreck with survivors flailing around in the water trying to escape drowning. A rescue ship has arrived on scene, with rescuers pulling survivors aboard so that they’re safe. The rescuers are dividing the drowning from death to life. But instead of rejoicing to join those on-board ship, imagine some in the water screaming that it’s wrong that those on board are different. Imagine them declaring that the rescue ship should be scuttled so that everyone is united in sinking once again.

That’s the position in which the Church finds itself today, and always, in the world. You’re safe aboard the ark of the Church, saved by Christ from death to life. As the Church, we proclaim that there’s plenty of room on board; but the world will declare that Christianity is divisive for proclaiming life in Christ.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is a statement that divides between those who believe it and those who do not, and there will always be pressure exerted on the Church to change that confession to something like “Jesus is one lord among many.” But that says that every false god is as worthy of honor as Jesus. That leaves everyone without hope, united in hopelessness: everyone’s sinking, and there’s no true Savior to rescue. No, it’s far better to rejoice in the dividing Savior, to declare, “Jesus is the one true Lord and Savior—and He has died to save you, too!

If you think about it: Even a worship service creates division. Everyone is invited and all are welcome to attend, but a worship service is designed foremost to feed the people of God. It is the family meal, where the Lord feeds His beloved children. Some will visit a worship service and not like what they hear—I’m not so much speaking of style as I am of content. Apart from faith, people will not like the Gospel. This creates a division—some believe the Gospel and some do not.

As long as sinners remain, the division Jesus brings will be apparent. This is an important truth to accept, because many will argue that division is proof that Jesus isn’t there. Many will argue that peace and quiet is the proof of God’s presence. Look at the Old Testament lesson, the time of Jeremiah. God complains about the false prophets who proclaim “peace, peace,” where there is no peace. That’s the very sort of peace that Jesus comes to destroy, because it’s a false peace that denies the need for grace.

So it’s left to Jeremiah to be the bearer of bad news, to declare that the sin of the people has divided them from God, that judgment is about to fall with a heavy hand. And, who does everybody blame for causing division? Jeremiah, for telling the truth. But while he received the blame of man then, he now rests from his labors in heaven.

So there is such a thing as “bad peace” even as there is “good division.” But even “good division” is not without pain and cross, conflict and loss.

There are two places where this division becomes especially acute and painful. Jesus mentions one explicitly in our text: it is within families where some believe in Christ and some do not. This division may manifest itself in a subtle tension when some leave for church and some do not; or an underlying worry for the souls of those who don’t believe; or it may be open warfare when a non-Christian makes moral choices that contradict Scripture. This is a difficult cross for believers to bear, and the temptation will be to blame Jesus for the division, to decide that your loyalty to family is more important than your faith in Christ.

If you are in this position, you are in my prayers: and I pray that you would be delivered from the temptation of blaming the Lord. And I give thanks to God that He has divided you to life so that you might be His instrument in your own home and among close friends, that you might with love and patience speak His saving Word to them. There may be distress, but God will grant you the grace and faith to be His blessed instrument there.

The other place is within the family of the Church. The “problem” with the Church, of course, is that it is full of sinners; and where you’ve got a group of sinners gathered around the holy things of God, divisions are bound to develop along the way. I’m thankful that, at present, we have no great divisions within this congregation—it doesn’t mean that we’ve strayed from the Gospel, but rather that the devil’s attacks at present are of a far more personal nature on different members in order to harm the body of Christ here.

So when trouble arises, we first ask the question: is the disagreement over doctrine or over some other debatable matter? If it is over a matter of Christian freedom, then we respond by making sure that the strong in faith care for the weak. None of us is to try to get his way, but to look out for everybody else. This love for one another goes a long way in preventing people from being divided from the flock. And where it is a matter of clear, biblical doctrine, we firmly hold fast to it without compromise. We do so because we do not want to be divided from God for the sake of a manmade peace. We want to remain divided from death and united in Christ.

Because Jesus comes to give division, He divides you from death to life, from sin to holiness. Why, the word “sanctify” means “to set apart,” to divide away from that which is common or unholy. By His grace, He has set you apart from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from grave to heaven, from “enslaved to the devil” to “child of God.” He has done so by enduring the cross, that baptism of fire which damned Him so that you might be purified for His sake.

Blessed are you! For Jesus has come to divide you from death and give you true peace. He does so with these words: You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

A Song for the Summertime

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“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

You’ve surely heard of how early Christians were tortured and threatened. Those threats posed a temptation for them to give up on Christ. You may know stories of personal rejection and humiliation that others less famous faced because of their faith, which created painful pressure for them too. Today there are folks like Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop; Baronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers; and Kimberly Davis, the former county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, each of whom have been harassed and taken to court numerous times due to their refusal to participate in recognizing same-sex marriages that go again their consciences because of their Christian faith. And there’s a good chance that you and I are going to experience some of that same kind of opposition ourselves.

But there are other forces that can tempt and pull us away from God’s Word, our worship, and our Savior. Sometimes our pressures are all the more seductive because they aren’t evil in and of themselves. One of them is with us right now. It’s called summertime.

A friend of ours, the ancient psalm writer, has a news flash for all of us today. Even in the midst of summertime distractions, it’s always time for thanksgiving and praise. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!” (Exodus 100:1-2).

This day calls for a song that’s bold, loud, and immediate! This day calls for you to gather with others and to sing in the assembly of God’s people. This day calls for you to invite others to sing too.

If the words of this psalm sound a little too bright and cheery, don’t get the idea that God is ignorant of the pulls that might keep you from praising Him strongly. The other Scripture readings you just heard today are honest about the pressures believers face. To be sure, you can always find reasons not to sing

The writer of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, reminds us that the burdens and seeming senselessness of life can wear you down (2:18-26). Here is man who “had  it all,” if ever there was one: wisdom, women, wealth. Solomon was a renaissance man long before the renaissance: philosopher and theologian, poet and patron of the arts, architect and builder, scientist and statesman, lover and king, tycoon and teacher. But none of these accomplishments brought him satisfaction or meaning, causing Solomon to write: “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).  

Solomon’s words, “I hated life,” brings to mind Christ’s statement, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Solomon describes himself as a weary embittered worldling. Christ speaks of the man of faith who overcomes this dying, sinful world by clinging to that which is eternal. Yet the two are not so far apart as they might at first appear. The person whose heart is filled with despair and hatred of his earthly life is often ripe for the good news of Christ and His victorious love.

Four times in this short section, King Solomon uses the term “vanity.” Solomon is emphasizing that without God all human effort in meaningless. Reliance to human effort leads to despair. Initially, Solomon’s achievements brought him some happiness (Ecclesiastes 2:10). But as he gives them more thought, he becomes agitated and despondent.

As if obsessed with the thought, the Teacher repeats the fact that the wealth of an industrious man often falls into the hands of a good-for-nothing. It’s one of the things that make life so unfair. Not only does a person struggle and sweat for a lifetime, but he goes down to the grave without any guarantee that what he leaves behind will be appreciated or used wisely. Solomon’s question, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart?” fits right in with these thoughts.

To complete the picture, Solomon describes the workingman’s daytime efforts and nighttime restlessness. What he describes is not an overly pessimistic view of work but life as it is actually lived. Though written centuries ago by a Jewish king, it could have been written yesterday by an American businessman.

Having examined wisdom, foolishness, pleasure, achievements, and everything else under the sun, Solomon found it all wanting, meaningless, vanity.

The drive to get the most out of life’s wealth can also turn you from God (Luke 12:17-21). A most serious temptation is to become attached to money and worldly possessions. In our Gospel, Jesus takes the opportunity to warn against greed and covetousness when someone from the crowd makes this request of Him: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

Jesus refuses to be drawn into this dispute between brothers, just as He did not intervene when Martha wanted His support to get her sister’s help in our Gospel from a couple of weeks ago. Rather, Jesus uses this request to warn against the underlying problem: greed.

So easily people imagine that the worth of life is measured by the abundance of possessions. Both rich and poor can easily fall into this trap. No wonder the author of Proverbs prays: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (30:8-9). Disciples of Jesus need to be especially on guard against this sin of greed and covetousness.

To illustrate His point, Jesus tells a parable. A rich man had an abundance of possessions. His barns quickly became too small to hold all the grain his fields produced. He had larger ones built. He had no worries about the future as he looked forward to a retirement filled with leisure and good time.

But the rich man had not taken one important thing into consideration—God and His judgment! He thought he was all prepared for the future, but he forgot about eternity. He was unprepared when God’s summons came. Far from being wise, he was an utter fool. For the sake of earthly gain, he forfeited his soul.

Obsession with money can crowd God’s ways out of our hearts. That is why Jesus warns so sternly against covetousness. Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “This is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure [Luke 12:16-21] and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God” (LC 1 7-8).

Jesus underlines the danger of being rich in earthly things but poor toward God. In a consumer culture, the dangers of covetousness are often downplayed; in fact, some make greed a virtue. In love for us, however, Jesus warns us against the self-destructive nature of covetousness and gives us new hearts, which He, the very source of life and goodness, fills with joyful satisfaction through the Gospel.

To be rich toward God is to believe that God is the Giver of all things, including life and salvation. To show that one believes is to share with others the gifts God gives. This is the consistent teaching of Jesus in His various words about possessions. Behind it is the Gospel of grace: forgiveness is bestowed as God’s free gift in Jesus Christ. Yet a time of accountability will come when God will ask whether His free gift of forgiveness was appropriated through faith or was abused by the arrogant assumption that God’s gifts were personal possessions earned by one’s own efforts and therefore at one’s disposal to hoard or waste foolishly.

For the sinner, God’s gifts are easily corrupted and exploited for pleasure, rather than being used for the good of our neighbor and the glory of God. Such is the subtle seduction of summertime. Even innocent things, such as summer travel, visits with loved ones, and the desire to get away from work routines, can keep you from thanksgiving and praise of the Lord. Think of your own life, how easily such things can begin to overwhelm, even dominate your calendar, until you find you have little time for worship and the study and hearing of God’s Word.

Yes, if you and I look at ourselves, our life, our pulls and pressures, it’s easy to rationalize and justify neglecting intense and continual praise of the Lord. The old psalm writer moves all of that aside. He explains that the Lord Himself is your reason to praise. He tells you who He is: Yahweh, the God of the psalmist and the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Lord of all the earth, the one who created the times and seasons for our comfort and pleasure, who gives you the summer sunshine, the family and friends you like to gather with, who made all those beautiful places you visit these lazy days. And this great Creator we know, for He Himself came into this world and share it with us!

The Lord of the earth made you, He knows you, and He provides for all your needs in this life (Psalm 100:3; Jeremiah 1:5). The time away to rest and recharge, those friends and family you’re enjoying this summer, and the means to pay for your trip are all gifts from Him. The protection as you travel through the air or on busy highways is by His hand.

Like a shepherd, He also sacrifices for you and redeems you (Psalm 100:3; John  10:11-15). We are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. He is our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, only to take it up again. Every blessing—including all these of summer—is a result of our being reconciled to God by the cross of Jesus. And, of course, the reconciliation of the cross brings endless summer!

Our distracted life in the summertime in this affluent land is a real faith test, isn’t it? Like all tests, it carries with it the risk that we could stumble and fall. And sometimes we do. But our steadfast Lord is faithful even when we are faithless. He forgives us and renews us. And under God, it can be one of those tests that is almost like doing spiritual push-ups. In other words, it can be a hurdle that makes us stronger and more devoted than we were before. God gives us grace to come into His presence often—whether at home or away on vacation, to crawl into the words of Psalm 100, to make them our own, and to shout our praise to the Lord, whose mercy and kindness never ends!

“Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing! Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise! Give thanks to Him; bless His name! For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100).

For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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