Updated: Aug 14, 2022
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Luke 12:49-56
As I mentioned during announcements, this is my final Sunday with you this summer. I would rather that I were departing on a Sunday with “kumbaya” scriptures, but that is not what the lectionary served up this week. Today we have Jesus – referred to as the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6) – exclaiming, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” In our Old Testament lesson, the prophet Jeremiah echoes Jesus’ sentiments, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces?”
The lectionary keeps me honest, which is why we use it. Without it, you would become subject to my rather pronounced prejudices about which scriptures are most appealing to me. Frankly, you are already subject to my prejudice through my choice of hymns (for which I make no apologies), but I spare you with the scriptures.
Our lessons today dispel the fallacy that Jesus is somehow uninvolved in wrath or judgement. A common misconception among my students is that the “Old Testament God” is somehow different than the “New Testament God.” This difference is often articulated as an Old Testament “God of wrath” and a New Testament “God of love.” Our first lesson from Jeremiah – a grizzled Old Testament prophet – plays into the narrative of an unforgiving Old Testament Deity that is distinct from the Gospel; however, such a view of two distinct deities is inconsistent with what the scriptures reveal, and it would require us to ignore New Testament passages like today’s, in which Jesus shows himself to be every bit as much interested in judgement, division, and wrath as Jeremiah.
This is a hard lesson, and the harder the lesson, the sharper the theological tool we need to slice it open in order to get at the spiritual fruit inside. My students have a joke that “the answer to everything is Jesus” in my bible class. While there are worse guesses, this rule is a rather blunt tool. We might sharpen it a little to say that “the answer to everything is the cross of Christ.” Although similarly reductive, this later point gets to where Jesus is directing us in today’s lesson. Jesus begins by saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is a clear reference to the arrival of the Holy Spirit, in “tongues of flame” on the day of Pentecost, which comes after Jesus’ death. Jesus then makes clear that he is pointing towards the cross when he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Again, this is a rather clear reference to his death. The “baptism” to which Jesus is referring is his death on the cross towards which he is moving, and it is understandable why this might make him stressed.
I am making this connection because the death of Christ is the framework through which we can begin to understand a God who is both wrathful and loving, which is at the crux of today’s lessons. The death of Christ has sometimes been referred to as the “reconciliation of God’s wrath and love,” but the forces of God’s wrath and love do not need reconciliation (except for our misunderstanding) because they are one. Instead of using the word “reconciliation,” it might be more precise to say that the unity of God’s love and wrath is expressed perfectly in Christ’s death: how God hates sin, for he dies to destroy it, and how he loves sinners, for he dies to rid us of it. Surely some of you have heard this old chestnut expressed that “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.” Frankly, if you stop right there, you have said something rather profound and true. This is a saying that must be true in substance if there is any hope for us in the Gospel.
With that said, I think we would do well to sharpen our theological tool a little further. The saying “God hates the sin but loves the sinner,” has the potential to be misleading and spiritually dangerous if it suggests to me that my sin is somehow not myself, but somehow separate from me. It might be easiest to understand this danger by looking at the inverse tendency with regard to virtue:
When we do a good work, we are very quick to attribute its virtue to our nature. Let’s take as an example that I routinely give blood. The good feeling that I get from this act of virtue does not stay in the blood bank when I leave. I allow the warm tingle of conscious virtue to spread to my entire body for the rest of the day, and I might even extend that private feeling of virtue to the public domain by wearing the “blood donor” sticker on my chest (or talking about it in a sermon). Certainly, I am prone to say that “I am a blood donor,” as opposed to “I gave blood once or twice, but that is not who I am.”
When, however, I am up to no good, Satan is quick to tempt me with the thought that I can seal it off from my inner being. Let’s take as an example that I routinely have uncharitable thoughts about my neighbor. I am in a meeting or out on the street, and I think to myself, “What a moron!” However, when accounting for that routine and uncharitable behavior, I am tempted to think, “that is not who I really am, though I have partaken of it; the evil in me is not who I am.” It is an ingenious contrivance of Satan to allow us to think that our virtue flows freely to the heart while creating the illusion of a watertight seal against sin. If we concede that our virtue is part of who we are then we ought to resist the temptation to believe that our sin could be somehow distinct from our innermost being.
The Christ who dies for us makes no comfortable distinction between the sin he hates and the sinners he loves. Christ rejects the lies of Satan. Satan tempts me to think that I can remain essentially good and therefore worthy of my Creator’s love, in spite of my sin. God is revealing something very different in Christ: that I am full of evil that contaminates even my most noble actions and my innermost being, and I am not capable of becoming worthy of love on my own terms; nonetheless, God loves me because Christ died to make me lovable in and through himself.
This is the sharpest tool we have in Christian theology, but it can feel inaccessible when it is so sharp and precise. My wife tells me “to tell a good story and to keep all the theological gobble-di-gook to a minimum." So, following her wise counsel, I will return to Austin Farrer, from whom I derived most of this sermon, who provides a helpful illustration here:
Imagine a drunk driver, speeding towards fallen rocks on the road in the nighttime. Let’s make it local to aid our imaginations: perhaps the rocks are near the construction on route 73 near the Cascade lakes, between Keene Valley and Lake Placid, where the road narrows through the gorge to two lanes. A watchman has been posted by the New York State Department of Transportation on the road with flares to warn drivers away from the danger ahead. The watchman sees the driver and steps out into the road to warn him off, waving his arms wildly at the speeding driver; but the driver runs him over and kills him. There is a possibility that the driver, sobered by the collision and the spectacle of death, stops the car and not only saves himself from the rocks ahead, but comes to understand the cost of his salvation: the watchman’s life.
This is an obvious Christian allegory, in which the watchman, as a Christ figure, dies for a man who could not have saved himself. In his death, the watchman offers the driver a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid, but it can be appreciated. This is the hope of the Gospel, that Jesus’ death may transform our lives in the way of “the watchman’s sacrifice;” that we might appreciate his sacrifice which we did nothing to deserve.
This is not the only possible outcome in this illustration, as our lessons today make clear. Let us imagine that the driver, having killed the watchman, accelerates in the hope of escaping what he has done. In running away from his evil – in believing the lies of Satan that he can separate himself from his sin to preserve his virtue, in trying to pretend that it “didn’t really happen” or “this is not who I really am” – the driver meets the rocks on the road ahead that are much less yielding than flesh and kills himself. In either scenario of our illustration, the driver is stopped, by his own destruction or that of the watchman’s. This is the truth of God’s unyielding judgement. He will destroy our sin, come what may, because God hates it so. And yet, God has offered us his watchman in the hope that we might experience his death as our own, and be transformed by it.
The big so what of this message of judgement is the promise of its immanence. Each of us deceives ourselves with small lies and peccadillos – affairs, deceptions, prevarications. These are the “small” things that Satan tempts us to keep hidden away from God, to think that they are not a part of “the real us” that we pretend is worthy of God’s love. When we keep these things hidden from God, we miss the power of what the watchman has done for us, and we functionally place our foot on the accelerator of the car, speeding towards rocks ahead that we cannot see.The darkness has power only if we pretend with Satan that it is not in us. Those “small” things will grow in size and power and scope until we are fully addicted to drugs (having begun as a hobby), or caught in the grip of a full-blown extramarital affair (having begun as flirting), or embezzling great sums of money (having begun as just a few lifts here and there).
The promise of Jesus in our lesson this morning is that his judgement will be done. The darkness will be destroyed and us with it. If, however, we stop the car and appreciate the watchman’s death, we will have an opportunity to see through the darkness to the rocks that were ahead of us, and we will realize our salvation by confronting the truth of ourselves and the sacrifice made on our behalf.
Our fourth and final “primal prayer” that we discussed at the beginning of this service is “thank you.” These four primal prayers that we have discussed this month – help, sorry, thanks, wow – are rarely articulated with words, but they can be felt deep in our guts. Imagine what the driver of the car would feel when he realized that the dead watchman saved him from the rocks ahead. Imagine the simultaneous feeling of sorrow and gratitude. That deep, gut wrenching “thank you” to the watchman might just have the power to turn the drunk away from alcohol. It might just save his soul, even as the life he thought he knew dies on the road.
Jesus is extending his hand to each one of us, and it is a hand that is equally loving and wrathful. His judgement has come. We are not worthy, and we are invited to be grateful for the worthiness imparted to us in Jesus’ sacrifice. The invitation today is to turn out our souls to God, and to shake out all of the small things each of us hides with Satan to pretend that we might be found worthy by God. Let us turn out our souls and let the light into the darkness. God’s judgement will reign down upon us, and like the driver, we may see through our darkness that our lives have been ransomed by our watchman, Jesus. And then, deep in our souls, day by day, each of us might come to understand what “thank you” really means.
 Farrer, Austin. Lord I Believe: Suggestions for Turning The Creed Into Prayer, Chapter VII. Cowley Publications, Cambridge Massachusetts, 1989.