LUKE 12: 49-56
I suppose you’d have to say the project was not going well. At least its pretty clear that Jesus himself thought so. His words in the Gospel for today, just read, may be the most ominous and the most poignant that Christ ever uttered-until, of course, the events of Holy Week. Jesus clearly thought that the project, the project of his life, was not going well at all-although it may not be obvious to the reader why he thought so.
Everything up to now in Luke’s grand narrative looked just great. The birth and early years of the Master had been surrounded with songs and poems of joy-natural and supernatural. JESUS INCREASED IN WISDOM AND IN YEARS, AND IN DIVINE AND HUMAN FAVOR, we are told. There was this business of the temptations in the wilderness desert, but he passed those tests outstandingly. The work up north in Galilee seemed brilliant. We read, HE BEGAN TO TEACH IN THE SYNAGOGUES AND WAS PRAISED BY EVERYONE. All sorts of sick people were healed-including Peter’s mother-in-law and an anonymous leper and a servant of a Roman military officer and a Gerasenian madman and a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years. Some women, including Mary Magdalene, had been exorcized. Children had been blessed. He told an unchaste woman that it was her faith -of all things-that had saved her.
And there were the stories, wonderful short stories, designed-it seems-to help his hearers think about life and God in a new way. There were stories about weddings and winemakers, comic stories about people who seem think that a speck of dust is really bigger than a tree trunk. There were stories in which the bad guys turn out to be the good guys-and vice versa. Remember the stories about smug landowners and abusive bosses? Stories about farmers and bankers, about foxes and birds? Consider, he said, the lilies. King Solomon in all his glory was not so beautifully clothed as these wild flowers.
So what could be the problem? The problem is that Jesus was not trying to be charming. He was seeking to announce the coming of a new kingdom, a kingdom of God, a reign of justice, healing, compassion, repentance and forgiveness. It would be a kingdom, as once described by his blessed mother, in which God would bring “down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, the poor.” That’s how it had all begun.
So far, in Luke’s account, there was little evidence that this new dispensation would not come to pass. But then, near the end of the twelfth chapter, Jesus begins to speak of storm clouds suddenly blowing in from the Mediterranean. He talks of strong winds, scorching winds, blasting in from the Sinai. What’s this all about? Why is the sky suddenly going black? Why this sense of crisis? Is something going wrong?
Jesus begins to speak cryptically of a baptism that awaits him. Of course, he had already been baptized earlier by John. This new baptism, however, would be no return to the Jordan. It is Jesus’ guarded way of speaking of death—of his own death. He knew, of course, that Herod had already had John killed. He knew that Jerusalem, indeed, had a well-earned reputation for stoning the prophets. So what do you suppose it will do to this new herald of a new kingdom? Already there is a whiff of Calvary in the air. Jesus seems sure of it. But he does not flee. He says, “Let’s go.”
Why do you suppose this is? He could have, as we say, revised his plans, reconsidered his options. He could have gone home. Why not head back north to Galilee, green, beautiful Galilee, with its lake full of fish? Isn’t retreat always an option? Well, maybe not always. Retreat, too has a cost, you know. Sometimes it may cost too much. Sometimes retreat is a betrayal. Would not retreat now turn out to be, in fact, “The Last Temptation of Christ?”
You may have noticed in your own life that your projects do not always go well. When that is the case, when we begin to suspect our life project is headed for disaster, we may find we have come to a special moment of truth. We do not welcome the crisis. Of course not. But we may begin to sense that in the presence of a crisis, we discover who we really are.
Usually, of course, we have a variety of strategies for dealing with a crisis. We can go into denial. We can tell ourselves, “There is no real problem, no serious problem here. Everything will be just fine. Don’t panic. We’ll get by somehow.”
This is not always a bad strategy. But, as the old joke puts it, “de-nial” is not just a river in Egypt. Denial can be away of life. One can pretend that storm clouds will not dare come our way. Denial can become public policy as well as private bias. A lot of Americans in the 1930s thought that denial was the best way to deal with talk about the possibility of yet another world war. But denial only made the problem worse. It didn’t prevent the nightmare from engulfing us. Thirty years later, denial was the way Americans in official Washington dealt with the obvious disaster of our project in Viet Nam. The best religious commentary on that project is “Apocalpyse Now,” a newly rereleased movie which gets its name from the last book in the Roman Catholic version of the Bible. Apocalypse means revelation. And the last words in the belong to Colonel Walter E.Kurtz. Marlon Brando gasps, “The horror, the horror.” That was his moment of truth—our moment of truth.
Fortunately, denial is not the only option. There’s another strategy available. Sometimes our counselors, pop or professional, will propose a new variety of Stoicism. “Get your emotions, your fears and anxieties, under control. Of course life has problems, real problems. But get tough with yourself. Develop some backbone. Don’t flinch. You can handle it!” This, too, is not always a bad strategy. Perhaps we can learn something from such bracing counsel. Perhaps we all do need to learn to grow up. But even if we do figure our how to do that, we may discover that that too may prove inadequate. Maybe our fears and anxieties are valid. Maybe they are trying to tell us something-something
important. Being Stoic doesn’t stop AIDS or cancer or the stock market. Sometimes our emotions are smarter than our reasoning. We may have good reason to be afraid.
A third option is perhaps the most common. This strategy is no strategy, no conscious strategy, at all. One responds to immanent disaster by falling into depression. One just gives up. One collapses. Hopelessness takes over. That is certainly understandableand very serious.
You will have noticed that when our Lord begins to speak about his sense of immanent disaster, he chooses none of these options. There is no denial of the possibilities of catastrophe. There is no stoic resolve. There surely is no depression. Luke’s portrayal of Christ fits into none of these boxes. I’m not sure we have a word for what really is going on here. The word we choose probably doesn’t matter very much. What we do see is, however, is something that is throughly consistant with the gospel itself. In this language, disaster is neither repressed nor denied. It is not philosophized away. It is faced, even anticipated, in all its grim reality. But -and this is literally crucial—it is not given the last word. In gospel language, life comes out of death. In gospel language, creation comes out of nothing. In gospel language, crucifixion is prelude to resurrection.
Christianity speaks of this as the paschal mystery. The gospel is not a philosophy nor a therapy. It is the discovery of the victory of life over death, of hope over catastrophe, of renewal over decay. Make no mistake about it. The decadence, the catastrophe, the death are there. But they are not all there is. They do not have the last word. God does.
I realize, that for some of us, this talk of failure, or crisis, may seem, well, unattractive. What if your life project has gone really well? What if, by and large, your life has been just fine, thank you? You feel you’ve been quite successsful, and you have been. You have, as people like to say, no regrets. Well, good for you. Perhaps, though, it is not too late to ask yourself if the project you have chosen has not been less than you are actually capable of. The greater tragedy of life is not failure. It is having been unwilling to give oneself over to a real engagement in the purposes of the Creator. You see, having a project that failed always trumps not having any project at all.
If one’s life has known no catastrophies, it may seem we are making a needless fuss about theoretical disasters -natural, political and personal. But, please be patient. You are not alone. I have no doubt that right here in this lovely cathedral this morning some of us, perhaps more of us than we could possibly know, find this talk of denial and failure all too real. Some of us are carrying burdens too heavy to bear. That is why, in part, that some of us are here. This is what is so engaging in Luke’s picture of Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. He does not deny the possibility-the probability-of failure in his mission. He does not try to deal with that by playing games with his emotions-as though keeping them tightly under control will avert disaster. He neither retreats nor falls into a selfserving despair. He plainly admits, “I am under stress.” That can’t be helped. But in God’s hands, this apparent failure can become the means for an invincible end-the victory of God’s love.
An attentive listener will probably have noticed that up to now we’ve spent most of our time on what may be the least difficult verses in today’s difficult reading. Jesus says he does not bring peace to the earth but division. He speaks of how families will be divided against themselves: In a family of five, there will be three against two and two against three, parents and children will be in conflict with each other. Is this true? Even if it is, why would Jesus say it? Even if it is true, why should he take responsibility for it?
Most of us live in a world in which being free to blame other people for one’s problems is taken for granted as a basic human right guaranteed in the Constitution. Why would anyone want to accept responsibility for other people’s hostilities? Aren’t we expected to insist on just the opposite? Why does Jesus claim he has not come to bring peace on earth? I admit that it is very easy to be offended the vigor of Jesus’ language. Do we feel that his language is too strong for us? But why is that? Have we not noticed that conflict within family life is actually very common? In fact, our culture has very mixed feelings about family life. That is, it is not only that there is conflict within families; there is conflict as to what that conflict means.
If you believe that family life is the kingdom of God that Jesus promised, then, of course, he has to be a big disappointment. Not only was he not married but, according to Mark, his own family was deeply divided as to whether they could trust him, follow him, believe him. Family life is actually a very ambiguous social structure-capable of great creativity and great degradation. The kingdom which Jesus announces and embodies calls all social institutions into judgment-including the life of families.
It is a uniquely modem heresy to insist that the ties of biological kinship are of ultimate value, the final definers of our destiny and purpose. I am sure that very few of us, if any, would want to live within the family structures that existed in Jesus’ time. The kingdom which he preached called for a reordering and redesign of family life quite as much as that of other human institutions. Now when you propose a reordering of a social institution, you upset its sense of balance-and you will then have a big problem on your hands. You certainly will not be thought to have brought peace into the equation. What is peace? Is it a life of ease and contentment and self-satisfaction? If so, Jesus is no prince of peace. Or is peace a life of wholeness and repentance, of healthy relationships and creative purpose? If so, he has indeed disclosed Israel’s deep sense of peace—and ours.
He was right, the project was not going well. A closer look tells it all: the project will lead to the cross. But God, Jesus’ Father, will take up what surely looks like failure and, on Easter, turn it into triumph. And even now, the Spirit of God seeks to take up your life-successes and failures and everything in between-and turn all of it into mercy. So the last word is not “The horror, the horror.” The last word is” Mercy, God’s mercy.”