49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they 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.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
I am going to start today by skipping over the first two verses, but don’t worry, I will come back to them toward the end. First I want to address the part that gives peacemakers a few headaches from time to time. Verses 51-53 says, “51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they 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.”
Wait a second. Isn’t this the same guy that said blessed are the peacemakers? Isn’t this the guy that told us to love our enemies? Isn’t this the one known as the Prince of Peace? So why is he here saying that he did not come to bring peace, but rather division?
As I have said at other times, when we think of peace in Jesus’ context, we need to think of it as Jesus would have thought of it. Jesus would have had the concept of shalom in mind when he was speaking of not bringing peace but division. Shalom is more than just the absence of war, shalom is a general well-being. So I don’t believe that this passage should be interpreted as Since Jesus said that he didn’t come to bring peace that we are all welcome to go out and kill people or beat them up when we have an issue with them. He isn’t saying that if someone really ticks you off that it is okay to go and punch that guy in the face, especially if it is your father or your mother. What he is saying is that if you are following him you will disturb the peace, you will mess up the status quo, you may criticize their perceived well-being, and people will hate you. The thing that we need to remember is that even though they may hate you, you are called to love those that hate you.
I like the way that commentator Bruce Larson puts it, “To give allegiance to Jesus is often to find oneself at odds with the most familiar…To follow Jesus is to find oneself at odds with the world but at peace with God.”
One popular way to look at Jesus today is to say that he was a wise man with witty sayings who preached that we should all just get along. And I would say that is a goal of Jesus’. He does desire to bring his shalom to all of the earth. But there is a step missing there. Jesus doesn’t just come in and baptize everything, saying that the status quo is okay. Yes, he is seeking peace, but not just any peace. He is seeking the peace of God. And as his followers we are to seek the peace of God as well, and for this people will hate us.
You might be thinking right about now, “Really? People will hate me for seeking God’s shalom? What’s to hate about that?” The answer is yes, they will hate you for bringing God’s shalom. They will hate you because they hated Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples this as straight forward as he could. He said the world will hate you because they have hated me first. And they hated him for challenging their established social order.
I think of the time when Jesus was called to give his opinion on the woman that was caught in adultery. We don’t have then entire story in our Gospels, so we don’t have all of the details. I don’t know what happened to the man that was involved in this adulterous affair, he is just not mentioned. But the woman is drug out into the street, stripped down in public, and the people are gathering around her with rocks in hand, ready to punisher her for her sins. And here is the thing: According to the Law of Moses, they had every right to stone her. It was the Law! But what does Jesus do? He says, “Let the one with out sin cast the first stone.”
The text doesn’t tell us, but I bet that a lot of people left that day angry at Jesus. They were angry because they thought that they were doing what was right. They were angry because they thought they were carrying out God’s will. They were angry because they wanted to see a good stoning. But most of all, they were angry because they knew that Jesus was right! Being a peacemaker can cause disruption and it can cause division.
Last week there was some bad news that spread throughout, not only the Mennonite community, but really throughout the world as we learned that some relief workers in Afghanistan had been killed. One of those workers was Glen Lapp, a worker with Mennonite Central Committee who was serving with a medical team in a war-stricken area. It is stories like this that really weigh on my heart. Someone is trying to do good, serving and following Christ, and it is returned with hatred. But I guess this is what happened to Jesus as well. Bringing the peace of God often will bring out the hatred of humanity.
Jesus goes on to say that he will divide father against son, mother against daughter, and even divide in-laws from each (is that really a big task?). And I am sure that we can see this anytime we get together with our extended families.
My extended family always gets together at Thanksgiving time. There can be 60-80 people, all who have some sort of relation to me, gathered together in one place. Now just like any other family, we do not all come out at the same place on a number of issues. And there is some validity to the old saying about avoiding talking about politics and religion in those kinds of settings, because even Jesus said that religion will cause division within families.
I remember being in my late high school years and some of my extended family talking about immigration in the United States, which I believe is both a political and religious issue. Then someone said something which was blatantly racist. Even as a teenager I felt very uncomfortable with what had been said. I remember just looking at my little brother and we made eye contact and said with our eyes, “Did I just hear that correctly?”
Today, as I am a more mature Christian, I have developed deep theological convictions that would keep me from agreeing with what was said that Thanksgiving. I believe that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free person. But that all are one in Christ and therefore racism has no place in Christianity. And I would like to think that if I am following Christ and I was put in the same situation that I would say something to express my disapproval.
I felt a great discomfort that Thanksgiving; I felt divided from that family member. And if I would have been bold and called him out on his racist comment, then there would have been some real division. But that is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus always seems to be standing up for the little guy, for society’s outcasts. We read time and time again about the Pharisees and the Scribes persecuting the tax collectors and the sinners. But what is Jesus’ response? Jesus eats with them, accepting, not their sin, but their humanity. And this infuriates the religious leaders. They make up stories about Jesus and accuse him of all sorts of things. When Jesus says I did not come to bring peace but division, I believe that he is talking about how seeking peace brings division. Division is never the goal of Christianity, but sometimes division comes when we step out and love the way that Jesus loved.
After Jesus gives this talk about how following him will divide family, he seems to go into an unrelated (no pun intended) example, which in my Bible is labeled as “Interpreting the Time.” Now we need to remember that these divisions within our Bible are not a part of the original text. They were put in by the editors of our Bibles, and that is why there are different divisions and different headings in our Bibles. But I would say that this was a mistake by the editors of my Bible, to divide this section about interpreting the times from the rest of our scripture for this morning.
Jesus is talking here about how good the people are at interpreting the weather. When you see clouds rising in the west, you know it is going to rain. When you feel the wind blowing from the south, you know that it is going to be a hot day. But Jesus isn’t just talking about the weather. No, he then says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
What in the world is that about? It seems a little random, doesn’t it? Like maybe it is just cut and paste into that section because there really isn’t any other place to put it. No, it isn’t random. It refers back to the first two verses of our scripture for this morning that I skipped over at the beginning. Verses 49-50, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
Most people read this and think immediately that Jesus is wishing to bring the fires of hell down (or up?) upon the sinners so that they might enter into eternal punishment. But I believe that Jesus is talking about something else all together. I believe that what he is talking about here is a reference to Malachi chapter 3. Malachi 3:1-3, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.”
So at the end of our scripture for this morning when Jesus starts talking about interpreting the times, I think he is saying that he is the one that they have been waiting on. He is the messenger of the covenant of hope. Jesus starts by saying that he has come to bring fire to the earth. What did Malachi say that the messenger of the covenant of hope would be like? A refiner’s fire. So Jesus critiques the people for being able to interpret the signs that point to the weather while not seeing the signs that point to him. “I’m right here! The lame are healed, the blind see, I will suffer and die for your sins. How can you not make this connection?!”
The refiner’s fire. This is not eternal punishment. This is not suffering forever in hell. This is purification. This is removing all that is not as it should be. I believe that Paul gives us a pretty good example of the refiner’s fire in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”
If you are building a home, you obviously want to use the best materials you can. Anyone that has ever read The Three Little Pigs knows that. If you build your house with straw or twigs, the big bad wolf will huff and puff and blow your house down. Or in Paul’s example, the refiner’s fire will burn all that is not pure away. At the end he says that the builder will be saved, but he will have to endure the fire.
Now let’s compare this to what Malachi says. Malachi says in verse three that the messenger of the covenant of hope “will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.”
I don’t have any experience at all in the area of silversmithing, and I am going to assume that you don’t either. I have seen blacksmiths working at places like Colonial Williamsburg and the Frontier Culture Museum, but never a silversmith. A blacksmith gets the iron that they are working with red hot in an open fire so that they can mold the iron into something usable. They hammer it into horseshoes, nails, shovels, whatever is needed. But there is another purpose of that red-hot fire. As the blacksmith is heating up the iron, all of the impurities are getting burned out, leaving behind nothing but pure iron. And this makes the iron even stronger than it had been before.
So knowing a (very) little bit about blacksmithing, I did some research on the internet about silversmithing. The process seems to be very similar. The silversmith heats up the silver to the point that it is red-hot and glowing to make it malleable and to burn off the impurities. And I came across a very interesting story about a group of women that were involved in a Bible study.
Some women were studying Malachi chapter 3 and they too realized that they didn’t know anything about silversmithing, so they sought out a genuine silversmith and got permission to come and watch him work. They didn’t tell him what piqued their interest in silversmithing, but he agreed to have the ladies join him in his shop, assuming that they just wanted to learn.
The women marveled at the heat of the flame that radiated through the silversmith’s shop as he struck the fire. And then he began to warm a piece of silver over the intense heat, holding it the entire time with his special tongs. One of the woman asked silversmith if it was necessary for him to hold the silver the entire time or if he could set it down and come back to it after some time had passed. The silversmith replied that he didn’t dare to take his hands or eyes off the precious material because if he did the heat might become too intense and damage the silver.
Another woman then proceeded to ask the silversmith when he knew that the silver had been refined long enough to remove all of the impurities. The silversmith replied, “That’s easy. I simply watch it until I can see my own reflection in it.
My friends, the refiner’s fire isn’t punishment; not eternal and not even temporary punishment. It is God purifying you so that he can see his reflection in you. And just as the silversmith never sets down the silver and walks away in the middle of the purification, we know that God does not set us down and walk away while we are in the middle of a difficult situation. So let’s try to tie all of these verses together with another example.
I have always wanted to be able to play the guitar. My loving and thoughtful wife gave me a great gift when I graduated from Seminary. She gave me a homemade gift certificate for guitar lessons; a gift certificate that I never cashed in. It would seem that I really want to be able to play the guitar, but I really don’t want to have to learn to play the guitar.
Ask someone that is a great guitar player how many hours of practice they had to put in to get to the level that they are at. Ask them if their fingers have ever bled. Ask them if their friends and family have ever gotten annoyed at their practicing the guitar when they are trying to concentrate. Ask if their refining process on the guitar has ever caused, not peace, but division in their home. And if you ask them, I am sure that they will say yes.
Refining takes time. Refining may be painful. Refining may cause division even in your own family. But when you are refining your life to be more like our Lord and Savior, it is always worth it. As Paul says, I believe our current suffering to be nothing compared to the glory of God that is being revealed through us.
Jesus said, I have not come to bring peace, but division. Division is not the goal. That division is the heat of the refining process; a process that is under the watchful eye of the great silversmith who keeps looking for his own reflection in each and every one of us.