Destroyed vineyards, fire, baptism, sword, signs of the times. Are you sure you want to hear this
sermon? Am I sure I want to preach it? These themes don’t rest easily on the modern ear.
Where in this passage from Luke 12, is the “peace to all people” Luke’s angels sang at Jesus’
birth? What is this vineyard imagery all about, and why have the editors of the lectionary paired it
with Jesus’ hard words about fire, baptism, and sword? Curious?
[praying:] May the God who lives and is somehow embodied in these words and the images they
form, use them to change our lives. Amen
Often the word of the Lord sounds like encouragement, love, assurance, direction. But
sometimes, as this morning, we must agree with Jeremiah, “Is not his word like a fffire?!” We
thought we were hearing a hard word from Jesus in Luke’s gospel last week when Marilyn
preached from the middle of chapter 12 where Jesus challenged us not to store treasure where it
would just rot, but to put it “in heaven.” This may have been a hard saying of Jesus, though it did
come with some word of comfort, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is the father’s good pleasure
to give you the kingdom.” Oh, that sounds . . . . good – very nice indeed.
In today’s designated passage from Luke 12: 49- 56, we don’t have any “Do not be afraid” or
“Aren’t you a cute little flock of adorable fluffy little lambs!” Instead we get, fire, baptism, and
sword. Now there are ways to try to get bits of this language to be softer, some scholars have
done their best. But the overall tone in the whole passage is pretty rough. We could probably get
this fire that Jesus is about to cast upon the earth to be something other than judgment fire.
After all, it’s a fire Jesus is looking forward to; he wishes it was already kindled so he could just
light it up. Is it possible to imagine the prince of peace so fervently wishing judgment fire on
us? Besides, he might be tying this fire to baptism, possibly thinking of the John the Baptist’s
proclamation that Jesus would “baptize [us] with the Spirit and with fire.” So can that fire which
is part of the baptism Jesus gives us be judgment? Perhaps not . . . or perhaps.
Maybe this fire is the fire of the power of God, like the tongues of fire that will soon rest on the
believers when they receive the power of the Spirit at Pentecost. Rather than being a destroying
fire from without, maybe this is an enlivening fire from within. Perhaps it is internal combustion –
like in that old camp song “give me gas for my Ford, keep me truckin’ for the Lord.” This may not
be fire on us, but within us. Maybe.
I’ve never been in a fire or been seriously burned, perhaps some of you have been close to that
experience. Even an everyday burn from the stove or BBQ can throb mercilessly for hours; those
with severe burns face a pain I don’t care to even imagine. Fire is so unpredictable; it blows
wherever the spirit/wind takes it. It is so hard to know how to control it: put water on a wood
fire, but never on a grease or oil fire. You can blow it out, but if the wind blows, it may only get
stronger. It breathes the same oxygen we breathe; competing with us for the breath of life.
I believe we were on one of our first trips to Yosemite National Park when I first saw firemen at
the side of a road standing and watching a fire, perhaps the size of a football field, burning lazily
away. The flames were low in the undergrowth and the firemen could easily have extinguished it,
but they didn’t. This was a controlled burn, meant to clear out some of the dryer underbrush in a
manner they could control, so that when lightening came, there would not be so much dry kindling
in the forest as to increase the danger of an uncontrollable fire.
When a section of forest had not burned for a long time, the forest service would sometimes set
fire to the taller trees as well in order to clear the way for sunlight to reach the forest floor and
nurture the new trees below that had been competing with their parents for sunlight. Fire is
like the Vishnu and Shiva of the Hindu trinity: both destroyer and re-creator/preserver. It is a
magnificent renewer of life, quick to burn what has become old and dry, slow to burn what is
young and fresh.
We have this very image earlier in Luke (3:17). Immediately before baptizing Jesus, John warns
the crowd, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat
into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” And immediately following
Jesus’ baptism, Luke lists every member of Jesus’ family tree from Joseph backwards to Adam.
Baptism tied to the family tree – remember that; it will come up again later in this sermon.
Fire is used in the process of making metal objects stronger or of a higher quality by burning
away the elements that are mixed in with the metal in nature, leaving just the purified metal
behind. We have his image of the “refiner’s fire” from the prophet Malachi, “Who will be able to
stand when He appears, for He is like a refiner’s fire.”
You know . . . I suppose I could be happy to be “purified” very gradually and gently over time,
rubbing off the rough edges though life experiences that are not too excruciating. But the refiner’s
fire goes deep into the substance, separating element from element. Like the two-edged sword
that cuts deep, separating bone from sinew, breaking apart the body. So maybe this is not
judgment fire exactly; but the fire of refinement burns none-the-less.
We must now take in Jesus’ enigmatic reference to a baptism that he must undergo which he is
“consumed” or “constrained” by until he does. Here scholars mostly agree that Jesus refers to his
own impending death. Mark (10:38) puts this metaphor on Jesus lips as he tries to get James and
John to understand what kind of kingdom they have just asked to be princes of: he asks them,
"Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Let’s take it
that, here in Luke, Jesus refers to his impending death as a baptism. So if we take the reference
to fire and baptism together, as their literally parallelism might suggest we should, the fire would
seem to have transformational power for “the earth” and us earthlings just the anticipated
“baptism” does for Jesus – both will be searing experiences.
This morning’s entire passage falls in a general section of Luke devoted to the idea of
watchfulness – something is about to change and we need to be ready. In this chapter of Luke
alone we hear Jesus warn us to “watch out” four times. To the man in an inheritance dispute with
his brother, he warns, watch out for greed! In the parable of the servants of the new bridegroom
he warns them to watch out for the bridegroom about to return from the wedding banquet. In the
parable of the freeman servant left in charge of the slave servants in his master’s absence he
warns, watch out, for the master of the house may return at any time. And then in this last part
of Luke 12 we are listening to today he warns us to watch out for the signs or our times right in
front of our eyes.
Jesus is about to enter Jerusalem and he knows that history is about to make a wrenching turn,
in his life and the lives of those who have followed him there, and he wants to ready them. They
expect a jubilant welcome (which they will get) and a glorious coronation which Jesus knows will
be administered with a crown of thorns on the thrown of the cross. Watch out for the sudden
turn, he tells his followers. Watch out.
Perhaps we should also notice an important detail in Jesus’ teaching and Luke’s re-telling of it.
Jesus concludes this section by criticizing his audience for accurately predicting the future
weather,but failing to notice what is happening all around them in the present – for failing to
read the“signs of the time” – for failing to be watchful. Now notice the images he uses to make
this point: West winds bring rain, south winds bring scorching heat. Rain, heat. Now go back
to the beginning of this section: Fire, baptism. See it? Fire, baptism – rain, heat? Do you see it?
Fire - heat; baptism - rain. Do you see how Jesus and/or Luke rounds this unit out beginning and
ending with fire, with an internal bookend of water? Put another way, it begins with fire and
water, and ends with water and fire. Is there any doubt Jesus meant his hearers and Luke his
readers to hear this section as a unit? Is there any doubt that all of it is about watchfulness? Is
there any doubt that things are about to change!?
Now, with the great benefit of hindsight, let us hear Jesus as Luke’s audience does. They are
Christians, mostly gentiles now, often persecuted by their Roman occupiers, unable to serve in
good civil service and military jobs, either because of their refusal to take up arms or to bow to
the emperor as deity, or for both reasons. They may well be living in the shadow of Emperor
Titus’s victory over the Jewish rebels in 70 CE in which he destroyed their temple. On a recent trip
to Rome Doreen and I saw the huge marble arch erected to celebrate Titus’ victory over the
Jewish rebels. The engraved images feature a depiction of the Romans carting away the Menorah
that was used, in part, to celebrate the Hanukah victory of the Maccabee brothers over
Alexander’s Greek imperial forces. It is as if the Romand emperor Titus wants to rub in the fact t
hat the Greeks had only occupied the Jewish capitol for a while and then had been repelled, while
Titus has utterly destroyed Jerusalem and their holy temple.
In any case, Luke’ readers may well live in time of great chaos as both Jews and Christians are
exiled from Jerusalem and face revived persecution. There is division between Jews and Jewish
Christian, between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians, between any of the above from
Palestine and any of the above not from Palestine, between Rome and all of the above, and
between believers and non-believers within the same family. Jesus has become a dividing line,
the double edges sword that is spitting apart ancient allegiances based on common culture,
government, religion, and family bonds, and is forming a new family tree with himself as the only
vine to which Christians may be joined. All other allegiances to state, to tongue, to father and
mother, must be made subordinate to the believer’s allegiance to Jesus, and this is going to burn
and to cut Jesus’ followers and already was burning and cutting Luke’s listeners.
So the question for us is: who is our vine? Who is our primary family of allegiance? Is it the
house of Taylor, the house of Martens, the house of Menno, or the house of Christ to which I bind
myself that I might be transformed?
There will be no cataclysmic escape plan for Jesus’ disciples, or those to whom Luke wrote 40
years later, or to we to whom they both now speak again. God has not yet chosen to make all
things new. We will celebrate with God when everything and everyone is made “very good”
again. But till then, we’ll continue to languish considerably at times, very much citizens of time
and space, and our own failing flesh. But we have a guaranteed inheritance in the family of Jesus
– a kingdom God is pleased to give us, if we make that kingdom home now as best we can, and
only by the grace of God.
What will that look like at TUMC? There are a myriad of ways in which that transformation of
family trees, that joining to the only true vine, is taking place – I couldn’t name them all. But I am
especially encouraged, even in the 11 years since I made TUMC my family, to see a tangible
reordering of allegiances taking place, away from economic stability, social mobility, educational
facility, organizational sterility, and familial tranquility, to a more dynamic engagement of the true
work of God to make his body of all the peoples of the earth. We see that in relationships of
friendship, and we are beginning to see small, small signs of it in relationships of church
leadership. But watch out – let us not grow weary. Christ calls us to a wider acceptance of and
submission to one another not to put us to a test, or because he loves not those we already love
and to whom we were joined at birth, but because we are still so damaged and un-whole without
each other. And because, most important of all, HE remains damaged, HIS body remains
un-whole as long as it is divided against itself because of our greater comfort with those most like
us. Christ is building his church . . . but the church is also building Christ.
As we continue to realign ourselves to the true vine, enduring the burning and the cutting of that
process, let us watch out. The kingdom of God is nearer than ever.