This was the text for the first sermon I preached at my first congregation the week after my ordination. I do not remember what I said, but I remember vividly the struggle leading up to it. I had been called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. For years, I had been preparing to speak His life-giving promises. “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 was a hard text for a new pastor’s first sermon.
It remains a hard text today. The difficulty stems from a dominant (and often unquestioned) cultural assumption about God and His relationship to us. 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.”
It may be tempting to pass on the Gospel reading this week in search of an easier text. I recommend sticking with this one. Our difficulty with it suggests we need to take Jesus’ words to heart. I encourage you to use this text to speak a challenging, yet ultimately loving Word from God to your hearers.
What might that look like?
You might begin by acknowledging how this text confronts some of our deeply held views about God and our desire for peace. Do not hesitate to reflect on the challenge these words present to you personally as a pastor. Church workers see enough division in their line of work—divided families, divided congregations, divided denominations, a divided nation—and they work hard to bring peace.
Yet, Jesus states clearly that He is in the business of dividing. This will need 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 our reading today describe what happens when that division does not take place. To use a dogmatic term, Jesus’ dividing work is His alien work.
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, He was calling them to turn from their sins and repent (see Luke 10:13-15; 11:39-46; 12:4-5; 13:5). As a result, divisions began to rise. Already at the end of Luke 11, the religious leaders have heard Jesus and rejected His message. They began plotting to kill Him. In their refusal to repent, they separated themselves from God. If they had family members who heard and believed in Jesus, they would have been separating themselves from them too.
Jesus is still in the business of dividing. He has come to divide us from our sinful thoughts and habits. He has come to divide us from false views of the world and distortions of His Word. When some members of a family hear and believe, and others do not, divisions in the family will inevitably arise. “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.”
While it is not in this particular text, the proper work of Jesus is always to unite us to Himself and to all who belong to Him (see John 17:15-21, for example). You will need to go outside of Luke 12 to proclaim this promise. You might also proclaim this promise with an eschatological accent. The unity Jesus has come to establish will only be realized in full when He returns. Until then, divisions must continue. In the meantime, your job is to call your hearers to separate themselves from anything which separates them from Jesus and to proclaim the eschatological promise of peace and unity for all who call on His name.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 12:49-56.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 12:49-56.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 12:49-56.