Possible theme(s): Crisis over Jesus // Jesus the judge // Looking to Jesus
Sentence: Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:1b-2a).
Collect: Pentecost 10:2 (revised by me)
Come Holy Spirit, to all who are baptised in your name,
that we may turn to good
whatever lies ahead.
Give us faith, give us fire, give us perseverance;
Empower us to transform the world from what it is,
to what you created it to be
through the love of the Father and the transforming power of the Son. Amen.
Notes on readings - mostly my own thoughts, sometimes utilizing a commentary, and gratefully assisted by one 'study Bible' in particular, the New Oxford Annotated Bible (Fully Revised Fourth Edition).
Jeremiah spent much of his prophetic ministry in fierce debate with fellow prophets. He would be proven right because with a terrifying Babylonian threat pressing against Jerusalem, they said everything would be OK and he begged to differ! In these verses we have a representative passage concerning this debate in which God's voice supports Jeremiah.
A universal theme which sweeps through these verses is the question of truth and falsehood. Many claims about truth are made, including claims to know truth from God, but some claims are false. In these verses, God speaking through Jeremiah reminds false claimants of the fix they are in: God sees and hears everything, including liars and the lies they tell in God's name. By contrast the truth, 'my word' (23:29), is like a (destroying) fire and a rock-breaking hammer. Truth always prevails over falsehood. Lies cannot withstand the power of truth.
How does this passage relate to the gospel reading today? In part of the passage Jesus challenges his hearers to discern accurately what is going on around them, the signs of the times. That is, Jesus challenges them and us to seek and commit to the truth, rather than settle for and be comforted by lies.
This psalm is a 'petition for divine justice.' The 'divine council' (v. 1) reflects the presumption of the time of composition that there was a host of heavenly beings commissioned to rule the world under God's oversight (see Deuteronomy 32:8-9). The accusation in this psalm is that these beings have judged unjustly and thus God has had to intervene, take over their role, and demonstrate true justice.
This great chapter on faith comes to an end. In a sweeping survey, the writer gathers up the last of the ones he will name and adds to their number a vast company of unnamed heroes and heroines, offering one of the great accolades from all literature, 'of whom the world was not worthy' (11:38).
They all had one thing in common as people of faith:
'Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised' (11:39).
But this is not a sad historical assessment of the life of faith (e.g. so much hoped for, so little delivered). Rather, God's kindness to those who trust in him now includes those who trust in Jesus Christ (represented by Hebrews' readers) and his promises in which they and we trust are bona fide:
'since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect' (11:40).
So what? The writer draws us on with one of the great 'therefores' of Scripture (12:1-2). As the last generation of the people of God, with 'so great a cloud of witnesses (i.e. the previous generations of people with faith in God)' surrounding us, we must live accordingly (lay aside every weight and clinging sin, run with perseverance, look to Jesus).
Note the christological emphasis struck in these verses. The surrounding cloud of witnesses is inspiring enough to run the race etc but there is more than that available to the Christian runner.
We have Jesus to look to, the one who has pioneered out faith and promised to perfect it, who himself was a runner in the race, enduring even the cross, looking beyond it to the joy set before him and who now, consequentially, is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Will we run? Will we persevere? Will we look at ourselves (tired, weary, struggling) or to Jesus (who succeeded in the same race)?
If we wanted a candidate passage for "Most awkward thing Jesus said" or "Please explain, Jesus, what you meant" Award, then this is as good a passage as any.
The Prince of Peace speaks here of division. The One in Whom God was reconciling the world to himself proposes that 'from now on' households will be divided against themselves.
What did this mean and what does it mean for us today?
As a preliminary engagement with this passage, several clues help us.
- The opening words about fire mean a theme here is 'judgment'.
- The divisions in 12:53 take us to Micah 7:6 and thus also to the theme of judgment.
- The point about interpreting the 'present time' in 12:54-56 is that his contemporaries who can interpret when the weather is going to change (a meteorological crisis) should be able to understand the crisis of their time which is the crisis of Jesus coming into the world.
- This crisis of Jesus coming into the world is a division of the world into those who are alert and ready for him and those who are not (see last week's gospel reading, Luke 12:32-40).
Part of our difficulty with today's passage may be that the language used is not our language. We likely would follow 12:32-40 with 'So, as you can see from these parables I have just told you, judgment is coming and you need to be alert and ready for it. Judgment will be terrifying for those not expecting it and not ready to welcome me.' Jesus, by contrast, talks about fire, baptism, family divisions and weather signs!
A further clue is to consider 'baptism' here as a reference to the death of Jesus (towards which this section of Luke, 9:51-19:28, the Travel Narrative, takes us).
With those preliminary thoughts in mind here goes, then, at making sense of the passage:
Jesus' mission ultimately is about making peace on earth, his gospel being a call to people to enter God's kingdom by coming under the rule of God, a situation in which people are reconciled to one another (think parable of Prodigal Son) and all sorts are included in the one family of God (think of the welcome accorded Zacchaeus in Luke 19:1-10).
Yet the gospel is controversial. People oppose it. Indeed opposition to Jesus will lead to his death by public execution. The opposition stems from what the gospel challenges, the sin of humanity (of which, to give just one recent example as we read Luke's gospel, material greed is a presenting example, as illustrated in the parable of the Rich Fool, 12:16-20).
That is, the call to enter God's kingdom is simultaneously a judgment against those who refuse to enter.
So this passage works on at least two levels.
First, the present time of Jesus is one in which judgment comes as he moves towards Jerusalem and people either welcome or refuse him. His baptism/death lies ahead as a 'crucial' action for the kingdom of God to be established. In this journey, although the mission is ultimately about peace, division is occurring, not least because (as Micah 7 illustrates) Israel is embroiled in sin. All this, like familiar signs that the weather is about to change, should be discernible to those watching Jesus.
A second level is our present time, as readers of Luke's gospel and as people closer to the return of Christ than to the time of the cross.
Jesus continues to be controversial, to inspire opposition as much as welcome and acceptance. His message simultaneously invites people into the kingdom, into a new way of living (thus previous verses in Luke 12 illustrate a new way of living in respect of money and material possessions) and opposes the kingdom of this world, the 'old way of living' in which greed, acquisition and selfishness prevail. To this old way of living, Jesus is the fire of judgment and his baptism/death (now a completed historical action) stands out as a point of division (because people gratefully accept that action as means of salvation or reject it as failure and embarrassment).
That people are divided over Jesus is a 'sign of the time', a sign that the world is in crisis over Jesus and thus people with the slightest inkling that Jesus might be God at work in the world would want to be alert and ready for his return.
One reflection in 2019 - in which all sorts of controversies in the world are going on [Trump, Brexit, culture wars] - is whether division in the church, or over the church, is division over Jesus (the Jesus we proclaim, the Jesus we profess to follow) or something else ...