Tomorrow’s Sermon: Jesus Wasn’t Nice
Popular myths: St George slew the dragon. Satanists run
Procter and Gamble. The Government is to fund a huge mosque in east
drilling in Siberia drilled too far, and punched a hole into Hell, where
they heard the screams of the damned. Britain is a Christian country. If you’re
good, you go to heaven.
And ‘Jesus was nice’. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild – and all
that. We make Jesus out to be nicer than he was. This reading bears little
resemblance to such a picture of him. Fire, suffering, divided families and
castigating people for not interpreting the times. It isn’t what we regularly
assume about him. And it doesn’t fit our popular assumptions of him. We want to
believe that Jesus brings peace – and there are other passages that certainly
back up that sentiment. But come with me on a journey through this unsettling
passage, because the disturbing and challenging content of Jesus’ words here
are vital for our life and health.
We often like to do things in good order in the church. In Methodism, one
rationale behind largely limiting the leadership of sacramental services to
ministers is that we are the ones who can keep ‘good order’ at them! With the
change of the church from a grassroots Jesus movement to a monolithic
institution, the requirement for good order has become paramount to many. It
seems to be part of our culture.
But Jesus hardly describes ‘good order’ as the fruit of his
‘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! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to
the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one
household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will
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.’
The fire of purification; a baptism of suffering for Jesus
himself; and families divided over their response to Jesus. It hardly sounds
like good order! Perhaps ‘chaos’ would be a better word.
We are not used to thinking that chaos is good and order is
bad; certainly, Debbie gets frustrated by the chaos that is often seen on my
study desk – especially as she has to share it! But chaos can be a good thing. It
can be creative. Staying at the point of chaos can be the place where we
discover positive ways forward.
Order, on the other hand, is often something that comes with
decline and stagnation. Perhaps you have heard the saying that the most orderly
place on earth is … the graveyard. Might it be that Jesus is thrusting us into
chaos for the sake of God’s kingdom?
That may be an extraordinary statement to make, so let me
unpack it. Here I have been stimulated by the work of Alan Hirsch and his book The
Forgotten Ways. He refers to the study of what is called ‘chaos theory’,
which is very helpful for the church in charting the unfamiliar waters of
today’s culture, which are so different from recent centuries.
For Christians, the point is this: often the most formative
times for the people of God have been periods of danger. Israel arose with a
distinct identity out of suffering in Egypt, the plagues, the deliverance at
the Red Sea, and forty years in the wilderness. The Church appeared out of the
crucifixion of Christ, and the persecution of the early disciples. Jesus alludes
to such in this passage: his baptism of suffering, and division within families
over allegiance to him.
You could say – and many do – that we face a crisis in the
church today. Declining numbers, especially of younger generations, put our
future at risk. We are also further to the margins of society than the centre. It’s
natural to worry. I sometimes wonder whether there will be a Methodist Church
around to pay my pension!
The temptation is to opt for survival, but that is more
risky to our future than riding the storm. What would have happened if Jesus
had opted for survival? We would never have had his atoning death, there would
not have been the joy of Easter morning and … there would be no Christian
Church. Jesus calls us to face the storm, and that will mean a number of
It will mean a different approach to Christian leadership. Many
churches still want ministers who can keep the old repertoire of pastoral care,
nurture, cascading orders down from the ‘top’ and managing the system. That might
work well in a stable, unchanging world – but we are no longer in such a
situation. Facing chaos requires leaders who will be open about the bad news
and not promise a false ‘peace in our time’. It requires leaders who won’t go
through the established tricks and tips, but be ready to lead into the unknown,
not implementing a formula nor dictating from above, but recognising that everyone
has a part to play in finding the way forward, perhaps especially those who are
on the margins – as Jesus himself was.
Put it another way: equilibrium is death. The Christian
Church may have begun in an exciting and dynamic form, but it has declined over
the years into tired, stable, safe institutions. Every now and then, a renewal
movement arises – Methodism was one – which shares the dynamism of the early
church. But it too decays into a static and moribund form. To live productively
in chaos means the church has to embrace being consistently disturbed out of
her quiet equilibrium. She needs to love change – not change for the sake of
fashion, but change for the sake of mission.
I remember a survey of favourite hymns at my home church
when I was a teenager. The top choice was:
In heavenly love abiding,
No change my heart shall fear,
And safe is such confiding,
For nothing changes here.
The love of God never changes, but I imagined some people
singing the line, ‘For nothing changes here’ with particular vigour! The love
of God doesn’t change, the Gospel is constant, but the Church ever has to
change for the sake of mission. She needs to stay on the edge of chaos, facing
the problems, because there she will find the creative ways forward. She will
not give into the culture – that is the classic liberal mistake – but hold the
tension between Gospel, Church and culture in order to press on for the kingdom
of God. How we organise and run things only emerges from getting our hands
dirty in risky mission. Rather than fine-tuning the existing organisation, we
edge forward in new ways.
These, then, are the chaotic ways of fire, the baptism of suffering
and even division. They are not remotely like the play-safe version of church with
which we are so familiar. But they are the Jesus way of church.
What do you think when you watch the weather forecast? Last week, while on
holiday, without digital television or the Internet for 24-hours-a-day weather
forecasts, Debbie and I watched the standard forecast at the end of the 10:00
news. At the end of each bulletin she said, ‘Let’s hope it’s not as bad as they
think.’ And generally, it wasn’t. Unlike most of the country, we only had one
wet day. We know that in the UK, the weather forecasts, however scientific, are
an art of approximation. I am no meteorologist, but we seem subject to a large
dose of the random in our weather.
It wasn’t like that in Jesus’ culture:
He 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. And
when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”;
and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of
earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Rain would come from the west, picking up moisture from the
Mediterranean Sea; winds from the south or south-west would be desert winds,
bringing heat from the desert.
Reading the weather signs was easy in first century Palestine!
Yet – they can’t follow the signs of the times. But what
does Jesus mean by this? Down the ages, Christians have given some extravagant
and crazy answers to this. When I was a teenage Christian in the 1970s, it was
all Hal Lindsey with his book ‘The Late
Great Planet Earth’, predicting the end of the world at the hands of
Communist China and the – ahem – Soviet Union. But Jesus is not about making
wacky predictions. The ‘present time’ he refers to is his own ministry, and if
that gives signs for the future, it’s surely about the importance of responding
to him as he ushers in the kingdom of God by his life, teaching, death,
resurrection and ascension. All that Jesus is and does points to the need to
centre life on him.
Let me put it this way. Since coming to Chelmsford, I have
from time to time attended Chelmsford Theological
Society. Now don’t let the words ‘Theological Society’ put you off – what I’m
about to say isn’t complicated! In January last year I heard a lecture by Mike Higton
entitled, ‘Reading The Signs Of The Times’. One simple point he made was this. Many
people tell you that God has a special plan for your life – well, he revealed his
plan for you two thousand years ago on the Cross. God’s plan for you and me is
Christ crucified, and all that entails.
Which makes this a useful counterbalance to all the stuff in
my first point about chaos. Yes, the ministry of Jesus means that we need not
to turn from the chaos but ride on the edge of it into the future, because that
is what the Saviour did and calls us to do. But that doesn’t mean we have to
become experts in predicting the future. Far from it! We hold onto Christ and
his Cross, while facing the eye of the storm. The Cross is our anchor. All that
it reveals about the inability of human beings to save themselves and makes
themselves acceptable to God on their own terms grounds us. All that it tells
us about the lavish love and passionate grace of God in the face of human sin
keeps our feet steady.
On 27th September 1997, the Daily Telegraph carried this story:
Wiltshire police were alarmed to come across a coachload of
Japanese tourists standing in the middle of the A303, which is a very busy
road, taking photographs of Stonehenge. They didn’t seem to be worried by the
cars and lorries whizzing past them on both sides. It was only when the police
officers had shepherded the party off the road and onto the safety of the verge
that they discovered the reason why the tourists had thought they were safe. Pointing
to a speed camera sign by the side of the road, they explained that they had assumed
that this was a designated photography area.
So don’t mistake the signs: you might be run over! The Cross
is always the ‘sign of the times’ for Christians. Let us keep our focus there,
and in doing so, let us be daring. The Cross will not allow us to settle for
the safe life. It will invite us into chaos, a revolutionary chaos whose tumult
leads us into God’s future for his people, not the stagnant ditchwater of tired
It’s the chaos of Cross-centred new life, or the orderliness
of the graveyard, then: which will we choose?