Read Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29-12:2
It’s always nice when the lectionary readings for the day seem to fit together nicely with a theme, because believe me, sometimes it’s a struggle to find a connection. Today the temptation is to stick with the one from Hebrews which is obviously all about faith, and gloss over Luke’s contribution which seems to be all about conflict – but in fact faith is the theme that joins them together as they take us through a roller-coaster of a ride through Israel’s history and right up to today. So that’s quite a lot to try and condense into 10 minutes or so, but you really need Hebrews to understand Luke!
We come into that Hebrews passage part way through the writer’s attempts to draw his readers’ attention back to the heroes and heroic times of their past, and for a good reason.
Let’s take a couple of his examples. We can probably all remember bits about Joshua and the battle of Jericho, even if it’s only snippets from the song. Suffice to say that it was a well fortified city and seemed impossible to take. In the story, God tells the people that for six days they are to march silently around its walls, led by seven priests in front of the Ark of the Covenant bearing rams’ horn trumpets. On the seventh day, after the city walls had been encircled seven times, the rams’ horns were to be blown and the people were to shout loudly – at which point the walls would fall down.
Sounds unlikely, but that’s what the story tells us happens.
Now, believe it or not, and the Israelites certainly did, but this story had a profound influence on their future. Centuries later, when Judas Maccabaeus was facing the city of Caspis, heavily fortified, and with its inhabitants laughing at him and his men, we read in 2 Maccabees ‘13 Judas also attacked the heavily fortified walled city of Caspin. The people who lived there were a mixed population of Gentiles 14 who relied on the strength of their walls and felt confident that they had enough food stored up to last through a siege. So they made fun of Judas and his men, shouting out insults against them and profanities against their God. 15 But the Jews prayed to the Almighty Lord of the universe, who had torn down the walls of Jericho in the days of Joshua without using battering rams or siege weapons. Then they made a fierce attack against the wall 16 and because it was God's will, they captured the city.’ GNB
The point is that they were able to rise above the impossible odds because of what they were convinced God could do for them. It was an act of faith. A huge act of faith!
After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, a monument was erected at Plymouth Hoe with this inscription, ‘God sent his wind and they were scattered.’
It’s maybe not something we would think of doing these days, overcoming difficult odds and considering that God played a part in the success we’ve achieved.
Let’s address the gender balance and look at Rahab, who the writer mentions. She’s connected to Joshua and his victory at Jericho. When Joshua sent out spies to see what the lie of the land was, Rahab gave them lodging, protected them and allowed them to escape from the city with their intelligence report. In return, she and her immediate family were allowed to flee the city and avoid the inevitable slaughter of battle and victory.
Was that enough to make her famous throughout Israel? Apparently so! James quotes her as an admirable example of good works demonstrating faith. The Rabbis traced their descent to her (let’s remember she was a prostitute!) and even more amazingly she’s mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. An ancient writer calls her an outstanding example of someone saved ‘by faith and hospitality!’
The writer of Hebrews mentions her because in the face of all that was happening in that city, she put her faith in the God of Israel, saying to the spies, ‘I know that the Lord has given you the land...’
It was such an improbable result humanly speaking – no-one could have taken that city without siege engines and the big artillery of the day. Yet Rahab believed in the improbable! It was a decision of real faith and courage, and the people of Israel remembered that – when the going was tough and the odds were stacked against them, Rahab’s name was evoked as someone who believed that with God all things were possible.
And so it goes on with all the examples that the writer gives us. These are all people who were not afraid to face tremendous odds and know that whatever happened to them, it was ultimately far better than the situation they were currently in, if they would only hold to their faith in God. And some suffered horrendous deaths as martyrs for this faith – to be in God’s minority rather than the world’s majority!
Crucially for us, all these things happened in the period before Jesus, either in the times of the Old Testament, or between the Old and New. During that period, the people of Israel could have been obliterated, such were the odds stacked against them. But there were always these men and women of faith who made the difference. Some were leaders of armies, others simply ordinary folk making a stand for their faith. But their actions were the inspiration for the nation, the reason why God’s people survived and were still there when the time came for Jesus to be born.
We are inheritors of the heroic faith of these individuals. It is through them that we can also know that all things work together for good for those whose faith is in God alone, and that’s why the writer ends this little passage with those beautiful words about Jesus, who endured so much for our salvation. ‘12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’
So how does this fit in with our reading from Luke's gospel? All that stuff about Jesus coming not to bring peace, but division? It's passages like this that those opposed to religion in general point to as evidence that there is a violent side to the God we worship. But as normal, this is because we should never take a passage out of its context.
There's a lovely story told of Beethoven who, if he was playing piano to a small audience who didn't seem that interested in serious music, would play a trick on them. He'd play a gentle and slow piece, lulling them into relaxation then finish by bringing his forearm down on the keyboard with a crash, laughing at their shocked expressions. It was his way of telling them that life is full of pain as well as beauty. His own life was an example of this. Jesus' words are a bit like that crashing arm on the keyboard.
Jesus sees a crisis coming. For him it involves a cross, the 'baptism' he talks about, but for his followers it's going to be one of loyalty. He invokes a quote from the prophet Micah 7.6 which urges that the only way forward is complete trust in God. Jesus is concerned that no one else seems to see what's happening around them, politically and spiritually. They're very good at forecasting the weather from looking at the signs in the sky, but seem unable to understand that they are going to face difficult times ahead. The problem is twofold. There's the political situation they find themselves under, with the Roman occupation and life under Herod's rule. Add to that agenda of the high priests and the Pharisees who kept the Jews under their thumb, and throw in a young man announcing God's kingdom and going around healing the sick and offering forgiveness for sins. Something's got to give!
Not only that, when the message of Jesus gets into families it will cause division, just as the prophets foretold. And that's what still happens today when, say, a child makes a commitment within a family who are non-church, or a wife or husband where the other partner is an unbeliever. It causes problems and these problems can turn into a crisis. Some of us may know this from experience.
The call to the church then and now is to look at what's happening in the world, and locally, and react accordingly. There's a tendency for the church to become a little too cosy and think everything is fine and rosy. But we have to remember that Jesus's teaching was not cosy, it was very radical, and if we were to live it as he preached it, then conflict may well come along. We are to expect that, says Jesus. Following Jesus might well cause problems within families and even within the culture we live, and we have to make the decision as to where our priorities lie. Do we go with the flow or stand up for what we know is right for us?
But the message of Hebrews is that when the going gets tough, faith in God and what he is capable of doing in our lives is the one thing that can bring us through. Staying cosy and falling asleep is not an option. The Bible has several warnings about going to sleep on the job!
Heed the warning, says Jesus. Times might not always be calm and peaceful. Look for the signs and keep wakeful. Hold onto your faith, stay loyal and God will be with you as he was in the time of old when Joshua trusted God and conquered Jericho!