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Renewing Our Relationship With Jesus

Preaching
The Parables Of Jesus
Applications For Contemporary Life
Theme
The rapid flow of contemporary daily life only seems to become more complicated. There are so many options and opportunities, increasing responsibilities and duties, and requirements for our time, expertise, and energy that we often find ourselves leading fractured lives. We are split in our loyalties and priorities because today's activities pull us in so many directions. Keeping our mind and daily activities focused on the Lord is a challenge for all who live today. Jesus asks that we place our priorities in their correct perspective, pay attention to those things that are life-giving and God-sent, and refuse to place anything in the way of our relationship with him. The presence and activity of God is in our midst, we must see it so as to renew our relationship with the Lord.

Spiritual Food For The Journey
When was the last time you sat in your easy chair and contemplated your relationship with Christ? We should all pray each day and during this special time we think about God, ask for strength for our daily tasks, beg pardon for our offenses, and seek answers to some of the challenges, obstacles, and difficulties of life. Yet, is our prayer a time when we truly reflect upon the commitment we have made to Christ through our baptism? To ask the Lord for strength, pardon, and assistance is absolutely necessary, but we must go further and deeper in order to know our relationship with Christ and make it more solid. We must go deeper and be more fervent in our efforts to find the Lord, for the forces that seek to divide us from Jesus are numerous and powerful.

The powerful images presented in today's Gospel passage invite us to reflect on the contrast between devoted attention and casual neglect in our lives. How devoted have we been to the fostering of our relationship with the Lord? Outside forces -- people, events, obligations, needs of others, and many more things -- compete for our time, energy, and talent and we are forced to make choices. What claims our closest attention? Is it evidence of our social standing, fluctuations in the stock market, our grade point average in school, or opportunities to impress supervisors at work? What have we been neglecting that needs our attention -- our health, the well being of an elderly parent, the special demands of a child? What has suffered because we have placed our focus on things, which in the long run are not that significant?

Jesus' proverb concerning signs of impending weather challenges us to examine the inconsistencies between how we show attention or neglect in our lives, but the most significant invitation is to ponder whether these inconsistencies reveal a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while neglecting that which has greatest value and importance. Maintenance of our spiritual lives, as measured by how we renew our relationship with the Lord, must be primary, but often today this is not the case. We are divided in so many ways that it is often difficult to concentrate on the only thing that truly matters -- our relationship with the Lord. The division that Jesus says he brings to the world challenges us to renew our commitment to stand with him. We cannot do this, however, without a concerted effort to remove obstacles, whether they be people, events, or life situations, which jeopardize our ability to know and grow closer to the Lord.

Our commitment to the Lord will not be easy; it will require much of us. Our commitment to Christ will shape our values, priorities, goals, and behavior; it will force us to change old patterns of life that may precipitate crises in our relationships with others. Jesus warns us to be ready for these eventualities. Let us choose to stand on the side of the Lord and not count the cost. How can one place a price tag on God's love? God first chose us; let us return the favor and choose God, placing our full attention and energy toward our relationship with him.

Application Of The Parable To Contemporary Life

Sermon Openings
1. What was the most difficult trial or challenge of your life, where strength, endurance, will, and courage were necessary to achieve some lofty and important goal? In Greek mythology Hercules, the great champion and hero, was asked to endure twelve arduous tasks, each of which required great strength, will, and courage, in order to achieve the goal of immortality. Hercules was the son of Jupiter, the chief god, and a mortal woman named Alcema. Juno, Jupiter's wife, was angered at her husband's lack of fidelity and decided to make war on the offspring -- namely Hercules. When he was an infant she sent two serpents to his cradle to kill him, but Hercules possessed super-human strength from his father and was thus able to strangle the snakes with his own hands.

When Hercules matured, Juno continued her vengeance by making him subject to the King of the Tiryns, Eurytheus. The King ordered Hercules to endure twelve great tests, his "Twelve Labors" to determine his worthiness to stand with the gods. The first test was to battle the Nemean lion. Arrows and clubs were ineffective against this beast, so Hercules, as he had done earlier, killed the lion with his hands and brought the carcass to the King. Next Hercules was ordered to conquer the nine-headed hydra. Each head that Hercules cut off with his sword produced two new heads in its place. In the end Hercules burned the beast and buried its immortal middle head under a large rock. The next labor was very different; he was told to clean the Augean stables. For thirty years 3,000 head of oxen had roamed this area; cleaning the stables would be a great task indeed. Hercules used his head as well as his muscle by diverting two rivers, the Alpheus and the Peneus, to run through the stables and wash them clean in less than one day. The fourth labor was the retrieval of the golden apples of the Hesperides. Hercules had no idea where to begin with this task. After several adventures he learned that Atlas, who shouldered the world, knew the location of the apples. Hercules went to Atlas and told him he would carry the world for a time if Atlas would retrieve the apples. Atlas readily agreed to the offer. Hercules placed the world on his shoulders, Atlas retrieved the apples, and then Hercules brought the apples to the King.

Hercules was asked to endure many other trials including the capture of the Erymanthian boar, the destruction of the Stymphalian birds, and the capture of the man-eating mares of Diomedes, King of Thrace. The last task was the most difficult and dangerous -- Hercules was to retrieve the monster Cerberus from the underworld and bring him to the King. To accomplish this task Hercules secured the assistance of Minerva and Mercury, two lesser gods, and the permission of Pluto, god of the underworld. Hercules descended to Hades, retrieved Cerberus, and brought him to the King. Thus Hercules successfully completed all twelve labors and for this the gods rewarded him by burning away the mortal half of his being. Hercules endured twelve arduous tasks to gain immortality.

Today's Gospel challenges us to endure many trials in our lives so as to gain eternal life with God. Christ says that he has come to bring fire, to divide father against son, mother against daughter. What the Lord in essence is saying is that trials and tests will come our way and we must be ready to work through them to get to the other side. How have we been doing?

2. "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." These words of President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery will always be remembered by students of American history. The year was 1863; the nation was in the midst of the great Civil War. After 87 years of unity, the great house which was the union was divided. It was the task of Lincoln to reunite the Union and make it one, but he would not do it at the cost of his convictions.

America's Civil War was contested over several issues, but at their heart the issues centered upon states' rights, most especially the right of slavery. Lincoln believed in the Constitution, which states that all rights not expressly granted to the Federal Government are given to the states, but slavery was not an issue for the government, but rather was an intrinsic evil that needed to be exorcized from the nation. For Lincoln the idea that the nation was divided over the issue of slavery was of less consequence than then the principle of its abolition. Lincoln certainly wished to preserve the Union and move the nation forward, but if preservation did not include the freedom of African slaves then division was necessary.

Abraham Lincoln was a man of principle and he did not allow the threat of division to cloud his vision. He could see that the signs of the times might produce war between Americans, but nothing was so sacred to him as the principles upon which he stood and in which he believed. Jesus, in a similar way, told the people that families and friends would be divided over him but those who believe must see the signs of the times and follow in his footsteps, regardless of the division that might be created.

Points Of Challenge And Questions To Ponder
1. What things receive close attention in our lives and to what do we turn a blind eye? Are we more centered on business, relationships, self-improvement, and recreation than on the Lord? Have we ordered our priorities properly?

2. Do we allow things to stand between us and God? Do members of our family, friends, or colleagues draw us away from the Lord? Do daily events or life situations pose an obstacle that we must negotiate in order to discover God?

3. Do we recognize the signs of the contemporary world? Where do we find the presence of the Lord in our lives? Is Christ present but we are too busy to recognize him -- in events, others, circumstances of life?

4. How committed are we to the common Christian call to holiness? We are all called, but the requirements vary depending on many factors. Do we understand that God's call will always require our response? What will it be?

5. Today's world almost demands that we conform to prescribed patterns of activity and certain "accepted" norms. Are we willing to create division and break with what the world says is right so as to remain close to the Lord? Are we willing to stand with Jesus no matter what the consequences?

Exegesis And Explanation Of The Parable
Luke 12:49-56 can be neatly divided into two different but complimentary sections, verses 49-53 which outline Jesus' seemingly atypical teaching on the division he brings to the world, and verses 54-56 which present a short parable on recognizing the signs of the times. These two subunits are connected by the metaphorical play between images of fire and blazing heat (vv. 49 and 55) and images of immersion (baptism) and cloudburst (vv. 50 and 54) set in inverse parallelism. The pericope is also held together thematically when one considers that the division Jesus brings is a sign of the times, not only for people of his era, but for all of us today as well.

It is unclear why Luke placed this material at this point in his narrative. Some scholars suggest that either the evangelist or his underlying tradition may have connected these sayings to the preceding parables of watchfulness because of the common idea of Jesus' coming to the world. However, the parables refer to Jesus' coming at the Parousia, while the present passage speaks of Jesus' earthly ministry. The debate leaves the question of organization open, but the messages of division and judgment are clear.

In general the image of Jesus presented by Luke is that of one who has come during the era of Augustan peace as a sign of peace among all people; he has not come as the fiery reformer that John the Baptist once expected. Yet, in this pericope Jesus describes his ministry as a source of discord among the very people he came to serve and save. In the passage Jesus comments on three parallel aspects of his earthly ministry. First, he longs to see the earth ablaze and consumed by the fire which his coming is meant to enkindle. Second, he views his ministry as a "baptism," not only of water, but of fire. He longs that this baptism, a reference to his future death, be accomplished because it is related to the aim of his ministry, namely the salvation of all. Third, he defines the effect of his ministry as discord. The consequences of the fire and the baptism, therefore, may seem to contradict the general way Luke depicts Jesus as bringing peace on earth.

It must be noted as well that Luke also portrays Jesus as one whose ministry will bring division by engendering opposition from those who serve a contrary aim. Both Simeon and John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus' role would be one that would divide Israel (Luke 2:34-35, 3:17). Many Jewish people believed that the coming of the age of salvation would be accompanied by great distress. Jesus himself emphasized the centrality of suffering and death in the consummation of God's purpose. Jesus certainly came to bring God's peace, but the work of redemption inevitably brings division also. Although the Kingdom of God is characterized by reconciliation and peace, the announcement of that Kingdom is always divisive because it requires decision and commitment. Those who commit themselves to Jesus must prepare for the opposition they will face, sometimes even from their own families.

The theme of division is prominent and clear in the first half of this Gospel pericope. The early Church believed that with the coming of the Spirit, the work of the Church, and the approach of the Kingdom, division and strife would be intensified. Jesus himself would be the first great casualty of this division that necessarily attends the proclamation of God's word. His baptism, certainly a foreshadowing of his death, would separate him from those who do not believe. As Simeon prophesied, Jesus' mission would be problematic for his own family with a sword piercing his mother's heart. After Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, families would be divided by those who believed and those who refused to believe in the Lord and his salvific message. One of the great reasons the Romans hated Christianity was because it tore families apart. People had to decide if they loved family or Christ more. The mandate of Christians that loyalty to Christ takes precedence over loyalty to the earth brought division to families, leading Roman officials to take action against those believers who caused discord by their faith.

The second major theme of Luke 12:49-53 is that of judgment. Speaking to the disciples, Jesus appears to suggest that a time of fulfillment is at hand, the result of which will be persecution through judgment that will come at the end of time. The image of fire, central to this passage, was used often by the Jewish prophets and Gospel evangelists as an eschatological symbol for the final judgment, where the elect were purified and the impious destroyed. In passing through the fire of trouble and test, Jesus demonstrates that he has come to inaugurate judgment. He uses the motif of division to show how judgment has already begun. The division that Jesus brings is, thus, not only a legitimate consequence of his mission, but confirms that he is carrying out his divine charge.1

These sayings of division and judgment, addressed to the disciples (as is the whole of Luke 12:22-53), are followed by a short parable that appears to be addressed to a more general audience. It is not clear to whom Jesus addresses this parable, although it is certainly not the disciples alone. In verses 41 to 48 distinctions are blurred with reference to the audience, so the change in listeners in verse 54 may not so much introduce a new audience as provide an explicit reminder of the presence of a larger cast of listeners and pinpoint the crowds as persons for whom the material of verses 54-56 is particularly apt.

This parable which describes the signs of the times could be readily understood by Jesus' audience. The weather in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee is controlled by the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the desert to the south and southwest. When clouds appeared in the west, it was clear that rain was on the way and when the wind blew from the south or southwest it was quite certain that scorching heat would follow.

Jesus suggests that as weatherwise Palestinian farmers the people have learned to read the face of nature, with its clouds and winds, but they have failed to assess the critical nature of the moment in which they live. He thus contrasts the people's "meteorological sensitivity" with their "religious insensitivity." Without any direct reference to himself or his message, Jesus upbraids his audience for its lack of comprehension. His argument progresses from lesser to greater. He says if the people can pay attention to the slightest sign of change in the weather -- even a cloud on the western horizon or a puff of wind from the south -- then should they not pay more attention to the present time. Scholars believe that Jesus' words originally referred to the crisis which the Lord saw would come in response to his ministry. Other exegetes say that in its Lucan context the parable refers to the new situation brought about by Jesus' death. More specifically the period of the Church under persecution should be recognized as one of decision necessitating men and women to join the Church. The parable in effect is a call for all to be converted to the ranks of the faithful before it is too late. There is no hint in this message of delay; rather, the "season is here." It is precisely now the time for repentance and conversion.

Jesus' teaching here is reminiscent of the crowds seeking signs in Luke 11:14-16 and 29-36. Just as he did with the people in that earlier encounter, so here he argues that the necessary signs are already present, if only they would open their eyes to them. Jesus regards these people not as deceivers or phonies, but rather as men and women who do not know. His question does not ask the people why they say one thing and do another (as we might see in a hypocrite) but why they have joined the Pharisees in living lives that are not determined by God. Misdirected in their fundamental understanding of God's purpose, they are incapable of discovering the authentic meaning of the signs staring them in the face. The tragedy of the people was that they were blind to what was really happening before them. They failed to show in theological questions the intelligence they demonstrated in ordinary affairs. The signs of the impending destruction of Jerusalem were no more difficult to read than the signs of the coming weather. Thus, if the people had been open to the truth, they would have been able to interpret the present and recognize that God's Kingdom had in fact arrived. Their inability to recognize the signs would cost them their inheritance.

Context Of The Parable

Context In The Church Year

Often today people refer to our daily existence as a war. We seem to have to fight for everything that we get, from our place in line at the bank, to an advantageous seat at the local sold-out movie theater, to getting ahead in the business world. The complexity of modern society, especially its physical and psychological demands, leads to competition and fracture within ourselves. We have only so much time, talent, energy, and resources and the demands seem to exceed what we possess. Thus, we make choices about our commitments and where we will focus our attention and time. Often, because the world stands before us and beckons so forcefully, we place more emphasis on it than on the things of God.

Today's Gospel passage challenges us to reconsider our commitments and to choose God over the world. Such an idea is timeless; members of the Christian community constantly must be reminded of their need to place God first in their lives. Jesus says that he has come to bring division; we must, therefore, decide on which side we will stand -- the world or God. The richness of the Gospel message challenges us to ask a difficult question. What will be our response?

Context With Other Gospels
The division of today's Gospel pericope into two sections allows us to look for parallels in other books of Scripture on two levels. Scholars disagree on the sources and parallels in the first section, verses 49-53. While verse 49, the image of Jesus bringing fire to the earth, is generally regarded as coming from Luke's special "L" source, the remainder of this section is highly debated. Some exegetes believe that the whole section comes from "L," but others say that it may have been "Q" material, but simply omitted by Matthew. Verses 51-53 appear to come from "Q" since a parallel exists with Matthew 10:34-36, where it helps form the mission charge to the twelve apostles. Verse 50, Jesus' need to undergo a baptism, is found in Mark 10:38 in the Lord's encounter with the mother of the sons of Zebedee. The whole of this section is also found in modified form in the Gospel of Thomas, sayings 10, 16, and 82.

Jesus' warning to observe the signs of the times, verses 54-56, is also found in the Gospel of Thomas, saying 91 and Matthew 16:2-3, but the parallel in the latter is not completely certain. Scholars, who point out that Greek words in the two pericopes differ significantly, suggest this may mean that the passage is pre-Lucan in origin.

Context With First And Second Lessons
First Lesson: Jeremiah 23:23-29. Jeremiah wrote to the people of Judah before their exile to Babylon. The task of a prophet was endemically frustrating -- how to make God's presence real although God could not be seen. In an attempt to show the presence of God, Jeremiah, in this pericope, speaks God's word saying that the Lord is not distant. Men and women cannot hide from God for God fills the heavens and the earth. God is omnipresent; the people need to look no further than their neighbor to witness the presence of God.

The prophet's words suggest the need to evaluate how we see God. In the Gospel we are told to watch the signs of the times so as to discover God's presence and we are challenged to renew our commitment to God. God tells the people, through the words of Jeremiah, that they are to avoid those who prophesy falsely and draw some people away from God. In our lives we encounter people, events, and situations which compete for our attention and draw us away from our relationship with God. If we follow the warning of the prophet and Jesus' words in the Gospel we will stay on the straight path that leads to God and salvation.

Second Lesson: Hebrews 11:29--12:2. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of the people of faith who have been witnesses to us of how we are to lead our lives. These people had many difficulties, but they persevered, laid aside every encumbrance that drew them away from their objectives, and continued on the road to God. We are encouraged to be like the great men and women of faith and lay aside our burdens and negotiate the hurdles and obstacles that compete with God for our attention. We may have to make some serious choices and decisions that will create division in our lives, especially with people we know, but if we continue on the road, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that we will find Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He endured the cross with its pain and shame so we could find life. Now we are asked to return the favor in part by being people of faith, not allowing anything to impede or damage our relationship with the Lord.

____________

1. The implied high Christology of these verses should not be overlooked. In speaking of Jesus' divine mission, the evangelist clearly understands Christ as the one who came in fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy. Not only does Jesus bring division in this life, but the division continues in eternity, for the final judgment is dependent upon one's attitude toward the Lord.
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