August 25, 209

…A Great Gulf Fixed

 

My late father-in-law would have loved to expound on today’s passage. None of that sissy stuff about “God’s steadfast love enduring forever”. Oh no! He often quoted Johnathon Edwards’ famous sermon titled “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. “Ah-ha!” He would have said. “Jesus isn’t all that ‘love, love, love’ business; he came to bring hell’s fire to earth.” Poor dad, 97 years of living in fear, only to die and discover that God’s steadfast love and mercy are, indeed, real and endure forever.

 

Still, however you slice it, Jesus did say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! Somehow, we must reconcile “I came to bring division…” with, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But, how do we get there from here?

 

First, we need to look at the text in light of what we already know about the purpose of Christ’s Advent. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus takes the ancient words of the prophet Isaiah as his primary ordained purpose.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor”

 

So, did he come to liberate or to divide? Audrey West, professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology, believes today’s passage is best understood as a single element of the gospel. She makes a distinction between Christ’s words as “descriptive” versus “prescriptive”. That’s a distinction worth noting.

 

If division were God’s prescribed reason for the Advent, then John 3:16 would probably read:

 

“For God so love the world that he sent his only begotten Son to bring deep division to every family on earth.”

 

Of course, that’s not how John 3:16 reads. The plan of salvation is offered to “whosoever”.

 

Still, when we read the gospel accounts, it’s clear that division followed the ministry of our Lord.

 

In that sense, division is “descriptive”. Division isn’t the reason for the gospel, division is a result of the gospel. Another story from Luke illustrates the divisive nature of Christ’s work. It took place shortly after the events leading up to today’s lesson; we find it in Luke 13:10-17.

 

Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath—something he did often. There is nothing to indicate that Jesus went there to start an argument. Jesus didn’t wake up that morning and tell the disciples, “I’m feeling kinda ornery this morning. I think I’ll go pick a fight with the synagogue leader.” Rather, he simply was doing what rabbis do—teaching. While he was doing so, a crippled woman appeared.

 

In that moment, Jesus was thrust into a different role. He was no longer an itinerant rabbi, teaching with holy wisdom and insight. When he saw the woman, he assumed the role of Messiah, and because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, he did what the Spirit anointed him to do—let the oppressed go free…” Gently, he told her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”

 

Why did Jesus heal this woman? Was it a provocative act, meant to divide the crowd? Or, was it an act of love. For that matter, why did Jesus “empty himself” and assume human form, and not just any human form, but the form of a servant?

 

Because God so loved the world… God’s love is the only reason for the grace showered down on us. God’s steadfast love, made flesh in Jesus Christ, brought healing to that unnamed woman one Sabbath morning.

 

And with that application of God’s love came division. Those who opposed Jesus for this healing act of love were put to shame—and they should have been. They put the thirst of their donkeys above the pain of this woman, who, like they, was a child of Abraham. Others were overjoyed to see her healed. And why not? They knew her when she was young and could stand straight. She was one of them and they rejoiced.

 

Can you imagine the Facebook chatter if this were posted today?

 

“We have laws for a reason and this Jesus guy needs to keep them just like everyone else!”

 

“It was so wonderful to see her stand up straight and smile again; shame on the synagogue leader and his friends.”

 

“LAWS ARE LAWS!!!”

 

…and on it would go, pro-rules versus pro-healing.

 

If anything divided the Sabbath crowd that day, it was a compassionate act of God’s love poured out on this crippled woman.

 

What? God’s love divisive? Yes! Our response to God’s love—our acceptance of it or our rejection of it—places us in the kingdom of God or the kingdom of this world. And those are very different places. A deep and unbridgeable divide separates them.

 

Going back to John 3:16, we find the roots of this division. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life…” That implies that whosoever does not believe in him will likely perish, and not have eternal life. When you’re talking about eternal life, “will have” and “will not have” is as divisive as you can get.

 

See, on the one hand, we know that God’s steadfast love endures forever. And God so loved the world and every person who would ever live on it, that he sent Jesus to die and rise again so that they might live forever.

 

On the other hand, God commanded that every person who would ever live on this earth, do two things—two things fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ:

 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

 

Those are commandments that have consequences if we break them. To love God totally divides us from those who don’t, right down to the family level. To love our neighbors as ourselves divides us from those who don’t, right down to the family level.

 

I’m related by marriage to twin brothers. I’ve known them for nearly 53 years, and they were 11 when I met them—so, essentially their entire lives. They had the same generous and Godly father, the same Sunday School teachers, heard the same sermons from the same preachers—basically the same spiritual upbringing.

 

My wife and I are quite close to one and can hardly stand to be around the other. Why? One’s life is ruled by compassion; he probably spends more time putting others first than he spends on himself. The other is about as hard-hearted as anyone we know—even with family. His boastful selfishness is heart-breaking and puts us in different worlds. The division brought by our desire to love God and neighbor and his disregard for both is real, and it hurts.

 

It’s real because Jesus said it would be:

 

You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.

 

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world… the world hates you. 

 

This is the root of the division that today’s text is talking about. Because God so loved our poor sinful world, God sent Jesus to establish the kingdom of God on earth. But until the end of the age, when this old world is swept away, and a sinless new creation is brought into existence, the kingdom of this world will exist. If we are a part of the kingdom of this world, the world will love us. If we chose to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves, the world will hate us.

 

The division created by how we respond to God’s love as expressed in Jesus Christ is deep, wide, and unbridgeable. The title of today’s sermon is taken from one of our Lord’s parables, and illustrates just how horribly wide that division is:

 

 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great gulf has been fixed so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

 

Jesus once told a lawyer seeking eternal life that the entire weight of the law hung on two simple commandments—Love God. Love neighbor. Do this, he said, and you will live.

 

That divide exists, and a life lived in humility, mercy, and love will keep our feet firmly rooted on God’s side of it. And, by God’s grace, we will live our lives in the kingdom of God—forever and ever, world without end. Amen.

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