As I spent more time with these texts, I was drawn to Jesus’ seeming controversial statement that he did not come to bring peace. As Mennonites this completely throws us off because of our peace theology. But since the text is clear, I decided to reflect on the statement a little deeper instead of skipping over it. I then thought, “Jesus the prince of division”? Jesus in this passage said, “I have come to bring fire on earth…. Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division” (v. 49, 51). I chose to focus on these words because they are subversive which I believe is consistent with mission of God’s kingdom. I will return to Luke after a brief reflection on Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5.
Let me begin by looking at a depiction of a relationship between God and God’s people in Isaiah 5. In this passage, God is presented as a hard working farmer; “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it, and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, he hewed out a wine in it” (Isaiah 5:1-2). This farmer did all the right things for the vineyard and left it to grow as most responsible farmers do and expected a harvest.
But when harvesting time arrived, the farmer went to the vineyard expecting to harvest grapes but instead of getting what he expected after hard labor, the farmer found a different kind of fruit: Instead justice, God found bloodshed and instead of righteousness, God found people crying because of oppression. In short, the fruit the vineyard had produced did not please the farmer.
The farmer was frustrated and decided to withdraw his protection and abandoned the vineyard. “I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will breakdown its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it” (v. 5-6).
The text explains in clear terms that the vineyard is Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting. God was disappointed with the fruit that Israel had brought forth; God expected justice and righteousness but found injustice and un-righteousness. Israel had not lived as an example of righteousness, they had followed the ways of the other nations because among them was the gap between the haves and have-nots and the powerful exploited the powerless whose cries God heard. This is not what God expected of his people! It is no wonder God abandoned them to destruction and exile. God expects his people to carry and embody his vision of righting all wrongs; this is the call of missions! What kind of fruit would God find in the church today?
In Psalm 80 we see a community in prayer for God’s restoration. Perhaps we could learn from this community. The community was desperate for salvation amidst suffering; they lamented their feeling of abandonment by God after being brought back from the exile by God their shepherd. So they cried out to God to restore them again. We can learn from this community’s worship that in their desperation they remembered who they were as God’s people. They remembered God as their shepherd even though at the time their own choices might have led them away from their shepherd. They remembered their community’s journey with God in the wilderness (Numbers) and believed that if they returned, God would still lead them for their God is forever enthroned and is able to shine forth and in might to save and restore them.
As I read the passage I could not help but be reminded of our own status as a world community; the killing in Syria, the deadly demonstrations in Egypt, the destruction of war, poverty, disease, injustice, lack of basic health care and education, brokenness in our lives and our world and the list goes on so it is fitting that we also pray, “Restore us, God almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” But such salvation is not for us only; it is so that we can be agents of God’s good news because God the owner of the vineyard will come to receive fruit. But what kind of fruit will God find in the church?
It is not just enough that we are bearing fruit, but more importantly that the fruit we are bearing pleases the Lord; are we agents of God’s righteousness or agents of blood shade? Do we care for the poor and the powerless among us?. This is a call to mission and it is a costly call. This is where the Luke passage comes in. Jesus was well aware of the radical nature of God’s kingdom message; in fact it was so radical that division among family members was imminent among those who were to take him seriously and follow him as his disciples.
This kingdom call was about to cost Jesus his own life. He called it “a baptism” that put him under stress. In Isaiah, God planted Israel like a vineyard, watched over her with hopes that good grapes would come forth but in the end the grapes that came forth were wild. The result was abandonment and judgment which led to the vineyard being broken down, and wild animal and taking over. In the case of Israel, heathen people exiled them because they refused the radical message to bear the fruit of righteousness and care for the powerless. They compromised their calling and settled for the ordinary I might add and we ought not to follow that example as the Church of Jesus Christ.
Friends, I am afraid the church in North America might fit this description of a disappointing vineyard. The radical calling of Jesus that compels people to respond to God’s call which moved boat load of missionaries to the mission fields regardless of the cost is today viewed with suspicion as people join the rat race to success, hefty retirements and the comfort of the American dream. To take this radical call of kingdom living seriously could mean for some of you division, or being labeled foolish and not forward looking etc. In that case for those who receive the message to embody righteousness and care for the powerless in the world, Jesus does bring division because not all people are ready to accept this calling including some family members.
But thank God for his mercy and study fast love. Like Israel we as the body Christ ought to cry out to God for restoration so that we can live radically for Jesus. The signs are all around us, our children subscribes to symbiotic faith known as “moralistic therapeutic deism” and are increasingly abandoning the faith of their parents. Will our faith have children? Will there be workers to God for God anwe ought to be able to interpret them like we can tell the weather. Loyalty to Christ has to be stronger than any other loyalty here on earth even if it means receiving costly consequences even our own lives. This is God’s call to mission.
Preached at Chestnut Hill Mennonite Church, August 18, 2013