Jesus’ arrival surprised the world. The long-awaited messiah had finally arrived, but he sure wasn't what people expected. Everything about Jesus seemed upside down. Free the Jewish people from the Romans? Nope. Make everything peaceful and nice on earth? Nope again. In today's Gospel Jesus says he has come to bring fire upon the earth. Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? says Jesus. No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided... 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.
Some Prince of Peace! Though I do think Jesus did a pretty good job of describing some modern family life. But how were the Jewish people to understand this? How are we to understand this? In fact, the Bible is full of seemingly contradictory - even violent - ideas, especially when we work only with the short readings in our Sunday service. I think we have to take a longer, bigger view and ask what God’s message in scripture is pointing at, what’s the trajectory. After all, Isaiah tells us, as I paraphrase, “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
Fortunately for us, Jesus taught in parables. Even the events and signs Jesus performed had stories and parables within them. Here's what's great about a parable: A parable takes us from the familiar, understandable things of life, then involves us in a story that engages our minds and emotions, and ends up using this story to outline a picture of the unknown, the incomprehensible.
I would note, as an aside, that one thing about the apparent contradictions in Scripture is that they actually confirm Scripture as true. If Scripture were a purely man-made PR campaign, the “writers” would have edited out all the contradictions and made the holy people look good. They would have been winners, and nothing but good things would have happened to them. Any fraudster writers certainly would have cleaned up Israel's seemingly incorrigible propensity to sin.
But the seeming contradictions actually point to God’s continuous teaching process. God serves up discipline — and teaching — in the form of justice. God's justice is not a wrathful, vengeful justice. It looked - and felt - that way to the early writers. But if we look at the unfolding pattern, the trajectory of God’s action over time as described in Scripture, we see that God's justice is teaching for the specific moment and time. God’s justice turns out to be restorative justice, not retributive justice. God is interested in our restoration and progress, not our punishment.
Here's an example. Our first parable this morning comes not from the gospel, but from Isaiah. Isaiah uses a parable to illustrate the nature of God's relationship with his humans. God is not, and cannot be directly described, nor can we get our minds around why God does things the way he does, but the parable gives us a glimpse into the indescribable nature of the divinity and his plans for us. Isaiah compares the house of Israel to the vineyard of the Lord of hosts. God himself first selected a very fertile hill. Then he dug it and cleared it of rocks. He planted it with choice vines. He hewed out a wine vat and waited, expectantly, for it to produce a crop of grapes.
So, we have a picture of how God our Creator relates to us. God plucks up his first group of believers. God tends them lovingly, cares for them and waits for his crop of grapes, his fruit.
Now, within this vineyard is a particularly promising vine he identifies as "the people of Judah." But from this beloved vine Judah, what does he get for a crop? Isaiah tells us: He expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry. The vine of Judah has not produced the expected delicious grapes. The vine has produced wild grapes.
We've got farmers in our church who understand the difference between domestic grapes and wild grapes. Wild grapes are not only smaller and more bitter than domestic grapes, they are pollinated by insects. Domestic grapes are more lush, good eating, and can produce wonderful wine. Significantly for our story, domestic grapes are hermaphroditic and can be pollinated by the wind. They don't need the help of bugs.
God drove out the prior inhabitants of the land for his own reasons. God supplants these wild people with people God selected and planted there. But rather than accept the pollination of God's Spirit, the holy wind, they behave more like the peoples they had replaced than the model God hoped for. They acted as if they were pollinated by bugs.
God visits conflict on his choice vine gone wild. God literally teaches Judah a lesson for Judah's own sake: And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. God loves his people enough to give them a clear picture of the consequences of continued sin. The sin? Failure to recognize that all they had was given and done for them by their loving Creator. In short, for rejecting their reliance and dependence on God, for behaving in short-sighted self-interest rather than seeking God's help and direction, they will be invaded and carried off by the Assyrians. When this finally happens, it's a doozie of a teaching moment.
Now that’s not the end of the teaching process. In our psalm the people call on God to rescue his burned vineyard. The vine the Lord planted, Judah, begs for restoration. Restore us, O Lord of Hosts; let your face shine on us, that we may be saved. God knows we will sin, knows we need to get through it, hopes we beg for forgiveness, and after his restorative justice, in his merciful nature he lavishes his love on us again. God knows we will screw up, but all is not lost. Slowly we learn. Thank God!
The Letter to the Hebrews recaps this trajectory of teaching. We're told how by faith, miracles occurred, kingdoms were conquered, promises were obtained, lions’ mouths were shut, ordinary people became mighty in war and foreign armies were put to flight. We're also told others were tortured, mocked and flogged, imprisoned, stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, made destitute, persecuted, tormented, lived in caves, holes in the ground. All these had strong faith. Yes, trouble and bad things happened to many good people. Their lives were anything but "peaceful." This paradox leads us to the parable in Luke. The family conflict Jesus describes seems a far cry from the Kingdom of Heaven. I think Jesus is using this parable to hint at what people of faith will go through, not the end result. We will go through the suffering, death and rebirth that is the trajectory and reality of human life. The parable begins with Jesus saying; "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! The old must be torn down before reconstruction can begin.
God does not work in straight lines. God does not do things the way we certainly would if we were omnipotent. We often have clear ideas of how and what God should do. If you think about it, we often pray vigorously that our will be done. The readings today remind us that God does not play by our rules. The goal and reward of life is not what we often think it is. And, Peace, too, is not necessarily what we think it is.
Jesus didn't pray for the bitter cup be spared him. He prayed for God's will to be done. The 22nd Psalm was on Jesus mind and lips as he hung on the cross. Everyone remembers the opening verse of the Psalm, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. Very few remember how the Psalm concludes. But I shall live for his sake; my descendants will serve him. The coming generation will be told of the Lord; they will make known his righteous deeds, declaring to a people yet unborn: ‘The Lord has acted.’
Jesus knew with certainty there is more to life than this life. In his humanity he fully suffered through it. But, in his human suffering he also knew with certainty he would live again. Restoration, resurrection is real. Both in this life and the larger life waiting for us. In Jesus' divinity, he understood the reality of what we hope for. He knew the reality of what the martyrs who suffered in the faith hoped for. And that, even in their anguish, they knew Jesus' peace.
The peace that Jesus gives is not the same as the peace the world has in mind. The peace the world has in mind is a peace of passive aggression. If you were a Roman citizen living at the time of Jesus, it was a time of glorious peace. Historians call it the Pax Romana - the peace imposed by Rome.
The world of 2,000 years ago experienced the peace of the fully subdued. It was the peace of the absence of armed conflict since no one dared make outright war on the Roman Empire. For the Roman, it was a glorious peace. For the conquered people of Europe and the Middle East, it was a false peace. The peace the world offers is the peace of the Roman Legions, or the armies of another empire, enforcing a Pax Romana. The world offers a peace of compromise, of settlement with things as they are, with somebody as top dog and the neighbors all serving the top dog's interests.
Jesus teaches the path to true peace. True peace comes from learning to reject the false values of the world, accepting the truth underlying the simple challenge to love neighbor as yourself. Scripture, through the power of story and parables illustrates the grown-up reality of the conflict that will inevitably result when the power of the lived experience of the risen Christ comes into conflict with the inertia of tradition and the false comfortable peace of the world. People idolize their familiar traditions, their familiar life, their familiar comfort. Humans will fight ferociously to defend it and to ward off any effort to teach us to change that life. We humans often behave as if adhering to "what's always been done" is the same as faith. We want our own Pax MyOwna where our own tradition and wants prevail.
The peace Jesus gives is the peace that comes through the wholeness of living the gospel as he preached the gospel. Of realizing God’s eternal teaching in our own lives. Jesus came to change, to illuminate, to promote spiritual growth. He didn’t come to bring comfort. Jesus knew his teaching and presence would stir up resentment in the synagogues, resistance from the religious leaders and ultimately would result in his suffering and death.
As in the gospel parable, Jesus’ teaching will also bring bitter disagreement within families. The gospel will mean resistance from family members who insist on their religious status quo - whether it is Roman pagan or literal, fundamentalist Judaism. Even today we know the coldness of heart that can result from religious practice powered by holding on to either a superficial and literal reading of scripture, or by an excessive and exclusive clinging to tradition: When what we’re being taught is to open ourselves to the living experience of God's love for us and our love of our neighbor.
True peace comes after dealing with the conflict inevitable from growing up. We will experience conflict within ourselves as we struggle to reframe our values from the ordinary idea of what makes for a successful life, to living in imitation of Christ. Internal conflict as we confront the reality of suffering, and sharing the suffering of others as we share Jesus' cross. Christianity is not easy.
Jesus' peace is closer to Shalom than to our idea of peace. We can get a good idea of the meaning of Jesus’ "peace", his Shalom, from looking at the Aramaic and Hebrew Jesus spoke. The three root consonants in the words of the language Jesus spoke when he taught contain the key to the meaning of Jesus' Peace, "Shalom". The three consonants of Sh-lo-M are the roots of key words which describe the peace Jesus gives, not as the world gives.
Hishtalem means "It was worth it." Shulam means "Was paid for" Meshtalem means "Paid for in advance." Mushalem means "Perfect" and Shalem means "Whole." So as a whole, “Shalom” itself communicates "Peace, Well-being."
And so we see the peace of Jesus revealed: Not Pax Romana. Not Pax MyOwna. But, Shalom.