Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
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Decision Leads to Division

Hebrews 11:29-12:2 and Luke 12:49-56

 Something is wrong here.  What’s all this talk about division and strife?  Does Jesus not bring peace?  Is he not the Prince of Peace?  Why would the Prince of Peace talk about bringing conflict?  This is Luke’s Gospel.  Isn’t Luke the one who tells us of the angelic message on the night of Christ’s birth that proclaimed “Peace on earth, goodwill to men?”  

 Maybe not.  Many Bible scholars argue that’s not really a good translation, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men.”  They say a better translation would be “Peace on earth to men of goodwill,” or “Peace on earth to those whom God favors.”  

 The truth of the matter is that the coming of Christ leads to conflict, because Christ demands a decision.  There is no middle ground with Jesus.  Either we are for Christ or against Christ.  And decision always leads to division.  Any time we make a decision, it has implications for the rest of life.  

 If you choose to marry one person, that means that you are choosing not to marry all others.  Well, at least for now.  Some people are already asking the Supreme Court to overturn laws against polygamy, and based on the Supreme Court’s past decisions, I’m willing to bet they will do it.  If you choose to have children, that means that you are rearranging all of your life priorities in light of the lives for which you are now responsible.  It’s just the nature of commitment.  If you commit to one thing, in one way or another, it will affect everything.  

 If we are going to commit to Christ and take that commitment seriously, then that is going to have implications for all of life.  Christ will not be content to be an afterthought in our lives, though that is the way that many people in our world seem to view religion, as an afterthought.  I think John Wesley said it best:  “Christ will be all in all, or he will be nothing.”  

 If we’re going to live with that kind of commitment to Christ, it’s going to lead to conflict, and maybe even conflict with those who are closest to us:  Our family and friends.  They may not approve of the changes that come about in our lives because of our commitment to Christ.  Faith in Christ, if it’s taken seriously, is going to change our values, how we think, how we treat other people, how we use money, and so on.  That will lead to conflict.  We can’t choose to avoid conflict; only which side we’re going to take in the conflict.  

 This was very true in Jesus’ culture.  First century Jewish culture valued loyalty to family very highly.  And people were more likely to live with or near extended family than we are, so it was more likely to become inter-generational conflict.  If one person in a family accepted Christ, they were likely to meet resistance, even to be excluded by the rest of the family.  

 Even the Romans criticized Christianity for the way it led to divisions in families.  For the most part, the first century world was a pluralistic culture.  It wasn’t a big deal if someone else believed in a different god than you did.  You just added another idol to the family collection.  But Christians didn’t play by that philosophy.  They refused to worship idols.  They refused to just add another god to the family collection.  That led to conflict.  

 The coming of Christ has divided humanity.  We are now divided into the children of God through faith in Jesus Christ and the children of the world.  Christ gives us peace with God.  He gives us peace within ourselves.  He can help us to have peace with our neighbors.  But he doesn’t give us peace with the world.

 In the New Testament, “the world” can refer to three different things.  First, it can refer to the earth, the physical place.  Second, it can refer to the people who live on earth, as in all of humanity.  But most often, “the world” refers to a way of living that has no place for God.  The world is, therefore, by its very nature, hostile to God.  Jesus can’t give us peace with the world because the world will not have peace with Jesus.  

 If our faith is not bringing us into conflict with the world, then if anything, we should wonder just how much our values and our behaviors have changed as a result of our relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior.  

 It has always been this way.  God’s people have always had conflict with the world.  We heard earlier from Hebrews chapter 11.  That chapter has been called “The Hall of Fame of Faith,” and with good reason.  

But I want you to notice that there is a change in tone part way through the chapter.  The first 34 and ½ verses all basically deal with the triumphs of faith.  They speak of great victories, wonderful accomplishments, miracles, confident assurance, and faithful obedience.  

But the chapter ends with a reminder, starting in verse 35, that not all people of faith “had it so easy.”  Some were tortured, whipped, imprisoned, stoned, beheaded, or forced into exile in the wilderness.  

Some of those verses refer to the Old Testament prophets, many of whom were abused for faithfully proclaiming God’s word.  According to Jewish tradition, Isaiah was sawed in half by the wicked king Manasseh.  Others were stoned.  Elijah and Elisha were both forced to live in the wilderness to escape from King Ahab.  

Those verses also refer to another time in Jewish history.  In the second century BC, Judea was ruled by the Greek king Antiochus IV.  He decided to force his kingdom to become culturally Greek.  He decreed that all religions other than Greek religion were illegal.  He made it illegal to worship God; illegal to own the Scriptures; illegal to circumcise a child, and so on.  And he unleashed immeasurably cruel torture on those who disobeyed.  Jews were skinned alive.  Others were stretched on the rack till their backs broke.  It was the first time in history that God’s people were persecuted specifically for their faith.  They were abused and attacked at other times, but not specifically for their belief in God.  And of course, that wasn’t the last time.  

The actions of the Greeks in the second century BC are kind of reminiscent of the modern persecution of Christians by ISIS, especially for the cruelty of their actions.  

The author of Hebrews makes a fleeting reference to the Old Testament story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  They were the three young Jewish men taken into exile in Babylon.  They got into trouble because they refused to bow down and worship the golden statue of the king.  As punishment, they were to be thrown into the fiery furnace.  Before they are, they are given the chance to change their minds, and they respond.  “Our God can save us from the flames, but even if he does not, know that we will not bow down to idols.”  I’ve always thought that was one of the most powerful stories in Scripture about faithfulness in the face of persecution.  It reminds us that God promises us peace with him in this life and joy in the life to come.  But he does not promise us ease or comfort in this life.  

Let’s close with the encouraging word from the first verses of Hebrews 12:  We are not alone.  We are not alone in our faith.  God is with us, and God’s people are with us.  Not just the people of God now, but all the people of God are with us.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  In the Greek language, a large crowd was

sometimes described symbolically as a cloud.  The encouragement is this:  If others have kept the faith in the face of disappointment, trials, struggles, persecution, even death, then so can we.   

 The image here is of a sporting event, which was a common metaphor for any kind of struggle.  In light of this great cloud of witnesses, and in anticipation of the joy of the life to come, we are to “strip off every weight that slows us down.”  

 This is a reference to the Greek custom of athletics, which is that athletes stripped off everything that slowed them down.  They competed in the nude.  The English word “gymnasium” comes from the Greek word for nude.  Strangely, they don’t do that in high school gym classes anymore.  

 The point is that if we truly believe God is with us, if we are truly committed to Christ, if are truly convinced of the joy of the life to come, then we should get rid of anything that gets in the way of our faithfulness.  Even if it brings us into conflict with the world or with other people.  As valuable as our human relationships are, our relationship with God is more important.  

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