The Present Time

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This morning we are carrying on with our studies in Luke's Gospel and we have reached Luke 12 49-59. And I have three headings, firstly, Three Lessons for Believers; secondly, A Rebuke for Non-Believers; and, thirdly, Common Sense for All.

The context for this morning's passage is Jesus' philosophy of history – something appropriate for this Advent season when we are encouraged to think not only about Christ's first coming but also about his second coming and the four last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – subjects highly relevant in the light of this weekend's tragic news from Paris. There are two basic types of philosophy of history. One sees history forever coming back on itself in a kind of circle, where (I quote an ancient Greek philosopher - Plato) time joins "the end to the beginning, and this an infinite number of times." The other set of views, however, sees history as linear - either as an infinite progressing line as many modern secularists believe. Or else history and time is seen as a finite line that had a beginning and will have an end, as the Bible and Jesus emphatically teach. And that end will be with the return of Jesus Christ – then not as Saviour but as judge for a final day of reckoning, as Jesus is warning in Luke 12. Well, so much by way of introduction.

Now for our first heading: Three Lessons for Believers (vv 49-53).

Verses 22, 32 and 41 of our chapter indicate Jesus is teaching his disciples. He is not (at this point) teaching the general population the lessons of verses 49-53. So they are for believers especially, and important lessons too. First, then, look at verse 49 where Jesus says:

"I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!"

You may be shocked by that. You may say, "that doesn't sound much like Jesus the good shepherd." But remember two things. Remember, first, that Jesus is the second person of the divine Trinity, the divine Son. And our God, the Bible tells us, is to be considered "a consuming fire" (Heb 12.29). He is the God of love, yes. But at the same time he is a God of holiness and righteousness. Secondly, remember that fire stands in relation to God, on the one hand for judgment and the destruction of all that is evil. But, at the same time, it stands for purification and the reshaping of what is good and could be better. Fire is used not only for burning up rubbish in an incinerator but also for refining and moulding gold and other metals. God allows your faith, like gold, to be tested by fire so that, says Peter in his first letter, it …

"… may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ"
(1 Peter 1.7).

Yes, Jesus did say:

"Let the little children come to me"
(Mat 19.14).

But he also says:

"I came to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already kindled!"

So beware of wrong ideas about Jesus' character or person. That is the first of the three lessons. Secondly, beware of wrong ideas about his mission or work. Look at verse 50:

"I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!"

Some time ago my wife and I were visiting Oxford. We were having a meal in a newly opened pizza restaurant in an ancient refurbished building. When we were handed cards with the menu, we saw they contained the history of this new restaurant. We were informed that in the room where we were about to eat our pizzas, bishops Ridley and Latimer spent the night before they were burnt at the stake just a few yards away the following day as martyrs for their faith. It was pretty ghoulish! But it made you think. It made me think of those last words of Latimer to Ridley, just before he died:

"Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle by God's grace in England, as (I trust) shall never be put out."

He, like Jesus, saw the gospel of Christ as a fire - even a tiny candle - that could spread nation-wide. Those two bishops were certainly following in Jesus' footsteps. But Jesus, at this point when he is giving this teaching, was both like and unlike those bishops.

On the one hand, Jesus too was facing a terrible ordeal and so thinking about his own death. So he is using baptism following the Psalmist (Psalm 69) as a word for the terrible ordeal he is soon to face. Jesus is referring to a baptism of torture not by being burnt alive but by being nailed to a cross and so being killed even more slowly than being burnt alive. And like the two bishops he is also thinking about what his death will achieve or accomplish. So his distress at the prospect of this terrible death may include distress that the goal, or what was to be accomplished, was not coming sooner - that it wasn't the following day as it was for those bishops. For Jesus knew that the lost world desperately needed the sacrifice of himself. He knew that this was the only way to atone for human sin and selfishness and release the fire of the good news of the Christian faith into, and ultimately throughout, the world.

But, on the other hand, Jesus was unlike Ridley and Latimer. For his suffering for human sin was totally free and voluntary. It was his choice out of love and compassion for you and me. And that is, of course, such good news for today. Because Jesus Christ is the same "yesterday, today and for ever", he still has that care and concern for you now that he is risen and ascended. So he still says: "come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matt 11.28) He still says to people who want his forgiveness: "neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more!" (John 8.11) Who needs to learn that lesson this morning?

And, of course, Jesus' death was quite unlike the deaths of Ridley and Latimer in what it actually accomplished, because it was for the sins of the whole world. He was dying in our place bearing our sin and guilt. And that Jesus had to underline - the need for this baptism of suffering on the Cross, as the fundamental need of the world. For many thought his coming meant that a period of peace and plenty would result, if he was the promised Messiah. But that was so wrong. He was not going to solve all human problems there and then. For, first he had to die for human sin and then rise again. So beware of wrong ideas about the mission or work of Christ, for they can lead thirdly to wrong ideas about the present time. Look at verses 51 to 53 where Jesus says:

"do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They 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."

Not only was Christ's first coming not going to be a time of universal peace and harmony and when the promise of Isaiah 11 that "the wolf shall dwell with the lamb" would be literally fulfilled. Rather, it could seem like the opposite. For Jesus says he is not going to bring peace but division. But you say, how does that fit in with the angels' Christmas message of "peace on Earth"? Well, in one sense Jesus did bring peace - peace with God, peace among men and women, and personal peace for the individual. Jesus said, in John chapter 14 verse 27:

"Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you."

But he continued:

"Not as the world gives do I give to you".

And he said a little later in John (16.33):

"I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."

It is self-evident that where the gospel is preached and people accept Christ as Lord and Saviour, there is peace of various sorts. But those that hear and reject that message will too often oppose those that accept it. So in the Islamic world when there are converts to Christ you have ostracism and also the murder of people who become Christians. And hostility is true and real in the secular world, as we were thinking two Sunday evenings ago. Referring to decadent pagan immoral activity, Peter (in 1 Peter 4.4) says to his Christian contemporaries that "when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery … they malign you."

Of course, it wasn't Christ's intention to bring division; rather division was the result of his seeking to bring peace. But when some are converted to Christ and others are not, there will be division. Yes, Christians can make the world better; but there will still be opposition. So beware of wrong ideas about the present time. And that is particularly hard when there is the division Jesus is talking about within families. The danger then is to put family members before Christ and his teaching. I remember debating sexual morality with a bishop once on the Radio. He was saying, in effect, that you avoided this division in the family by changing your own sexual ethics to fit in with your children being sexually immoral. How misguided! Of course, you should love your children, but with a strong love that still teaches what is right and not what is wrong.

Well, so much for three lessons for believers. We now, more briefly, come to our second heading and A Rebuke for Non-Believers. Look at verses 54-55:

"He [Jesus] also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, 'A shower is coming.' And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat', and it happens."

Jesus now has three messages or lessons for the world (verse 54 says he is now addressing the crowds and not just the disciples). And now he is talking about scientific knowledge (such as it was then in terms of meteorology). Jesus starts by being positive. He knows such knowledge is useful. And it is useful because it relies on correct human observation and human intelligence – seeing "a cloud rising in the west" and seeing "the wind blowing" from the south, and then also seeing the regular correlation of those events with showers and scorching heat respectively, meant deductions were possible that enabled weather forecasting. And this was, and is, good. So that is the first lesson – much scientific knowledge then and now is useful and good.

But secondly historical knowledge, and not least interpreting the present time, is different because it requires much more than evidence based on observation of inanimate nature and human intelligence. For history is all about people – real live human beings and not inanimate nature or man-made machines. Human beings are not just their physical bodies with which modern science can deal. They are also centres of consciousness and creativity. They are initiators of action themselves because of their human wills. And it is these human actors who shape much of the present time. So a true understanding of the human is vital.

And for that the Bible and Jesus teach that you need the history of a person's and a society's faith in, and obedience to, the one true God. That is at the heart of a true understanding of man and society, and a true philosophy of history. And that is the fundamental assumption particularly of the Old Testament philosophy of history. That says that God blesses his people when they obey his will in their private and public lives. So there is then more peace and more prosperity.

But when they indulge in sexual immorality and degenerate to the level of their Baal worshipping neighbours, when they neglect the poor and those in need; when social injustice is rife, as Old Testament prophet after Old Testament prophet kept on saying, there then is personal and social disintegration. Yes, there were exceptions, as Job learnt. But the exception proves the rule; and the rule was this "rhythm" of "blessing" and "judgment".

Contrast that with much mainstream Western thinking that flows from the European Enlightenment that flowed from the 17th century rise of modern science. This holds, contrary to the teaching of the Bible, that God, if he exists, certainly doesn't get involved with this world; and that man is not born, in principle, selfish and turned away from God (or sinful), but is born in principle perfectible through evolution and education. So that thirdly, is why Jesus is so damning in verse 56:

"You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

His lesson there is that not to believe in Christ and the biblical philosophy of history that sees human sin as a main factor in many human past ills and present suffering is culpable. You are at fault not to believe that human-kind is fundamentally sinful and that Jesus is the Saviour from sin. The evidence is too clear. But you mustn't get Jesus wrong.

In two weeks' time we'll see in Luke's Gospel (in chapter 13) Jesus spells things out and how you have to be so careful. He does this in terms of a killing spree that shook Galilee, like Paris has just been shaken, and also the collapse of a tower killing eighteen. Jesus says that such human suffering must not be assumed to be the result of especial sin on the part of the sufferers. But Jesus then says to the people for whom sin and suffering was a problem, that "unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." So Jesus is teaching, as we shall see, that you can't say all suffering comes from sin. But you can assume that sin will lead somehow to suffering.

Something, therefore, needs to be done about sin and ignoring God and going your own way. And not to see this, says Jesus, when you can see the connection between clouds and rain (and today's modern equivalent), is inexcusable. For the presence of Jesus - his miracles and his teaching - was evidence enough for people to believe in him and his diagnosis of the human condition – and then his Resurrection was evidence. But many just prefer sinning. Hence Jesus calls them "hypocrites".

That brings us to our final heading and Common Sense for All.

For Jesus says something else is inexcusable - namely for people not to realize that the present time is the time to get right with God before it is too late. Look at verses 57-59:

"And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny."

That is a simple parable. It is about common sense telling you to settle earthly claims on you for money before you face serious temporal consequences such as going to prison. But in the context of Luke 12, it needs to be understood in the light of Christ's return, one day, to judge the world. If so, then common sense says that it is utterly foolish not to settle future divine claims from all your sins of commission, omission and ignorance. For failing to settle with God your spiritual debts through sin, has fearful eternal consequences. None of us likes talking about hell, but that is what Jesus is alluding to here. Elsewhere he is more explicit about its terrors. So because the right thing to do is so obvious, Jesus says (verse 57):

"And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?"

Who this morning needs to get right with God for eternity before that Day of Judgment? So how do you get right with God? You face the reality of your sin and need. You then trust Christ, now risen and reigning, for forgiveness and for the Holy Spirit to help you begin a new life. And you then go public for Christ. If you have never been baptized, you seek baptism, as some folk did last Sunday evening. For as Romans 10.9 says

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" …

… for this present time and eternity. And that is just common sense. So to conclude: in summary, Jesus teaches, first, the Christian life will not be conflict free; secondly, sin, the Cross, faith and obedience are key to understanding and responding to the present time; and, thirdly, you must sort out your eternal destiny before Christ returns.

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