Not too long ago I saw a billboard along the side of the highway – big, bright LED – the faces of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump emblazoned on one side in front of an American flag and to the right, these words: “Moving to Canada? We can help with that…” So-and-so realtors, inc. That sign’s a tongue-in-cheek example of at least one part of the going political opinion: some campaign hard for one, some press for the other and some others say, “If this is the best we’ve got, maybe it’s time to get out of here altogether…” That’s also how America seems to generally feel right now: more polarized and divided now than ever (whether it’s historically true or not). And so, it doesn’t seem like there would be any worse time for divisive language. Nonetheless, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost Jesus is longing to throw the fire of the gospel out on the earth – to bring, not peace but division. And yet, if we’re to accomplish this week’s Summer Project: Destroying Idols, that burning gospel fire is exactly what we need to know and love.
It’s a hard thing to know and love it though, because the Gospel’s fire causes danger and difficulty to flare up at times. Our sermon text is a perfect example. Suffice it to say that the kings and queens in the years before our chapter, had burned with desire to worship false gods and had brought burning trouble for God’s people. In 2 Kings 11, Athaliah the queen mother was a continuation of all that wickedness. She slaughtered all of the remaining princes in King David’s royal line to keep her own power. As Athaliah rejected God’s Word with burning hatred and greed, people’s lives were swallowed up. But the flickering candle-flame of God’s promised love to Judah was not snuffed out. Do you remember that God had promised King David that his line would not die, and that a Savior would come through him? And so, it is not insignificant that Jehosheba stole away with little Joash, the one remaining prince of David. That 12 month-old cradled gently in her arms, she hid away in the linen closet and peered through the keyhole at the slaughter, and prayed it wouldn’t find them. And when it didn’t, they raised Joash as another boy in the temple for six years while Athaliah presided over all kinds of idolatrous crazy in Judah. Until v.12, when they brought Joash out and crowned him king at seven years old. And then, the blazing fire turned with the wind back against God’s enemies. You can see it in 2 Kings 11 how some hold to God’s promises and some reject them for idols of wood and stone and power and peace – and how there is sometimes persecution and sometimes judgment – but the fire of the gospel causes danger and difficulty to flare up.
You know, if those things seem like ancient history to you, in the gospel Jesus framed the same things up in a familiar way, which I think better helps us understand the nuances of this week’s project. Jesus said:
From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. [Luke 12:52-53]
Do you feel the heat of that? Family is supposed to be the place where you’re loved, where you’re safe, where you’re together. It’s that support system when life falls apart. The place where people accept you for who you are despite what you’ve done. And yet Jesus promises his fire brings division between even them, burns away that support structure, maybe puts you into freefall…
Do you feel the temptation? How you get down to idolatry? You say, “For the sake of clinging to the promises of God, for holding to what he says – it’s too much to risk the relationship with my brother/sister/son/daughter – this is everything.” You say, “It’s not worth it to have economic hardship or shame for holding to this Word Jesus speaks.” If you’re in Israel – turn a blind eye when her-matriarchal-majesty slaughters the princes, go along to get along; or you bring a lamb along to the fertility festival, worship the bull-god Baal, because the party’s good and it’ll be difficult if they figure out you’re different. That’s not just dusty history, but actual possibility. You worship your friendship when you won’t talk about God’s truth when they love the world’s lies – cuz you’re afraid they won’t love you if you speak up. We make an idol out of our desires when we think we ought to bend some of those smaller teachings of God’s Word but we wouldn’t bend on the color of church-pew fabric. As the good news that Jesus is the only Savior is told in the world more and more will disagree and not want to hear it. And those who love it more and more will have the opportunity to set up idols in our own hearts for love of family or friends or comfort or convenience or reputation – to know what is right (what God says and promises) but to worship what feels right (what we know and love here) – for fear that we’ll experience something fiery and difficult that won’t feel so great.
One of the other readings we might have taken up for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost is from Hebrews, where the writer’s telling his audience to stand strong in the face of opposition by remembering that their suffering is discipline – the kind of thing a father gives to children he loves. If you’re tempted to think it’s hard to be the children of God, think about what it was like to be Jesus, God’s Son. You catch a hint in the gospel – he says literally that he’s dreading the baptism he will undergo – he means the cross that’s coming. No joke…can you imagine? You dread death, but what if you were the life-principle of the universe, the word that made it, the breath that bellowed and everything was full and moved with life? What if you were the ever-living, always existing God, and you had boxed yourself into your own creation expressly so you would die? A dread you can only begin to conceive. But that is just how God’s heart burned with love for sinners. The author and perfecter of everything we trust, Jesus Christ, had all the joy in the world but endured the cross and its shame. He counted it worthy to be shamed, to be dead, in the place of sinners who worship everything else often for the sake of a feeling and he sits at the right hand of God in power, resurrected, alive, righteous.
The writer of Hebrews rightly says you can take heart because Jesus brings the good news that he did not give in to sinful opposition. Instead, a new covenant, an agreement, a binding document has been written in his blood – where his baptism into death killed your sin, his forgiving love fills you with life, his righteousness means your life is holy, his living means yours too even if there’s dying. Here in the good news of Jesus you’re family with God. And that’s what brings about the other half of things – as you saw them in 2 Kings. The people didn’t simply toss aside David’s princes and God’s promises. Jehosheba didn’t set her sites on opportunities with the next royal family and give up that little baby Joash to the sword. The priest didn’t throw in the towel on temple worship and take up under a rainbow banner with Mattan the priest of Baal. The guards didn’t buckle in fear when Athaliah cried treason. No, they all burned with zeal to do God’s will – to hold to his promises, to worship him only, to do what was right and good though hard. Because the gospel’s fire also makes people “for the Lord” who burn to do his will.
I’d like you to picture how the gospel’s fire burns in you and me so that we destroy the idols around us. I take it from v.17. “Jehoiada then made a covenant between the Lord and the king and people that they would be the Lord’s people.” Literally it’s a people “for the Lord”. Which, as I was doing some premarital counseling this week, made me think of marriage. Isn’t that a way some might express their love for their spouse? In a marriage (ideally, and by God’s design), a couple says to one another, “I’m for you; I’m with you not against you, and I’m for no one else in this way.” And then they’d often say, with the most positive meaning in mind, that they’d do anything for their wife or husband, sometimes even in the face of death. And they’d rather die than do those things that damage the covenant of love between them.
There is our zeal for God – the fire of the gospel burns in our hearts this way. In Christ, God sacrificed the life of the world so that sinners might not die. He bent back the inevitable reason of death into resurrection and turned his living promises to you. And now, with that greatest of love letters in hand, you say in kind, “I’m for you like for no one else…”
So, when Jesus says, “I am the way…”, and he means himself alone and not Allah too… When Jesus says, “I am the truth…”, and he means himself alone and not science or money… When Jesus says, “I am the life…”, and he means himself alone and not the sensations that are so good in this world of touch and taste and sex or of friendship, even family. When he says, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only…”, and he means that we are to worship him and nothing else. Burning with all of his good news, we say, “Of course!” And against anything that would say otherwise, we arm ourselves just like Jehoiada did when he posted guards at the temple. We put on the full armour of God: everything held together with his truth, our lives protected in his righteousness, feet ready to stand because of what Jesus has done or to run for joy in the peace he’s won, shielded by faith, armed with his Word. We stand guard to protect his worship in our hearts and lives. And we say to all those idol-things, “We’re not for you, we’ve devoted ourselves to someone else already. We’re people for the Lord – his and his alone.”
It’s like this that Jesus brings fire to the earth. It divides and brings difficulty, but be not deceived, neither dismayed because his fire burns in your hearts, has remade you into people firmly for the Lord so that you do his will. As King David said to his son, Solomon, long ago, so it is for you, “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for [temple of the LORD] is finished.” Amen.