More Than a Popularity Contest / Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said: I have a Baptism to be Baptized with, and how great is My distress until it is accomplished! 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.”

How do you measure popularity? These days most people measure popularity by social media followers and likes. But that’s not always a true measure of popularity. There are companies that sell large blocks of fake followers to those who want to look more popular than they really are.

And this isn’t a new thing. Back in 300 B.C., a performer named Philemon hired audience members to laugh loudly at his jokes. The paid laughers were so effective that Philemon routinely beat out his competitors in local comedy competitions.

Shakespeare did the same thing in the 1600s, paying audience members to respond with laughter, cheers and clapping to his plays.

In the 1800s, theater managers in Paris paid select audience members to clap, laugh or weep at the appropriate points in the show. And in 1950, the first “laugh track” was created. It was a recorded loop of pre-taped audience laughter that was then played at appropriate spots in other shows to convince audience members that the shows were funnier than they actually are. Sometimes I think that would help me.

There’s even a company in Los Angeles that provides fake crowds of adoring fans and paparazzi for a price. The company is called Crowds on Demand. And if you want to spend even more money, you can get a limo, champagne, and drive you to the ritziest shopping district in LA. It’s called the full celebrity experience. Their website claims that they hire “top notch professional talent with significant acting experience for our crowds.”

In the beginning of Luke 12, we read that Jesus’ popularity has become so great that He and His disciples were being followed by a crowd of “many thousands” of people. And He didn’t have to pay for any of them. The crowd was so boisterous that Jesus and His disciples were in danger of being trampled by them.

How does it feel to be a rockstar? The disciples must have felt really good about their decision to follow Jesus, seeing as how His ministry was becoming so influential. Only Jesus understood that they were following Him, not to a throne or a new political movement, but to His death on the cross, the death of an outcast. From popularity to shame and suffering and persecution. In a short time, that crowd of many thousands would be lining the streets of Jerusalem and loudly demanding Jesus’ death at the hands of the Roman government.

So, Luke 12 is basically one long teaching moment on how to disengage from the world’s attractions, from its values, from its popularity contests. Jesus is trying to warn His disciples that they can’t count on the crowd’s approval for long. He knows He will be leaving them soon, and they will suffer greatly as they try to carry on His mission without Him. They will pay a price for following Him, so they’d better be prepared for it. But He can also see how the Holy Spirit, His Spirit living in them, will lead them to change the world.

Many leaders gauge the success of their ministry on its popularity, on the number of followers they have. Or even the number of people sitting listening. And not online, because some people only listen or watch for ten minutes. No, Jesus gauged the success of His ministry on His obedience to God. And He warned us that obedience to God will make us unpopular with the world. In Luke 12, He’s teaching His disciples, “Don’t let your current circumstances blind you, or your current comforts bind you to this world. Saying ‘Yes’ to Me means saying ‘No’ to this world and its comforts and priorities and value systems.”

Have you ever only heard the middle of a conversation and thought, wait a minute, did I hear that right? That’s how we may feel when we read this passage from Luke 12. Jesus is the love of God in the flesh. He is the Prince of Peace. The one whose death healed our separation with God and with our fellow humans. So, these words from Jesus’ sound like they’re out of character for Him. That’s what happens when we take Jesus’ words out of context. To understand this passage, we need to understand the “conversation” around it.

I want you to keep that context in mind as we read the first few verses in our Bible passage today: I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.

A man was driving through the Rocky Mountains with his godson. They passed a sign reading “Continental Divide.” A continental divide is a boundary that separates a continent’s river systems.

He pointed to the sign and said, this is the great watershed. From here the waters flow either toward the Atlantic or the Pacific. Then, he realized that the decision to follow Jesus is that kind of decision. It’s a watershed moment. Once you commit to following Jesus’ example, you leave your old life behind and take up a new life that’s not under your own control.

There’s a great quote from that great Welsh philosopher Gordon Davey. He writes, decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight; indecision is a dull one that hacks and tears and leaves ragged edges behind it.

Decisions are not the same as opinions or feelings. Decisions require action. Decisions have a result. Decisions effect change. Sitting in church is not a decision. Conforming your life to the character, priorities and actions of Jesus is a decision.

Decision is a sharp knife that cuts clean and straight. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this passage. The decision to follow Him is a sharp knife. It cuts away our ties to this world and its value systems. There are three ways that following Jesus creates division, and we need to consider these seriously.

First, following Jesus divides us from the person we used to be. In Second Corinthians 5, Paul writes, Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! You are a new creation.

Paul would know about these things. Before he became a follower of Jesus, he was a zealous member of the Pharisees, a sect that believed in strict obedience to traditional Jewish law. And his strict obedience motivated him to violently persecute Jesus-followers. After he became a follower of Jesus, he became a leader in the early church, helping to spread the message and ministry of Jesus throughout the Roman empire and writing thirteen of the twenty-seven letters that make up the New Testament.

In Philippians 3, Paul talks about how influential and connected he used to be. He lost his status, his power, his connections, he lost it all when he became a follower of Jesus. And he goes on to say that he counts all the perks of his previous life to be garbage compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.

That’s Paul’s testimony. Let me tell you the testimony of a more contemporary figure, another Paul. Noel Paul Stookey. Noel Paul Stookey is one-third of the world-famous folk music group Peter, Paul & Mary. In 1968, Paul was greeting fans after a concert. A young man came up to Paul and said, I want to talk to you about the Lord. Paul doesn’t know why his heart started to beat a little faster. He doesn’t know why he sat down and listened to this young man. But he does know that when he and this young man prayed together, God changed his life. During the prayer, Paul saw himself as a “hollow man.” All the things he had been chasing after were meaningless.

He says of his life after that prayer, “I was washed, and cleansed, I couldn’t believe it . . . Suddenly when I had admitted that I was sorry for the life I had led without God, everything collapsed, and I was perfectly balanced. I had been given day one again.

Following Jesus is never about improving your life. Jesus made that very clear. Following Him is about dying to your old life and taking up His life. Decision is a sharp knife. Following Jesus divides us from the person we used to be.

Following Jesus also divides us from the people around us. Jesus’ own brothers didn’t believe in His identity and ministry until after His resurrection from the grave. Jesus understands how painful such separation is. It’s a natural consequence of living out the radical priorities of Christ. Think about it, things like loving your enemies, speaking the truth, pursuing peace, and not conforming to the value systems of the world. You’re going to make others feel uncomfortable around you. Your character and lifestyle will make others question their own values and priorities.

Jesus divides us from the value systems of this world. Jesus never hid this fact. He lived to teach people about the kingdom of God and its values. He never tried to gain influence with the power players in His society. He even tried to turn people away from following Him. Jesus wouldn’t conform to the culture, even for the sake of popularity or success. Even for the sake of saving His own life. And if we are new creations in Christ, then we are called to give up everything, including our own lives, to follow His example.

A certain pastor began questioning his own values based on Jesus’ teachings. He was pastoring a growing and dynamic church. He was becoming something of a Christian celebrity among other pastors.

But as his church grew, he became concerned that its spiritual life didn’t reflect the spirit of Jesus. Through Bible study and prayer, he began to align his life and ministry more closely with the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He preached a sermon series on Jesus’ blessings for the poor in spirit, for those who mourn, for those who are persecuted. He tried to teach his leaders to organize the mission and ministries of the church around the Sermon on the Mount.

And this new direction made some people uncomfortable. The leaders of the church were challenging people to live sacrificially, to grow spiritually. Some people weren’t ready for that. They just wanted an inspiring message, a lively pick-me-up, maybe some small group time around a coffee bar. They certainly didn’t want to change their lifestyle and priorities to do the work of Jesus in their community. People started leaving the church.

It’s not easy to walk away from the life we know, the people we love, the value systems that have defined us. It’s not easy following Jesus. And that’s why Jesus used such strong language in this passage. No matter how popular and successful He looked in this moment, He knew that He was heading toward the cross. He valued obedience to God over His own life. And we can’t say we’re followers of Jesus until we can make same decision too.