August 14, 2022
Angry Jesus — Rev. Brent Gundlah

Today I’d like to bring you the second reflection in a series I’ll call “Things I’ve Learned about Life and Faith while Strolling through the Utah Wilderness.” I know it’s not a very catchy title, but it’s all I could come up with.

Last June, not too long after I moved here, I went up to Alta for a hike. Within a few yards of the trailhead, I encountered a bright yellow sign, on which appeared the following words:

Danger. Explosives on the Mountain. [that definitely got my attention]

Explosives used in avalanche control may be found lying in target areas. Colors may vary. [great]

This was followed by a series of four photographs illustrating what the aforementioned explosives actually look like, and below these photos were some important instructions:

If you find one, do the following:

  1. Do not disturb or touch. [consider it done]
  2. Mark the location, 10 ft. away, with rock, bright cloth, etc. [okay, though I wondered how a rock would make something stand out near an abandoned mine in the Rocky Mountains]
  3. Immediately report the location. [sure, will do]

Now, those of you who have lived here for a while have probably seen such signs before, but this was a whole new experience for me; I didn’t run into this kind of thing back in Ohio. Because of that sign, I was on the lookout for unexploded artillery shells the whole time — so much so, in fact, I couldn’t focus on anything else.

This was not a great situation for a number of reasons. First, the possibility of getting blown up was kind of terrifying. Second, I spent so much time staring down at the ground in search of unexploded bombs that I wasn’t able to take in the world around me (which was the whole reason I went up there in the first place). Third, because I was constantly staring down at the ground, I didn’t notice that giant tree branch sticking out over the trail until it met my forehead (and that really hurt).  

My focus on the possibility of one thing led me to ignore other things. Should I have been worried about stumbling upon an artillery shell? Maybe. But there was clearly other, more immediate stuff to worry about.

I lost sight of what I could have been doing, what I should have been doing — namely, looking where I was going. My priorities were kind of screwed-up. And this is exactly what Jesus takes the crowd to task for in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel.

You might have come to church on this beautiful August day hoping to encounter an image of Jesus strolling through a field of green grass surrounded by a halo of sunlight, holding hands with some smiling children and being followed by a herd of lambs. And, if you did come here hoping to find that Jesus, then you’re probably a little disappointed. Sorry, there no happy clappy Jesus today, folks. It kind of feels like this text should come with a warning sign too.

Today we get angry Jesus, which doesn’t happen all that often in the gospels — especially in Luke’s — and when it does happen, it’s unsettling. This is just not how we’re used to thinking about Jesus. And because this depiction of him is so unusual, we should take it as a sign that he and Luke are trying to get our attention in order to tell us something we really need to know. 

Jesus unloads on the crowd here with images of fire and division and conflict that we don’t typically hear from him; heck, he even resorts to some good, old-fashioned name-calling.

In his parables, Jesus often criticizes his listeners in a roundabout way by making them characters in the story. But today he actually stands in front of a group of people and calls them “hypocrites” right to their faces. It’s clear that Jesus’s frustration with his followers is increasing — and pretty quickly at that.

In all fairness, Jesus seems a little stressed out, and rightfully so. I’m not making this up or reading too much into things — in today’s text Jesus actually tells the crowd, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

Just a few chapters earlier Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem and he’s been steadily making his way there ever since; he’s determined to go and meet whatever awaits him there (we all know what that is).

As his time on here earth grows shorter — and as his death and resurrection loom larger (this is the baptism to which he refers) — Jesus is getting increasingly anxious;

he has so much left to teach his disciples before he departs, but they don’t ever  seem to understand what he’s saying to them. And so today, Jesus, out of frustration, really let’s them have it.

He makes very clears just how challenging it will be for them to live the gospel. All of this stuff about love of God and neighbor, about care for the poor, about justice and righteousness, seems simple on paper, but it’s a whole lot harder in practice.

The world, as we know it, is just not wired to run this way, and so the arrival of God’s reign here on earth will require significant changes to the present order of things. It will alter the very nature of our relationships with one another — father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, so on and so forth — and this will definitely not be easy. Then again, real and meaningful change isn’t easy; looking at things differently isn’t easy; reorienting our focus and our priorities on what matters isn’t easy. And because this is true, it almost goes without saying that we humans, as a general rule, don’t like the prospect of change very much.

You see, Jesus is ultimately talking about turning a world of haves and have-nots into a world in which everyone has. And while that might seem great if you are one of the have-nots, it probably makes you nervous if you’re one of the haves. Heck, you might be a little uneasy even if you’re one of the have-nots: What if things get worse before they get better? What if things get worse and don’t ever get better? Might the devil you know be better than the devil you don’t?

And therein lies the fundamental problem that Jesus is addressing here: We tend to put such a high value on predictability that we cut ourselves off from possibility. We tend to worry about what the future will bring instead of thinking about (and working for) a future that could be different from — that could be better than — the present. We tend focus on what might lie out there and ignore what is right in front of our faces.

Jesus doesn’t call the crowd “hypocrites” because because he needs to vent; he does it to point out the contradiction — the hypocrisy — in their behavior. They’re so singularly focused on predicting the future (whether it’s going to rain tomorrow or whether they’re going to heaven someday) that they remain passive recipients of that future.

But the gospel that Jesus preaches and the future that Jesus promises are not passive; we’re called to work for that gospel and toward that future right here and right now. If we’re truly concerned about what comes next, then we need to make it happen.

And yet, I understand why people have always chosen to stare up at the sky looking to know what the future holds.

First, it requires a whole lot less effort to do that than it does to try to effect real change in the world. And second, nothing really needs to change.

We can simply wait around for what has always happened to happen again. Like Jesus says, when the clouds rise in the west, it generally rains; when the south wind blows, it typically brings scorching heat. With such things there is a long track record of cause and effect; these demonstrated patterns make sense to us; we can rely on them because we know they are true.

But this whole gospel thing is a whole different story. Into this world walks a strange guy from the wrong side of town proclaiming himself to be the Messiah; wanting to change the way things are and have always been, seeking to overthrow all of our notions of how society actually works; telling us that peace, and love for God and neighbor, and concern for the poor, and justice for all, are what give life its true meaning.

We really want to believe him but there’s no precedent for any of this, no evidence to back it up. It sounds so uncertain, so risky and so difficult. And so why should we believe him? Why should we put ourselves out there and try to change the world?

Because that’s what faith is all about.