18 Aug 19 - How can we fail to see the signs of our time?

22 Sep 2019 by Karyl Davison in: News

18 August 2019 

Luke 12:49-56   49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!

51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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."

54 He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 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?

Reflection:  the Jesus we meet in this passage of text from Luke is definitely not ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ – hellfire, destruction and division.  But we need to step back, take a breath and look at this passage more closely.  Like last week, we have a reading in 3 parts.  It’s likely that each is a distinct pericope, recollections of Jesus’ ministry spliced together, leaving us with a rather clunky narrative.  The content seems to slide between references to his immediate mission and fate, and a more distant eschatological reality.

Let’s look at the first section – and here I’m using a translation NT scholar, Michael Mullins: “I have come to cast fire on the earth.  What do I wish?  That it were blazing already.  I have a baptism to undergo. How distressed I am until it is accomplished.”

In these two parallel statements, Jesus refers to fire and baptism together, and in both he refers to his desire to accomplish his task.  These 2 things sound completely at odds, but remember that John the Baptist proclaimed the coming of the one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire.  In fact, fire is the essential difference between his own baptism and that of Jesus.

Although we tend to think of fire as violent and destructive, fire in the Hebrew scriptures often represents God’s presence – in Exodus we read that ‘God came to the people of Israel, fleeing from Egypt, as a pillar of fire.’  Later, God appears to Moses as a burning bush.  Fire represents the power of God to effect change in the face of formidable resistance as well as the power to overwhelm God’s enemies.  At Pentecost, the Spirit rests on those gathered in the form of ‘tongues of fire.’

Fire points to Jesus’ prophetic role - the fire Jesus wants to kindle is the fire of change, the fire of God’s presence in the world to combat suffering, powerless, and injustice in the world.   

Jesus has an intense desire for the wellbeing of the world – to bring about God’s reign in all its fullness.  The transformation that Jesus envisions are about justice.  That means an end to oppression.  Greed has to go. Idolatry has to go. Same with exploitation, dehumanization, narcissism, and any other evils you can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation.   Jesus desires that everything in the world, every creature, every ecosystem, every galaxy, every human, has enough.  Is it any wonder that he encouraged his disciples to pray “your kingdom come?”

2nd section:   Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  From now on five in one household will be 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.

In this section, Jesus challenges the perception that the messianic era will mean peace and harmony.  Instead he seems to be indicating that it will be a time when people will stand for or against the Messiah.  Serious divisions will emerge, even within households and between close family members.

Luke seems to point to a generation gap – father against son, and son against father.  Mother against daughter and daughter against mother.   This probably reflects such divisions experienced in Jesus’ time as people made the decision about whether to follow Jesus or not.

But no human relationship must be allowed to come between follower and the Christ, not even the love of parents and children.  One needs to decide between family relationships and discipleship of Christ.

There’s another leap to the 3rd section: “He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 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?”

In this last section, Jesus speaks critically to the crowds pointing out that they are more than capable of predicting the rain and the heat by seeing the clouds in the west, or feeling the wind from the south.  If they’re able to do that, Jesus rages, how can they fail to see the signs of the times!

We may well ask ourselves the same question – how can we fail to see the signs of our time?  We too have no trouble looking at the sky and working out that it’s likely to be a fine day, or a rainy day.  We all get nervous when the hot winds blow from the south west, knowing that those conditions lead to bushfires.  We can read all sorts of things but we don’t always act on them even when the evidence is right in front of us.

I wonder why that is?  Are we blinded by naivety or complacency, or by unrealistic optimism or self interest?  What is it that means we humans sit by and watch situations deteriorate?    I’m sure that you, like me, think immediately about the lack of action on climate change. 

But there are lots of examples - one that continues to haunt us is asbestos.  As far back as the late 1800s concern was being raised about the evil effects of asbestos dust.  In 1906 a Royal Commission in the UK confirmed first cases of asbestos deaths in factories       

In 1918 the Prudential Insurance Company in the US produced an actuarial study showing premature death in the asbestos industry. Other companies begin increasing premiums and refusing insurance. By 1927 the name asbestosis was given to the disease caused by exposure to asbestos.

By 1929 the world’s largest asbestos miner and manufacturer, John Manville cooperation paid off 11 claims and in the same year another insurance company found that ½ the men who’d worked with John Manville   for more than 3 years had lung disease.

In 1935 an Inspector of Factories and Shops in WA reported on the effects of asbestos on workers lungs in the James Hardie factory in Perth…

And yet, in the following year Lang Hancock opened up an asbestos mine, using the pick and shovel method of mining, in the town of Wittenoom in WA.  Despite mounting numbers of cases of asbestosis, the mine continued to operate until 1966.

In 1968 D Jansen & Co, Mr Fluffy, commenced installing ‘asbestosfluff’ into roof spaces in many homes in Canberra. Homeowners pay less than $100 to have loose-fill friable asbestos material pumped into their roof space as insulation. This went on until 1979.

The first public warning about asbestos, used in thousands and thousands of homes in the form of asbestos sheeting, wasn’t made until 1974. 

It was not until 2003 that a ban on the manufacture and use of all types of asbestos and asbestos containing materials in Australia took effect.    There are still houses full of damaged and broken asbestos in ACT housing stock.  There are still home renovators being diagnosed with asbestosis and mesothelioma. 

How could we have let this happen?  Why weren’t steps taken much, much earlier?  If it had, so many people would have been spared years of suffering. 

Scientists began presenting evidence of climate change as far back as the 70s.   And young people are already asking How could we have let this happen?  Why weren’t steps taken years ago?

Some years ago I read the book, Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan.   It explores the phenomena where despite good evidence we often remain wilfully blind to valuable information, facts and behaviours that should alert us to harm.  We stay silent when we should speak out or ask questions, often overlooking threats and dangers that should otherwise be obvious.  We often block out the uncomfortable realities of life to save ourselves the hard evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

But we cannot fix a problem we refuse to acknowledge.  At the time I read Wilful Blindness it helped me think about why it’s so difficult to bring about change in the church.  

But I wonder if this is part of why so many of us fail to make the changes necessary to prevent the earth’s slide into climate catastrophe.

With this in mind, let’s hear the closing words of our passage this morning again:

Jesus said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, "It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat'; and it happens.  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?

This could apply to the whole issue of climate change but equally why do we insist on pretending to ignore the injustices (racial and otherwise) around us?

Most likely the answer is that we don’t want to see what’s really happening or our role in the injustices of the world or the destruction of ecosystems.

But if we are serious about following the way of Jesus, serious about loving our neighbour, we need to act.  Our children, future generations, the global poor and other species face the worst consequences of climate change yet bear the least responsibility. This is a grave injustice.

The decisions we make in the next few years will determine the severity of climate change for all these vulnerable neighbours.

Pursuing climate justice today means reclaiming our human vocation of humble care for one another and the creatures around us. In a world changing faster than at any point in human history, climate justice is an inescapable part of Christian discipleship for Australians today.

May God give us the courage and the strength we need to act while we still have time.