Lilies, Ravens, a Kindled Fire: Lenten Preparation

Some years back I’d think every day during Lent about how if one could just grasp Jesus’ teaching about being like the lilies of the field and the ravens of the air, one would be living the core of the gospel. But reading Luke last week, I noticed that in the very same chapter of Luke, Jesus then says this:

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

Jesus is under stress! And he’s just told his hearers not to worry!

I take comfort in Jesus saying that he’s stressed out, I must confess. Of course, Jesus’ stress forms under the duress of his mission and his impending crucifixion. Still, his teaching “Do not worry” does not mean to transcend all awareness of current or anticipated suffering — nor even to be free of impatience. Jesus is eager to be getting on and through the baptism he must undergo on the cross, to enable a baptismal transformation of us in turn.

So–in context, what DO you think Jesus means when he says, “‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens…” (Luke 12:22-24)?

We can understand about not being preoccupied with style of clothing, or with being perfectionists about cooking. But how can we not worry if we do not have enough to eat, or clothes to keep us warm in a harsh winter?

Jesus adds, “…[D]o not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:29b-31).

But he says this after he reminds us of all creatures’ mortality: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith” (Luke 12:28).

Mortality is on Jesus’ mind, and something which must be done which will not be easy. Jesus is stressed about not his own survival, but his mission of bringing fire to the earth, which will provoke division: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51).

Teaching Judaism right now and the history of Christianity, I’m aware of how divisive Jesus was after his death for Jews. The fire unleashed could burn out of control, over the centuries of Christians blaming Jews for Jesus’ death and justifying persecution of Jews in the name of Jesus himself.

In Romans 9-11, Paul’s own wrestling with the division in the Jewish community reminds us that at least one apostolic witness (Paul’s own) felt driven by the Spirit to teach that most Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah were predestined by God to do so, in order that Gentiles could be drawn into the covenant with Christ. Paul was convinced that in some mysterious way, all Israel would be saved (Romans 11:26) — on the other side of the divisions prompted by Jesus’ kindled fire and by God’s directive.

We who are united with Jesus must bear the kindled fire mindful of how we carry it. Think of the lilies, the ravens — in light of our mortality (we are like the lilies this way too), and of the ultimate values of the Kingdom of God we share with Jews, who hunger for it right along with us. Our division need not mean our destruction, but an abiding together in somehow entwined covenants with God.

Jesus’ call to be like the lilies and the ravens is not about relaxing, but about waking up. How are our lives caught up in Jesus’ mission? What worries must we let dwindle or ignore, in order to catch sight of the eschatological fire of our own baptism by the Spirit in Christ?

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