I love ‘90s music, and I love documentaries, so you can imagine how thrilled I was to see Netflix release a three-part documentary about Woodstock ’99. It’s called Trainwreck with good reason. The first Woodstock was held 30 years earlier on a dairy farm in Bethel, New York. More than 400,000 people showed up to hear 32 bands perform for “Three Days of Peace and Music.” While the festival’s reality did not totally live up to its ideals, it’s held up as a major moment in a turbulent time for America.
Woodstock ’99 was nothing like its predecessor. It wasn’t held on a dairy farm. It was held on a decommissioned Air Force Base near Rome, New York. Ticket holders were shepherded into the massive base and cut off from the rest of the world. This festival was a total cash grab. People could only bring in their clothes and tents. All water and food was confiscated on the way in, so people had to purchase everything from vendors with significant markups. The weather was terribly hot, so by the end of the first day, concert goers were sunburned, dirty, dehydrated, and angry. Can you just imagine being penned into a sweltering Air Force base with 400,000 others, lacking enough toilets, with expensive food and drink, and then camping on the tarmac when you wanted to sleep? Sounds bad enough to me.
Adding fuel to the discontent, music in the ‘90s was different than the first Woodstock. Mosh pits were part of concert life. Many concert goers wanted the anything-goes feel they imagined was true for the first Woodstock, except this was coupled with anger and anarchy. Artists like Kid Rock encouraged people to throw water bottles at the stage, which they did in the thousands. Away from the music, people destroyed the water pipes leading to the fountains, which created large mud pits. People had to leave the festival due to bacterial infections related to overflowing sewage.
By the second day, attendees started destroying walls. That night they stole a truck and drove it into the middle of a crowded hanger during a rave. The Red Hot Chili Peppers closed the festival on the last night, and the man who planned both the original Woodstock and this one decided, “Wouldn’t it be great to pass out candles to show our commitment to peace and love?” Soon, those candles lit bonfires. Everything was over. The festival was on fire. People were ripping down walls and scaffolding. There were assaults, numerous injuries, and many arrests. It took state police dressed in riot gear to bring an end to the destruction. What was supposed to be good—three days of music, community, and fun—fell apart due to terrible management by those in charge of the festival. Lawless and angry people acted out of those places of lawlessness and anger, burning it all down and bringing an end to Woodstock.
Sometimes we want to rage against the machine or break stuff too because things aren’t the way they should be. When I read Jesus’ words this week, I thought, “Jesus is feeling that.” But there’s a difference between the anarchy unleashed at Woodstock ’99 that reflected both the crowd’s anger at how they were treated and the actual anarchy that sprung from people who had no greater purpose behind their anger than wanting to break stuff because they could get away with it. Jesus’ anger is righteous. Things aren’t right, and he’s eager to do something about making them right, about bringing God’s justice to bear on the creation. So, Jesus begins, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is not the friendly, smiling Jesus that we often to imagine. This is a Jesus who is angry. He’s angry enough to set it all ablaze. But this is a Jesus who also knows the bigger picture. He knows that the kindling will be in place eventually. For now, he still has work to do. It is work that will lead him to the cross. Remember he did say that what he is doing will create division. Not everyone thinks Jesus is alright with them. His presence is disruptive.
But justice itself is disruptive. We heard from Psalm 82 today. It’s a heavenly courtroom scene, where God is announcing judgment over the way lesser beings have mismanaged the creation. God has delegated the freedom of day-to-day rule to others, and they’re not mirroring God’s justice. They defend the unjust. They favor the wicked. They do not defend the weak or powerless. The psalmist ends this brief poem by pleading with God to rise up and do something about injustice because he yearns for justice.
We all want justice unless we or someone we love or agree with is on the side of being judged for doing something wrong. Then we want mercy. We certainly have a lot of trials and questions about justice in our news. They reflect the need for a fair system of justice in our society and many of the ways that justice gets delayed or denied. After years of using his Infowars media empire to spread conspiracy theories and lies, it appears that justice is finally on its way for some of those who have been hurt by Alex Jones. The families of those who died in the Sandy Hook mass shooting in 2012 have experienced harassment from those who believed Jones’ lies and have had to relive the trauma of people denying that they even had children, let alone that they died at the hands of a mass shooter.
Here we are a decade later, and we’re starting to see things made right—what we’d call justice. A jury handed down a punishment equaling about $50 million dollars against Jones, which is only a small portion of his wealth, but it’s a start towards truth and justice. More days in court are coming, and speaking for myself, I’m yearning for justice to be done. A just society would not allow space for profiting from lies—particularly those that inflict harm on others.
As a society we’re really struggling with what justice looks like. Moving away from a national story, let’s just think locally for a minute. Lake Michigan has proven itself to be exceedingly dangerous to swimmers under certain conditions. There have already been more than two dozen drownings this summer alone. Because of the dangers to swimmers and rescue workers, we now have a double red flag, which means you’re not allowed in the water and will get fined if you go in. Still, people think that they’re above the law. They go in, and they get fined. I heard a story this past week of someone who got fined, went back in after the officer had left, and got fined a second time. The person complained, “But I’ve already been fined once!”—a claim that justice should have been a one-and-done fine, as though it was a fee to swim in dangerous conditions. We don’t understand justice because we operate mostly out of self-interest. Biblical justice is other-interested. Biblical justice operates within the good order God created.
There are many more thoughts I could give on this, but I want to get back to our gospel text and what it means to us practically. Human justice is just a shadow of divine justice, so how should we live? Jesus is fired up. He sees wickedness in the world, and he’s ready to do something about it. But notice that even Jesus is constrained by God’s timing and plan. God is the judge. Jesus isn’t, and he has work remaining to do. God is the judge, a since even Jesus is constrained by God’s plan, we must remember that and you and I are not judges either!
It’s easy to read this passage, see Jesus saying that he came to cause division, and then assume that living like Jesus means causing division too. After all, if we think we’re right, why wouldn’t we tell others who disagree that they’re wrong? The problem I see here is that those who act in this way are far too confident that they’re right and others are wrong. This confidence is rooted in pride, not humility, and I would argue that it doesn’t serve the gospel. Jesus’ words about division aren’t a call to action. He’s not blessing our prideful divisiveness. He’s describing reality. Even more, in the words of one writer, “Jesus is sharing his own experience of being God to, with, and in a world full of bad and with people who seem to like the bad more than his good.”
It’s telling that in the same gospel, angels announce “peace on earth” at the birth of Jesus, but that Jesus recognizes that the earth won’t accept this peace without fighting back. Jesus’ peace becomes divisive in a world divorced from God, in a world more comfortable with injustice than with righteousness. So, Jesus’ presence brings division—father against son, daughter against mother—but that doesn’t give us license to be divisive. When we strive to live in God’s way, it will stir a decision, but that’s because, like Psalm 82, those running the show are more comfortable with injustice, with selfishness, and with whatever gets them what they want regardless of the harm it causes others. In fact, they benefit from it. The gospel becomes divisive because it cannot abide injustice.
So, how are we to live? We are to live in a way that reflects the kind of justice Jesus brings. We won’t be perfect at it. We will fall short. But that doesn’t mean we should give up or conform to the pattern of this world for easy wins. That’s been one of the serious failings of Christians in our country. We’ve partnered with the powerful to achieve what we believe are righteous aims, while overlooking all the significant injustices that this marriage of convenience has led to. It’s been a black eye on Christianity, and it grieves my heart as a pastor, particularly because people are turned off by the church for such behavior. It’s not about the gospel; it’s about winning.
Rather, in the urging of Paul to some of the earliest Christians, we are to “hold fast to what is good and turn from evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22). We should not be “conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom. 12:2).
There is so much broken in the world. I want to see it made right. I want to see justice. I want to cry out, “Fix it now, God!” In my own small way, I think that mirrors the heart of Jesus in our passage, although I’m certainly not Jesus and not the one who should be lighting fires! In God’s wisdom, we still occupy this space of beauty and mess, where injustice is still ever-present. We have work to do, but it is work that brings light and hope. That light might cause division because the darkness cannot abide the light, but the point is not to operate out of divisiveness.
So, let’s honor that prayer to “fix it now, God,” but let’s do so in the manner of Jesus, who yearned for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Wait on the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. And wait on the Lord.