From the prophet Jeremiah, “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? Says the LORD. Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”
Did we hear Jesus right this morning? What is this about bringing fire? And when he says, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ Matthew’s version is less soft, ‘not peace but a sword.’ What’s this about? Sounds like fire & brimstone. And he is just on the heels of a discussion of his second coming and judgment.
There is a common misconception that Jesus is a ‘nice guy.’ ‘What a friend we have in Jesus…’
Often when popular culture thinks of Jesus as the sage or wise prophet bringing warm fuzzies, they flat out have the wrong Jesus. Scott McKnight says this:
“A Jesus who went around saying wise and witty things would not have been threatening enough to have been crucified during Passover when he was surrounded by hundreds who liked him. A Jesus who was a religious genius who helped people in their relationship with God was kind, compassionate, and gentle would not have been crucified either…”
Of course Jesus is the manifestation of God’s unconditional love, but he is more. He is a threat to every social order and convention. Our gospel gives us two insights on the real Jesus. One, Jesus brings division. And two, Jesus brings fire. These do not fit in with the wise sage Jesus of popular religion, but we can’t get around Jesus’ words this morning.
First, Jesus brings division. Father against son. Mother against daughter. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law. These are some of the most intimate relationships that we encounter in the human experience, and yet Jesus says that his presence can divide even the most intimate of relationships.
It is difficult for us to get the drift of what Jesus is saying. We have heard stories families of other religions that have disowned other family members who have become Christians. In radical cases around the world, converts to Christianity are killed on the spot, sometimes by close family members or friends. This has even been true in communist countries when converts to Christianity bring the new faith home. And whether it is family members or neighbors, the cost can be high.
For these Christians of the two thirds world and the early Christians, Jesus’ words make sense. Why do they not with us? Well, sometimes they do. But being a Christian is normally ok in our context. So long as you aren’t too much of one.
St. Francis of Assisi found out about family division firsthand. You recall his story. When he was in church one Sunday, he heard the words of Jesus to ‘sell everything, give it to the poor and follow me.’
Francis took those words to heart, went home and threw all of his possessions out of the window. His father was furious. Everything Francis had was given to him by his father, who had no desire to take the Bible literally. So, his father threw Francis in jail, then took him to court. Francis said, ‘No longer is Pierto Bernardone my father, for from now on, my Father is in heaven.’
Jesus sets father against son. Jesus brings division because he shares loyalty with no one, not even our closest family and friends.
Being a Christian is normally ok in our context. So long as you aren’t too much of one.
Jesus came to bring division.
Not only does Jesus bring division, but more dramatically, he says he brings ‘fire.’ ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!’
Sounds kind of ‘fire and brimstone.’ The metaphor of fire that Jesus refers to is the purging fire of judgment, brought about by the Holy Spirit. This is far from destructive fire, though, this fire is restorative, purging, or purgative fire; fire that refines and transforms, however painful it is to be within its heat.
Jesus is God’s love revealed. He is God’s unconditional love made flesh. But it is an inadequate portrait of Jesus and an inadequate portrait of love to characterize him only in terms of peace and sentimentalism.
Jesus is not only the love of God, he is the power of God and he brings the conviction of God. We ask for that power every time we ask him to be with us. We ask for that power whenever we gather as a church. I wonder if we ever expect that power to manifest itself.
Annie Dillard wrote these well-known words I’ve shared with you before in her work Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes,
“On the whole I do not find Christians outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and men’s velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some day and take offense and call us out beyond our depth, beyond where we want to go…”
‘I have come to bring fire,’ says Jesus. He has come to bring his Holy Spirit among us to take us beyond our depth, to take us beyond where we want to go to change us, to transform us, to make us new. Are we aware of the power we so blithely invoke?
‘I have come to bring fire.’ The Lord wants us to be aflame, not only burning with desire for him, but also refined and transformed by his Holy Spirit. Love brings repentance, as our reading from Hebrews says, love brings discipline.
‘I have come to bring fire.’ What does that look like for you? What does the flame of the Holy Spirit bring to your life? How would you want the power of the Holy Spirit to transform you?
Of course the power of God is not magic. The transforming fire of God often takes time and happens in a variety of circumstances. Jesus spoke of a ‘baptism’ he must undergo. He was referring to his death. Crucifying the Son of God on a bloody cross of wood is the primary event God has used to bring life and transform his people. This is no magic wand way of curing all ills. The cross is a reminder that it takes blood, grit, and the deepest kind of love to change us.
And why the image of baptism for the cross? Because not only is baptism a dying and rising to new life, it is a cleansing. The cross of Christ is a cleansing of the sins of the whole world.
‘I have come to bring fire on the earth.’
What would it look like to be ‘fire’ for God. Christ desires for us to be ‘fire’ for God. Think of what the burning bush was for Moses. Moses encountered a bush that burned but was not consumed. That bush was the conduit of God’s presence and God’s Words.
This is Christ’s desire for us, that we burn so brightly with the presence of the Holy Spirit that we are kindled, but aren’t consumed. We become a conduit of God’s presence and his words.
Last Wednesday was the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin, actually it is the commemoration of her dormition, or ‘falling asleep’ of Mary. Putting aside debates about the Virgin Mary, there is a tradition that her pious parents Joachim and Anna dedicated her to the Temple, like Hannah dedicated the prophet Samuel as a child. Mary, like Samuel, grew up sleeping near the 10 golden lamp stands, by the ‘bread of the presence’ just outside the holy of holies. There she was near the presence of God.
Eventually, as foretold by the angel Gabriel, that presence of God would envelop her and she would become in herself a sort of Temple. The presence of God was contained in her womb. Jesus, the Son of God, whom the early church fathers deemed like the sun in the sky, grew inside of Mary. She became the ultimate ‘fire-bearer.’
What would it look like for us to be God-bearers, or fire-bearers? What would it look like for us to be a fire for God, so much so that his presence envelops us? The ‘bread of the presence’ is contained in our own tabernacle, we will eat the bread of the presence in just a few moments. I wonder if we will catch fire.
When we talk of fire and revealing God it reminds us that we need a clear picture of what the mission of the church is. We are the light of the Epiphany, revealing Christ who asks for total loyalty or nothing at all. But before talking of our mission, we must also consider God’s mission.
God’s mission is to be in communion with us. He wants loyalty and total commitment not because he wants to ruin our lives, but because he wants to bring us life.
What happened to Yellowstone Park after the fires? New life and beauty.
Jesus wants communion with us, that is why loyalty and commitment are so important. He knows what kind of life is the best, abundant life.
John Burtness just got back from Little Portion Hermitage in Arkansas, where John Michael Talbot has his community and retreat center. John told us Friday that it is all about pursuing God, because God is at the same time pursuing us.
God does not bring the fire of the Holy Spirit to consume and destroy us, but he brings it to bring us to him. Why does the family bond potentially suffer? Because we get a new family.
I am often asked if I think all that is taking place around the world is the end of the world. I always give a Anglican (and actually biblical answer), which is, ‘I have no idea.’
But Jesus asks us to read the signs of the times. He asks us to discern God’s voice around us. What I would say is, simply, God is trying to get our attention. Not because he wants to wipe us off the planet, but because he wants to do with the world what we do every Sunday. He wants to have communion, deep relationship, table fellowship, a sharing of his presence, with every person on the planet—every person on the planet.
I read these words from an Anglican missionary who is following the situation in Iraq:
“Most of one Iraqi congregation in Baghdad has little food, electricity for about 1 hour a day, and many are getting threatening letters nailed on their doors advising them to leave, or die. I will never forget what a visiting chaplain told them. He said, ‘I couldn’t pretend for them that all was going to be all right. I couldn’t tell them that they wouldn’t die. I told them hat my only consolation, the only thing I could offer was that when they see Jesus they will be like Him. And so after a time, they were moved to praise God.” Even in the darkest of places, God wants communion with his people.
Nero used to light Christians on fire to decorate his garden. Jesus wants to light Christians like you and me with the fire of his Holy Spirit. Are you willing to let him do so?