Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 18, 2019
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fire can be the most terrifying thing in the world. Thankfully we’ve had a pretty mild fire season so far this year, but the past couple of years have seen enormous fires that have jumped from forests – which need to burn from time to time – to communities. Homes have burned. Firefighters have died trying to turn back the flames. Fire is unpredictable and dangerous and deadly. I was on the volunteer fire department during my internship year in North Dakota and I was on a prairie fire with my spray pack, dousing the flames. It didn’t seem like there was much danger in those little, barely knee-high flames – until the ground behind me that I had just put out flared up again, leaving me momentarily surrounded by fire. I was able to spray my way out, but for a few moments it was pretty terrifying.
Fire can also be the most comforting thing in the world. Think of a campfire, or a fire in the fireplace. Is there anything more relaxing? More mesmerizing? The flickering light, the crackle, the soothing warmth. Or think of the soft light coming from the flames of candles over a romantic dinner. Or think of the candles we light at church, or that people might light at home during their devotions and prayers.
Depending on the context fire can be either terrifying or comforting. This is how fire works in the Bible too. Fire, both as a symbol or metaphor and as a reality, can be either terrifying or comforting – or even both at the same time!
God came to Moses in the flames of the burning bush. This was a fire of revelation, of illumination, as God revealed his name as “Yahweh,” meaning “I AM.”
God came to the people of Israel as a pillar of fire. This was a fire of guidance, leading them in the direction he would have them go, leading them towards the Promised Land. It was a fire of comfort, as God reminded them of his presence with them in the dark of night.
There was the altar fire God had established in the tabernacle and later in the temple for burnt offerings. This was a fire of sacrifice, of atonement, of reconciliation.
God sent fire on Sodom and Gomorrah in response to their wickedness. This was a terrifying fire of judgement.
When Elijah posed that famous challenge to the prophets of Baal, God consumed Elijah’s offering with a fire so fierce it burnt not only the offerings themselves, but the wood and the stones and the ground underneath! This fire showed God’s power, and the impotence of false gods.
There is the metaphorical refiner’s fire that the prophets speak of to describe how God restore his people, burning away the dross. This is a fire of purification.
There is the fire of God’s word, referenced in our first reading for today from Jeremiah, where God asks, “Is not my word like fire?”
There is a fire burning across the pages of scripture, a fire that both terrifies and comforts. Any serious student of scripture knows this.
John the Baptist said that when Jesus came, he would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus confirms this in our gospel reading for today, saying: “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled!”
And so we have to ask ourselves – what kind of fire is Jesus talking about? We want to know, right? Is it the fire of God’s presence, the fire of illumination? Is it the fire of guidance and comfort? Is it the fire of judgement? Is it the fire of atonement, of reconciliation? Is it the fire of purification? The answer, of course, is yes. The answer is: “all of the above!” The fire Jesus brings is all those things and more!
Jesus is the very presence of God. He is God in the flesh, and so he illuminates for us who God really is. Jesus leads and guides us through the wilderness, through the dark of night, and into the Promised Land. Jesus brings judgement. We don’t like to talk about that, but he does. “For judgement I came into this world,” Jesus says in John chapter 9. But the thing about Jesus is that he has not just come to bring the fire of judgement – he has also come to be the altar fire which brings atonement and reconciliation. He is the refiner’s fire which purifies us through the forgiveness of sin.
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus goes on to say, “and what stress I am under until it is completed!” This is a reference to the cross. It is a figurative way to refer to his suffering and death. Jesus will soon be “fully immersed” in God’s plan to save. This is how Jesus will illuminate God’s presence with us. This is how he will lead us into the Promised Land. This is how he will simultaneously judge sin and bring atonement and reconciliation and forgiveness. It all happens through the cross. Jesus knows this won’t be pleasant. He knows it will involve betrayal and suffering and a cross – thus the stress! – but he is also looking forward to getting this fire lit.
Once lit, this fire will not bring peace to the earth. Quite the contrary. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus says, “No, I tell you, but rather division!” Jesus goes on to list all kinds of relationships which may well be burned as some people come to follow him and others do not. They include some of the closest human relationships there are. Houses will be divided, Jesus says. Children and parents will be divided.
For the earliest Christians, this is exactly what happened. Some Jews believed Jesus was the Messiah, while others did not. Before long, those who believed Jesus was the Messiah were kicked out of their synagogues, their faith communities. Some were disowned by their families. Some even faced death.
This still happens today. I know a professor at a Lutheran college in California who had a student from the Middle East. She became a Christian during her time in college. She was promptly disowned by her family and told she shouldn’t return to her home country because her life was in danger due to her conversion.
This division happens in much more subtle, but still painful ways, as well. There are plenty of marriages where one spouse believes and the other does not. Instead of faith being the glue bonding them together, it becomes a source of conflict. Other times it is little things like non-believing family members who roll their eyes when it is time to say grace, or who can’t understand why you devote so much of your time and treasure to the life of the church. Following Jesus doesn’t always result in peace. Sometimes it brings division. Sometimes households are divided.
This part of God’s Word is hard to hear, especially for those of you who are longing for peace in your marriage or peace in your family. It is hard to hear for all of us who are longing for peace in our nation and peace in our world.
“Is not my word like fire?” God says. Indeed it is. Today the lectionary reminds us of this in no uncertain terms.
But this same fire that terrifies and troubles us also gives us the sweetest comfort. You have to look really hard to see it in our gospel reading for today, but it is there.
The good news in our gospel reading for us today can be seen in the fire in Jesus’ eyes as he is about to carry out his saving work. There we see his passion for the Passion! Jesus is determined to complete the work he came to do! He is eager to get this fire lit for all to see! He is eager to get to the business of saving us, even though it means bearing a cross.
In that fire in his eyes we see his great love for us. In that fire in his eyes we see God’s great love for the whole world, a love so great that he sent his only Son to save it.
This love has been poured into our hearts through the fire of the Holy Spirit. And so even in the midst of all the divisions we see, all the divisions we so painfully experience for Christ’s sake, we know the warmth of his love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church