Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Sending of Fire

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Luke 12:49-56

"I came to cast fire on the earth…"

Do you know what a fire camp is? I didn’t until I saw one. On our vacation one of the roads we needed to go on was closed because of bad fires in northern Montana. Thankfully, the road was reopened and we were able to go on it. As we were driving we saw a sign that said “Slow, Fire Camp Ahead”. We wondered what that was until we got to it and saw that they had set up a temporary camp for all the firefighters and other people helping fight the fires.

We never saw the fire but we saw plenty of smoke. We also saw the tremendous amount of people and resources poured into stamping the fire out. Fires are a mighty force. If you’re in the way of a wildfire you have no chance, you will lose. It’s a sad fact that there are fire fighters, people who are trained to be safe and skillfully attack fires, who lose their lives in action. Wild fires are destructive and powerful. That there are people willing to put their lives on the line to put them out, to save homes and lives, shows how wild fires can be very bad.

So why would Jesus come to earth to cast fire upon it? Fire will destroy most of what’s in its path. Why would Jesus come in order to bring something that destroys?

Well, it sounds kind of strange, but Jesus is delivering something to us that we need. To understand this, think for a moment about life. You don’t have to think long to acknowledge that things are not always clean in life. Life is messy at times. It’s difficult at times; more often than not, seemingly. The fact is, circumstances in life are not always what we’d like or what seem best.

Why does God allow things to not go smoothly in our lives when that time could be better used to serve Him? Why does He allow us to suffer illness when we could be using that time to witness to other people? We tend to look at our circumstances and think of them as negative if they’re not ideal for us. We know it’s true, that things won’t always go the way we want them to. And yet, when they don’t go well for us we struggle not only with that, but with why they don’t always go well.

The way Jesus answers this problem is not by taking our problems away but by stating straight out that as Christians things will be difficult for us. And not only that, He will be the source of some of those difficulties. That doesn’t make sense to us, but He’s not coming to us with the intent to have things meet with our understanding. Part of the mess we’re in is because we want to have things go according to how we’d like them to be. Jesus says, Nope, it’s gotta be the way I will show you how it is.

So the real question we should be asking is not, why is it so difficult to live as a Christian, but what is Christ doing in my life for my benefit? We know a lot about how we think things should be but come up short when it comes to discerning God’s will for our lives.

How we know what God’s will is for us is by looking to Jesus. I know that sounds pretty straightforward, but really it’s not. When we look to Jesus we need to see Him for who He really is and what He came to do. In the case of what He says here He says that He has come to bring fire on the earth. And He has come to bring not peace but division. Okay, so now instead of scratching our heads and wondering why He would say something so strange or complain that that’s not very Jesus-like for Him to do this, we should be looking to Him for the answer. The answer is not in what is happening to us in this life. The answer is in who Christ is and what He has done.

What that is is undergoing a baptism. This is something more than the Baptism He received at the Jordan River from John. This is a baptism of fire. This is something no one would want to go through. No one, that is, but Jesus. And even He according to His human nature sought from His Heavenly Father a way to avoid it. What Jesus really did was choose it willingly.

When we hear that He’s bringing fire on the earth we react negatively toward that. Whereas He willingly chooses the suffering. Do we complain because we’re suffering? Look at what Jesus said about the time until He would suffer His baptism by fire: “how great is My distress until it is accomplished.” What Jesus brings upon the earth—fire, division—does not compare to what Jesus Himself underwent. The fire and division Jesus brings upon the earth must be seen and understood in light of who Jesus is and what He came to do. That’s why He alerts us to His baptism of fire He underwent for the world.

Jesus willingly stood in the path of the fire to be destroyed so that we could escape the ravages of the fire of God’s wrath for our sin. There’s no question Jesus has brought upon the earth a destructive force to destroy it. That’s because we need to be destroyed—more specifically, our sinful flesh. Our life will not last forever on this earth. What comes at our death is either heaven or hell. He does not want to see us suffer in hell forever, that’s why He came to save us.

That’s fantastic, obviously. But why does He want us to suffer now? Why bring the fire and division upon us in this life when His ultimate desire and work is to bring us to heaven where we’re free from all the hardship and division of this world? Again, we must look to Him for the answer. Who He is and what He has done. The answer is found in His baptism at the cross.

If we lament that we suffer here; that it’s hard being a Christian; that God doesn’t seem to be helping us out—we’re not looking to the cross. We’re not looking to the trial and division Jesus endured for us. We’re not looking to that one place where He answers all of our questions and meets all of our fears and confusion. We’re looking rather to our current circumstances and how we’re fed up with them.

Jesus didn’t just come to bring fire and division upon the earth. He came to bring Himself to the earth. He brought salvation with Him, undergoing a blessed event of being anointed in Baptism by His Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit at the Jordan and a stunning and terrible event in His baptism by fire on the cross. He bowed down before the blaze of God’s wrath. He was cut off from the presence of His Heavenly Father. He was a man of sorrows, but with only one thought foremost in His mind and heart: you, me, and the world. Christ suffered in such a way so that we may live forever.

When wildfires start on their own they not only destroy the trees and vegetation, but also a lot of built up dead leaves, vegetation, and wood, that is a burden on the forest. A wildfire clears that away making way for new growth to come. New trees pop up. New vegetation springs up. The forest in a sense is reborn.

So are we in Baptism, where Christ casts His holy fire upon our sinful flesh, melting it away. What emerges from this amazing event is new life. We spring forth into new life because the fire of God’s love has not only destroyed our sinful flesh but has purified us as His very own people. Amen.


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