Uh-oh. Here comes “mean Jesus” again. Doggone it, just last week it was, “Fear not, little flock, God will take care of you.” But now, Jesus is talking about starting fires… and bringing division. He gets that way sometimes… like the time he said to cut off your hand and pluck out your eye if it offends you (Mark 9:43-47). Or the time when Jesus told a would-be follower who had asked for time to bury his father to “Let the dead bury their own dead” and to another who had asked leave to say goodbye to his family, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 57-62). Goodness! But you’ll recall, at least I hope you’ll recall, from our previous reflections on these Gospel stories, in which Jesus almost seems to be trying to hurt our feelings, Jesus isn’t being mean at all. Jesus is trying to point us towards certain truths that transcend our concept of reality. The comforts and pleasures of this world are nothing compared to the joy we will experience in heaven. Life on earth isn’t really life. Death isn’t the end. Don’t waste your time and energy on worldly “goodbyes…” strive first for the Kingdom. Keep your eyes on the prize.
And now it’s fire. And strife. Great. A lot of times when I think of fire, fire writ large, I think of the Great Fire of London in 1666 or the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or of the firebombing of European and Japanese cities during World War II. The human and economic toll from these sorts of fires was nothing short of catastrophic. This time of year, I’m particularly aware of wildfires raging across tens of thousands of acres in the Western United States, destroying or killing everything in their path: trees, homes, animals… people. And even on a smaller scale, such as a house or apartment building fire, the cost to family and community is devastating. Fire scares me. But I have to remember that we control and use fire to accomplish good things too: for light, for food, for travel and sanitation. I guess it’s the capricious and uncontrollable nature of fire that makes me uncomfortable. Except… that even uncontrolled fires can be beneficial. Over the past century, we’ve learned that periodic small set fires or “controlled burns” help keep the flammable understory of a forest (i.e., dead and decaying trees, low growing grasses, shrubs etc.) in check, thus allowing for new growth and preventing larger fires from becoming raging conflagrations. And we know that nitrogen and other nutrients remaining after a fire are leached back into the soil as rain soaks the ground. This is one of the ways in which nature “recycles” itself… even through fire and flood. God never wastes anything.
Jesus knows that we have a tendency to become complacent, to get a little too comfortable (self-indulgent), in our daily lives, and that we need to be shaken up from time to time, to help us maintain our focus on what’s important. And here’s the thing: complacency is part of the human condition… it’s kind of in our DNA! But there are lots of things in our DNA that we are put on earth to strive against: things like our capacity for anger and violence, lust, greed, laziness, envy… and pride. It’s OK to be tempted. It’s not OK to be forever giving in to temptation. And, as I believe I’ve said before, from this very pulpit, Jesus loves you just the way you are… but he’s not going to leave you that way. It wouldn’t be love to leave you that way. Jesus’ love is sometimes tough love. It has to be. Because our sinfulness can be a tough nut to crack.
So, watch for the signs. Can you smell the smoke? Do you see the flames? Do you hear the sound of brother fighting against brother? Can you see the results of children being estranged from their parents? Do you feel the strife between families and nations? How could you not? And no, I’m not predicting the Rapture or the Parousia… the Second Coming. I’m talking about the fire that Jesus is bringing into the world to burn away the understory of your life… the temptations and pitfalls that distract you from the purpose God has in store for you. I’m talking about the opposition you’ll encounter from family, friends and neighbors who seethe smoke and feel the heat, but resist the call to give in to God’s movement and purpose in their lives. Amendment of life is key to salvation. You can’t do it for them, but you can set an example of what it means to give in to God, what it means to be church. Jesus has set that example for us.
The baptism that Jesus is talking about is his death and resurrection. He knew it was coming, and he knew it was going to be excruciatingly hard. He also knew it was humanity’s last, best hope of being reconciled or “at-oned” with God… which is the path to our salvation. The Apostle Paul writes that, “The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). We, who have been baptized into Jesus’ death have also been baptized into his resurrection, by God’s grace, so that we too might walk in newness of life. My brothers and sisters, this is a big deal. This is everything! God is on the move. Can you feel the heat? Don’t run from it… become part of it. Embrace it. It’s what you were made to do.