I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to hear Jesus call out, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)
But that isn’t what we hear from Jesus in today’s gospel. Far from being the Comforter offering us refuge, here Jesus announces he has come to bring fire and division. It’s not exactly the image of the reconciling God of love who we meet in other parts of the gospels.
Speaking to his disciples still, Jesus tells them, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50) Like the candy bar commercial that says, “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” this Jesus doesn’t sound like the Jesus we think we know when we sing “Jesus Loves Me.” One colleague suggested she’d like to take him aside and offer him a cup of tea.
But maybe that dissonance is exactly what Jesus intends – he wants to get our attention and he wants us to understand the urgency of the gospel that calls us to “stand before God with open hearts, seeking God’s forgiveness and the courage to live a Christlike life”.[i]
Jesus’ stress is not the anxiety of everyday life, but the weight of mercy. He understands that compassion, mercy and justice shatter the status quo and that discipleship demands choosing sides. [ii]
As much as we appreciate the constant flame that represents the light of Christ in our worship or enjoy the flickering glow of a summer campfire,
when Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth” (Luke 12:49a) many of us hear a threat of hellfire and damnation, retribution or destruction.
But fire is used throughout Scripture, and in fact in many world religions, as a symbol of divine presence, for both blessing and punishment.[iii]
Our Old Testament text comes from Jeremiah whose prophetic ministry began in 626 BCE and ended sometime after 586. Denouncing false prophets in an oracle of the Lord to the people of Judah, he says, “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29) Fire destroys what is false.
Another prophet Zechariah, who was also a priest, was born in exile in Babylonia, he was among those who returned to Judah in 538 BCE.[iv] Speaking of the remnant of God’s people who would be restored to proper relationship with God, he spoke of refining fire, saying, “This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold.” (Zechariah 13:9)
Third Isaiah also speaks to the post-exilic people, saying, “See, I have refined you, but not like silver; I have tested you in the furnace of adversity.” (Isa 48:10)
A refiner’s fire is a very intense fire used to purify metals; after the metal is heated to a molten state, the refiner then skims off the dross that floats to the top. In another refining process, the ore is melted and then hot air is blown “over the surface of the melted metal. The lead [changes] to lead oxide which, in a powdered condition, [is] driven away by the air blast” and what remains is a silver substance.[v] Fire purifies, stripping away the gunk and garbage we accumulate.
And images of fire like these continue in the New Testament. In Luke’s gospel, when John the Baptizer announces Jesus is coming, he proclaims,
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Luke 3:16-17)
Pastor and scholar Fred Craddock suggests, “The primary goal is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff.” (Craddock, 49) And again in Acts, we have the story of Pentecost when “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among [the apostles], and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:3-4) Fire signifies divine activity and presence.
New Testament scholar Matt Skinner writes, “The flame that Jesus wants to kindle is a fire of change, the fire of God’s active presence in the world. No wonder he is so eager to strike the match.”[vi]
Writer Annie Dillard captured the exasperation we hear from Jesus. She wrote:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? …. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and 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 someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[vii]Jesus wanted his disciples and all of us who follow Him to see that baptism in Christ is not fire insurance; it is a high-risk activity. In fact, it demands our death!
Lutheran scholar Steven Paulson defines baptism as “God’s attack on sin by attacking the sinner; it is death.”[viii] Paulson writes,
Sin’s power is to point the finger; death is to believe sin….But to believe sin is to call God a liar and negate Christ’s cross. Baptism is the only thing that stops the voice of sin along with its accusing finger once and for all.[ix]
In baptism Christ puts to death to the ‘old Adam’ and gives birth to a new creation, and in Christ, our lives are no longer captive to sin, death and the devil. Luther taught that, when sin or the devil tempts us, we must boast, “I am baptized!” claiming the promise of faith we receive in baptism. Paulson writes, “Faith says to sin what law cannot: “But I have died! Why are you still pestering me?”[x]
Baptism is our inauguration into a new life in Christ. We cannot keep the status quo or leave the hard work to others; Christ calls us to follow, and through God’s promised presence and activity in our lives, the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify us and urges us forward.
Let us pray…
We give thanks for your mercy and forgiveness.
When we fail to remember the freedom of our baptized life, startle and awaken us to Your call on our lives.
Refine us and remove the dross that tarnishes our reflection of You and our witness in the world.
By your Holy Spirit encourage us and empower us to strive for justice and peace and serve all people, following the example of Your Son.
We pray in the name of Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
[i] Patricia Lull. Feasting on the Word. Kindle edition.
[ii] Richard Carlson. Feasting on the Word. Kindle edition.
[iii] Gail Ramshaw. “Fire”, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary. 161.
[iv] NIV, p. 1405.
[v] https://biblehub.com/topical/r/refining.htm, accessed 8/16/19
[vi] Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56”. workingpreacher.org
[vii] Annie Dillard. Teaching a Stone to Talk.
[viii] Steven D. Paulson. Lutheran Theology. 155.
[ix] Paulson, 160.
[x] Paulson, 164.