12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;
12:53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Sermon for August 18, 2019, “The Transforming Fire of God”
Did you really say “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ” after the Gospel reading? Was it easy to sing Alleluia? If it was, I’m not sure you really heard the Gospel reading this morning. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” or as Eugene Peterson put it in his Message version, Jesus said, “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth- how I wish it were blazing right now!” Who says that? “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” What happened to Jesus here? I hope you asked yourself after the reading, “Wait a minute, didn’t Jesus come to bring peace?” Jesus is the savior in the prophecies who would “guide our feet into the way of peace” and who is himself “the prince of peace.” Now, Luke tells us he brings fire and division? What do we do with this?
I don’t know about your experience of this Gospel reading, but it’s really hard to give thanks for a reading like that. In a nation and world filled with such divisiveness, it seems like the last thing we need is a Gospel reading where Jesus, the one we follow, appears to be calling us to division. This is an extremely difficult and challenging word from Jesus. That’s the point.
I attempted to preach on this passage once. The key word there was “attempt.” I don’t remember enough to tell you how the sermon was, but I do remember trying to defend the Jesus I knew and loved, not the Jesus found in the reading. We, or maybe I, would rather shy away from the Jesus of transformation, the Jesus who challenges us, the Jesus who is not comfortable. That’s the Jesus we find in this passage in Luke. The Jesus of this passage is unsettling and disruptive and we should let him be, instead of turning the page to find the gentle and comfortable Jesus we all know and love.
Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. While it sounds absurd, Jesus is not referring to a burning inferno across the City of Jerusalem or even South Bend. What does fire do? It destroys, yes, but it also purifies and refines. This brings us back to Luke 3, where we read of John the Baptist reminding us that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” It’s a fire of purification and refinement. The other way Scripture uses fire is to suggest God’s presence like God being found in the “pillar of fire” in Exodus or when the prophets refer to God’s consuming fire. We can make the connection here that if we know God’s presence, then purification and refinement can and will take place. Who would not be transformed by God’s fiery presence? It’s like the words out of Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord?” The fire Jesus wants to kindle is the fire of change and transformation, the fire of God’s active presence in the world.
Let me go back to Eugene Peterson’s Message version once again. Jesus said, “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth – how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right side up- how I long for it to be finished! Do you think I have come to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront!” I have come to disrupt. Jesus is a redeemer by disruption. Jesus calls us to transformation and justice, to fire and even division. Jesus came to disrupt and burn up, Jesus came to divide so there may be a different kind of unity.
There’s a clear connection here with Mary’s song or canticle of Luke 1. As Mary proclaimed, “God has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.” Mary speaks of this upside world where God’s Kingdom, God’s fire, God’s ability to transform comes to earth as it already is in heaven. Mary’s son, Jesus, then becomes the one who will proclaim and embody the disruption of the social order of the earth.
What needs to be disrupted or transformed in our world today? Earlier this year in late January, we had a good amount of snow in Indianapolis. So much snow, we weren’t sure how many people would find their way down Meridian Street to church that morning. Being the good stewards of our sermons that we are, we didn’t want to use the well prepared, well-crafted sermon on the 20 people who would show up. So, as I sat there early that Sunday morning watching the snow fall with our church staff trying to figure out what to do, I finally suggested, “Why don’t we read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.” It was just days from MLK Day. It’s an extremely powerful letter written to white mainline clergy of his day, including the Methodist bishop, who took a letter in the Birmingham paper pleading with Dr. King to not do the marches and to give them more time. The white mainline clergy sought calm not peace, for as Dr. King said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
In the letter Dr. King penned some of his greatest and most challenging quotes to not just the white church, but the country who would rather turn it’s face and ignore racism and white nationalism. To them, to us, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
I have to share this lengthy quote from his letter this morning, “I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the (black community’s) great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the (black community) to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
“I came to bring fire to the earth. I have come to bring division. Households will be divided.” I have to tell you that during worship that snowy morning in January, we never made it through the entire letter from Dr. King. I didn’t realize it was so long, I think the congregation would have preferred a sermon, but there we sat for nearly half an hour reflecting on Dr. King’s words for us today. Then we sat silent.
We knew what Dr. King was challenging us to do. We knew what Jesus wanted from us, but we sat there silent, considering whether we had the faith or the courage to act. Jesus came to disrupt and confront. Jesus came to transform and purify. “The world’s well-being doesn’t just spring into existence because everyone wants it. The truth must be told of the injustices happening around us. Fire is, after all, about refining. And refining hurts, especially for those of us who have a lot of impurities sticking to us. Too often we resist Jesus.” We prefer comfort, security, or even peace at all costs, at any costs, even if that includes the lives of our oppressed brothers and sisters who are refugees, immigrants, black, and Hispanic. Do you see now the division to which Jesus speaks? The greatest commandment to love God and love neighbor is not a simple, idealistic hope; it’s a commandment, a requirement to love. To believe that is one thing, but to live it out is another. To live it, may in fact bring division.
Bishop Will Willimon who served as the Chaplain of Duke University told the story of how he invited a football player from Duke to have lunch with him. During the lunch conversation, Bishop Willimon asked him, “What do you think of worship in Duke Chapel?” He said, “Well, I never think about it.” Bishop Willimon responded, “Well you’ve gone to the chapel, so what’s the impression that you get?” The football player responded that he had never been inside of Duke Chapel after two years on campus. Of course, Bishop Willimon asked, “Why?” The football player said, “Well, I went to church as a kid and what I picked up is that you Christians are always wanting to change people. You’re into conversation and you’re always wanting people to be better people and be different. And frankly, I’m kind of happy with my life the way it is right now. I’m ok. And that’s why I don’t want to come to chapel.”
Bishop Willimon responded, “That’s a surprisingly perceptive comment from a defensive lineman. Let me get this straight, you’re not coming to church for any of the conventional reasons, ‘I don’t like the preacher,’ ‘I’ve heard it all before,’ ‘I don’t like the music.’ No, you’re saying you don’t want to come to church because you don’t want to take the risk of getting hooked up with a disruptive savior.” The football player simply said, “Right,” to which Willimon responded, “That’s wonderful, I’m going to take that and frame it and put it over the front door of the chapel that reads, ‘Don’t you dare come in here if you’re not willing to risk disruption.”
On one hand Jesus’ challenge and desire for transformation is corporate. “I came to bring fire to the earth.” It’s about disrupting all that holds us back as a people from experiencing the Beloved Community. It’s also a call to personal transformation. To even allow for the refinement of fire to be kindled, we first have to recognize the sin and evil in the world, see it, name it, and repent or turn from it. It’s easy to see the corporate evil in the world, but what happens when we recognize it in us.
Jesus’ desire in this reading really reflects his overall mission in the Gospels. His baptism, that he clearly speaks of in this passage, seems to be an allusion to the cross. Jesus, who embodies fully the presence of God, is not simply desiring purification and transformation, but he bears it himself. His entire mission is to bring the Kingdom of God, the Beloved Community, and to call people to repentance, which is really transformation. Jesus’ mission is about the transformation of the world and our own transformation.
I have heard it said that Jesus’ entire mission was simply, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand. The great activist and theologian Clarence Jordan reworked Jesus’ mission to read, “Change your whole way of thinking, because God’s new order is breaking in right now [and you can be part of it].” That’s why Jesus came. He came to disrupt our comfortable lives to invite us into a new reality, a new order, a new world defined by God’s Kingdom breaking in right now. And for that, may we say with our lives, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!”
Let us pray:
May we be burned by your transforming, refining, purifying fire, O Lord. We pray for the courage to not just embrace it, but be disrupted by it. So we reluctantly pray for your disrupting fire to come to our earth and our lives bringing forth justice and your Kingdom. We pray this in the fiery name of Christ. Amen.
 Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary