Summary: God wants for us the fullest, richest and deepest life we can have because he loves us. In return, he expects us to do Christ's work in this place, and in our own generation. In his name and by his power, we are to confront the world of evil.
Three men died and were waiting to receive entrance through the Pearly Gates. The first man said to St. Peter, "I was a preacher of the gospel, serving faithfully for over 50 years". Peter told him to step aside for further consideration. The second man said, "I was also a preacher of the gospel; I served my church faithfully for 40 years". Peter told him to step aside for further consideration. The third man stepped up and said, "I was not a preacher, just a government worker with the Canada Revenue Agency for 6 months". Peter told him to step right in. The first minister objected, "Why does he get to go in before two ministers?" Peter said, "The truth is, in six months the Canada Revenue Agency agent scared the devil out of more people than either of you did in a long lifetime!"
Jesus' harsh words to the crowds about not being able to interpret the signs of the times were a good wake-up call for those who were gathering to see the spectacle of this upstart preacher-man from Nazareth, but not quite seeing that He was the long-awaited Messiah. These words were meant to reorient their lives to what was important. That is, to reorient their lives to ever be seeking what God is up to right here, right now. We look at the rumblings of war, of earthquakes, of hurricanes and wonder if the end times are upon us. When all the while we are to be looking not there, but at Christ, at the hope he offers, the forgiveness he bears for us and for all people, the promise that his Spirit will roam this earth until Christ himself comes again.
Jesus' words remind us that we need to set fire to the old so that the new can emerge, just like new life emerges from the destruction of a fire. God's love is often bad news to people of privilege and power because Jesus provides a higher authority than the law of the land or religious practice. For example, Christ's birth was a threat to King Herod's power. The church's spiritual source of wisdom, without hesitation or apology, asserts that a nation which fuels its economy on greed (that is, at the expense of others' basic needs) is a nation under God's judgment. The sword of divine justice hangs over all of us.
The gospel was compared to fire because it violently changes the face of things. Fire is the emblem of discord, contention and calamities. If fire refers to judgment, this happens when our godlessness is revealed to us as we inflicted pain and death on the innocent Son of God. Fire is both a source of destruction and a source of rebirth or new life.
Jesus uses the metaphor of fire's destructive power to urge us to follow him and give up our earthly lives. We are materially rich and spiritually poor. Money has begun to obscure some of our more important values. Society has reached new lows in terms of public morality, whether it be sex scandals or traditional values. We are apprehensive in spite of advances in science, medicine, agriculture, communications and so on. Is our fear due to our spiritual poverty? We are afraid because of the emptiness in our lives. We have a God-shaped void that has never been adequately filled.
God is with us regardless of what the future brings, but we have to regain our connection with Him. We need to focus less on our earthly, material resources for security and more on the Rock of Ages. God carves men and women to be with Him forever. He fills them with good things; makes them to love, care, learn and grow; and fashions them into what he was and is. We can do God's work with confidence, but we have to let go of our sinful nature. It entangles our lives, distorts our vision and robs us of spiritual vitality and stamina.
Choosing to love and follow Jesus will create division and conflict. The sword of division about which Jesus spoke is the result of Christ-like love. To love people as Jesus did is to stand for something. To stand for justice is to stand against injustice. To stand for truth is to oppose hypocrisy and falsehood. To be a Christian is to love all that Christ loved and to be an enemy of all that crucified him. To follow him is to make enemies. Jesus was awarded a cross, and he bids us to take up our cross and follow him. We all have worth in the eyes of God, regardless of social status, income, etc. He calls all of us to love each other as he loves us. If we cannot love our neighbour, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.