The Blessing of Hardships
Since this Gospel reading is intense, I thought I’d begin by admitting something kind of funny about it. When I read it this week, I pictured Jesus at a Charlie Daniels concert singing, “Fire on the mountain run boys run.”
It also made me wonder, “… how am I supposed to preach this?” It speaks of fire consuming the earth, and about teenagers hating their parents. Well, maybe that one’s not a stretch.
But I’d rather preach about the prince of peace than a man who wants to set the earth on fire. Jesus should follow the agreed upon rubric like he said in John’s Gospel, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or fearful because I leave my peace with you.”
This Gospel reading is not the prince of peace, and it made me say, “I’ll just preach the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. And then I read it. The prophet said God was tired of a vineyard not producing grapes, so God tore down the wall around it, and withhold rain so the vines die. The Psalmist even said God burned the vineyard down.
That’s not quite as happy as a Joel Osteen sermon. But I decided that priestly integrity requires the bravery to preach difficult passages too.
As I pondered the Gospel lesson, I realized fire is not always a destructive force. In the 1st century, fire was an essential element of survival. The flames of an oil lamp provided their only light at night. Flames cooked their meals and warmed their children, fire tempered their metals, and hardened their pottery.
So, fire was a coin with two sides; it can destroy, but it can save lives too. The sermon today is about The Blessings in Hardships.
Let’s look at some fiery encounters with God.
When Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring fire on the earth,” the disciples would have filtered that image through Jewish history. They didn’t hear flames as just a destructive force. In the Old Testament, fire represented encounters with God.
When Moses was a fugitive on the run from the Egyptian police, he escaped to a remote desert. Then he noticed a bush on fire. God spoke to him from the bush and told him to go back to Egypt. His encounter with God was a humiliating calling because he had to return to the family who exiled him. Yet, that call held the liberation a nation.
Jesus’s disciples also heard the story of Elijah the prophet. Their scriptures said Elijah tried to turn Israel back toward God, but they refused. They needed Baal, a god they could see and touch, instead of a God that required faith. Elijah challenged the pagan priests to a divine duel by fire; the god who sent fire won. The priests prayed, but fire didn’t fall. Elijah prayed and God sent fire from heaven to light his sacrifice.
That imagery even extends to the Gospel of Luke, and into the book of Acts. When the Holy Spirit came in the upper room, the writer called it, “Like tongues of fire.”
Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring fire…” Fire is hot, but fire can bring refinement. No matter what our circumstances are, no matter what the hardships that life forced on us, we can find God at work.
We tend to judge our success or failure by our position in life. If we made it as far, then we must be a success, if we didn’t reach our goals – or the ones someone set for us – then we failed.
Moses would differ. He would probably tell us what Dumbledore told Harry Potter; “It matters not what a person is born, but who they grow to be.”
The rough times in life are opportunities to encounter the divine.
If hardships are opportunities to encounter God, they are also opportunities for transformation.
Jesus knew that hardships mold and form us into new, stronger people.
He also knew how painful a crucible can be. He said in this passage, “I am under stress until I am baptized into the fire.” It seems he knew that crucifixion was a foregone conclusion.
But he seemed to know that change – resurrection – followed the fires of his suffering.
Sometimes the hardest times in our lives are opportunities for change. As I look back at my life can see that catastrophes turned into crucibles. Fire melted certain elements of self, and I collided with God to create a new identity, a new way of existing in the world.
But, change can scare people. Jesus even mentions that too. He said, “Children will not understand parents, and parents will not understand children after a change occurs.”
I grew up in and around the sandy pine forests of north Florida. Growing up, we would have what’s called a “controlled burn.” The underbrush on the forest floor and steal water and nutrients from the pine trees.
After we burned the underbrush, the trees were free from the vines, and the bushes that held them back from reaching their full potential. Ironically, the ashes the fire left behind served as fertilizer for the pine trees. They had to go through the fire, but they were better for it.
Carl Jung said, “The person who has not passed through the personal inferno of their addictions and fears can never overcome them.” Jung knew that a crisis is a chance for change.
Jesus knew it too. He knew that faithfulness to God, even in disappointment and failure, could bring hope. To paraphrase, “May you all experience the blessing that comes by fire.”
There’s a show on the history channel called “Forged In Fire.” They usually have four contestants who are experienced bladesmiths compete against one another to make a knife, or a sword, or a suit of armor.
What stands out to me is the temperature required to mold metal. The forge heats the metal to 2700 degrees. That’s when it surrenders to the fire allows itself to be shaped. But raw metal doesn’t go into the forge and come out a perfect reproduction of the Braveheart sword. There is a process. There’s always a process.
The bladesmith pulls the raw metal out of the fire with tongs and he puts it on a machine press. He folds it over into itself so it will stay together as it becomes a sword. After he folds it, he puts it back into the fire, heats it to temperature again, then removes it to an anvil.
He purposefully and carefully strikes it with his hammer. He hits it hundreds, even thousands of times shaping it into a sword. It goes between the heat of the fire and the hammer of the anvil dozens of times during its birthing process.
When he’s pleased with the shape, he takes it to the grinder. That’s where he smoothes the rough edges and grinds away the unneeded pieces to sharpen and polish the blade.
By the end of the show you watch fire turn a rusty car spring into a marvelous piece of art worth thousands.
Jesus said he came to send fire on the earth. The blessing of hardships is how fire refines us into inclusive people who choose the way of Jesus; The way of hope, mercy, faith, and love.
by Rian Adams