Summary: This is my "re-working" of a sermon by Richard J. Fairchild, United Church of Canada. It is hoped that this message will provide insight, inspiration, and comfort regarding Christ's words regarding the fire that has come and is coming upon the earth
THE EXTRAVAGENT PURPOSE OF GOD’S FIRE – Luke 12, 49-56
(This is my “re-working” of a sermon by Richard J. Fairchild, United Church of Canada.)
“Fire”, of which the Lord speaks in today’s Gospel lesson, is often associated with the end of times. Fires destroy. They are something of which we are afraid. And the context of today’s lesson doesn’t seem to make that fear less, and yet, as they say, “every cloud has a silver lining”. And there is good news hear as well.
The words in today’s Gospel lesson were spoken in hard times about harder times to come. Times when to speak the name of Christ -- would be judged as either insanity or treason -- times when to live by his way would be to invite criticism, scorn, anger, pity, and perhaps death -- times when families would be divided by their devotion to Christ or their refusal to be devoted to Christ. Such a time occurred during the early centuries of persecution of the Church.
Are we exempt from these words in our time? Or will the sword that divides and the fire that purges become a part of life for Christians again. Maybe that kind of thing is no longer a concern for us. Maybe the time of fire and sword has passed? In a way we should hope so. But notice that Jesus comments that he wishes the fire he had been sent to bring was already kindled. Why? What does he mean by this statement?
Well, obviously he doesn’t wish for persecution for Christians. So the fire must refer to something else in this case. The fire to which he is referring in this case must not be a bad thing because Jesus is looking forward to it burning and blazing.
The idea of fire is usually associated with something that
is negative. It is associated with death and destruction, especially
when this fire is from God. Our Heavenly Father has said on more than one occasion that "his wrath goes forth like fire", and "that his anger burns like fire". In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is obviously criticizing the hypocrites who oppose his message, as he often does. But is he wishing for a fire that will be a type of revenge that will mop up all the filth and garbage of sinfulness—a purging and refining of the earth through fire. His enemies quite possibly thought so. And today many people glory in the idea of God’s victory when all evil will be sent into a lake of fire. There is, however, a double meaning in what Christ is saying, and it is this second less obvious meaning that I would like for us to think about today.
Some preachers make fortunes prophesying doom over television and speaking of eternal life as if it were some kind of heavenly insurance policy that can be purchased by sending them donations. They babble on as if there is no mystery as to how God is going to wrap this story up - pointing fingers at the signs of time and declaring their full meaning, and the exact sequence of things to come - even though Jesus himself said that no man, not even the Son, knows the time, but only the Father. I’ve never been a fan of such preachers, and never quite understood why so many people listen to those who speak of the fire that Jesus spoke about as the being mainly about the wrath of God. There seems to be no room left for peace in such a focus, no room for purity of purpose.
Yes, Jesus said: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! And he continued, "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division" "You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?"
Yet it was fire that Moses saw in a bush, and fire which led the people by night through the wilderness. It was fire that touched the lips of the prophet Isaiah when he was called to proclaim God to Israel and fire that fell upon and consumed the Alter of Baal when Elijah prayed.
"Is not my word like fire", says the LORD, "and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?" And it is tongues of fire that descends upon the heads of the apostles and of all the believers gathered in the upper room? Fire may be frightening to the non-believer. But there is a rich history of fire being a blessing for the believer as well.
Yes, fire can be very destructive. Just ask those who have lost their homes for forest fires this summer. This sort of loss should be prevented if at all possible, but fire also does good things. Without fire the lodge-pole pine does not effectively reproduce. Without fire the undergrowth chokes out new seedlings. Without fire the forest is not renewed.