Luke 12:49-56 8/14/16 Epiphany, Norfolk

Our Gospel Reading this morning is one of my least favorite in the whole preaching cycle. It rolls around every 3 years, and I always have trouble with it. It seems that Luke pictures Jesus as really angry and confrontational, and that just doesn’t reflect the Jesus I was taught in Sunday School, or the Jesus of many of our hymns, or the Jesus of our stained glass windows, or the Jesus whose life we’re supposed to try to emulate. This seems to be an angry, “lashing out” Jesus. And that makes me uncomfortable. The probability is that he may have had that side to his personality, like all of us do, but I don’t like to look at that in the personality of Jesus, or in my own personality, either.

But there are a couple of really important themes in this morning’s readings, and one of those is the theme of “fire.” In Jeremiah we read: “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord?” There is no mention of “fire” in our Psalm. But in Hebrews we’re told that a group of patriarchs, kings, and prophets “quenched the raging fire.” And then our Gospel begins with Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”

Fire holds importance for every religion with which I am familiar, whether ancient or modern. It’s seen as one of those “hinge pin elements” of all creation. And the Hebrews were no exception. They saw God as living and hiding in fire. God appears to them in things like the burning bush. God leads them out of slavery in Egypt as a pillar of fire going before them. And God hands down the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, which scholars feel was an active volcano. So God even LIVED in fire. And because of this, burning fire was always present on Hebrew altars. And that comes down to us in the burning candles on our altar. The burning fire is seen as God’s presence all the way through the Biblical narrative, and even here in this room, today.

Well, what was it that made fire so important? Fire was multi-dimensional. It gave light, which broke the darkness and offered safety. It gave warmth. It cooked food. It sterilized. It smelted ore and made metals. It tempered metals and made them strong. It did all sorts of wonderful things, but it could also harm and destroy. If you put your hand in it, it hurt. If you kept your hand in it, your hand would disappear. It could keep a tent warm, but it could also burn down the tent. It could cook meat, but it could char a wonderful lamb chop beyond recognition.

And in volcanic form, it smelled bad, it offered mass destruction, and it was generally terrifying. As a volcano, it was a portal into the underworld, into the abyss, where humans couldn’t go. That whole Eastern Mediterranean Region has always been full of seismic activity. The earth rumbles all the time. And volcanoes do blow over there. When I was in Istanbul, the guide said that the city has over 100 “shakes” every day. The great city of Ephesus was abandoned because earthquakes made it unsafe. The buildings were falling down on the people. And so often, seismic activity is accompanied by fire.

Fire was even up in the firmament – the heavens. There was the sun, and the “night sun”, or moon. There were the stars and comets. And all of these things moved in the heavens, and it was thought, had lives of their own.

So, fire was everywhere, and with it, so was God. For many pagan religions, fire was actually a god, or there would be a “God of Fire.” For the Hebrews, it was the dwelling place of God, the “righteousness” in which God clothed himself.

So, in our Gospel this morning, Jesus says: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.” That’s a little different from how it first sounded. “I came to bring purification. I came to bring the dwelling place of God. I came to bring tempering. And yes, I came to bring destruction. Perhaps Jesus isn’t as angry as we first thought. He’s saying that he came to prepare the earth for the presence of God.

Today, if we want fire, we strike a match, or push a button, or turn a knob. It’s such a simple thing. And we have all sorts of tools for putting out a fire when we don’t want it. For the most part, fire is controllable today, except for forest fires and catastrophic fires. But, it was different in ancient times. Fire had to be kindled, or carried around, which they also did. If they were traveling, they would often “pack” a small bunch of burning coals so that they could have fire when they needed it. There was an “art” to handling fire that we just don’t need today.

We’ve also pretty much lost the idea of God and fire being so closely associated – even inseparable. For the Hebrews, fire actually became the symbol of “holiness” – or God’s presence. We’ve lost that understanding today. To share a quote from the Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary: “In most cases, fire represents the divine action on earth. As stated in Hebrews and Deuteronomy, ‘Our God is a consuming fire. Fire is God’s servant, and God’s word is like fire’.”

So, when our Gospel passage from Luke begins: “Jesus said, ‘I come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled’,” Luke is putting a lot of power in those words: purification, punishment, the divine presence, the movement and action of God. It’s a really important statement by Jesus, and quite different from how it first appears.

Amen.

Posted August 17, 2016 by Church of the Epiphany in Epiphany Moments

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