Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | August 14, 2016

2016.08.14 “Fire on the Earth” – Luke 12: 49 – 56

Central United Methodist Church
Fire on the Earth
Pastor David L. Haley
Luke 12: 49 – 56
August 14th, 2016


“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 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.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12: 49 – 56, the New Revised Standard Version


Fire? Did Jesus say fire? How have I missed this before? I know something about fire; no wonder it caught my attention.

My guess is that – for most of us – as we look back at our lives, we shake our heads in wonder at the twists and turns they make, which – in retrospect – seem providential. That’s the case with me and fire.


Chicago Fire Department Chaplains Rabbi Moshe Wolf (L) and Father Tom Mulcrone (R)

One of those twists and turns for me was a day in the late eighties, when I was pastor of Berry Memorial UMC in Lincoln Square in Chicago, living on Winnemac Street. One day my son Chris – around 6 years old at the time – came in the house and said, “Dad, there’s a fire out back.” I went out to look, and sure enough, one house away across the alley, the rear stairs of a two flat were on fire. We called 911 and heard the siren of Engine 110 on Foster Avenue start toward us, about 6 blocks away. Soon there were engines, trucks, and fire hoses all over the street. And there was also a guy standing there in a white coat and fire helmet, with a cross on the front. It was Father Tom Mulcrone, the Chicago Fire Chaplain. I thought, “They have people who do that?” I decided if I ever moved out to the suburbs, I would do that. And so, in 1990, when I moved to West Chicago, I did that, and have been doing it ever since, now as the fire Chaplain in Des Plaines and also at NIPSTA (Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy.) As the saying goes among firemen, “I’m not saying I want anybody’s house to burn down, but if it does, I want to be there when it happens.”

Like water, fire is one of earth’s most basic elements. While fire has served us humans well – providing light, keeping us warm, and cooking our food – fire out-of-control can be the “red devil,” both destructive and deadly. I hope none of you have ever been through a house fire, and I pray none of us ever do. Your whole house is trashed from ceiling to floor, from soot and smoke and fire. Many if not most of your possessions are ruined, if not from the fire from the water used to extinguish it, which runs through your house in waterfalls. Plastic objects like phones and light fixtures are melted, pets are dead in their cages or under the bed (where they try to hide); and yes – sometimes people die, sadly, including children. As a Chaplain, when I stand with someone in their front yard watching this – as long as everyone escaped and no one got hurt – I try to gently help people keep things in perspective, as devastating as it may sometimes appear. The house can be rebuilt (sometimes better than before); things can be replaced; but the people you love cannot. Thank God nobody got hurt and everybody is safe.

Do you think any of this was in Jesus’ mind when he said he came to bring a fire upon the earth? Surely, in his life he had sat around fires and seen grass fires and brush fires and maybe even house fires. Perhaps he had seen children burned by fire, a common occurrence in poorer countries where food is cooked over open fires. Did Jesus think about any of this before he said he came to bring fire on the earth? So let’s be clear here, Jesus is not saying anybody should be literally getting burned.

Please note, the clues and the context make it clear Jesus did NOT mean this literally, but metaphorically, as we must interpret much of the Bible. Remember, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, and he has a pretty good idea of what will happen there. At this point, he is seized with anxiety and urgency, in the sense of “let’s get on with it.” Just as we might resort to colorful and exaggerated language at such an anxious time, so did Jesus.

And if – as I believe – Jesus used images such as fire this way, he did so based not upon what’d he seen, but what he knew, which was that there was plenty of precedent in the history and Scriptures of ancient Israel to do so. For example, was he thinking of fire as God is a pillar of fire, leading God’s children out of bondage in Egypt and through the wilderness, as in Exodus? Was he thinking of fire as the fire of God’s judgment, which destroyed the false altars of Baal at the prophet Elijah’s God contest on Mt. Carmel, as in 1 Kings? Was he talking about the refiner’s fire, as Malachi spoke about in the book of the same name, burning away the chaff of sin or fruitless branches? And – yet to come – what of fire as the sign of God’s Spirit, and the tongues of fire that would dance over the heads of Jesus’ disciples on the Day of Pentecost? Were any or all these the fire Jesus was talking about?

Jesus resorted to what we might call prophetic hyperbole, using images such as fire and baptism and division and even the weather, to express the fear and urgency and determination he felt to change the world, to shake up the status quo, to bend the moral arc of the universe God’s way, even if it cost him his life. I’ve always liked Albert Schweitzer’s image of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, a young man who threw himself on the wheel of history in an attempt to stop it from turning, but instead it crushed him.

So the reason speaks in this exaggerated way is because for him it WAS a time of crisis – not in the sense of emergency – but in the sense of a time of truth and decision; not just for him, but for everybody. I think it is true to say that still – even on a sunny Sunday morning – how we hear and respond to the words of Jesus presents a moment of crisis for us, a moment to hear and decide and act, like sparks falling in kindling, either igniting a fire or dying out.

For this reason – because it brings about a crisis in our lives – the words and work of Jesus can go either way for us. He can show mercy, or he can bring judgment. He can immerse us in the comforting waters of baptism, or he can light a fire in our hearts. He can be a peacemaker, or he can be a divider. He can be a Gentle Shepherd or the Conquering Lamb. As Julia Ward Howe wrote in the Battle Hymn of the Republic in 1861, “In the beauty of the lilies he was born across the sea,” but he is also the one who “sets loose the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword.”

Not that this is something we want to hear. In fact, if we were to list the ten hardest sayings of the Gospels, this one would undoubtedly be on the list. The statement that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division – even among families – are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are far happier with Jesus as peacemaker than as home breaker. (Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C).

And what are we to make of the divisions about which Jesus speaks, in families? One could say that what he says is descriptive, rather than prescriptive. That is, it was not Jesus’ purpose to set children against parents or parents against children, but that these sorts of divisions can result from the changes Jesus brings, in lives and in families. It brought disruption in Jesus’ own family, when they came to get him, seeking to take him home, thinking he was “beside himself.” Remember, also in Luke’s Gospel, the story of the Prodigal Son, a parable about a father and a son estranged from each other, who were reconciled. But even that reconciliation causes disruption between the elder son and his father. Keep this in mind: even a ministry that reconciles long-standing enemies will inevitably rend relationships, if those relationships depend upon the old status quo. Ready to let the fire of God burn in your life? Get ready for the disruptions it will bring. I will warn you right now; somebody is going to throw a bucket of cold water on you, and hopefully nothing worse.

I remember the day I came home and told my parents I was switching from medicine to ministry. I was pre-med in college, for the first two years. I was working in the local emergency room. I had respected doctors who had spoken for me. And now I was going to throw it all away to become a Methodist preacher, which is I think the way they put it. (It took them awhile to come around, but after they did, they supported me all the way.) Some days, I wish I had listened to them. Maybe these were the kinds of things Jesus was talking about, when he talked about a fire being kindled, a baptism to undergo, and divisions that would arise, even among people with whom we are close. Something we might want to keep in mind, in this election year.

As difficult a saying as fire on the earth may be, our consolation is this: as painful as both real fire (I wouldn’t wish burn injuries on anybody) and metaphorical fire may be, in the end, it can sometimes be regenerative. There are certain seeds that can germinate only through the high heat of forest fires, resulting in new growth. Sometimes when your house burns, you get a bigger and better house (Don’t even THINK of torching it!)

phoenixIn ancient Greek mythology, the Phoenix was a bird of colorful plumage that was cyclically reborn, by dying in fire and then arising anew from the ashes of its predecessor.

Like the Phoenix, today the church is going through a “fiery trial” (some might even say death), and we are waiting to see what will be born. As our friend Vivian Mathews once put it (or something to this effect): “We know what we HAVE been; we just don’t know what we’re GOING to be.”

Some of us may feel like we are going through a fiery trial or purification at this time of our life, and we don’t know yet what’s going to emerge; what we’re going to be like on the other side.

But what we know is this: Jesus fiery baptism is followed by a resurrection; entering into the fire with us, he emerged as the Risen Christ. May God be with us through the fires of our life, with the hope that out of the ashes will arise healing and new life.

“When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.”

So may it be.


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