About a month ago when Karen and I arranged for me to offer a reflection, she asked if I had any particular passage I wanted to work with ... or would I perhaps like to make use of the Lecitonary readings for this Sunday. I glibly responded, “Oh, I’ll definitely use the Lectionary readings ... how else would I be able to choose a theme?”
Well, this past week when I finally took a look at these suggested readings, I discovered that my “easy” response was a classic case of “Be Careful What You Ask For”. The passages from Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5 hold within them such a punitive, violent, even vengeful streak; all messages that would well belong in a rather frightening “fire and brimstone” sermon. Definitely NOT my style!
An excerpt from Psalm 80 (4-6): “Oh Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbours; our enemies laugh among themselves.”
Or from Isaiah 5(5): “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall and it shall be trampled down.”
I won’t even mention the brutality of the Hebrews 11 selection!
As I worked through each passage, I held out hope that at least the Gospel reading would offer something more palatable. Imagine my dismay when I discovered Jesus himself espousing a similarly harsh message!
I come to bring fire to the earth ... Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
I realized that what disturbed me about this was the way Jesus’ words here seem to collide with my vision and experience of God - God as compassionate, forgiving, welcoming, accepting. I was unsettled by the way this proclamation seems so incompatible with the Jesus whom we see throughout the Gospels as giving everything of himself for the healing and loving and embracing of all people. Initially I wanted to bury my ostrich head in the sand and look for a more comforting, comfortable – at least tamer – passage. But then I realized what would disturb me more would be to turn away from it. Where would be the courage in that? Where would be the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone for the sake of hopefully widening my understanding and vision and experience of the breadth of who God is?
And so I find myself striding into the mire – taking you all along with me – clinging to the hope that we will emerge relatively unscathed (though likely somewhat blessedly seared) ... and certainly enriched into a more expansive relationship with God.
So what is it with this image of FIRE? My first reaction is to see it as a frightening force of destruction, for surely fire does destroy whatever is in its path. It can feel vengeful and punitive. But as I lived with this piece throughout the week, I began to see it less as a threatening word and more as a promising assurance. Aren’t there, after all, things that NEED to be destroyed? What person among us does not yearn for the eradication of abuse and injustice, of oppression and hatred – of evil in all its myriad forms? This, I think, is the context in which Jesus says he “came to bring fire to the earth”. Not for the sake of being punitive or vengeful, but as a purifying force strong enough to take on the worst the world can throw in the face of God and to painstakingly transform it into the world as it should be ... the world as God so achingly desires it to be ... what Jesus time and time again named as “the Kingdom of God”.
But given that abuse and injustice, oppression and hatred, evil in all its myriad forms still exist 2,000 years after Jesus made this bold statement, what do we make of it as a promise? Was this just naïve wishful thinking on Jesus’ part? Or is there really some power behind it? I wonder if the key lies not just in setting our sights on that eschatological ‘end game’ Jesus envisioned when all of creation would indeed be transformed into what God so desires and intends it to be, but also in recognizing the way Jesus envisioned the Kingdom of God unfolding and taking root in our ‘here and now’. He never suggested it would be a ‘once and for all’ lightning bolt intervention.
He always intimated it would emerge piece by piece, through one transformed empowered life at a time. So maybe if we turn our gaze to specific scenarios, we will see how this fiery Kingdom of God is in fact always and ever coming into being, burning away the dross in its path as it does so.
- through the likes of organizations such as Medecin Sans Frontieres which strides into the very frontlines of the world’s worst humanitarian crises to bring medical care to whomever needs it;
- through the likes of Malala Yousafzai who continues to fight for the education of women where it is denied and whose advocacy has grown into an international movement;
- through the likes of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate crisis activist who has become the voice of a generation fighting to protect our planet
- very possibly through the likes of people YOU know personally who are dedicating their energy and whole beings to supporting life and love around them in a whole host of ways
- and dare I suggest, through the likes of our very own selves as we risk opening ourselves to God’s passionate – at times very uncomfortable and unsettling – call on our own lives, watching for ways in which God lights a fire in our bellies to take action within our own sphere of influence.
Now this is where we need to take note of Jesus’ second startling proclamation: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” The division of which Jesus speaks is an inevitable result of the purifying fire he bears. Division that is so disruptive that not even the most sacrosanct and intimate of relationships – that between family members – will be exempt.
Wherever people take a stand against situations and systems that propagate abuse, injustice, oppression, hatred; wherever people commit themselves to heralding in the Kingdom of God, there will unavoidably be discord with any who are determined to cling to their unjust power structures. Even as Jesus DOES come to establish a rule of peace, this way of peace – to quote Kayla McClurg – “will not necessarily be peaceful but will be littered with division and disarray ... The realm that Jesus brings into fullness is not a dreamy paradise set outside our anguish, not an airy realm removed from the current chaos. It is here and now, in the very context of division and discord.” 1
Somehow this enables me to take heart. Because in the end, what keeps this fire and its consequent divisiveness from being terrifying to me is that it emanates from and is held tenaciously in the loving trustworthy heart of God. It emanates from and is held tenaciously in Jesus’ own resolute unfaltering engagement with his calling to embody God – in all of God’s untameable, uncontainable and yes, at times fierce fullness ... bringing this fiery essence of God into the midst of all humanity and right into the core of our beings. Did you notice that nestled between Jesus’ proclamation about coming to bring fire to the earth and his warning that he comes to bring not peace but divisiveness, he poignantly almost groans, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” You can hear both the anguish and the yearning in it, can’t you? At great cost to himself, he doesn’t just unleash this fire and inevitable discord and then walk away, leaving us to our own devices. He knows that he must enter into the struggle himself; he must indeed give his whole self – his very life – to unleash the power needed to bring to fruition the Kingdom of God. And here’s the clincher: we too are called to participate in this holy, challenging, audacious endeavour.
Yet how can we possibly do this? I think it starts with us asking ourselves the hard question, “What in my own life needs to be disrupted, burned up, and remade – even at the risk of causing holy discord – to make way for God’s irrepressible presence to live in and through me ... for my own sake, for the sake of my relationships with others and the world ... for the sake of igniting the Kingdom of God in our midst?”
Of one thing we can be sure: This will call out of us great courage. There will be nothing tame or comfortable about it. I am reminded of a gripping scene from one of the books in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. The incorrigible cousin Eustace has, by an act of his own greed, been turned into a dragon. Needless to say, he desperately wants to be rid of this scaly dragon skin. But he is unable to do so himself, for each time he scratches it away, it reappears. Only Aslan – that magnificent Christ-figure of a lion – is powerful enough with his mighty claws to scrape away the thick skin to release the renewed boy from within.
For Eustace, this is excruciatingly painful, absolutely necessary, and in the end exquisitely life-restoring. For us I suspect this renewing process will not be a ‘once and for all’ lightning bold intervention ... far more likely, it will be a life-long undertaking of relinquishing time and time again our inner beings to the searing transformative touch of Christ. But with Christ’s strong trustworthy presence emboldening our hearts, maybe – just maybe – we will have the courage to say, “Bring on the holy fire!”
1 (Passage by Passage; Revised Common Lectionary Year C; pg 48)