Every once in awhile when I finish reading the Gospel lesson for the weekend, it is a challenge for me to say with a straight face, “And this, my friends, is the Good News – it is the Gospel of the Lord.”
This does not sound like the Jesus that we know. At least, not the Jesus that we want to hear from, and learn more about. This is the same Jesus who – just last week – said to us, “Have no fear little flock, it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Just a few verses earlier. Same chapter. Same crowd. Say what?
Ok. If you’re as confused as I am – and quite frankly – I was very tempted this week to preach on the reading from Hebrews that is also assigned for this weekend instead – but if you’re scratching your head over just what in the world Jesus is talking about here – well – so am I. This is what we might call one of the hard sayings of Jesus.
So let’s take a look – first of all – what Jesus means when he says, “I have come to bring fire on the earth.” Then we’ll look at what he’s talking about when he says he did not come to bring peace, but division.
It’s hard to know exactly what Jesus meant when he talks about fire here. Fire is often used to refer to judgment. But fire is also what we see happening on the day of Pentecost. That was the day when the disciples were all together in one place – the Holy Spirit came upon them – they began speaking in different languages – AND tongues of fire appeared over their heads.
But fire can also be used to refine things. For instance, fire is used to separate metals from the rocks that they are found in. Fire is a refining tool.
So I would like to suggest that when Jesus talks about bringing fire on the earth – it is a fire of judgment – AND it is a refiner’s fire – AND that this is the work of the Holy Spirit. Are you still with me?
Let me share with you a story that might help illustrate what I’m talking about here. “Loren was only fourteen years old when he entered a life of petty crime. By the time he was seventeen he had become one of the regulars in the county juvenile justice system. At eighteen, the judge gave him a choice: enter the army or do hard time in a state penitentiary. He volunteered for the army and was sent to Vietnam. It was at the height of that bloody conflict. He was assigned to a ‘graves unit’ where he worked to identify, tag, and then ship the bodies of young men killed in battle. The judge hoped military service would discipline him. It didn't. When he returned to his hometown, he was even more troubled. In Southeast Asia, he compounded his alcohol problem by taking illegal drugs. With this new addiction, his life of crime took a leap into an abyss. This one-time juvenile delinquent started doing armed robbery.”
“One night he and a friend held up a liquor store. The clerk managed to notify police and the car chase was on. Loren admits that he considered using the gun he had with him to shoot it out with police. A guardian angel must have whispered the right words in his ear that night. He and the friend decided to surrender.”
“The judge sentenced Loren to the state prison at Joliet. He had plenty of experience in county jail and the local juvenile detention center. He was tough. He thought he knew how to do hard time. It would not bother him, he thought. Unfortunately, he didn't know Joliet. His years there were experienced as being burned alive at the stake. Loren paid his debt to society and his first job as a free man was as the church custodian. The congregation frequently used that position as a ministry. Loren quickly proved that he had learned his lesson. His first day on the job he walked up two flights of steps to give a quarter to the church treasurer that he found in the coin return of the soda pop machine. He was indeed an honest man.”
“Loren was never shy about giving his testimonial. When he came home from Vietnam, he was angry and bitter. He didn't believe in anyone or anything. He knew he was traveling the road to self-destruction and that was fine with him. Then his life was turned around. It was no revival preacher who issued an altar call. There was no gentle voice of God urging him to come to Jesus. It was, however, no less the presence of God – a theophany in fire. As Loren described it, ‘I was in Joliet only for three weeks when enough terrible things happened to me at the hands of other inmates that I said to myself, ‘I will never, ever do anything that will get me into a place like this again.’’”
“His life straightened out. He married and had a family. He established himself as a responsible citizen and then was able to go on and get a much better job than the one at the church. Criminal justice critics will tell you it doesn't happen nearly often enough. But with Loren, the fire that rained down on his life punished him for his foolish choices and then that fire began to purify him and make him a better man.”
Every one of us here has a story to tell. Maybe not as dramatic as Loren’s, but I suspect we all could tell a story – or stories – where the Lord acted or intervened in our lives. And maybe at the time it had the element of judgment – or maybe it felt like a refiner’s fire. I don’t know.
But then we’re just going about our business – and the Lord gets our attention – somehow, some way. And we know – we know – that the Lord has gotten our attention.
I remember a time when I was a freshman in college. And you know – when you’re in college – living in a dorm – you never know what your hall mates might do. One day a bunch of them picked me up and threw me into the shower. It’s just one of those kinds of things that bored, adolescent teenage boys do when you’re in college. And I certainly wasn’t the first one to be thrown in. In fact, I may have been one of the ones who had helped throw somebody else into the shower some weeks earlier. It was so long ago, I just don’t remember.
But here’s the thing. I hate – I absolutely hate the feel of wet clothes. So I got a little angry – actually more than just a little – at the guys who threw me into the shower. I lashed out at them. And I learned a lesson that day that I have never forgotten. Later on that day my RA – a man who would eventually become a Roman Catholic priest – wisely told me that I needed to get my temper under control. I was 18 years old, but I’ve never forgotten that. Oh, I still get angry sometimes – but rarely, rarely have I ever let my temper get away from me again. What my RA said to me that day I guess you could say – was both a word of judgment – and a refiner’s fire.
Now that might not sound like a big thing, but as I look back over my life – it was a growing moment. One among many. As I said, I would think – I would hope – that all of you would have at least one story to tell of a time when you recognized a need to change. It might even have been painful – but the Holy Spirit entered into your life – either through another person – or an event – or in an alone moment – and you felt the need to get rid of something that was dragging you down. Like a refiner’s fire clearing away some impurity.
Well – that’s one of the hard sayings of Jesus today. And although I usually try to stay away from making more than one point in a sermon – I do need to deal with something else that Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.
Maybe you caught the part where he said he came to bring division. Not peace, division. Family member against family member. Mother against daughter. Father against son. Mother-in-law against daughter-in-law – that doesn’t really happen, does it? But did anybody catch that? Yeah. I thought so. So I can’t really gloss over that one, can I!
Listen! This is related to what we’ve just been talking about. If the fire that Jesus is talking about is a fire of judging that acts as a refiner’s fire – well then – you are well on your way to becoming a new woman – a new man – the person that I believe God wants you and me to be.
But not everyone may be as delighted about your transformation as you are. The Scriptures tell us that if anyone be in Christ – the person is a new creation. That’s what happens when Christ comes into our lives. That’s what happens when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives to bring about change. We call this change becoming more and more like Christ. Again – the Christ-likeness that you hear me talking about all the time.
And in the days of the early church – when Christians were in a minority – becoming a Christian often brought with it persecution. In the early years of the church, being a Christian just might get you thrown into jail – or worse – being fed to the lions if you know what I mean. New Christians often were shunned by their own family members as well. Does this help to understand what Jesus meant when he said that there would be division? Family member against family member?
And you know – even though most of us have it good today – Christianity in the United States is still respected in most circles today. At least we are not being imprisoned or worse for being Christ followers. Although that is not true everywhere in the world today. Try being a Christina in Saudi Arabia – or China – or the most challenging country on earth to live as a Christian – North Korea. Not to mention what happens in Isis controlled territory.
But even in our own country it can be a challenge for some. A husband who teases – or criticizes his wife – or a wife her husband – for putting faith into action simply by coming here for worship. Family members making fun of other members for being one of those “Jesus freaks.” Hey! It happens.
Look! If you still believe that Christianity is all about making us feel good about ourselves – and quite frankly – I hope you leave here today feeling good. But being here today is more than just me wanting you to feel good when you leave. I want you to know that the fire Jesus is talking about – the fire that I hope is touching you at this very moment – is a fire that leads to real change. Transformation. And like a refiner’s fire – sometimes this life transformation can hurt. It can be painful – asking us to let go of something that we really don’t want to let go of. So the question is – do you really want that fire?
Well – I know that what we have heard today are some hard sayings of Jesus. I trust I have brought at least some clarification. But if not – if you have questions about anything I have said – or about anything you have heard here today – or maybe you wouldn’t mind telling of a time when you got your life turned around – or had what you might call a Holy Spirit moment – I’m going to be in the coffeehouse after worship. I’ll meet with anybody who wants to meet as a group to pursue whatever questions or thoughts may have come to you while listening here today. This is important stuff!
And let me tell you why. If we let Him – Jesus through the person and the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit can make a difference. So let me encourage you to be open to that fire – that life-changing, refiner’s fire. Open your heart that God in Jesus Christ will make a difference in your life.
Hey! You know something? Maybe – maybe this IS Good News after all. Amen