"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith." Hebrews 12:1-2
"Jesus said, 'I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished'" Luke 12:49-50
About twelve years ago, a forest I knew burned in a raging fire. I was five hours away by car, and there was probably nothing I could do about it. Nevertheless, something in me felt an anxious urge to add my panic to the situation. So, my cousin and I jumped into a fast car, and we rushed down to South Georgia at 1:00 in the morning. By 5:00 in the morning, after our initial rush of adrenaline had worn off, we were upside down in a ditch outside Baxley, Georgia. We never made it to the fire. We limped sheepishly back to Atlanta.
Two months later, after the fire was out, I did manage to visit the site. I was amazed. Gorgeous green shoots were sprouting out of the black ashes even then. Animals were already grazing through the blackened trees and bushes. Now, twelve years later, there is hardly any evidence of fire at all. The same thing is true in the Western Mountains I visited two years ago. We walked through an area devastated by fire only a few years previously, one that had thrown local residents into panic. The fire, in fact, had done some damage, but the forest had grown back quickly.
It is our nature to panic at fires. Rightly so, perhaps. Fire is something to be afraid of. It burns. It spreads quickly out of control. But there is one thing we think fire is that it is not.
Fire is not permanent. It is not permanent in the life of our forests, and it is not permanent in our spiritual lives, either. Some of our Greek ancestors knew this, as they contemplated the legend of the Phoenix, that great mythological bird which rises to greatness out of ashes. Fire is but the beginning of the Phoenix's glory.
Jesus, too, probably knew that fire is not permanent. Fire does not kill forever. Rather, fire sets the occasion for something new. "I came to cast fire upon the earth," he says. "I have a baptism to be baptized with," Jesus said.
Jesus' baptism turns out to be nothing less than his own crucifixion and death. It is the Jesus who rises from that crucifixion, who rises from that baptism, who truly lives forever. The Jesus who rises from that experience of suffering and torture is, like the Phoenix, truly gorgeous. The Jesus who rises from that baptism empowers us to live in eternal life.
In fact, the Jesus who rises from this baptism of fire, is truly divine. And it is the nature of divinity to overcome death.
But this Jesus who rises from the dead is also human. I believe it is the nature of humanity to live in anxiety and impatience. It is the nature of humanity to take off in a car at 1:00 in the morning without needing to go anywhere at all. It is the nature of humanity to end upside down in a ditch a few hours later. It is anxious humanity who constructs building close to the great Western forests and then worries when lightening starts a nearby fire.
I believe it was the anxiety of Jesus that longed for fire to come upon the earth. It was impatience that said, "Don't think that I have come to bring peace! There's a long way to go before peace. I've come to bring division! Father against Son and Son against Father! Mother against Daughter! mother-in-law against daughter-in-law!" (That last one is the only one not particularly hard to imagine, isn't it? mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.)
These are tough, aggressive verses in Scripture. They make us nervous and anxious, don't they? It is no surprise to me as I hear people quote Scripture year after year, that these are the verses people quote when they are most anxious and impatient. When we are isolated, when we feel cut off and out of control, we quote verses about anxiety and impatience.
In fact, you can do a fascinating study of Bible quoters if you'd like. Try to analyze why some people quote the violent portions of the Bible and other people quote the peaceful parts. My analysis shows that people quote those parts of Scripture which are most like their own characters. Angry people are obsessed with the violent parts of the Bible, those verses which cast fire and brimstone and judgment down upon their neighbors. Fire and brimstone preachers tell me a lot more about their own violence and anxiety than they tell me about the kingdom of God. Their message is frequently antagonistic, bitter, designed to create enemies rather than friends. Many people's religion and church life are the same way.
Is the message of anxiety and impatience found in the Bible? Sure it is, to a degree.
Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, suffered anxiety and impatience. He was a pioneer, meaning he led the way into unknown and perhaps terrifying territory; he was a perfecter, meaning he had to struggle through imperfection. We see in today's gospel part of that struggle. For, surely, Jesus did come to bring peace upon the earth, despite what this verse says. Surely, more households have been brought together by Jesus Christ than have been divided by Jesus.
Households who use these words of Jesus to justify their own internal strife -- these are the households who have not completed their baptism. For a true baptism leads inevitably to Resurrection, to Life, to Peace. Division and Fire are for a season, not for an eternity.
And the discipline of God! My, how we love to quote that scripture when things are not working our way! "God is angry with you and is teaching you something in this tragedy," someone says. If anyone says that to you in your pain, you have my Christian permission to exile them, such a comment springs from that person's anxiety and impatience. It is our impatience that wants everything figured out now.
The discipline of God, like the discipline of any good parent, is not accomplished in anger at all, is not delivered indiscriminately and inconsistently, and is not -- is never -- out of control. The fire of God never races out of control.
Yet, Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, suffers anxiety and urgency. Do not be discouraged by this fact, for it is really a comforting truth. If Jesus has known that vast and terrifying territory known as anxiety (and even panic), then perhaps he knows our anxiety and impatience today. He knows our present time. He knows our cultural obsessions with instant gratification and fast, easy answers.
Even in our struggle for the kingdom of God, we use our culture's infatuation with easy answers and instant gratification. We know the truth about God, we claim; let's just cast fire down upon those who disagree with us! Let's burn away the chaff!
In our households, we secretly long for some calamity to befall that person we formerly loved, but now with whom we are having a fabulous disagreement. I secretly wish God would discipline that person with fire, so that they would learn. After all, I want the best for that person! Let's burn away the chaff!
All that is the natural action of urgent and anxious humanity. Let us recognize it for what it is. You have felt it and I have felt it. The comforting truth is that Jesus has felt it, too. Jesus, too, has suffered the same urgency, "I came to cast fire upon the earth. I wish it were already kindled," he says.
Can such a fiery God yet love us? Can such a fiery God have patience?
Yes. Yes, because Jesus is the first to pass through the fire himself. He does not baptize with fire until he, first, has undergone the same thing. Jesus does not wish fire upon the earth without he himself first being burned. Jesus does not divide without he himself having first been divided. Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, going first where we too are called to go. In fact, we are called to go there first, not wish that others would go there.
Let there be no mistake about the fire of Jesus. Jesus is not just that lovely security blanket that we keep stuffed away for our moments of despair. Jesus casts a fire, as well. But his fire is not permanent. This fire is not out of control. And this fire is not angry or violent. Jesus' fire is the fire of baptism, which always leads to new life. It is fire that leads to fresh green shoots sprouting from burned ashes.
It is fire that burns away the anxiety and urgency and panic -- in us -- and produces instead the peaceful fruit of righteousness, a fire that baptizes us into eternal life. AMEN.