A sermon preached by
Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Text: Luke 12:49-46; Hebrews 11:29-12:2
“God gave Noah the rainbow sign. Said, ‘No more water, but fire next time’…” The playlist that runs through my mind opened immediately to these words from the old spiritual as soon as I read the opening verse of today’s text, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
The text and the song conjure apocalyptic images of final judgment with evil punished, fire and brimstone, death and destruction. It’s not at all a pretty picture nor one I would ordinarily turn to, let alone preach. But we know that there is a thread of apocalyptic judgment that runs through the Bible. This is another of those Sundays when the lectionary gives us a text we might happily skip over. But, as with last Sunday’s text from the same chapter of Luke’s gospel, it may be good discipline to stick with the passage to see if it has anything to say to us.
Many of us have difficulty believing in a literal hell, a burning pit presided over by a literal devil. It’s old imagery that we have outgrown, moved beyond, left behind, if, indeed, it was ever part of our belief system. We have given ourselves over to a God of unconditional love, infinite compassion and boundless grace. We find comfort and a measure of security in a God who, in Christ, is in the process of reconciling all of creation to God’s self. We embrace a God who will not hold our sins eternally against us. But then we come up against a passage like today’s. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!,” Jesus declaims. How did his first followers hear this? What are we to do with it?
Well, one way too frame it is to accept that there will be a “Day of the Lord,” a day of judgment. Matthew writes in his gospel of that day when “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:41-42). Or we may be more familiar with the parable in which the sheep will be separated from the goats with the latter being sent “into eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:46), which Matthew describes earlier as “the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:22). It’s not a pretty picture, not one we want to spend much time contemplating.
Though the imagery may be dated, from a vastly different time and place, it may still serve as some sort of stark reminder that there are consequences for the choices we make, for the way we shape our lives and for the commitments we make and break. Unconditional love does not liberate us from responsibility; infinite compassion compels us to do likewise; boundless grace calls forth our own graciousness. It is not enough to take and take without ever giving back some of the blessing with which we have been blessed. Truth be told, most of us are neither sheep nor goats but some sort of crazy hybrid that sometimes gets it right and other times fails miserably.
I’m not at all convinced that Jesus was really in favor of a place of eternal punishment. I think that what we have here is a man on a mission to which he is deeply and passionately committed. Have you ever felt a sense of urgency about something, ever felt stressed over getting something accomplished or doing it right, ever been intensely eager for the conclusion of a journey or the fulfillment of a promise? I think this is where Jesus was on this day as he made his way to Jerusalem and what would surely be a day of reckoning for him. He was just a little impatient and frustrated with the failure of his followers to grasp fully the significance of the journey they were on and what he had been trying to teach them along the way.
The fire he longed for was not a destructive one, for he loved this crazy hybrid flock that followed him. He wanted only the best for them. He wanted them to find with and through him the abundant fulfillment of the reign of God. He knew it was wonderful beyond their imagining and he wanted them to see it to. The fire he longed for was the purifying fire that would burn the chaff and leave the wheat. It makes me think of the text for the great aria and chorus from Messiah, drawn from the prophet Malachi, “But who may abide the day of his coming and who shall stand when he appeareth, for he is like a refiner’s fire. And he shall purify the sons of Levi that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness.” Or to draw from my playlist the words of that grand old hymn we sometimes sing, “When through fiery trials thy pathway 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.”
Jesus is showing a very human desire to get on with the work at hand, the coming of God’s reign on earth. He is eager that his followers lose the dimness of their lenses and see clearly with his heightened vision what God has in store for them all. He knows he will not be with them much longer and it is urgent that they be ready to pick up his work once he is no longer with them in person.
Of course, they also needed to know that there were hard days ahead, that the road would not be easy, that they would suffer hardship and persecution before all reached God’s intended was fulfillment. To take the road of righteousness would have consequences, some dire, for those first followers. Persecution and even martyrdom would come to some of them. The writer of Hebrews has a graphic list of what the faithful faced over the centuries. There was a cost to discipleship that went along with the promised joy of its fulfillment.
The peace that Jesus offers, the peace that passes understanding, is not simply the absence of violence, it is a deep peace grounded in justice and nurtured by righteousness. It is a peace that is only fully realized when the reign of God becomes the way of the world and the world is finely turned right side up. Before that there may indeed be turbulent times with division among friends and within families. It’s not that Jesus wants to undermine peace and bring division. These are the inevitable result of the shift from the way of the world to the way of God. They are incompatible and will always be in tension. David Lose writes, “…those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming [realm of God] for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family”
It seems to me that this perspective might have some meaning for us. Clearly we don’t find ourselves living in a place and time where we are persecuted for our faith. After all this is a “Christian country,” is it not? At least, that’s what some argue. But what if we stood truly and deeply for the realization of the reign of God in the here and now? Are there things about our own “present order” that would come into conflict with our faith if we practiced it as Jesus envisioned it?
David Lose, again, raises this question about our way of life and faith practice, “Is the relative ease of the Christian life in this land entirely the result of cultural acceptance or is it because we fail to live into the gospel Jesus announced?” He continues, “Throughout Luke’s account, Jesus announces a new community – he calls it the [realm] of God – that is governed not by power but by equity, where all those in need are cared for, where forgiveness is the norm, where the poor are privileged, where wealth is shared rather than hoarded, and where the weak and lonely are honored”
Those seem like elements of the reign of God, of a life in Christ we might still strive to embody – governance through equity, care for the needy, a path toward forgiveness, offering recognition to the poor, sharing wealth and honoring the weak and lonely. This sounds like a way of living we might still look forward to and work to create. At the end of chapter twelve, the writer of Hebrews encourages us as people of faith, “Therefore, since we are receiving a [realm] that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29).
Maybe the old spiritual is not so far off. No more destructive punishment as in the account of the flood. It will be the fire next time, but not a destroying fire, rather we may experience a refining fire that will consume the detritus of our lives and refine our gold. Like those pioneers of our faith, that great cloud of witnesses, we will be free to run the race, laying “aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” unencumbered by the false hopes and inadequate promises of the present order.