In the 1950s Disney movie Pollyanna Karl Malden plays a fire and brimstone preacher. In a scene that holds a certain appeal for me at least, we see him climbing into a high pulpit, taking a deep breadth and then thundering out at the congregation, “Death comes unexpectedly.” He proceeds to deliver a fire and brimstone sermon that could have been inspired by this morning’s scripture passage.
“I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.” Jesus bellows. Can’t you just see him up there 10, 15 feet above our heads? Shouting down at us. Basically scaring the willies out of us.
One of the challenges of reading and understanding scripture is that we aren’t given much, if any, information about context. If I put Jesus into the puritan pulpit Karl Malden used in Pollyanna, this message does, indeed, sound like he is promising fire and brimstone. But all we have is this one line, this one sentence. We don’t even know if Jesus spoke this sentence and then went on immediately to ask, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division?” Or perhaps the two remarks were made weeks or months apart.
The author of Luke may be quoting a sermon in which Jesus did speak all that we heard read as one message. But it could just as easily be the case that sentences, statements and remarks taken out of context were memorized or jotted down on sticky notes and then reassembled into larger passages much later.
The gospel of Matthew contains words that are very similar to what we heard from Luke this morning. But in Matthew’s gospel the comments about paying attention to the weather are separated by six chapters from Jesus’ remarks about bringing division. Are we to read this passage as one whole, or should we divide it up as Matthew does and try to understand it as two unrelated readings?
As Heather and I wrestled with the passage this week, I found myself so stuck on the first line that I never really got to the point of trying to answer the interpretative question raised by the difference between Luke and Matthew. What does Jesus mean when he says “I have come to bring fire to the earth”? I’m still wrestling, to tell you the truth, but let me offer some thoughts that have come to me so far.
One of the things that preachers do in preparing a sermon is to look at what other preachers have said in the past. This can be a good stimulus to thought, but it can be a little overwhelming too, since the Internet allows us access to hundreds if not thousands of sermons and commentaries. The overwhelming majority of this material interprets Jesus’ remark about bringing fire as an allusion to the need for a purging. The metaphor most often used is of refining metal, when the host material is burned off and the pure essence of gold or copper or other valuable mineral is left. The suggestion is that here we are being told that Jesus longs for a fire that will burn away all of the worldly, sensual distractions that keep us from attaining the purity needed if we are to enter into the kingdom of God.
One commentator culled through the Old Testament looking for fire imagery that, according to him, spoke to this necessity for purging before the Messiah would come to save Israel. Just to give you a sense of what he’s alluding to, here’s a few lines from Isaiah; “See, the Name of the Lord comes from afar, with burning anger and dense clouds of smoke; his lips are full of wrath, and his tongue is a consuming FIRE. His breath is like a rushing torrent, rising up to the neck. He shakes the nations in the sieve of destruction”
It is certainly possible to find lots of similar language in the Old Testament. But Jesus, in this instance, does not give us any indication that he has the words of Scripture in mind. Often when he is linking what he says to the Old Testament Jesus will quote a few phrases, or allude to a passage by saying, “You have heard it said [thus and so] but I say to you [something paradoxical]” Here we have no hint what he means by fire.
Biblical literalists are compelled to read this passage literally, of course. But that doesn’t help us much because we aren’t told how much fire Jesus wants to bring. In this season in British Columbia, someone who is bringing fire evokes images of hectare upon hectare of burning wilderness, or the threat of destruction that touched Fort MacMurray a few months back. But bringing fire in the midst of a winter storm evokes warmth, caring, even the idea of food or a hot drink. Perhaps fire is a comforting image, not a threat at all.
Jesus may, however, have had in mind a different image of fire. Elsewhere in the gospels we are told that he came to bring a baptism of fire. If that is the image alluded to here, perhaps Jesus is pointing to his impending crucifixion as a fiery baptism that he must undergo to complete his work. One commentator suggests that what Jesus is saying here is similar to what a pregnant woman says in the last few weeks of her term. She is anticipating a painful and risky event that is a necessary prelude to the joy of new life. In Jesus’ case, he is waiting for his execution that will change God’s relationship with humankind in a way that offers new hope to all of us.
Jesus says he has come to bring fire to the earth, but all interpreters agree he is not speaking about burning trees or buildings, rather he is speaking of fire as something that touches human beings. It is an allegorical or figurative fire that he is referring to, and as I mentioned earlier, the commonest interpretation is that fire is needed to purify. If that is the case, however, we might ask whether he is referring to purifying the individual sinner, or to purifying society of systemic wrongs.
If you or I are to embrace the Commonwealth of God that Jesus says has come near, something he refers to frequently in Luke, perhaps we are being told that we must pass through a cleansing fire. Many writers and commentators take the Old Testament images of God’s sulfurous wrath as warnings that we must change our ways, leave behind all immorality and become new persons. This approach dates back at least to Martin Luther, the great 16th Century Protestant Reformer.
Each of us is called to be accountable for our own behavior. Recognizing the need to abandon unhelpful behavior and find the nugget of goodness that we call the light of Christ within us is central to the Christian faith.
Saint Benedict who died in 543 is given credit for developing an approach to Scripture that nurtures the candle-flame that Christ seeks to kindle in each of us. Called the lectio divina or divine reading, Benedict encouraged Christians to use Scripture as a way to experience the Word of God as a living presence within us. Through the four steps of reading, praying, meditating and contemplating on a passage, he said that if we hold the words on the page lightly, then the Spirit will enliven them with God’s embrace.
Such a practice can lead to a different understanding and a different experience of this passage of Scripture for each person. For some, there may be a burning away of corruption out of which a cleaner, purer self can emerge. For others, the fire Jesus brings may take the form of a warm glow of love and compassion and for still others what comes may be an increase in understanding that leads to enlightenment.
Jesus’ words, may, on the other hand, not be directed at the individual level, but rather at the level of society. Perhaps the fire he wants to bring to the earth is the fire that will destroy the oppressive systems of the day, whether that be the tyranny of Rome that exploited Palestine or the injustices of our own day that leave people hungry, homeless, or wrongfully imprisoned. It may even be that in the face of our looming ecological crisis, Jesus’ fire image can point us to an awareness of the need to be purged of our dependence on fossil fuels and the consumption obsessed lifestyle they have supported to the point of choking us to death.
While there is good reason to think that this passage echoes in some way the many references to cleansing fire in the Old Testament, I want to suggest that there are two images of fire coming out of the story of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt that don’t have that connotation. It is, I think, worth reflecting on how they might inform our reading of this text.
When Moses was called to lead the people out of slavery, God spoke to him from a burning bush. That fire did not threaten to consume the surrounding wilderness, nor did it threaten to consume Moses or his sins. That fire ignited in the heart of one man a commitment to struggle against great odds to defeat oppression and lead the people out of bondage.
Later in the story, when the slaves set out into the wilderness in pursuit of freedom, God again comes to them as fire. The night sky is lit by a column of flame that is a beacon of hope guiding them to the Promised Land, or what Jesus might have called the Commonwealth of God. This fire, like the burning bush, is not one that consumes, but one that offers reassurance that God is with us. It is a fire that signals hope.
We cannot know with certainty what image of fire Jesus had in mind when he uttered the line I’ve been examining this morning. Scripture does not provide us with such clear language allowing only one possible interpretation, quite the contrary. Jesus’ words that have been captured in the gospels, like the man himself, are a stimulus to our developing a relationship with God that nurtures us so that we may in turn care for the world God loves.
So, my conclusion is that this may well be one of those multiple-choice situations where the answer is “all of the above”. Our challenge is to sift the possibilities and determine which fire image evokes the light and warmth that is needed in this place at this moment by us or by the world. For though the flame had not been kindled when these words were written, Christ went on to set the world on fire. What he kindled are flames of hope in God. Energized by that fire we carry that hope into the world.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.