Fire! – Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

One of the words that we will often use to talk about God’s work is “justice.” We will often think of God’s justice in a way that is unhelpful, though. God’s justice is less like what happens in the court room, and more like what happens when a wrong is righted. Another word for the same idea is “righteousness,” which suggests something that is pure or holy, free from sin, but even this can be misleading in and of itself because it can quickly lead us to simple moralism that really isn’t at all what God sent his Son into the world for. Jesus didn’t come down from heaven so we could be nice people. Jesus came down from heaven “for us and for our salvation”—that we might be brought into fullness of good relationship with God, with the rest of the human family, and everything that God made. This is “justice” or “righteousness,” and it’s rooted in the notion of peace, of God’s peace—of shalom. Jesus came to bring God’s justice, to bring God’s righteousness, to bring God’s peace, to bring shalom.

Where once God first created things and saw that everything was very good, Jesus came to restore all things to that goodness—to transform corruption to righteousness, imbalance to justice, struggle to peace, sin to shalom. God accomplishes this work, as he has done all his work since before the time, through the speaking of a Word. God speaks, and things happen, literally come to be—as the prophet Isaiah reminds us. And so this Word of God is a life-creating, life-sustaining, life-altering Word that is responsible for reality itself. The Word of God does God’s work, does God’s justice, righteousness, peace, shalom. And we who abide in God’s Word abide in God, and live lives that are different precisely because of this Word. And so as we go deeper into the sermon today, consider how God’s Word makes a difference in your reality—not just in Scripture, but in your whole life. How does it make a difference to you?

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Have you ever looked at candle flame and wondered what fire is exactly or how exactly fire works?

Well, wonder no more.

Fire is a chemical reaction. This process is exothermic, meaning it releases energy—most notably for fire, heat and light.

Now—that explanation, while completely accurate to what’s going on with fire, is all well and good for chemistry class, but that process doesn’t really explain what fire is any more than a recipe explains what chocolate chip cookies taste like. What does it mean?

The first thing we notice about a candle flame is all the colors glowing. Down at the bottom of the flame it’s hotter, so it glows blue, and in the middle it’s a little cooler, so glows yellowish, orangish. Inside of that flame, the of chemical reaction we discussed above is happening rapidly with hundreds molecules. In the case of solid fuels, like candle wax, the fuel is vaporized by the heat and chemically ripped into smaller chunks. Have you ever noticed that sometimes there’s a dark cone around the wick where there’s no fire? That’s vaporized wax coming off the candle, but it hasn’t started to burn yet. The vaporized wax and oxygen in the air slam into each other in little collisions at a molecular level, and their atoms begin to rearrange—a lot like how your car might get “rearranged” when it slams into another car or a tree or some other object in a vehicular collision, just on a smaller scale. The excitement from these collisions can’t go on forever, so the molecules calm down, like you do after your car accident, and as these molecules calm down, they release light and heat. That’s why the bottom of the flame glows blue. It’s highly excited, full of energy.

Not all the stuff in the candle gets converted, so leftover carbon atoms come together and form tiny particles of soot, which heat up and glow orange and yellow like the hot coals under a backyard grill. This glowing soot, which is so light it floats upward, is where most of the candle’s light comes from. The flame you see all of a sudden is burned away and we’re left with only carbon dioxide and water floating off into the air. What’s left over after a fire is “burned out,” the ashes or the charcoal or what have you, is the either the fuel that didn’t have enough outside energy to keep the chemical reaction going or it’s the carbon byproduct that, under the right conditions, could be heated up again to form more soot. Either way, the fire has transformed something from one state into another, from one thing into something else altogether.

In today’s gospel text, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” He goes on to talk about not coming to bring peace, but division—even within our own families. This is a difficult teaching. Often we think of being a Christian as being nice, and what’s nicer than unity and harmony within families? Yet here Jesus is saying that he didn’t come to bring peace, but division…What does this mean? What does Jesus mean? Isn’t peace a good thing? And what’s it all have to do with fire?

Jesus is laying out quite clearly, in very clear terms, that the cost of being a Christian is high. It’s very high—so high that it might cause irreparable problems in the relationships you have with folks who don’t value their relationship with God as much as you do. Being a Christian means a life transformed. Your old life is transformed, and something new comes about. Jesus comes to us to bring about this transformation—a much needed transformation in the face of a world full of sin, anything and everything that would stand in the way of fullness of life as God first intended. Sometimes this transformation needs to come about in a cataclysmic way—like a fire destroying something so that something new can come about it, like a fire dividing up things as they currently are, rearranging them, and putting them together again as something new altogether. The fire that Jesus is speaking of in today’s gospel is one that breaks down, rearranges, and puts back together life the way that God intends. And sometimes that’s not always a pleasant thing. It’s not easy or “nice.”

Fire is not inherently bad or good. It isn’t destructive. It’s transformative. Fire gives us heat. It makes light. Our prehistoric ancestors used it to protect themselves from wild animals. You can cook with it. You can melt metal with fire so it can be shaped into tools. It burns up trash. Even forest fires are part of God’s design when the seeds that require intense heat to begin their growth are released. Think the mighty Sequoia.

And so God’s Word is like fire. When we think about it, we can see all the goodness that comes from God’s fiery words. God speaks words of peace that surpass understanding—not peace like the world expects, but peace the way that God first intended. Popular wisdom is often, most of the time, contrary to God’s way of things. One of the biggest things that we learn from the world around us is to look out for ourselves first. But this is very the opposite of what God teaches us. God teaches us that we are to give ourselves in devotion to others as a reflection of Jesus’ giving himself for us. God’s Word transforms us like a fire transforms things. God’s Word encounters us, meets us where we are as we are, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, ignites us. We see ourselves for who we are, beloved children of God who need to rearrange our hearts and our minds in order to live lives befitting the glory God first envisioned for us, a glory that reflects God’s very own self. “Let us make humankind in our image,” God said, “according to our likeness.” We are made in the image of God, yet it’s only through the transformative power of God’s fiery Word, and the energy of the Holy Spirit, God herself, that we are broken down, rearranged, and made new. Only then are we transformed.

Our transformation into something new, into Christians, disciples of Jesus, means we have a different values set than what popular wisdom would feed us. When we’re transformed by the fire of God’s Word, our lives are marked by care for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of true, selfless compassion, and a conviction that basic holiness permeates all things and all people—even those we most vehemently disagree with our can’t stand. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to corral and aim our energies wisely.

The world’s promise is the same old same old. Life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: a repetitive, loveless, cheap rat race; an accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; stuff, stuff, stuff; empty “pick yourself up by your own bootstraps” self-help; paranoid loneliness; panic city; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper or suspicion and worry; incapability to love or be loved; small-minded and lopsided selfishness; the vicious habit of dehumanizing everyone into a rival; ugly parodies of relationships—think social media for that one. I could go on but won’t.

Those degrade. They are truly destructive. But the fire of God transforms. God transforms us into disciples of Jesus whose lives are marked by his own life—lives marked by love. And love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for itself. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head. Love doesn’t say, “Look out for yourself because no one else will.” Love says, “I will give you all I have, even life itself, because God himself is in you.” Love doesn’t force itself on others. Love doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the wrongs committed by others, doesn’t revel when others grovel. Love puts up with difficulty, trusts God always, always looks for the best, and never looks back—but keeps going to the end.

Love never dies.

As disciples of Jesus, baptized into his death and resurrection, we are called to bear God’s creative and redeeming love everywhere with us in our lives. God has called us by love, fed us by his Word, and sends us to care for all things—in the same way that he sent his Son to love us, feed us, and care for us completely. This is God’s justice. This is God’s righteousness. This is God’s peace—the peace that surpasses all understanding because the world simply doesn’t comprehend, cannot comprehend because it’s blinded by corruption and lies. And yet, the fire of God’s Word is the shining light of truth, the comforting warmth of love, the source of transformation. It’s the shining light of truth, the comforting warmth of love, the source of transformation for us…

Have you ever considered God’s Word and wondered how it works? Now you know…

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