Covenant Presbyterian Church – Athens, GA

“Setting the World on Fire!” (Hebrews 12:1-2 and Luke 12:49-53)

Well, that’s a slice of real life.  Family members all crossed up.  Jesus in distress about hard times ahead.  The world in such a mess that he just wants to burn it all up.  This is one of the hardest passages in the Bible to hear – our Lord of life & love saying he didn’t come to bring peace, but rather to cause conflict & division among us.  (I think Mark mentioned this passage in one of his sermons a couple of weeks ago, but of course, as the lectionary rolled around, it landed on my day to preach.  Thanks a lot.)  And this passage is even nestled within a larger section of doom & gloom.  The chapter starts with a warning against hypocrisy and closes with another – the end is near! – like superstorm clouds, billowing in the sky.  Jesus sounds frantic – to call his followers to repentance, just as his cousin John had, before he was beheaded.  So Jesus knows this kind of message will get you killed, but then if the people do not change their ways, then that’ll kill them too.  So he also sounds pretty fed up too, for no one seems to catch on or care.  Are they even listening?  “I came to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already burning!”  Sounds like the angry Jesus cleaning out the moneychangers from the temple.  But is this the Jesus we know and love?

Some would say sure – it’s the human side of Jesus.  Our anthropomorphic God gets angry too.  And when we read this story through Old Testament lenses, the most common interpretation is all about wrath & judgment.  Repent or God will zap you.  We’ve heard that word for centuries.  But lest we forget, the ancients also have written (Ps.103:8) – the Lord is merciful & gracious, slow to anger & abounding in steadfast love.  And as good reformed theologians, aren’t we to interpret Scripture through the eyes of God’s love?  Surely that’s why Jesus came to us, to reorient our skewed image of God and to flesh out for us the most perfect & faithful love ever known, the One who saves us by grace and not the punishment we deserve.

So when I bring all that to the reading of today’s passage, I can’t help but see it in a new light, to hear Jesus’ voice filled with the same love that made him weep at Lazarus’ tomb.  For Jesus, the Son of God, whose very name means deliverance & salvation, would never wish for the earth to burn up.  So surely this fire he desires must be the fire his own great passion ignites within us– he wants to set our hearts ablaze, and how he wishes that we were already burning with his same love.  For that would truly change the world.

Yet, for our sakes and for God’s glory, so that all would hear & see the steadfast love of God in action, and then realize our self-centeredness & be convinced of God’s mercies – – Jesus was willing & faithful to live as one of us, to walk alongside us, to be all compassion with & for us – – and so, to take this journey to Jerusalem, to drink the cup of suffering handed down by others, to endure the agony & the humility of the cross – naming it all his baptism, that outward sign of an inward truth, to show that he belongs to God, that he lives within God’s gift of grace, and that we as his followers do too, forever transformed, both by receiving such a gift and by responding to it, by our now living a new eternal quality of life in his Spirit = our sharing of God’s everlasting love, heart to heart, which can’t help but forever change the world.

Even so, some may say yes, and some may say no, for now at least.  One of Covenant’s former pastors, Charlie Cousar, has written (Texts for Preaching, C, 477) that Jesus’ mission, his very presence, provoked a painful crisis, as it demanded a choice of acceptance or rejection, a division among those who heard & who followed.  So yes, Jesus did come to set the world on fire, to inspire us with his burning passion to renew the whole of creation, but also to live with us in the throes of knowing there is no instant peace, “no trouble-free fulfillment of the promised salvation.”  Into this struggle then, he offers his very real compassion, born of human experience, to those closest relations who will feel conflict & brokenness as they change & develop when confronted by such steadfast love – and we find great hope in trusting the healing process to God’s unending desire for relationship with us, and our calling to mirror that for others.

Given today’s difficult times, we can see how far we have fallen from God’s desires – allowing our greed & pride to rule us, our doubts & fears to fill us.  Surely each generation has its own devastating experiences with lifelong damage done to all concerned, as century after century we have struggled to dominate & control our surroundings by limiting the freedoms of others – – by war, enslavement, & abuse – – by theft, lies, & those other Ten Commandments we break – – by taking rather than giving – – by silence & avoidance.  The peace of Christ shines the glaring light of revelation on our shameful attempts at a quick & easy peace – both in our systemic, worldwide failures, and in our personal, most intimate defeats.

And yet, the Lord of all creation who would stir our dying embers to burn again with fiery passion to change the world for the better is the same Lord who came to be with us, to be one of us, and continues to breathe the life of Holy Spirit into all we say & do to further God’s kin-dom come to this earth.  Our gifts of shared compassion and encouragement, offered one to another, give voice to the peace of Christ in our midst.  And truly there is a cloud of witnesses, centuries of believers, surrounding us and lifting us up as we take the baton from one generation to the next, running this race with perseverance, with faithfulness, and with great hope.

So we give thanks for the life & love made known so completely in Christ Jesus our Lord.  It is God’s best gift, born of a gracious heart.  Alleluia.  Amen.           Beecher Mathes