The fool in the flame

There’s fire flashing through the speech of Jeremiah and Jesus, holy fire, dangerous fire. Fire is bright and warm, a symbol of hearth and home, and fire is uncontrollable, uncontainable, unquenchable. What fire do you see when you listen to the words of Jesus and Jeremiah?

Moses saw the fire before he heard any words. He was keeping the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro when something caught his attention: the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. “I must turn and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up,” he said. But then God called to him out of the bush, saying, “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” God sent Moses to Pharao to bring God’s people out of Egypt. For Moses, the curious fire of the burning bush became a fire within as he set out to serve God in the struggle for liberation of God’s people.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels and shepherds saw the fire. “Glory to God,” the angels sang, “and peace on earth!” Both heavenly and earthly voices praised God for sending the one who would “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We have to admit we’re more than a little shaken by Jesus’ own words that come to us from further down the road to Jerusalem, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks, “No, I tell you, but rather division.” What happened to peace on earth?

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. When his parents took Jesus to the temple to be dedicated, old Simeon, holding the baby in his arms, said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Division was part of his life from the beginning. Perhaps you remember his first sermon at home in Nazareth, when people were ready to hurl him off the cliff after hearing what he had to say.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Yes, we do, because we long for harmony, but we easily forget that it’s a costly peace that disturbs the status quo and awakens the powers that oppose God’s reign. Not everyone welcomes God’s peace in the person of Jesus, and even the ones who do, don’t do it all the time. Jesus’ ministry triggers resistance and rejection. We easily forget that Jesus didn’t come to validate the social realities we have constructed, but to set them on fire with his life of compassion and justice. “Five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; father against son and daughter against mother.” Jesus’ mission results in disputes and divisions as people are either embraced or repelled by what God is doing through him.

Perhaps he sounds extreme because he has to push back against the meek and mild projections of our religious imagination – we rather like a nice Jesus who is kind to us and a little stricter with others. But the peace of God doesn’t make nice with the power of sin. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the ultimate confrontation between God and sin.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” What kind of fire is that? Is it the fire of judgment that rained out of heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is it the fire after the final harvest when the wheat is gathered in and the chaff is burned?Is it the fire that purifies, the fire that burns “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine” as the hymn puts it? Or is it the fire on the mountain, the fire of divine presence and revelation that sets the bush ablaze without consuming it? Is it the fire of the word that burned in the hearts of the prophets? Or is it the fire of deliverance, the pillar of fire by night which led the Hebrews from slavery to freedom? “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” John the Baptist said of Jesus, and we are left wondering if perhaps the fire Jesus came to bring was the wildfire of Pentecost. I’m not sure we have to choose one or the other. Actually, I think it is very good for us to hear all those fiery echoes when we listen to Jesus, and to hear them anew in light of his life, particularly in light of his cross and resurrection.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus is speaking of the baptism of costly peace in which God swallows sin’s deadly, destructive power for the life of the world. He is speaking of the fire of judgment and deliverance, the fire of purification and of the Spirit. The fire we encounter in Jesus is the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals; it is the fire that illumined the path for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom; it is the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it is the fire that God kindles for the sake of life and peace. There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire that heavy blankets of oppression cannot smother and even the shroud of death cannot snuff. The fire is the whole life of Jesus revealing the heart of God.

We call them cool 
Those hearts that have no scars to show 
The ones that never do let go 
And risk the tables being turned

These are the opening lines of a song Garth Brooks co-wrote with Jenny Yates in 1993.

We call them fools 
Who have to dance within the flame 
Who chance the sorrow and the shame 
That always comes with getting burned

This is not what’s commonly called a Christian song, but with just a little twist in your listening you can hear it sing of the fool who dances within the flame, chancing the sorrow and the shame of the cross for love’s sake.

We call them strong 
Those who can face this world alone 
Who seem to get by on their own 
Those who will never take the fall

But we know that the ones who seem unable to resist love’s pull and who forsake it all for love’s sake, draw strength from a source that is closer to life. The chorus ends with the lines,

Life is not tried, it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire.

I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to think about Jesus between the lines of a country song, it certainly isn’t something I’d want to do on a regular basis, but I admit that I like the image of Jesus living his life dancing within the flame and drawing us in so we can stop pretending we can get by on our own, so we can find life in fullness with him.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus knows that the invitation to live with him in expectation of God’s coming kingdom creates divisions. They are not the purpose of his mission but the consequence of decisions we and others make in response to his proclamation and his call to follow him: We must decide whether to remain standing outside the fire or to dance within the flame; whether to pretend that we can face this world alone or to give ourselves in love to God and neighbor; whether to shield our eyes from the world’s brokenness, or to trust in God’s promise and power to redeem and renew the world; whether to play it safe in our own little worlds and survive, or to live at the dawn of God’s kingdom. There will be divisions between those who consider Jesus an unwelcome disturbance of what they like to call peace and those who follow him in order to live in God’s shalom, the peace that includes all of creation and surpasses all understanding.

The Gospel of Thomas is an early Christian collection of sayings of Jesus, and one of them sounds very similar to what Jesus said in today’s passage from Luke: “I have cast fire upon the world, and see I am guarding it until it is ablaze.”

Jesus came to bring fire to the earth, and in many places the flames are burning brightly: Fires of compassion, fires of courage, fires of truth-telling, fires of patience, fires of reconciliation, fires of hope. In other places, the flames are low, small and blue, barely visible until you get very close – but Christ is guarding them. The little flames are fueled by faith, and the angels are holding their breath and watching us – and every time one of us takes one step closer to one of the little blue flames, they sing. They sing because Jesus is guiding our feet into the way of peace. They sing because once we step into the flame it will burn a little brighter.