That fire

C.S. Lewis’ celebrated children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tells of the adventures of four children in the magical kingdom of Narnia, a land of talking animals and mythical creatures that is ruled by the evil White Witch.

In one scene, the children meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who describe the mighty Aslan to them.

“Is — is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”[1]

Lewis’s story is, among many other things, a story about life and redemption, and Aslan is a Christ figure.

Some of us may have been wondering if we walked into the right story this morning, hearing Jesus talk about his desire to set fire to the earth, and that he didn’t come to bring peace, but rather division.

 “Is he — quite safe?” you may have asked yourselves, with our knees knocking.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Teresa Berger wrote in an essay about fifteen years ago, “Our culture seems to prize a God with an infinite capacity for empathy, a God who is ‘nice.’ (Bumper stickers tell you that ‘Jesus loves you’ even if everyone else thinks you’re an ogre or worse.)”[2] I can hear Mr. Beaver’s response, “Nice? Who said anything about nice? ‘Course he isn’t nice. But he’s good.” But not every segment of our culture, not even fifteen years ago, has imagined a God with an infinite capacity for empathy. There have long been those whose imagination has been captivated by God’s fiery anger and hot-burning wrath, by lakes of fire and flames of torment. They need Jesus to stand between them and the flames, making sure that none of them ever touch them — and here he is, talking about wanting to cast fire on the earth and how he can’t wait to get it started. They are not just curious about this portrayal of Jesus that seems so out of character, they are frightened. And that terror has nothing to do with the fear that makes your knees shake in the presence of the Holy One. That terror belongs on the world-size pile of things Jesus can’t wait to see burnt away from creation and utterly consumed.

Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, which is to say, he was determined to announce the coming of God’s kingdom at the center of Jewish life and its oppression. He knew what awaited him there as a disturber of the peace. He knew he would be met by power arrangements that had no room for his authority. He knew he was headed for a violent confrontation with the empire of sin and with death — and he followed his path with single-minded focus. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem.  Two of the disciples, James and John, saw this, and they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” All he had to do, had that been the kind of fire he had in mind, all he had to do was say, “Sure, go ahead, burn those infidels.”

But instead Jesus turned and rebuked the two.[3] Not that kind of fire.

John the Baptist had announced Jesus’ coming, saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[4] And again fear creeps in. “What about the chaff, preacher? How will we ever know if we’re worthy of being gathered in like wheat at harvest time or end up on the chaff pile?”

How could you not be worthy of being gathered in? You are fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God! Everything that makes you doubt that, that is the chaff. The chaff is your fear that you are what you have become under the tyranny of sin. The chaff are the layers of lies you have come to believe as true. You are not chaff, nor is your neighbor, even if you and everyone you know thinks he’s an ogre or worse. That which keeps us from recognizing each other as beloved members of God’s household is chaff. Second amendment idolatry is chaff. The devious and overt ways in which racism persists is chaff. Injustice, dehumanization, greed and any kind of lovelessness — that is chaff. And the one who is holding the winnowing fork in his hand, the one who can judge us properly and is saving us into fullness of life in communion with God and creation, is Jesus.

One of the commentaries I consulted includes the following statement:

“The sayings on the fire that Jesus wishes to cast on the earth and the baptism he must undergo are sufficiently obscure as to leave open their precise point of reference.”[5]

So it’s not a simple matter of this means A and that means B — which is dreadful news to some and a great relief to all who live by more than precise points of reference. Another commentator suggests that “[Jesus] longs to see the earth ablaze and consumed by the fire which his coming was meant to enkindle.”[6]

What kind of fire might that be? In one of the early Christian writings not included in the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Whoever is near me is near fire; whoever is distant from me is distant from the kingdom.”[7]

The mysterious fire which his coming was meant to enkindle is creation set free from bondage under sin. It is to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[8] It is the kingdom of God. Jesus was on fire and his deepest yearning was for our lives and all of creation to glow with the glorious splendor of God’s shalom.

Why then did he say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Peace was and is and will be the purpose of his mission, but is hasn’t been it’s sole effect. Jesus’ presence and proclamation have not left “domestic tranquillity … undisturbed.”[9] He did not come to validate the social realities we have constructed, realities that reflect, no matter where and when we look, our deeply engrained tendency to create and perpetuate systems that favor those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who don’t. That kind of peace he came to disturb.

Wherever the word of God has been proclaimed, division has occurred among the people who heard it — between those who heard it as the word of God and those who heard it as nonsense: a fool’s babble, a heretic’s ravings,  a fanatic’s rant. Wherever the nearness of God’s kingdom has been announced, not everyone has wanted or welcomed the divine peace plan. Jesus gave his followers a heads-up. He wants us to be on fire with God and for God’s reign, but he doesn’t want us to be surprised when our commitment to his mission becomes divisive, impacting our relationships and obligations to others, even those closest to us.

At the end of today’s reading, Jesus addresses the crowds and he sounds frustrated: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret this moment, this fateful hour?” He sounds like he’s talking about the weather; how good we are about noticing small changes in wind direction and adjusting our weather forecast accordingly. But the weather is just an example. He’s talking about how our attention seems to be easily triggered by some things, while other things, more important things like kingdom matters, completely escape our attention. There he is, the kingdom of God in person, right in front of them, and most of them don’t see it.

His talk of fire, his hope that his kingdom passion would spread like wildfire on the wings of the Spirit, and his talk of scorching heat became the context in which I heard the news that July was really hot.

In fact, it was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth’s temperature in July 2019 was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, the warmest month since record-keeping began in 1880. Of the 10 warmest Julys on record, nine have occurred since 2005.[10]

It appears we can no longer take it for granted that we know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, even though the data are better and more conclusive than ever.

Will he, I ask myself and you, will he who rebuked James and John for dreams of bringing down fire on a single village, will he not open our blind eyes and lead us from captivity to peace?

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe (HarperCollins, 1994), 85-86.

[2] Teresa Berger, “Disturbing the Peace,” The Christian Century 121, no. 16 (August 10, 2004), 18.

[3] See Luke 9:52-56

[4] Luke 3:16-17

[5] Luke T. Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 209.

[6] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (Anchor), 994.

[7] Gospel of Thomas, 82.

[8] See Luke 4:18-19

[9] Luke T. Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 209.


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