Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
It is hard to hear this reading from the Gospel and not hear an angry Jesus, venting his frustration to his disciples. He was feeling so much pressure; he knew that he was on the way toward the cross. But nobody around him understood the urgency. Nobody understood the seriousness of situation. Others were urging him to tone it down some, the authorities were starting to take notice. Maybe he could just focus on how to be a good person some more. Maybe he could spend more time on how to live a happy and fulfilled life, how to be a good member of the community. People liked that sort of stuff, and it would let the Romans and the religious leaders settled down some.
But that isn’t what Jesus was about. Jesus wasn’t concerned with making people feel good. He wasn’t concerned with popularity or how his message was polling. Jesus was concerned about salvation. Salvation of the community. Salvation of the world. Jesus was concerned about the coming Kingdom of God; it was so close, only an instant away.
“You don’t get it,” Jesus shouts, “because if you did, you would know that there is no time left and you would feel my urgency! You don’t get it, because if you did you would be as angry as I am about all the injustice and brokenness that I see around us! How I wish that the end was already here, and this were already over!”
It is hard to hear this reading and not hear Jesus’ judgement and condemnation.
And you know what? Sometimes that is okay. Sometimes that is exactly what we need to hear. Sometimes we need an angry Jesus, a judgmental and condemning Jesus to slap us awake and out of our stupor. We need it because it is so much easier to accept the word as it is. It is so much easier to go with the flow and never question the status quo. It is so much easier to tell ourselves that the world we see must be as the world is meant to be.
Yes, some days we need Jesus to shake us from our hopeless slumber. Some days we need Jesus to shake us awake so that we might remember that God still has a vision for the end.
Some days that is what we need. But not this day.
This day I think we are too well aware of the brokenness and injustice of the world. This day I believe we know deeply the immensity of all that is plaguing our world; we understand keenly the urgency of the problems that are before us. This day I suspect that what we face is not sleepy indifference, but despair that we might not be up to the task.
Today, my friends, we do not need judgment and condemnation. Today we need Jesus’ comfort and assurance.
At first read, this text seems an unlikely place to find either of those two things. But in our Lectionary Study Group this past Thursday, another way to read this story was offered. For, as it was pointed out, the hardest part of building a fire is kindling it. You have to clear the ground, go out and search for good, dry fuel that is ready to receive the flame, build and arrange it so that the whole thing can breathe and the fire is able to grow, spreading its warmth and light. Once all that is done, all you have to do is strike a spark, sit back, and allow the flame to shine out in the night.
Another way to approach the Gospel this morning is to hear in these words Jesus’ grief. Grief that the fire is not yet kindled, there is still yet so much more work to be done, and night is quickly falling. Grief that the world is not yet ready to receive the fire of the Holy Spirit, even as we so desperately need it to illuminate the path forward.
There is comfort in this, because it means that the grief and despair that we feel as we look out at the world is grief and despair that we share with Jesus. It is comfort because it means that the work of setting the kindling for the fire of the Spirit is not ours alone, Jesus labors with us in this effort, side by side, shoulder to shoulder. And it is assurance that God will see to completion what we cannot, for whether we are ready for it or not, the Holy Spirit is moving and the Kingdom of God is near.
And in this, there is hope. There is hope because at last we come to understand that our work is not to defeat the evil in our world, for God will see to that. Our work is to set the kindling within ourselves, within our communities, and within our world; kindling that is ready and eager to receive the fire of the Holy Spirit when it arrives.
That is no small task, mind you, for the world is not yet ready to receive that fire. Perhaps we aren’t sure that we are ready to receive that fire. There is much work to be done.
Within ourselves, the work of kindling the fire for the Holy Spirit begins with prayer and continues with the practice of compassionate listening. It means learning to listen deeply, and honestly, and from a stance of love first to our own self, acknowledging with joy the ways that we strive for the Kingdom of God and with compassion the ways that we fall short and are complicit in the brokenness of the world. And it means doing the same with those around us in the world until we are able to recognize Christ within them, as well as a child of God for whom Jesus died.
From ourselves, that work spreads out into our communities and into the wider world. By building connections and fostering relationships based not on common enemies but on mutual compassion and dignity, we refuse to take part in the divisive and partisan rhetoric of our world or to buy into the zero-sum mentality of contemporary politics. By recognizing one another, all people, as fellow children of God, we start learning to trust in God’s abundant salvation in the face of the world’s problems and follow the movement of the Holy Spirit in the healing of the world’s brokenness, rejecting the fear based reactions of our current world that do nothing to lessen despair, but only deepen it.
It takes time, yes, and night is quickly falling, but do not lose heart, for we do not labor alone. As we enter into this work, we will find that we have joined with Christ to prepare the whole of creation to be set ablaze.
Preached by Adam Yates