Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
18 August 2019 + Lectionary 20C
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
When you’re from the Midwest, you might be used to a certain saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.
In biblical studies, I think the same concept applies: If you don’t like the reading, wait five verses. Or in the case of our gospel reading today: If you do like the reading, just you wait…
Just last week, we heard words of great comfort from Jesus: Do not be afraid, little flock. Today, that little flock seems to be given every reason to be afraid: with threats of fire and division. How quickly we’ve gone from the meek and mild Jesus we’re accustomed to, to the fiery and furious Jesus we’d prefer to gloss over!
What are we to make of this fiery and furious Jesus? This hardly feels like the babe in Bethlehem we left in chapter two — wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, asleep on the hay, no crying he makes. This is full-on temper tantrum, terrible twos Jesus, but all grown-up. We’re not so much used to this Jesus.
But it’s not like Luke hasn’t been giving us clues: This is the child Mary sang of who would scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, lift up the lowly, and fill the hungry. This is the child that Simeon spoke of to Mary at Jesus’s presentation in the temple, the child who would be destined for the rising and falling of many in Israel. John the Baptist got even more precise when he told his followers of the one coming after him who would baptize, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire. All of this before Jesus ever makes an appearance! And when he does: The crowds in his hometown synagogue want to throw him off a cliff when he gives his inaugural sermon.
So, what if we actually have it backwards? What if the meek and mild Jesus is the anomaly and outlier and the fiery and furious Jesus is the norm — a Jesus who shakes things up?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace?” Or maybe a better word: harmony — the absence of conflict? No! Jesus will bring conflict and division.
We know: Being a follower of Jesus was and is risky business. In the first-century world, early converts disrupted their families and social circles of fellow faithful Jews with this new, breakaway sect. Like those in the early church, many of us know what it’s like to have families divided by religion or other differences in beliefs. It can be awkward and even tense.
Still today, it’s not exactly popular to be Christian in an increasingly secular world. There’s a lot more that competes for our attention, and even beyond that, Christianity’s message is considered outdated, irrelevant, and backwards. Institutionally, the church as we know it is dying — the numbers speak for themselves. Why would anyone want to be a part of that?
Even within church walls, there’s division: You’re not “Christian enough,” or you’re “too Christian,” or the “wrong kind” of Christian, or you vote the “wrong way” and so you can’t be possibly be Christian.
More often than not, it seems like we’re the ones doing the division. I hardly think more denominations and internal divisions were what Jesus had in mind for his followers.
But still, he speaks of division, and we have to acknowledge that. I think Jesus recognized his own ministry wasn’t exactly the most popular, and so he warns his followers: Following me isn’t going to be easy either.
If Jesus’s message was popular and well-received, it wouldn’t have gotten him killed. But as it is, his message of reversals was threatening, divisive even. His was a message that reached out to the very edges of society — crossing divisions — to the sick and unclean and demon-possessed and ethnic and gender minorities with a word of healing and hope and freedom — that God is for them.
We might even say that Jesus was fired up — fed up with the way things were, seeing suffering all around him — fed up enough and fired up to do something about it.
“I came to bring fire.” Fire can mean many things: Fire can be destructive, wiping out an entire home in what feels like an instant or laying waste to whole forests and natural habitats. Fire can also give warmth and light, and it can be a source of energy to cook our food.
But fire can also be purifying and refining. Fire transforms something into something else, like a potter’s creation brought to life in the heat of the kiln. There’s much in our world that needs purifying, refining, transforming — so much we wish could be different from the way things are. Maybe Jesus’s fire kindling is exactly what we need.
We’ve also come to associate fire with the Holy Spirit, whose primary work is what we call sanctification, the act of making something holy, or set apart. In the Small Catechism, Luther reminds us that the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes us holy. And if we’re made holy, or set apart, then it must be for good reason, right?
Jesus brings fire to set us apart in this weird and wondrous calling as his followers. As followers of Jesus, we’re called to be fired up.
We can get fired up about many things, too. In an age of near-constant news streams and social connection, we often respond with knee-jerk reactions that aren’t always helpful — reactions that are harmful and end up creating more, unnecessary divisions.
I, however, prefer to take my cue from musical theatre, after being lucky enough to be able to see Hamilton in Chicago last week. If you haven’t seen the show, I don’t think I’m giving too much away: From the very beginning, Alexander Hamilton is portrayed as the young, scrappy, and eager rising politician in the early days of the Revolutionary War who is himself fired up about independence — though his chief rival, Aaron Burr, advises him to tone it down: “Talk less, smile more,” and you’ll get a whole lot farther. But that doesn’t stop Hamilton. He’s fired up, not about to throw away his shot, and he’s going to shake things up. Hamilton won’t settle for false unity and peace at the expense of backing down from the cause of freedom.
That’s our invitation, too. Talk more! Get fired up! We have good news worth sharing. The Spirit who descends like tongues of fire and burns within our hearts calls us into mission.
There’s work to be done, and there’s no backing down. We are God’s people set apart to do God’s work in the world: to reach out in love to our neighbors who are hungry and sick and suffering. This is our calling: to love people, all of them, to care for them, to pray for them, to walk with them in all of life’s ups and downs.
This, too, is the root of what gets Jesus fired up: the extravagant love of God for all people that overflows in abundance, and a desire to share that love with people, all of them. To meet them where they are, to reach out in healing, to preach the good news that God is for us.
It’s a tall order. When it all seems impossible, it is good to be reminded that is the Spirit who fires us up. It is the Spirit’s fire that ignites us and inspires us. It is the Spirit’s fire that flickers in dark places to show us where to go. It is the Spirit’s fire that warms us with God’s everlasting presence with us. And it is the Spirit’s fire that empowers us to fan the flames of God’s love with the power to transform the world.