Fire in the Hole
Before setting off an explosive, you say, “Fire in the hole” three times to warn everyone nearby it’s about to blow. Commentators struggle to find such a warning in the context of Jesus’ words in Luke. At best, it seems the following verses about discerning the time relate to the fire bomb Jesus sets off. “Fire” is the first emphatic word in our text. “Fire I come to cast upon the earth.” Cast fire is lightening, and this Greek word can mean that. Everyone says, “It’s just thunder” even when it’s close. No one says, “It’s just lightening” especially when it’s close. So, fire in the hole.
Let Jesus be the One to cast it. For at least the last 2 ½ years it seems everyone is on fire about something. Something national, political, or personal. And as with the Poppei character on Seinfeld who’s is right about the abortion issue that sort of righteously indignant stance is being taken with all issues. “There can be no debate; no intelligent person can think differently.” So the fire of God is being cast by someone other than Him.
In our text, Jesus is fevered to see the fire cast. The rather weak “how I wish it were already kindled” is literally Jesus saying He is “seized, attacked, tormented, impelled” to see the ring of fire lit. The exhaustive Greek dictionary, Kittle, translates “totally governed by this.” All these translations reflect intense emotion. Dr. Luke uses this word the most. It was a common medical term used to describe being in the grip of a fever. But Jesus despite feverishly wanting the fire lit, waits. The words kindled, baptized, and completed are all passives. Jesus waits on His Father to strike the match even on an issue where there can be do debate.
You know the phrase, “Is this the hill you want to die on?” You’re advised to ask this question before you enter any personal, job, marriage, or even religious controversy. Jesus is talking about that passionate suffering that will lead to His damning and dying in place of all sins and sinners. That’s the Baptism He is fevered to complete. That is a hill to die on. Paul does. He says, “I die daily” (I Cor. 15:31). He also says our Baptism joins us to death of Christ where we die to all that is me, myself, and I. Yes, die on that hill before you consider the next hill to storm.
Let Jesus be the one to cast the fire, and know that when it is, you’ll be burned too. “From now on” is “From the now”. Jesus pointedly marks the time and place, and it’s Him. He’s the dividing point. Who you say Jesus is, is the Fire that divides. He says again pointedly: “Do you think that peace I have come to give in the earth?” Then with the absolute sharpest ‘no’ He says “but on the absolute contrary I have come to give division.”
James 4:4 says, “whoever wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” That means whoever has a Friend in Jesus makes himself an enemy of the fallen world. There’s all sorts of room to compromise in the realm of the national, political, personal. There is none in the area of the theological, moral, or doctrinal. Love governs in the first; God’s truth governs in the second. We can’t give up one dot of an i or a single cross of a t in the Bible. We are commanded to teach all things Jesus has commanded, be it about the unborn, marriage, sexuality, salvation, heaven, hell, etc. This will divide you from the world which doesn’t abide by the Words of Jesus but by common consent, popular opinion, or to each his own. This will do more than bring division. It will bring hatred. Remember Jesus says, "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated Me first” (John 15:18).
There is a difference in the hatred. We will be hated by the world because we are saved from the eternal fires of hell. Jesus was hated by the world and suffered the eternal fires of hell to save us. Jesus got His Baptism of fire, i.e. His passionate suffering and death, because He got Baptized confessing not His own sins, for He had none, but the sins of the world. In Micah the prophet saw Jerusalem’s certain destruction had arrived based on how families were divided, Jesus uses it to show the End Times have arrived in His passionate suffering and death so from that point on division.
Yet, Jesus says more: In listing the combatants only Father and Son don’t ever have the Greek article. This sets them apart. God the Father was most certainly against God the Son as He bore your sins. And because the Son was covered with the stench of our sins, He was against everything the Father stood for. That’s why Isaiah can say the Father was pleased to crush Him. Another aspect to the word I translated ‘fevered’ is the mental attitude of dreading the event. Christ as true Man dreaded His passion and death. Think about it. “If death is dreaded by the sinner, how much more by Him who knew no sin” (Wenzel, 472). In studying Genesis, we talk about the first dead thing Adam and Eve would’ve seen being the animals God skinned to make them clothes. Death had entered in where there had been only life. They must have processed it like a child does the first time you explain to them the bird, the fish, the animal is not sleeping, is not resting but dead. To the perfect Man-God who didn’t have Death inside of Him ticking like a time bomb ready to explode like we do, how foreign Death was.
Let Jesus cast the fire; know you’ll be burned, and remember the burned over areas. This expression can be used figuratively or literally. Burned over areas are good and bad. For the literal and a bad sense google ‘Bastrop fire’. It’s been over 10 years since over 35,000 acres and over 1,600 homes burned. The billowing smoke looked apocalyptic, and the burned over area looked forever ruined. The figurative sense of ‘burned over’ is in the phrase burned-over district. “The burned-over district refers to the western and central regions of New York in the early 19th century, where religious revivals and the formation of new religious movements of the Second Great Awakening took place. The term was coined by Charles Grandison Finney, who in his 1876 autobiography referred to a "burnt district" to denote an area in central and western New York State….He felt that the area had been so heavily evangelized as to have no "fuel" (unconverted population) left over to "burn" (convert)” (www.americanhistoryusa.com/topic/burned-over-district/).
American History USA.com says if you reference abolition, women’s rights, and utopian experiments central New York is included in this ‘burned-over district.’ In my book on feminism, I note that this region is not only the headwaters for those 3 movements but for Joseph Smith founding of Mormonism. The rural Texas area I was first called to struck me as being a ‘burned-over district’. Revival after revival swept through summer after summer in the various Baptist churches in the area. The intense, emotional, dramatic preaching and called for conversions burned up the people’s ability to hear anything theological. Finney used the phrase ‘burned-over’ to denote no one left to convert. I think of it as an area where the people have been burned over emotionally. Just like it takes more and more drugs for an addict to get high, so each of these moments called out increasingly extreme emotions, till there was nothing left to emote.
For a literal burned-over area, see the before and after pictures of the Bastrop fire 11 years ago. You understand right away why a burned-over area can be a bad thing. There is no vegetation to anchor the soil. No brush for animals to hide. No food for them to eat. Soil erodes and the run-off can clog streams, and what growth comes back is thick impassable scrub brush. However, an area burned by fire is thought of as a fruitful one in some cases. Sugarcane fields are burned in Louisiana, and here in Texas ranchers burn their pastures. It cleanses useless weeds and brambles and puts some nutrients back in the soil. The White Pine pinecone only opens and releases seeds in the intense heat of a forest fire. Look at some of the current pictures of the burned-over area in Bastrop. It’s amazing how much did grow back.
The Lord who shouts ‘fire in the hole’ in our text would have us be a burned-over area like Bastrop not the burned-over district in New York. You can hear the Law and Gospel so much, that the Law no longer burns repentance and the Gospel is no longer the fire of Jesus’ cleansing blood. “Yeah, yeah we’re all sinners who Jesus died for.” Scriptural truths don’t move me as much as social media riles me up to say, to do, to follow this or that, him or her. And we’re content to be divided from others by something other than God’s “doctrine and all its articles” (FC, SD, 21).
No, time out. Let us “affirm” with 5th century Church Father, Cyril of Alexandria, “that the fire Christ sent out is for humanity’s salvation and profit” (ACC, NT, III, 217). That fire is what we value and want. It burns to bless people. It burns to drive people away from their sin and sinfulness to the fire of the Lord’s cleansing salvation. The Lord casts the fire of His passion so that we might see all that is us burned up and all that is Him shine. If all that is ‘us’ was burned up literally, we’d leave behind about a half pound of salt. Interesting.
Jesus says that we are the light and salt of the world (Mat 5:13-14). Google that concept and you’ll find how to be salt and light; admonitions to be salt and light. Do you have to lecture a bulb to shine or a candle to burn? Do you have to admonish the salt to be salty or explain to it how to salt? No light shines and salt salts. In Matthew, Jesus doesn’t say you must be salt and light, an imperative, but both are indicative. Jesus says, “You are salt; you are light” You’re a little Gospel light lit by Jesus’ holy life and innocent death in place of you. Burning you produce about half pound of salt, enough to salt the whole world.
Don’t you find it funny that in mythology the gods want to keep fire from man and then punish him when he steals it. The true God takes on flesh and blood in order to undergo a Baptism of Fire for mankind and so be able to cast fire on the earth for the salvation of mankind. So, “Fire in the hole” in reference to this text, announces a good explosion, a good burning, a good dividing. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20220904); Luke 12:49-53