Plato and Garth are Right
Fire is a good thing. Plato the philosopher said that you won't get to reality without looking at. Country singer Garth Brooks said you won't get to love standing outside it. They're right.
To face, let alone stand in, fire we have to see it at its worse. So we'll start at the end of the text and work back. We'll treat our text like a TV show that opens with a scene of devastation with your favorite character at the center and seemingly guilty. Then the camera shifts away from the scene of destruction; letters are typed across the bottom: Three Weeks Ago. The show goes back to explain how things got to be this way. Usually your favorite character will be exonerated and maybe even become the hero. But first the scene of desolation.
Jesus stands amidst a scene of utter division. The result of His ministry is division till the end of the world. When Jesus says, "From now on there will be 5 in 1 family divided against each other," He uses a Greek perfect. That means divided forever. Read 1 Corinthians; Paul says there must be divisions among you. Read Galatians; Paul wonders at how they deserted the true Gospel for a fake one. Read the apostle of love; John says they went out from him because they were not of him.
Jesus is emphatic about this division. He asks, "Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?" Then He answers His own question with a "no" that we would write with capital letters and an exclamation point. It's the strongest way to say "NO!" in Greek. And Jesus doesn't stop with "NO!" He goes on to say literally, "But on the absolute contrary I authoritatively say to you I came not to give peace in the earth but division."
Our hero walks among the desolation. A smoking car here, a burning house there, and usually there's something especially poignant. A child's doll, a toy, a family photo. Jesus paints our opening scene particularly sad. It's not a daughter-in-law divided from a mother-in-law. It's a bride so separated. At the moment when almost always there is peace and love, a wedding, Jesus says He brings division.
How are we going to get our hero out of this situation? How are we ever going to look at the fire He says He has come to bring let alone stand inside it? Here's where the scene shifts. See typed across the screen "Three Years Ago." This fire was started 3 years ago, and it was started by of all things water. Jesus wants to fix our attention there by saying literally, "A baptism I have to be baptized with." This way of saying it makes the matter of Jesus' Baptism personal and emphatic (Buls, Exegetical Notes, Series C, Luke-John,42).
Yes the conflagration Jesus came to bring was started when He stepped into the Jordan and allowed Himself to be baptized by John. John's baptism was only for confessed sinners. Jesus, being true God and perfect Man had no sins to confess, but since He carried the sins of the world, since He carried your sins, He had a world's worth to confess. All the dark, seedy, sins the world tries to hide were on Jesus. All those sins of yours you only now and again get a glimpse of and shudder when you do were confessed by Jesus.
Jesus' baptism was the beginning of the burn, but it wouldn't be completed till Jesus lived a sin free life and then offered His holy life as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the world. Jesus says, "I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed." That last word "completed" takes us to the cross. It's the same word Jesus will cry from the cross. "It is finished." The fire that starts with Water does not reach a roaring blaze till the Blood of God is poured on it. You could with good reason say it doesn't reach a fevered pitch until the cross.
The word the insert translates "distressed" does mean that. It focuses on the dread, the torment with which Jesus approached the cross. Remember how in Gethsemane He said His soul was overwhelmed to the point of death? But Luke, a medical doctor, probably has in mind the medical use of the word. Two other times Luke uses the word in reference to someone being in the grip of a fever. Jesus is feverishly focused on finishing the fire. Why? Because that is the only way any of us could be saved. The opening fire-scorched scene marked by division is not a scene of destruction but salvation. Our Hero is not only a hero but a savior.
The scene shifts. The fire has been lit; Jesus' fever has broken. It is finished. Jesus succeeded in satisfying God's white hot wrath against a world of sinners. Jesus poured out His blood, sweat, and tears on the cross and as they quenched the fires of God's wrath against sinners they ignited a fire of a different sort.
Read your Old Testament. God started the Old Testament Church's worship by sending fire from heaven. He first did it in the case of the Tabernacle in the wilderness in Leviticus 9 and 500 years later He sent heavenly fire for the Temple in 2 Chronicles 7. The true worship of God can only happen in response to something God does. Last week we said you lift your hearts unto the Lord because He first calls, "Lift up your hearts." Sacrifices, offerings, thanksgiving, prayers can't ascend to heaven unless God provides the fire to do so. As God sent fire to kindle the worship of the Old Testament Church, so the ascended Man who is God sent tongues of fire to kindle New Testament Church worship.
Read your Old Testament. Leviticus 9:24 says, "Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown." 2 Chronicles 7:1-3 says, "When all the Israelites saw the fire coming down and the glory of the Lord above the temple, they knelt on the pavement with their faces to the ground, and they worshiped and gave thanks to the Lord, saying, He is good; His love endures forever.'"
Fire from heaven is a good thing. The people in Moses' day shouted for joy when they saw it. The people in Solomon's day worshipped, gave thanks to the Lord and said He is good and His love endures forever. The part the NIV translates as "His love endures forever" the King James translates as "His mercy endures forever." You recognize that as your response to my call after Communion "O give thanks unto the Lord for He is good." This is the essence of New Testament worship to know that for Jesus' sake the Lord can only be good to you and that His mercy endures forever.
This fire that fell from heaven kindled Old Testament worship, but it also divided the Old Testament Church from Her neighbors. Only the flames the Lord kindled could be used in worship. Two sons of Aaron were killed for offering strange fire to the Lord. In the New Testament Church we see that when the Lord sent His fire it led people to the apostles not to the Pharisees, Sadducees, or Rabbis. Remember how they all gathered around them saying, "'We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!'"
The fire Jesus kindled by His innocent life and guilty but holy death, He sent to earth on Pentecost to kindle New Testament worship. And it led not just to the apostles but to apostolic teaching, worshipping, and celebrating the Sacrament. That's what Acts 2:42 says. After the flames from heaven gathered them around the Gospel preaching, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." You stand outside apostolic teaching, worshipping, or communing and you're standing outside the fire. You're looking at a strange fire not the one kindled by your Lord Jesus.
But this fire burns, this fire blinds, this fire separates; yes it does for those are the properties of real fire, but those are not the only properties of fire. Fire properly used enlightens, purifies, and warms. If you've ever been lost in the woods, you know how even the smallest fire lightens the darkness. If you've ever had to dig a splinter out of your hand, you sure wanted a fire to sterilize that needle first. If you've ever been in a house without heat, you know that even one candle puts warmth into a room.
Cyril of Alexandria who died in 444 A.D. said in a sermon on this text, "We affirm that the fire Christ sent out is for humanity's salvation and profit" (ACC, III, 217). He affirmed this after seeing how division and separation were a constant feature in a Church fired by the teaching, worshipping, and communing of the apostles. He wasn't surprised by it and we shouldn't be either. Our Lord warned us centuries ago that a result of His kindling the fire of New Testament worship would be division not peace. It would only do that because it was a true fire that He kindled not a fake one.
You've seen those fake fireplaces. They look like a fire burning but there is no warmth, no purifying, and very little lighting going on. It's only the real fire that Jesus kindled in His baptism, set to blaze on Calvary, and sent to earth on Pentecost that will enlighten your soul with the knowledge of salvation, purify you from your sins, and warm you with the certainty of salvation. Fake fire won't do that; however, fake fire has the "up" side of not burning, dividing, or blinding. But fake fire isn't worth looking at and there is no point to standing inside it.
We're back at the opening scene. On closer inspection the fire Jesus kindled and completed has worked good. The fire succeeded in dividing us from sins we couldn't see as separate from ourselves, from the Death that stalked us, and from the Devil who would frightened us. Though we are left with no peace in this world, we do have the peace of God which passes all human understanding. Though we may be divided from family members by the apostolic Word and Sacrament ministry kindled by Jesus, this same ministry joins us forever to brothers and sisters in Christ across family lines, national lines, denominational lines and even the lines of death. Let me look at this fire and see reality; let me stand inside this fire and know love. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20130818); Luke 12: 49-53