The text this week is Luke 12: 49–56. This is a passage that speaks of fire and division and families torn apart. This is a text that preachers like to call a “difficult text”. It is one that makes many preachers moan when they realize that they drew this reading to preach upon. It is one of the challenges for anyone, clergy, or lay, that studies the Bible, that you will have to grapple with difficult texts. We should not shy away, as the answers will enlighten and edify us, as God intends.
No, Really Fire Can be Good
The text opens with imagery of bringing fire to the earth. Fire certainly can bring images of death and destruction. There is evidence of this in Mark 9:48 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8. Too many want this to be the fire that Jesus brings, fire that will only consume the “other guy”.
Fire, however, also has other purposes in Scripture. It can be cleansing and purifying. This is seen in Luke 3:16-17 and Malachi 3: 1-3. Obviously, this cleansing can and likely will be uncomfortable. What change isn’t?
The other connotation of fire in Scripture is that it indicates the presence of God. This is seen in Exodus 14:24, Exodus 19:18 as well as Isaiah 30:27.
Taken together we can see that fire is not necessarily a bad thing. We should also realize that fire is not necessarily for the “other guy”. Perhaps the fire is intended for us; to cleanse us and purify us and put us in the presence of God. This cleansing and purifying before God, means I think, that we have been made righteous before God. That God has eliminated all that stands between us and Him. This is what the Gospel gives us. Hearing God’s good and gracious word places the faith in us that purifies and cleanses us. This can often feel like fire because it is not easy to let go of the control that comes with thinking you can make yourself righteous. As tough as this may be, it really is good news.
Actions and Reactions
It has become a cliché to cite some version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Yet, in the social world we inhabit this is often true. This is especially true when we are talking about radical change. Jesus offers us the most radical change we could ever imagine; complete submission to the will of God, in all that we are and do.
The message of Jesus is radical, seditious, and threatening to every power structure that exists on earth. Jesus knows what this message is going to bring. He certainly knew what it would bring Him personally, crucifixion. Jesus outlines what it is likely to bring us if we fully embrace the gift of God’s grace and respond to that gift. It will bring division. Families torn apart. I suspect that Jesus uses this analogy to show just how difficult embracing God’s radicality can be. It is likely that there will be other divisions because of this, work relationships, friendships and so forth. Yet, family relationships are the most intimate and personal, so the use of this as an example indicates the high price that may be paid.
The text does not indicate that Jesus welcomes this division or is joyous about it. Jesus is simply indicating what will happen. That Jesus recognizes something as true on earth does not mean that He thinks its necessarily good. Think of Jesus before Pilate, he acknowledges Pilate’s authority, but points out that this authority comes from God and is a part of His plan. This plan may seem awful to us and most difficult, but we must remember that we do not have God’s vantage point. Similarly, the idea of intra-familial division may be gutting, but much of God’s plan is beyond our complete understanding. In any event this division may be caused by humanity’s general awfulness and a result of the free choices God has given us.
In the end the purifying fire of faith that cleanses us, makes us whole and puts us right with God, is our faith in Jesus the Christ. This places within us Jesus, who is the righteousness of God Himself. Christ dwelling within us will change us and will terrify and anger many in our lives. All we can do is hear God’s good and gracious word, let the cleansing fire change us, know the reactions it is likely to produce, then go forth believing and obeying.
Praise Be to God