"Controlled Burns" – Luke 12:49-56
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?
When I lived in California and Arizona, I became quite familiar with the color coded alert system that warned residents and visitors of the threat of fire.
Scattered along the highways and back roads out west are signs that read: “Today’s fire danger is:” And then there are 5 options: Green for Low (which I’ve never seen); Blue for Moderate; Yellow for High; Orange for Very High; and Red for Extreme. It is interesting that the middle option is “high.” It reminds me of going to Starbucks, where the smallest thing you can order is “tall.” Out West, the average, middle-range option is “high danger.” People are encouraged to stay vigilant.
Given this frame of reference, I am always initially concerned when I read Jesus’ words in the gospel of Luke, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Fire is not something that most of us welcome, whether we are in the green Indiana suburbs or drought-weary west. Fire is something that we have learned to fear. Fire is dangerous. Fire is destructive. We consider as heroes and heroines those who put out fires. We mourn those those lose their lives fighting these fires. And we pray for those whose lives and possessions are in the path of fires such as those raging today in California and Portugal.
But here is Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Often we pat ourselves on the back for our work putting out fires, when Jesus, the one we have promised to follow, is the one setting them ablaze! I think I’d much prefer a Jesus who puts out fires…but that’s not the Jesus of the Gospel.
The Jesus of the Gospel, at least of today’s Gospel text, is a bringer of fire, a divider, a threat to family values, and a destabilizer of the status quo.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 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 divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”
In order to understand what Jesus means and why he would use such an image it is helpful to examine what fire represents elsewhere in the Biblical narrative.
The Bible contains no reference to God creating fire and giving it to humankind, which is interesting because so many other cultures and religions do have origin of fire stories. Instead, what we have are a stories of fire that illustrate God’s relationship with humanity.
God appears to Moses in a fire—a burning bush, and transformed an adopted prince in exile with an identity crisis into a liberator of slaves, and a leader of the Exodus. Also, recall how the freed slaves and their leaders know where they were going once they left Egypt – God provided a pillar of fire to lead them at night.
John the Baptist, in both Matthew and Luke, tells his crowds that even though he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
And the Pentecost story is a story of fire, of tongues of flame descending on the believers as part of the manifestation of the Holy Spirit – the presence and promise of god with them.
Throughout scripture fire is used to demonstrate God’s presence. And I think that is part of what is going on in Jesus’ words today. To say, “I have come to bring fire to the earth,” means, in part that he brings the presence of the almighty, the presence of the Holy, the presence of God into our very midst. And while this means that some things are going to burn. It also means that something new will be created out of the ashes.
One of the great problems in the west is that after a disastrous fire season in 1910, the US adopted a national policy of total prevention of forest fires. They essentially attempted to eliminate all fire from the forest. And so generations of kids, probably including all of us, grew up listening to the story of Smokey the Bear, orphaned and made homeless by a forest fire, and concluding that all forest fires were bad, that all forest fires should be put out.
Ironically and unfortunately, artificial suppression of fire is largely to blame for the huge fire crisis in the west. Too many years of putting out natural fires and not performing controlled burns has resulted in landscapes that are more volatile and far more dangerous than they would have been if nature had been allowed to take its course.
But understanding of fire’s role in the entire ecosystem has evolved since the days when the only good fire was a “dead” fire. Suppression of all fires, not just the ones that are caused by humans, disrupts a forest’s life cycle. There are even trees that cannot reproduce without fire. The stately lodgepole pine has a pine cone that can only release the seed for a new tree if it is exposed to the intense heat of fire. Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life, clearing underbrush, making way for new life.
When Jesus warns, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”; the kind of fire the Jesus is talking about is transformative fire. The fire that Jesus brings is the fire that clears the forest of what needs to go and makes it possible for new life, healthy life, productive life, and changed life.
When John the Baptist talks of Jesus baptizing with fire, he is referring to both a cleansing in the waters of Jesus baptism as well as an invitation into the fire of his death – into the transformative power of the cross, where evil is reforged into good, where sin is confronted, and where love prevails over hatred.
The Kingdom of God is like a fire. And we are called to live accordingly. People who are prepared for fire have to know when to evacuate, and when to hold their ground. They have to know when to help a neighbor douse his house, when to help her rebuild. They have to know what to leave behind and what to take with them. And they have to know that their lives will be transformed by the fire’s awesome power.
Preparing for the Kingdom of God has some of the same elements—attentiveness to the immediacy of neighbor’s need, while being cognizant of the bigger picture. Living in the here and now, preparing for the long term.
We are being called to re-evaluate our understanding of our role in putting out fires, in light of the fact that Jesus says he’s the one who is igniting them. Jesus has come to “bring fire to the earth” because some things that exist in our world have to be destroyed in order for something new, beautiful, and life-giving to emerge.
We can color code for fire alerts, but what Jesus was doing was putting us on Kingdom alert. The color-coded terror alerts have created an ongoing debate about how you can be prepared, how you can live the different colors of alertness. And in some ways a similar debate has been going on in Christianity since the beginning. How do we prepare for a Kingdom that is coming and is here? How do we wait for a second coming that our forbears in faith anticipated almost two millennia ago? How do we live in constant readiness without high anxiety?
Kingdom alert is not intended to frighten or paralyze us. The different parables of the kingdom give us pieces of wisdom, facets of the kingdom that is already and not yet, a hope and a promise for us and for all creation that one day death, weeping and mourning will be no more, and instead all will be a part of a new creation, rising from the ashes.
Thanks be to God for our invitation to live in a spirit of preparedness and hope while fires rage.