Occasionally Jesus has been known to go off script. If Luke tells the story right – today is one of those times. I wish I could tell you he’s cranky because he sees a cross in his near future. Or he’s tired of followers who follow for what’s in it for them. I wish he’d stick with a more uplifting script. But he doesn’t.
They didn’t let us read this story in children’s Sunday School. None of today’s readings are uplifting and made it into the Children’s Story Bible. This is adult stuff. God threatens to smite Israel. Hebrews says God will let his faithful get stoned to death, sawn in two, imprisoned and tormented. Why couldn’t God just toast the ne’er do wells and leave the good, loyal folks trying to be good alone? Jesus says he brings fire and creates family feuds, as if we don’t have enough family dysfunction. A Biblical scholar recently published a book: God Behaving Badly. Wonder where he gets that? We don’t come to church to hear this stuff. We’ve got CNN and Fox News 24/7 for that.
I trust Jesus is speaking metaphorically here. He’s come to seek and save, not bring fire and all, right? He had a chance to burn up some rude Samaritans as we heard a few weeks ago, and passed on it. Has he changed his mind? I don’t think so. But we do know good fire – like backyard fire pits and grills – and bad fire.
One summer afternoon, I think I was about seven, sirens wailed, and fire trucks stopped behind our house. A fire was burning down the woods, thanks to the kid next door. I think I remember this right: smoke poured of his daddy’s ears when he found out what his boy had done. I thought: “Allen’s not going to live to be a teenager. His daddy’s going to kill him.” Miraculously he did live.
Actually Jesus’ fire has nothing to do with burning down woods. It’s an ordeal – the looming cross, and baptism. This baptism is not a cool dip in the river. It’s a baptism of suffering and death. From this baptism, God raises new life out of ashes. Jesus’ resurrection causes divisions – as the writer of Hebrews notes. But persecution and division were not God’s doing. God’s people can behave badly – families, powers and principalities, religions. We can divide and destroy. God’s response is to heal and reconstitute the messes we make. This isn’t new stuff God just thought up. It’s been in his heart all along. That doesn’t mean following Jesus is a piece of cake. Being loyal to God in Jesus can bring persecution, split families apart, put saints in harm’s way. That still happens when we when we speak truth to power, live as if the poor and marginalized matter, those who’ve been pushed out of churches because they don’t belong with the “good, righteous” people. This is not easy stuff.
I’ve been in discernment processes with prospective clergy who think God’s talking to them. I love when someone asks: “Tell us about your relationship with Jesus.” A typical response: “Jesus is my best friend, my buddy. When I talk with Jesus, he comforts me. He cares when no one else does. He’s a nice guy.” I think, “How sweet. Bless your heart.” Then I am ready to ask: “That’s so wonderful. Now tell me when Jesus really ticks you off – tells you stuff you don’t want to hear – makes you mad.” If they can’t really answer – I suspect they don’t know Jesus yet. The Jesus I know gets under my skin – and opposes me, like when he tells me to love people who annoy me, or when I figure I know someone’s thoughts or motives, and he comes along to wipe my self-righteous glasses clean. He forces me to see myself more clearly – and worry less about what someone else is up to, so I can see my own greed, my fears, my defensiveness, my closed heart. That burns me up. Jesus can set me afire – but he also says: “I’ll love you regardless.”
He says we’re not good at reading certain signs. Oh, we can nail the weather forecasts, but we miss signs God sends. The big sign we miss is the sacred story of what God’s up to – in patri- and matriarchs, priests and prophets, and finally in Jesus. I think it goes like this: God so loves a world that runs from him, rejects him, and won’t take him seriously. God so loves a world that he puts with us, and forgives us, and keeps reaching for us, and never quits loving us. God so loves this world, he comes in Jesus to eat with sinners, to touch lepers, befriend prostitutes, to confound religious authorities and gatekeepers. God so loves this world, he tells us where we’ll see him – like in the person sitting next to you – in the beauty and glory of creation – in the hungry, thirsty, the imprisoned and destitute. God so loves a world that kills him. God so loves this world, he won’t stay dead – but in Jesus draws all of us screw-ups into divine love – just when we wonder if he has written us off, because we can’t get there on our own.
God so loves us – he trusts us and believes we’ll actually want to live such an unlikely, oddball life that burns and divides, for the sole reason we trust Jesus is right about God. One day the fire of God’s passion and love will consume us all – and the fire we dread is not the fire of eternal damnation, but fire we need and welcome – the fire of eternal, holy and divine love.
So thank God that Jesus goes off-script. He brings fire, all right – that cleanses, refines, and saves us, and makes us fit for a kingdom wilder and far greater than we can ever imagine. And if get ignited – why, we just might light up the world – with the fire of God’s eternal love. Imagine that.