A Purifying Fire

Luke 12:49-56

[Jesus said:] “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time? (NIV)

Grace to you and peace from God our creator, from Jesus Christ, our redeemer and friend, and from the Holy Spirit, our sustainer and guide.

Fire! Fire! Fire!

It is a call coming over the 1MC that nobody ever wants to hear. It strikes fear into the hearts of sailors. A fire anywhere on the ship can turn terrible very quickly. And that is why we trained for it so much. The sailors have to know what to do. Every sailor has to be a first responder. NO ONE has the luxury of saying, “Someone else will take care of it.”

Closer to home is the thought of wildfire. Ed and I were evacuated from our home in Poway during the fire in 2003. It came way too close for comfort. We have terrifying pictures that we took right before we left of the smoke billowing up behind the neighbor’s house. We were one of the lucky ones. No one on our street lost their house and all their worldly goods. Many others weren’t so lucky. Fire is terrifying. Wildfire can consume everything in its path. We have all seen the after photos of whole neighborhoods destroyed as the fire ate up one house after another not too far from here. 

Fire is terribly destructive.

So why did Jesus say he came to bring fire and he wishes it was already started? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know and love. What could he be thinking? And what brought this on? 

He had just warned the disciples about hypocrisy. Then he warned them about the dangers of the final judgment, of the consequences of blasphemy, of the dangers of misplaced priorities and self-centered living. He acknowledged that we human beings worry about a lot of things. Jesus put it in terms consistent with first century Galilee, but the themes are current. Will the money stretch until the end of the month? Will we have enough to live on in our old age? Will our children be OK? And so forth. But he tells the people not to worry. Trust God instead of worrying. Trust God and make sure your treasure is in the right place… make sure you value things that are worth valuing. And finally “Be dressed and ready for service.” (Luke 12:35, NIV) No matter what else is going on, be ready to serve. 

And that is why sailors are training all the time. We have to be ready to serve on a moment’s notice. We have to be ready to put ourselves on the line of fire. 

It is the same for followers of Christ. We have to be ready to put ourselves on the line of fire. We have to be ready to be of service to the neighbor. We, here at Gethsemane, pride ourselves on being a church family. For many of you, some of your favorite people are here. That is a good thing. There is a feeling of warmth, comfort, safety and belonging here. Like any family, something is required of us to be part of it…offering of our time, talent and treasure to sustain the whole enterprise. Unlike a family, there is the expectation here at the church there will be strangers among us from time to time. 

And this is where many churches start to stumble.

See if this fits us… most people sit in the same place every week. Most people visit with the same people each Sunday, before and after worship, at fellowship. Most people are involved in the same projects year after year. Does that sound familiar? How does a guest break into that? Who would talk to the visitor? It isn’t easy to see our church from their point of view. Just last week when we had CDR Jacobson as our guest speaker. Many visited with him before and after worship, but after the second service, someone asked me for something and I took off for my office to get it without thinking of him. It would have been thoughtful of me to turn to him and say “I have to go get this thing, but go on over to the Garden Room over there for fellowship.” Or better yet it would have been good of me to say to the member, “I’ll get it in a few minutes, once we are over in the Garden Room.” CDR Jacobson and I had talked about fellowship after the service. He has been in there for our pastor’s meetings. I guess I thought he knew where fellowship would be. That he would come on over… but he didn’t. But when I was done solving the problem for the member I looked around and he was no where to be found. I was embarrassed. It was not hospitable of me. I had to contact him and apologize. At least I could. Most of the time we don’t have contact information for our visitors. And of course, if we treat them like that, we’ll never see them again. 

Fire is dangerous, but it isn’t like there is no fire already on the ship. The ship is propelled by fire. It is the power of the fire in the boilers that runs the ship. But that is the right amount of fire in the right place. That fire has to be carefully tended so it stays productive rather than destructive.

Our warmth, the family feeling, the comfort we have here… it is a fire that must be carefully tended or it becomes destructive when we are only warm with each other and don’t care for the stranger. That makes them feel even more alone. Hospitality is a big deal in the Bible. It is not in our gospel passage, per se, but care for the stranger among us is the foundation of Jesus’ ministry. His healing power is given freely for the stranger. He fed thousands at a time out of virtually nothing but his faith. There was always enough. He healed people of terrible diseases and disfigurements. He did it with love. Jesus could have done any number of things with his life, but he chose to answer his calling and give up his life for the people. We don’t know much what he did for the first thirty years. Did he have a successful carpentry business? Loyal customers? Excellent prospective projects? He left it all behind to preach and teach, to heal and feed. He gave up his life for the good of the people.

We are called also to give up our lives for the good of the other. That doesn’t mean we need to leave our jobs, sell our homes and go on the road, preaching and teaching. (Although it might for someone. It won’t for most.) But it does mean that we have to give up doing church for ourselves and do our work for the good of the other. We are called to sacrifice ourselves like Jesus did. NO ONE has the luxury of saying, “Someone else will take care of it.” We are to die to ourselves and live with Christ.

That might mean sitting somewhere else in worship in a regular basis so you aren’t thrown off when a stranger comes to worship. 

It might mean inviting the visitor to sit with you at your table at fellowship (and unlike me, making sure they get there!)

It might mean striking up a conversation with someone who comes to the orientation to the labyrinth next week. 

But it might mean more than that.

Sacrificing ourselves for the good of the other might mean giving up some familiar ways of doing things. It might mean not having it “our way.” It might mean taking a risk and talking to someone about your church and what you love about it. It might mean taking the time to go out of your way for someone you don’t know, or don’t know that well. It might mean making an effort to get to know someone who is not like you… a different age range, ethnic background or economic level. Maybe someone of a different gender expression or a different color. Maybe it would be getting to know someone who is differently abled than you or anyone you know.

Jesus said he came to set a fire… I am guessing it isn’t a destructive fire he wants to set, but a purifying fire that will propel us to something new. He wants to set a fire that will get us up out of our seats and energize us to move for the good of the whole. He does want to burn away the dead wood of our selfish desire to have it our way. He does want to burn away the dross of our routines. He does want to burn away the waste of our self-centered habits. 

It might hurt for a bit. Self-sacrifice does. But the balm of hospitality and generosity and service feels pretty good. And the pain will pass and the result will be resurrection. 

So in the following moments of silence, offer yourself to God once again. Be willing to be of service. Give of yourself, knowing and trusting that God’s love prevails. 

A minute of silence

Holy God, come into our hearts and increase our faith. Inspire us in serving your people and being the church for the good of the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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