A Sermon by Eleanor Childs – Reader, 14 August 2016
The Fire next Time
Oh dear, oh dear! That’s what I thought when I looked at the lectionary reading of the gospel. People aren’t going to like this passage. Maybe I should preach on the epistle instead of the gospel. But then I caught myself on and thought how necessary it is to attend to the whole counsel of God, as we find it in Scripture and not just extract the bits we like. Christianity in our time has often been dumbed down in an effort to make it appeal to people and anyone could be forgiven for thinking that it was all about being loving and nice to people. But Jesus didn’t get crucified for being nice, preaching love. There were other very uncomfortable aspects to his preaching, which challenged and antagonised people – preaching about money, sex and power, and as in today’s passage about judgment.
Here we have Jesus’ words, ‘I have come to bring fire on earth…Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.’ Families will be divided over me. Now we need to remember that this is the same Jesus of whom it was prophesied that he would guide our feet into the path of peace. The same Jesus who frequently said to the troubled and struggling, ‘Go in peace.’ The same Jesus who said to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, ‘Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you.’ The Jesus of whom it is said in Ephesians, ‘he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.’ The Jesus of whom it was prophesied ‘he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; that is, the bringer of reconciliation. We have to hold those truths in balance with these sterner ones about fire and division, for both are true.
So what does he mean about bringing fire and bringing division? Fire was a symbol of judgment. Judgment is a very unpopular topic, especially in these politically correct days when we mustn’t tread on anyone’s toes, but we come up against it time and again in Jesus’ preaching.
Accountability to authority does not go down well with postmodern people. We are our own gods and we decide what is right for us, that is, if we are not followers of Christ. The havoc this wreaks in society is easy to see. I always find it amazing that many people do not believe in the existence of sin. The evidence seems overwhelming to me. Many do, of course, but they locate over there in murderers or paedophiles, but not in the ordinary human heart. Jesus knew what was in the human heart: he knew the good religious leaders were going to rig his execution because their status was threatened by him, and he had exposed their motivations. He knew one of his beloved disciples was going to betray him. He knew that he would be a cause of division. We live in a country which has a Christian heritage, which it is in the process of disowning, so we have not as yet experienced division or persecution, but it may come. Many Christians in the Near and Middle east are discovering the truth of this when they are disowned and cut off from their families for following Christ. Jesus didn’t come to tell people that it didn’t matter what they believed, whether they accepted the gospel or not, whether they changed their self-centred ways and turned to follow him and walk in God’s ways – or not. No, he had come to confront them with a choice. Decision must be made : for Christ or against him, for salvation or perdition. Division would come because of that choice. Division both in this life and the next.
He has been preaching to this generation for two years or more and the Cross is looming, so in a sense he is longing to get it over and accomplished, this terrible baptism of suffering which he must undergo. The wilful blindness of his hearers to the urgency of his message frustrates him.
Judgment is imminent. He rebukes the hypocrisy of the crowd. They’re smart enough to read nature’s signs. When they see the clouds forming in the west over the Mediterranean they know rain is on its way. When the south wind blows from the desert they know that the sirocco-like wind, is coming. They can read the signs of the weather, but they can’t read the signs of the times. Surely they can sense the growing hostility of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The charges that have already been brought against Jesus are serious. They’ve said his miracles were performed through the power of Satan. Soon that must mean a religious trial and a verdict of blasphemy and the sentence of death. The religious leaders are utterly determined to deny that he is of God. When we use our discernment in certain aspects of life, but not in the most important aspects such as who God is or Jesus’ claims we are merely play-acting – which is the meaning of ‘hypocrites’ here.
Israel had a history of persecuting its prophets and this had been followed by God’s judgement in the form of exile. Rejection of God will ultimately always be followed by judgement. Jesus gives a very vivid illustration here. ‘When you are threatened with a law-suit, come to an agreement with your adversary before the matter comes to court, for if you do not you will dragged off to the judge convicted and imprisoned.’ The assumption is that the defendant has a bad case and is guilty. God has a case against us in that we have sinned and fallen short of his standards of perfect love and righteousness and obedience. If we have any sense we will repent and be reconciled to God through Christ and escape judgement.
Israel needs to do some quick and serious thinking about who Jesus is before it is too late. In the next chapter we hear Jesus yearning over his nation: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. Look, your house is left desolate.’
Now there has been in the history of the church certain strands which have majored on the doctrines of judgement and hell and they have often been unbalanced and distorted. The word ‘judgement’ is loaded. It has negative vibes, but it comes from the word ‘justice.’ We all want justice. Human justice varies from country to country and from age to age. What is considered just in one country is not necessarily so in other countries. Women going out alone is a punishable offence in some countries. What was accepted at one time- like slavery- is condemned now. When standards of acceptable human behaviour are violated, it is considered just to hold the guilty responsible and punish them. Jesus spelled it out concisely for us the standards of behaviour that God requires of us. And they don’t vary : ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind… And love your neighbour as yourself.’ Is there anyone here who can honestly say they have done that? We have all fallen short. One of the definitions of ‘sin’ is ‘missing the mark’. We have all missed the mark and offended God and gone our own way , but Jesus has provided a way for us to be reconciled to God. We can accept or reject that. To enter into peace with God we must be roused from our complacency, change our ways and follow him for that is the way to life and peace And since not everyone will be willing to change or desire relationship with God division will come in time and in eternity.
We, of course, know what happened. Within a few months Jesus was condemned to death. God, the righteous judge, declared in favour of Jesus by raising him from the dead and sending the Holy Spirit in his name. Even after this happened God in his mercy gave Israel even more time to decide about Jesus when they saw the evidence of his resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit spreading like wildfire. Peter, in 2 Peter 3v9 says, ‘The Lord is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ Time was granted to Israel so that all who wanted to could be rescued from the fire of God’s judgment.. It was AD 70 before Judgment fell and Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. God does not delight in judgment. It is an inevitable consequence of ignoring him and going one’s own way.
If we really listen to Jesus he obliges us to choose – will we go our own way, thinking that we’re good enough, that we’ve never hurt anyone, that we’re not bad enough to deserve hell? God surely knows we’ve tried to live a decent life and be kind and caring. But that’s not the standard by which we will be judged. It is our response to Jesus that counts and our willingness to follow his ways. Jesus said in John 5, ‘The one who hears my word and believes on him who sent me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgement, but has passed over from death into life.’
It is urgent that we make that choice. Not to choose is to choose not to. It is a matter of life and death.
I was very struck by Peter’s talk last week at the all-age service on the Olympic theme. He was going to run a marathon and he’d showed us his preparation. He knew he needed shorts, so he’d got some scruffy old cut-offs. He knew foot wear was important so he produced a pair of comfy looking sandals. Diet was important, so he’d got some of his favourite food and drink – wine and chocolates. And he’d resolved he’d train as well – half an hour every Thursday morning. We all laughed because we thought he wasn’t very serious and his chances of even finishing the race were nil. In our Hebrews passage for today the writer says , ‘Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us.’ We all know that running a marathon requires commitment, training, disciplining every area of our lives. So the question this raises is how do we shape our lives so they show a serious commitment to follow Christ and not merely play- act as he accused his listeners? What does it require of us? I suggest we all think about that this week. For it is a matter of life or death.