Refining Fire

First published August 2019, a sermon preached by the Reverend Ray Gibbs
Bible text: Luke 12: 49 - 56

Three men died and were waiting to enter through the Pearly Gates.  The first man said to St. Peter: "I was a preacher of the gospel, serving faithfully for over 50 years". Peter told him to step aside for some further consideration.  The second man said, "I was also a preacher of the gospel; I served my church faithfully for 40 years".  Peter told him to step aside for further consideration as well.  The third man stepped up and said: "I was not a preacher, just a government worker with the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise for 6 months".  Peter told him to step right in.  The first minister objected: "Why does he get to go in before two ministers?"  Peter said: "The truth is, in six months the Inland Revenue worker scared the devil out of more people than either of you did, in a long lifetime!"

Jesus' harsh words to the crowds about not being able to interpret the signs of the times, were a good wake-up call for those who were gathering to see the spectacle of this upstart preacher-man from Nazareth, and not quite seeing that He was the long-awaited Messiah, and not the upstart at all.  These words were meant to re-orientate their lives to what was important.  That is, to re-orientate their lives to be seeking what God is up to right here, right now, rather than tomorrow, or next week or at any time in the future.  We look at the rumblings of war, of earthquakes, of hurricanes, extreme weather and the seasons doing strange things, persecution of the church increasing, and wonder if the end times are indeed upon us, or fast approaching.  When all the while we are to be looking not there, but at Christ, at the hope he offers, the forgiveness he bears for us and for all people, the promise that his Spirit will roam this earth until Christ himself does actually come again.

Jesus' words remind us that we need to set fire to the old so that the new can emerge, just like new life emerges from the destruction of a fire.  God's love is often bad news to people of privilege and power because Jesus provides a higher authority than the law of the land, or religious practice.  For example, Christ's birth was a threat to King Herod's power, a baby over a king.  The church's spiritual source of wisdom, without hesitation or apology, asserts that a nation which fuels its economy on greed (that is, at the expense of others' basic needs), is a nation under God's judgment.  The sword of divine justice hangs over all of us, from King and Queen, President and Prime Minister to the homeless beggar on the street, judgement comes to us all.

The gospel was compared to fire because it violently changes the face of things. Fire is the emblem of discord, contention and calamities.  If fire refers to judgment, this happens when our godlessness is revealed to us, as we inflicted pain and death on the innocent Son of God: ‘as you do to others you do to him’.  Fire is both a source of destruction, and a source of rebirth, or new life.

Neville Chamberlain was our British prime minister between 1937 and 1940.  He’s best known for the phrase “peace for our time.” That was something he declared after the Munich Agreement in 1938 when he made a pact with Hitler to give Germany part of Czechoslovakia in return for the promise not to take any more lands.  This we know as the appeasement and it was the hope that it would achieve a lasting peace, but lasting peace always has a price. You know that’s true, if you’ve ever had to stand up to a bully, because as long as you keep giving him your lunch money, he’s going to keep making life miserable for you.

Well Jesus too teaches that lasting peace has a price.  It cost Christ his life, and will cost Christians friendships.  Jesus wants us to come to terms with these facts because if we don’t, if we compromise the truths of the Bible to pursue a “peace for our time” with family and friends who are opposed to the gospel, we run the risk of losing the everlasting peace of heaven.

Yes, Jesus was deadly serious when he spoke the words of our text.  In fact the Disciples must have been shaken when they heard Jesus say: “I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed” (Luke 12:50).  The baptism that Jesus was alluding to was not like his first baptism.  It didn’t involve water, nor did his Father speak loving words from heaven at this baptism.  This was a baptism of suffering that led to Jesus’ abandonment by his heavenly Father.  This baptism was nothing less than his appointment with hell on the Good Friday cross.

We’ve all had appointments that made us feel anxious, appointments to the dentist for example, in my case.  But that’s nothing compared to the dread that Jesus experienced in waiting for this baptism of fire.  When we go to the dentist we do so because it’s for our good, and we can take a friend along to lend support and encouragement, if we have to, but when Jesus kept his appointment with the cross he did so because it was good for us, and he went alone, jeered by his enemies, abandoned by his disciples, and rejected by his heavenly Father.

While Jesus shuddered at the thought of going to the cross he did not shrink from the task.  Jesus was whipped for the times I grumble about doing my jobs; he was spat upon for my hesitancy to forgive; he was crucified for the anger which I try to hide from others with a fake smile; because of the cross of Christ, and his baptism of fire, I have peace with God (Romans 5:1).  My sins won’t condemn me come Judgment Day, because in Jesus they have been forgiven, and so have yours.  We shouldn’t expect anything less from someone who was prophesied to be the “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

Jesus uses the metaphor of fire's destructive power to urge us to follow him and give up our earthly lives, and to look heavenwards instead.  We are materially rich and spiritually poor.  Money has begun to obscure some of our more important values. Society has reached new lows in terms of public morality, whether it be sex scandals or traditional values.  We have lost sight of the 10 commandments and find Jesus’ replacement of only two, more than we can handle.  We are apprehensive in spite of advances in science, medicine, agriculture, and communications, and so on we find ourselves unable to trust.  Is our fear due to our spiritual poverty?  Are we are afraid because of the spiritual emptiness in our lives?  We have a God-shaped void that has never been adequately filled.

God is with us regardless of what the future brings, but we have to regain our connection with Him.  We need to focus less on our earthly, material resources for security and more on the Rock of Ages.  God carves men and women to be with Him forever.  He fills them with good things; makes them to love, care, learn and grow; and fashions them into what he was and is.  We can do God's work with confidence, but we have to let go of our sinful nature.  It entangles our lives, distorts our vision and robs us of spiritual vitality and stamina.

Choosing to love and follow Jesus will create division and conflict.  The sword of division about which Jesus spoke is the result of Christ-like love.  To love people as Jesus did, is to stand for something.  To stand for justice is to stand against injustice. To stand for truth is to oppose hypocrisy and lies. To be a Christian is to love all that Christ loved, and to be an enemy of all that crucified him.  To follow him is to make enemies.  Jesus was awarded a cross, and he bids us to take up our cross and follow him.  We all have worth in the eyes of God, regardless of social status, income, etc. and He calls all of us to love each other as he loves us.  If we cannot love our neighbour, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen.

Neutrality toward Jesus is not possible.  Jesus said in Matthew 12:30: "He who is not with me is against me".  Jesus gives us a choice, accept him or reject him. The choice we make has consequences.  If we accept him, we risk alienation from friends and family.  If we reject him, we face eternal damnation.  Either choice causes division, either us from friends and family, or us from God.  Today, Christian churches, once open to every passer-by the world over, are being kept locked, because they are being vandalized and looted.

The disciples also needed God's spiritual fire, or else they would die.  They needed the fire of God's word to keep their hearts from freezing over, and to keep the passion of their souls from cooling down.  We are the same way.  We have moments when our faith cools down.  It is quite beyond our nature to have a burning need for the word of God.  We all need the fire of God's word in our lives, or else we will grow cold.

Jesus was agitated, because he knew his crucifixion was coming.  He had a job to do before then, namely, to bring the message of God's Kingdom to the people and the people back to God's love.  As he was telling the disciples about living their lives in total commitment to God, he realized that his death was drawing near, and this stirred him, if at all possible, to speak of more earnestly than ever of time ahead, when upon the surface evil would have its day, but below, above and all around heaven and earth rejoiced, because ultimately Jesus’ sacrifice for the whole world, for you, and for me, was the greatest of all victory’s.  He spoke of the fires of damnation, He spoke about judgment, and He spoke of the Holy Spirit.  He brought God's judgment upon the people, it was decision time.  He divided families, communities and nations, and what he did then is still happening today.

Jesus' demands for total allegiance divided families in his time, and can do so today.  Can we honestly say that this is a Christian Country?  Was first century Palestine a Christian Country?  Were the countries where Paul travelled: Christian?  Every land, country, church even, has had to be fought over, sadly sometimes with weaponry and fisticuffs, which is wrong, violence was never ever Jesus’ way, but spiritually and prayerfully.  When Jesus came and comes to announce the kingdom, there is division, because the kingdom requires a decision and a commitment.   Commitment, what is that, in modern times?  Jesus’ message of justice and healing was met with suspicion and hostility, even when he was standing right there, today is no different. We are the victors, we are the Easter people, and yet, and yet do you feel a winner, does it feel like we have won?  Do we talk, do we even pray: ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ or do we start ‘Give us our daily bread’? 

The fire Jesus came to kindle, begins at home, here, in hearts and minds, God's way is not easy.  Jesus' way and the world's way can't coexist.  It's one or the other.  Why do I feel, why do I sense, that there is an urgency now, but that the church is not responding, perhaps it is age, I don’t know.  It may just be me, but there has been, and still is too much inward looking, and inward fighting over issues that really at the end of the day do not matter.  We are not judges, there is only one, and that is God, and I am content not to play at ’being God’ for He is, and has, all the wisdom in the world, and I have none.

God has burned the record of our sins by sending Jesus to pay for them at the cross, it bought a lasting peace that goes to eternity, but that lasting peace has a price; it cost Christ his life.  Yes, the cross of Christ, and its message, ignite fires wherever it goes, so if you can’t stand the heat, should you get out of the kitchen?  That’s probably pretty good advice in most situations, but it isn’t good advice when it comes to dealing with the fires that start because of the cross.  Unfortunately it’s exactly what some Christians do when the cross starts fires in their relationships.  They don’t like the heat, so they get rid of the cross.  No cross, no fire. No fuss, no mess.  Everybody’s happy.  Who needs conflict anyway?  Can’t we just all get along?

Is that what we think sometimes?  If a friend disagrees with what God says about this or that, do we clam up?  If someone we love is turning away from church, do we say nothing because we don’t want to upset them?  Yet listen closely to what Jesus said about such an attitude. “Anyone who loves his father, or mother, [son or daughter] more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37a).   That puts most of us on the spot doesn’t it? 

Can we see ourselves, can you see yourself as a part of the great cloud of witnesses, willing to run the race that is set before us, following Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfection of our faith?  God calls the church to find the anger that lets it know it's still alive.  Too often Christ is left for dead in this cold world.  We often become desensitized to many of the things around us, we are bombarded by images and all forms of media that constantly pump out an anti-Christian stance and message.  

I know that some feel that the church should not speak, meddle, or have an opinion, or voice in the secular world's issues, or the dirty business of politics, oh how the devil would rub his hands at the thought of that.  God's Spirit forces us to become concerned about social issues and justice, a concern that is often contrary to the secular world.  Who else is there willing to speak for the poor, the oppressed and the down-trodden, if we as a body of love do not?  Jesus' teachings and actions challenged the status quo, and they still do, the murky world of evil has not changed, it is still there.  Jesus declared war on the world's injustices, and that declaration still stands.  The call to follow Christ is a call to relieve, and wherever possible, to remove the causes of suffering.  If it goes against what the world says is important, that’s tough.

Jesus' fire creates a new life in us that is better than the old one, think about how you once were.  It will cause conflict with the world, and even sometimes with those we love, but it is better to be true to yourself, rather than to someone else's notion of yourself.  We are able to be fortified so we are able to do things we never knew we could, we are able to stand for truth, justice and inclusion.

We belong to God’s church, and we have, or should have, a commitment that seems radical to the world.  It creates conflict, difficulties and struggles that strengthen us for our walk with Jesus and our mission in the world.  God will help us overcome the struggles our life in faith will cause.  Being a Christian can sometimes make us feel like foreigners in our own land.  It's as if we are carrying a passport from another place, and in a sense we are, for we belong to God’s kingdom, but spreading God's Word won't hurt us.  Sure, we will feel the pain of rejection, but without spreading the Word, we can't build the church.  If our faith matters to us, we must make it matter to others.  If not, then our faith, well, it is merely deathbed insurance. If our faith matters to us then we must follow the instructions that Jesus left with his disciples and leaves with us today.

The great Commission.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Amen.