Harrowing Of Hell
August 14, 2016

The Refining Fire of God

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

What do you think of the Gospel today? Bringing fire? Suffering? Division of families, no less. Animosity between father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law? It doesn’t really sound like the loving Jesus, the wherever-you-are-on-your-spiritual-journey Jesus that we know, but it is. The very same.

That is what I want us to wrestle with today. That is what I want us to come to know and remember: that Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, at least peace as we think of it, he came to ignite our hearts with the refining fire of God. That is his mission as he has already said: “I came to bring fire to the earth.”

The question then is: “are you interested in fire?” The way the world looks right now, peace sounds the better solution, but here is what I think we’ll learn from this today’s text: the peace we are looking for will be best achieved through the fire Jesus offers. Jesus came to bring fire to the earth. Let’s take him at his word, and see where it leads us.

The first thing we need to understand in this Gospel is the word earth. It is mentioned three times, which indicates its importance. We think of earth as a concrete place, a spinning global that is part of a galaxy, but in the Bible it is a theological construct that stands for human freedom. When you see the word earth in the Bible think about concepts like freedom, choice, and autonomy.

Earth is introduced at the very beginning of the scripture. Where? The first line of Genesis, “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” So heaven and earth are two created places. Heaven is where God’s actions have impact. Earth is where humanity’s actions have impact.

Heaven is where God is. It is where God lives. Heaven is where what God wants to have happen happens the way God wants it to. And heaven is right here. This near. Not up in the clouds. Though it is up in the clouds. Not where we go when we die. Though it is where we go when we die. And it is right here, where electrons and protons and neutrons hang together; where gravity pulls our feet to the ground. This is heaven because God is here.

Earth is where human freedom reigns. It is where our choices can overrule God’s preferences. So earth isn’t gravity or atomic structure; it is how we think, and how we treat each other, and how we act as a community. Make no mistake about it, God has preferences for these categories in our life, but we can override God’s preferences. I suspect we do it all of the time. The word earth is synonymous with human choice and freedom. And knowing this is essential for understand scripture. If we miss the concept of earth as a place within the human heart, where freedom reigns, then today’s reading, and indeed much of scripture, remains confusing. Earth is synonymous with freedom—our freedom to choose.

When we read heaven, we know it is God’s choice. When we read earth, we know it is our choice.

So let’s return to the text. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” That is fire to our hearts. Fire to our decisions and that will cause divisions. What kind of divisions? Between what I want and what God is doing. Some of us don’t like having to consider a force other than the force of their own choice. I don’t always. Especially when I think I know where I’m going.

Generally people don’t like being stopped when they are on the move. Jesus knew this. He knew it would cause him problems to suggest that maybe God is worth considering. Jesus admits he’s not thrilled at the prospect of doing what he was called to do. He says as much: I came to bring fire, and how I wish that fire had already been kindled. Ahh, what stress I’m under!” He says.

The people of Jesus day, just like today, wanted peace. Their own peace. The Greek definition for peace here is ease and prosperity. In my household we have peace when everyone does everything the way I want them to, which only happens when I’m home alone.

Here is the problem: when I want the world to rotate around me, and you want the world to rotate around you, and you want the world to rotate around you, and this is happening 5 billion times, we have a mess. Jesus didn’t come to put us at the center of the world; he came to remind us that God is at the center, and that reality is a better reality. It is a more workable reality. It is a peace which surpasses all understanding.

Now the refining fire is often ignited in times of stress and duress. It is often when things are a chaotic mess that we cry out to God. The listeners of Jesus, as well as educated Jews, knew this, which is why Jesus says: “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.”

This is a quote from the prophet Micah. He lived 700 years before Jesus, yet his words were popular in Jesus’ time, and in fact, the audience probably knew them by heart. You see, whenever we find Jesus quoting the Old Testament, we know that he is pointing his listeners to something that he assumes they know. Referencing Micah, chapter 7, is a Jesus short-cut for describing what life is like in a world filled with 5 billion self-centered, self-serving people.

I’ll paraphrase some of Micah 7 to give you a sense: “The faithful have disappeared from the land. No one is left. All lie in wait for blood, they hurt each other with nets. Judges take bribes. People are confused not knowing who to believe or what to believe. Sons treat fathers with contempt. Daughters rise up against mothers, as do daughter-in-laws.” It goes on for a while.

We could fill in our own version of the same chaotic story: Innocent men go to jail because of the color of their skin. Courageous police get shot for protecting the community. Wars are build on falsified information. The return of debtor prisons pays municipal bills. Kids going hungry as parents do drugs. We can fill it in like Micah filled it in. But my hope is we get to the place where Micah arrived: where the fire ignites.

Here is the match. Micah says it at the end of his litany of chaos: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord; I will wait for my God; my God will hear me.” I will look to see what God is doing. I will follow. I will wait for God to lead. I will follow. I know God will act because this is heaven, where God is, here, this near, more present even that the presence of time.

These are words the people who heard Jesus thought about. When the world is a mess, don’t seek peace on earth; don’t double down on having it your way, because when everyone is doubling down on their own wants, needs, whims, and desires, the mess gets worse. Light the match that Micah puts before you: Look to God. Wait for God. God will respond.

That is fire. That doesn’t sound like fire, preach! It sounds like lame, passivity. We need action! Yes, we need action, but not my action, plus your action, plus 5 billion other people’s actions… that sounds like a chain reaction that blows things up.

What if this was our match: Looking to God. Waiting for God. Trusting God will respond. If we believe in God, and we believe what we believe about God, then this an eminently reasonable thing to do. Ahh, the listeners of Jesus said. We get it! You didn’t come to bring peace to the earth. You came to bring fire, the fire that puts God first and heals the world of our self-seeking, self-centeredness.

Jesus says: You get it? Which takes us now to the last part of today’s Gospel. Jesus is speaking to a group of farmers. We know this because he is in Galilee and its rural; and because of the examples he uses. When the clouds rise in the west you know it is going to rain. When the south wind blows, you know it will be hot and dry. These are things farmers know.

We’re not farmers, so let me invite more of us into the conversation. Imagine Jesus is speaking to architects. He’d say: if the tinsel strength of the steel is too low, the beams won’t be able to support the building. Imagine Jesus is speaking to oncologists: if the white blood cell count is too high, cancer is present. Imagine Jesus is speaking to teachers: if the homework answers are in the back of the book the kids will peak. Imagine Jesus is speaking to you. What do you know that is an obvious part of the “sky” you read at work? What do you watch that helps you determine how to act?

Jesus goes onto say: If you can read the “sky” of your occupation; and if you can read the earth of human self-seeking, self-centeredness. Why can’t you see the closer, more impactful, presence of God… right here, right now, in this present time?

It is the fire of God that illuminates your planting, and building, and healing, and teaching. It is the fire of God that spreads though you and what you do and who you do it with that unleashes a peace that passes all understanding. Jesus says: I came to bring fire, not peace, to the earth. Fire to you. And your heart. And the choices you make… fire. Light the match. Look for God. Wait for God. Trust in God.