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“Like a Burning Fire”

August 22, 2016

“‘Like a Burning Fire’” Jeremiah 20:7-12; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 12:49-53 © 8.21.16 Ordinary 21C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Its journey began between Mars and Jupiter, in the asteroid belt. It had no consciousness of how long it had traveled and no feelings about what it was about to do to the third planet from the sun, directly ahead. But as the nine mile-wide chunk of rock touched the atmosphere of Earth and glowed hotter and hotter, a course of events was set in motion that would alter the history of our world. It smashed into the coast of what would be called the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico with a force two million times stronger than the largest thermonuclear device ever used in our day, carving a 110 mile crater. The impact created a huge dust cloud that blocked out the sun, killing off plants and eventually the dinosaurs that depended on them, and then the carnivores, who had nothing to eat. There was a great deal of oxygen in the atmosphere at the time, so there was likely an intense, global firestorm. Because the asteroid landed in the ocean, there were worldwide tsunamis of unimaginable size. Even the mighty T-Rex had to give up dominion over the prehistoric world, for fire had been cast upon the earth ( ).

Sixty-six million years later, give or take a few millennia, on a February night in AD 1945, 772 Lancasters, Halifaxes, and other Royal Air Force bombers dropped incendiary weapons on the city of Dresden, Germany. Ten hours later, 331 B-17s hit it again. The German Fw-190 and Bf-109 interceptors had neither orders nor fuel to fly against the onslaught. Thousands of civilians were instantly incinerated in the firestorm that blew through a city previously spared air attack. Among the survivors were two men. One was American POW Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who would later describe the event in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. Dresden, he said, “looked like the surface of the moon.” The other was Jürgen Moltmann, whose experience as a sixteen year-old that horrible day led him to become a theologian, one of the twentieth century’s greatest. About a month later, 334 B-29s, also dropping incendiaries, destroyed about 267,000 buildings in Tokyo and killed 100,000 people, making the destruction worse than that wrought by atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Dresden and Tokyo, and before that in Hamburg, Coventry, and London, fire had been cast upon the earth once again.

Given the horror of such destructive conflagrations, devastation wrought by impersonal nature or the intentional efforts of human beings, it’s surprising and disturbing to find Jesus describing himself as what we might call a “napalm Messiah.” Like Thor of mythology, with his thunderbolts, Jesus has come to throw down fire, to wipe out what is, to bring a crisis, to get rid of every undesirable element. And he’s eager to get the job done!

This is not the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd Savior who takes children in his arms to bless them, who preaches peace to those far and near. Here instead is a man on the edge, about to crack under the strain. He’s gripped by a vision, obsessed with his final goal. He’s full of flame and fervor and wants to turn the world upside down! This Jesus shouts his message, wanting to make sure everybody understands it, gets it straight. And what a message it is: it’s not unity he’s come to bring, but division! Not peace and quiet, but chaos and destruction! Not mercy, but judgment! He’s on his way to his death—that’s what he means by his “baptism”—and anybody who wants to come along with him better be sure they’re willing to die, too.

Hundreds of years before, Jeremiah the prophet was also controlled by a force outside himself. And he doesn’t like it one bit! God has seduced him like an unprincipled man or woman playing a game of manipulation and control. Not a pretty picture of God, is it? Or a common one. Now Jeremiah’s very soul is enslaved to this One whose Word will not let him go. That would be OK if the rewards were great, if the prophet felt joy and satisfaction. But all he gets is grief and sorrow and ridicule. If he could only stop preaching, the whispering and recrimination and dirty looks from passersby would end. But he can’t stop proclaiming the Word; he’s not in control of his actions. When Jeremiah tries to remain silent, his insides burn as if acid had been poured on every cell, and the fire can’t be contained.

Strong drives like those of Jesus and Jeremiah are frightening and potentially dangerous and destructive. There is a word for anyone so obsessed, so under the control of some person, issue or agenda. It’s “extremist.” Whatever their background or specific agenda, all extremists have one thing in common: they do whatever it takes to anyone in any way in order to achieve their goals. They strap on a suicide vest and detonate it in a marketplace; fly planes into buildings; shoot up a classroom, a theater, a nightclub; or drive a truck into a crowd. They kill at the slightest provocation. They destroy someone’s reputation with lies and innuendo. They shout down any more reasoned voices. They incite violence with incendiary rhetoric or subtle suggestion. They insist that theirs is the only right way, the only truth, and they impose their viewpoint by law and force. As the columnist and author Thomas Friedman described such people recently: “In the last year we have seen a spate of lone-wolf acts of terrorism in America and Europe by men and women living on the fringes of society, some with petty criminal records, often with psychological problems, often described as ‘loners,’ and almost always deeply immersed in fringe jihadist social networks that heat them up. They hear the signal in the noise. They hear the inspiration and the permission to do God’s work. They are not cooled by unfinished sentences” ( ).

You may agree that extremism is now the new normal, and that the reasonable middle is increasingly drowned out in the cacophony of voices and ignored due to the attention given to outrageous and horrific acts. If so, that is truly scary. And unfortunately, our fear is not assuaged by the messages Jesus and Jeremiah proclaim in the morning’s texts. For example, the God of Jeremiah assaults his people with his call. Who would want to be chosen by such a God? The cost—measured in terms of ridicule endured, sleepless nights suffered, obsessive behavior observed by others—is simply too great. The prophet, like all extremists, divides his world into two hostile camps; even his close friends are suspect. He is sure God is on his side, a “dread warrior” ready to employ Weapons of Mass Damnation to strike down persecutors.

For his part, Jesus insists that his message is not peace in the world, but division. Even families with split up because of him. There’s fire coming, and he wants it to burn, baby, burn, and soon! From now on, he claims, things won’t be the same. Where there was peace and quiet and harmony before, there will be chaos and suspicion and enmity.

Oh, my! What sort of word is that to share with today’s world? Or with any era? Where’s the gospel? Don’t we have enough suspicion and anger and disharmony and divisiveness in the world and the nation and the church? Folks already hate each other in any country you care to name because of religion. In areas where ethnicity and religion go hand in hand, religious minorities fare especially badly. Do we really want our Lord to give sanction to such unprincipled and sometimes murderous behavior? Are we going to stand for a prophet of God like Jeremiah adding fuel to the fires of hatred set by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim extremists?

And do not enough fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law fail to love each other without Jesus giving warrant to their behavior? Now I can be mean to my family if I believe it’s God’s will and that in doing so I’m defending God’s way? If you desperately wanted a stable home growing up and were denied it, how would you feel about Jesus’ message? Dysfunction is the reality in so many families—I have no statistics, but we know it’s true—dysfunction is the reality, so how can any preacher seriously call this text “God’s word”?

We’re in a bit of quandary here. We could write off these texts and focus on our favorites and easy passages. Or we could try to pull the gospel kicking and screaming from these very hard sayings.

For example, Jesus and Jeremiah show us what absolute commitment looks like. And whatever may be flawed and immoral about today’s extremists and their actions—and there is a great deal immoral and flawed—whatever we may say, they have passion for their cause. Can we claim we have a passion for Jesus?

The Christian life is first and foremost about delight in a relationship with our Creator, whom Hebrews calls a “Consuming Fire.” We long for the loving embrace of the Divine, we revel in the presence of the Holy, we celebrate with fervor God’s gifts, our hearts are filled with desire to worship and be together. The Westminster Larger Catechism, as you know, tells us that our chief and highest end is to glorify God and fully to enjoy him forever. But what has institutional Christianity of any sort turned our faith into? Believing the right thing. Winning an argument. Knowing facts about the Bible or church history. Following the proper procedure. Filling out the appropriate form. Serving on a committee. A long way from John Calvin’s personal emblem, which was a flaming heart held in an open hand.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a bureaucrat. Forms and order and beliefs are important and necessary. But administration, propositions, facts, and doctrine are tools; they are not the essence of faith. Rather, the heart of faith is a relationship of devotion and delight with God in Jesus Christ. As Victor Hugo says of one of his characters: “He did not study God; he was dazzled by him” (Les Miserables). If we wonder why so little happens in our churches that’s exciting and fresh, we only have to point to this one factor: lack of passion, both in the sense of zeal and in the sense of suffering for a cause. Another word for such a lack, you know, is “apathy,” which in Greek means “no passion.”

Writer Leonard Sweet has a book called The Gospel According to Starbucks. The subtitle is “Living with a Grandé Passion.” Here is his description of our calling: “The life God desires for us is experiential, participatory, image-rich, and connective. The life of faith, to fully qualify as a life of faith, is characterized by experiences that are meaningful; full participation in those experiences of meaning; a richness of imagery wrapped around those experiences; and deep connections with God, others, self, and creation. All four…elements, enlivened and intertwined, deliver grandé passion, the life we’re all thirsty for” (…Starbucks…: 155).

So, I suggest that we are called to renewed fervor, fire in the bones and soul, for Jesus. But there’s more. Our Lord was headed to the cross. He saw that his death would make people choose for or against him, to declare their ultimate loyalties. So he might urge us to consider what we stand for, what’s important enough to die for.

Martin Luther knew what was required when the medieval Church demanded he recant his teaching about being saved by grace: “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me, Amen,” he said. And pastor Martin Niemöller found out the consequences of not taking a stand in Nazi Germany. His famous self-indictment goes this way: “First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Social Democrats, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Social Democrat. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up, because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak up for me.”

Maybe it won’t be today or tomorrow or next week, but the time may well come when we have to risk losing popularity or income or even family peace for what is right. And a denomination like ours has to be willing to die as an institution if that’s what standing for the gospel means. Our Book of Order says it: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life (F-1.0301). If we would only listen to our own standards!

Whom do we speak up for? What do we stand for? When will we “stand up for Jesus” and follow him to the cross?

Where is the gospel in these texts? I believe it is this: Jesus was so committed to his cause, so consumed with a fire inside, so clearly on the side of righteousness, that he died for what he believed and what he was called to do. He was so devoted to God that even the violent baptism he underwent was his own desire. No one forced him into it. I believe that he so desperately wanted a community of people who were firebrands for the gospel that he would not stop until his mission was accomplished. That he was so convinced that crisis could change us for the better that he wanted his followers to accept that possibility. And that the world is so charged with the illuminating presence of God, so full of blessing, that he longed for each of us to have eyes to see what could be.

Yes, this Jesus—this scary, stressed-out, wild-eyed Jesus, with his painful and unwelcome message—this Jesus brought fire to the earth. But not before he walked through it for us all.

May we all have the courage to pray: “Lord, cast your fire on me!”


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