Who can preach on these hard and harsh words? On first reading it looks like the Prince of Peace has turned into the Duke of War. Matthew’s version talks not only about bringing a fire on the earth, but bringing a sword. It looks like the God of love and reconciliation has become a God of division and strife. How uncharacteristic. I suggest we look again, more closely.
Jesus is expressing his frustration here. We might call it the ultimate frustration.
First, we must remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what is going to happen there—what will be required of him, and for the first time he is saying, “I wish it was already over!” He is terribly upset—distressed at the baptism he is facing: the cross. He is going to be abandoned, scourged, mocked, and have the sins of the whole world put on his shoulders on the cross. And for what? For us. But what about us? How do we respond to that?
Well, some of us just don’t get it. Or worse, we do get it and we want to change it to make it easier on us. We are SO into ourselves. Sure, we want the grace, mercy, forgiveness and acceptance by God, but we don’t really want to follow Jesus. Not TOO closely. We don’t really want to lift a finger that might take us out of our comfort zone. We don’t really want to carry a cross, literally. One off word from family or friends and we pull back. The last thing we want is to appear like some radical, fanatic weirdo Christian.
Sometimes, it is a wonder why God puts up with us.
“Hypocrites!” Jesus says. And we are. We see the rain coming. We know the hot days are ahead. Soon enough it will be back to school. We move with the seasons and have this world figured out as well as we can to move and live as comfortably as we can. And let’s be honest. Jesus isn’t always comfortable. The cross isn’t a comfortable image. It is a painful one we would rather not think about.
Hypocrites. That is what we so often are.
But Jesus here is clear. He came to bring fire. In Christ we are to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and fire. But what is fire, Biblically? Well, essentially it is two images:
One is judgment, as in the Lake of Fire. Those branches that do not bear fruit will be cut off and burned. Not the way you want to go.
The other image is that of a refiner’s fire. It is how the master burns away the dross to reveal the nugget of pure gold. That is the fire coupled with the Holy Spirit. That is the fire all disciples need to pass through in order to truly be his disciples. That fire will fall on all true disciples.
I get a kick out of young Christians who get all excited and claim they are really “on fire” for the Lord. No. Filled with the Holy Spirit, no doubt, but fire implies difficulty, not excitement. The refining fire of God is struggle, problems, pain and hardship. It is prison for the faith, thrown to the lions, scourging, and in some countries beheading for a simple confession of Christ. Fire is painful, like the cross, but through the fire, God is burning away the dross and preparing us for eternal glory.
And yet for so many, the first sign of fire and we pull back. So a friend or family member says something about our getting a little carried away with that faith stuff, and we pull back. We find more reasons than I can imagine to pull back. Still we claim to be Christians. We follow Jesus, for the most part. Don’t we?
Consider the Church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:14+. The people there were neither cold nor hot and God was tempted to spit them out of his mouth! How like us—so many of us. And like the people following Jesus back then, too. They liked the healing, the miracles, the promise of forgiveness, the hope for the poor, the food for the hungry, and the words of love, mercy an grace. But as soon as Mama called it was home to supper. And at the first hint of the cross it was abandon him and deny him.
I am not surprised Jesus got frustrated back then. I am sorry to imagine he is still being frustrated today, because are we really any different after 2000 years? Sure, we like the good stuff, too, just as much as the people liked it back then. And we follow Jesus like they did back then, too, which is not TOO close for fear that we might get burned.