12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
12:50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
12:51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
12:52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;
12:53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
12:54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.
12:55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.
12:56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
One of my favourite books when I was a kid was the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. In the days before Amazon and easy access to books, I checked out this book from my school’s library. I had no idea that it was a part of a whole series of books. I didn’t know until later in my teens that it was such a popular book, and that it had been turned into a series of films in the late 80’s. We lived a very sheltered life way back then in outport Newfoundland.
I was overjoyed when the book was brought back to film screens in the 2005 re-adaptation. I was excited that my kids would now get to experience this great story that meant so much to me. If you’re not familiar with it I will try to summarize it without giving too much away. Four children from wartime England are sent away from the city to the safety of the countryside home of an eccentric uncle. There they find a magical wardrobe and stumble into the Land of Narnia. Narnia is populated by talking animals and mythical creatures like centaurs. Narnia is ruled by a lion named Aslan, but Aslan hasn’t been seen in quite a long time. In his absence, Narnia has fallen under the control of the evil White Witch. She has put Narnia under her despotic control and permanent winter. As the children arrive in Narnia there are reports that Aslan has been spotted. Aslan is on the move!
In what is one of my favourite scenes from the book, the children find themselves in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. Over a meal and cup of tea Mr. Beaver is trying to explain to the children just who Aslan is:
Mr. Beaver said, “Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…”
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you… He’s wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
Aslan is definitely not safe or tame, but he is good!
Anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia series knows that Aslan is a type of Christ. It was Lewis’ way of imagining Jesus the Christ active in another world. As I read this story as a youngster it really resonated with me. I was making my first steps in making sense of all this Jesus stuff. I had my hermeneutical training wheels on, so to speak. As I made my first attempts to read the Gospels what I read were the stories of a wild, dangerous man. What I witnessed in church was a safe, docile Jesus. The Gospels presented a Jesus that upset the status quo, hung out with sinners and prostitutes, touched unclean women and men, seemed to play fast and loose with religious laws and ticked off religious people in the process. The Jesus they preached about in church seemed to be a white washed version, clean and sanitized. Jesus looked and sounded an awful lot like us. I was drawn to the Jesus I read about in the Gospels, even though he made me really uncomfortable and said very challenging things. The Jesus I was given in church was boring and seemed more like a prop for the pastor to rail against whatever sin he was trying to scare out of us. Aided by Lewis, this was my first inclination that Jesus wasn’t tame, but he was good in some new and exciting way that my young brain could not quite grasp just yet. I’m not sure I grasp it even yet, but I am still drawn to this Jesus character.
Our Gospel reading for this Sunday is one of those passages that turns upside down our image of the meek and mild Jesus that wants us all to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. It comes towards the end of Chapter 12 of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus has grown increasingly agitated in his words to the crowd gathered around him. The passage begins with the inflammatory, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” You can almost hear the gasp in the crowd. If they had been sitting in pews they would be squirming. This is not what we have come to expect from Jesus, who we have turned into a type of motivational speaker. He’s supposed to make us feel good about ourselves. But Jesus seems to know his death is near and it’s stressing him out. He refers to his death as a baptism, one that he just wants to be over and done with.
He goes on to ask, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” And we, with all the gathered crowd, could answer, “Well, yes…yes we did!” You know, the peace on earth and all that good stuff that the angels promised at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Peace, yes; fire, no.
Peace, though, does not come without a little discomfort for someone. In Jesus’ Kingdom message, his gospel, things have to be made right before there can be peace. The fire Jesus talks about is not a fire of apocalyptic destruction, but one of purifying. It’s a controlled burn to let loose the nutrients of the kingdom in earthly soil, so that the fruits of justice, equality and, yes, peace can take root. He gave us fair warning of his mission in his opening statement in Luke’s Gospel:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (4:18-19)
Not everyone will welcome this fire. For some it will look like destruction, an undoing, not a renewing. It’s hard for us to comprehend just how divisive this gospel was. We live in a world still steeped in the Christian tradition. For the early Christians for whom Luke’s Gospel was written down, they knew all too well the division that Jesus and his message brings. Kicked out of their synagogues, shunned by family and friends. Branded radicals, heretics, and enemies of the state all because they named Jesus and not Caesar as Lord, clung to faith and love as the only ways to God’s favour. What does my Christian faith cost me? Maybe a snarky comment on Facebook? Maybe a raised eyebrow when I disclose that I work for the church?
Jesus chides the people for being able to read the weather patterns, but not the signs of the time. They do not see the kairos, the divinely appointed time that Jesus inaugurates. Don’t you see what’s happening? Don’t you see the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom? You get ready when weather approaches, so why not prepare for the changing times? This is a dig at their unwillingness to repent, literally to change their mind and actions, in the wake of the Kingdom announced by Jesus.
In the church we’re not comfortable with any of this. Fire? That sounds too revivalistic! Division? Can’t we all just get along? Change? We’ve always done it this way! Sounds like mixing politics and religion. This is a Jesus we’re just not comfortable with. Give us the Jesus that promises eternal life and speaks comfortable words. Give us the Jesus that offers us an easy yoke; the Jesus who looks like me, sounds like me, and meets my checklist for what a messiah looks like; who reinforces my ideas of who is in and who is out. We want the tame Jesus, who makes it clear who are our enemies and who protects the status quo. But then in passages like this we are reminded, to our horror, that Jesus is not a tame messiah – but he is good, and his way is good.
Jesus refers to fire, literally setting the world on fire. For this fire to come, it must first set our hearts ablaze, set the church ablaze. For others to have, maybe we have to go without out. For this world to be just, peaceful, clean, perhaps something needs to change in us. For us to name Jesus as Lord, not the political leaders and systems of this world, means that we do not live according to the values of these old, dead, decaying systems. To follow Jesus as his apprentices means we learn from his way of forgiveness, reconciliation, gentleness, generosity, love.
This is why I think baptism is still a radical, counter-cultural practice. We tend to get warm fuzzies when we think about baptism. The oil of chrism marks the newly baptized as Christ’s own, forever. The light of the baptism symbolizes the light of Christ that shines in the believer. But in rethinking baptism in light of today’s gospel reading, we glimpse just how radical baptism is. First, remember that baptism symbolizes the joining of the newly baptized in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the old dies and a new person emerges. Second, the little light of Christ is actually a burning fire, setting our hearts and the world ablaze. Finally, baptism unites us not just to the meek and mild Jesus, but the wild, unpredictable Christ. The call of baptism is to follow this untamed messiah out into the world. The question remains: will we leave the safety of our churches to follow him?