Luke Chapter 12: 49-51 & : 56.
‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
'You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?'
A collective sigh from the company of preachers this week: Sunday's reading is one of the hardest of Jesus' teachings to preach on, giving us images of fire, baptism, 'stress', pressure, division, of slamming hypocrites and interpreting signs.
This Sunday's short passage of Luke comes at the end of an eventful chapter which begins with the crowds in their thousands threatening to trample each other in their rush to get near Jesus. Jesus uses this public occasion as a chance to warn against the 'yeast' (hypocrisy) of the religious leaders, to encourage people instead to have a healthy 'fear' of the Almighty who alone holds all the important things about us.
There follows teaching about money, possessions and what one of the funeral prayers calls 'readiness to live in the light of eternity'. Then comes the principle of accountability and the idea that blessing brings responsibility.
Finally Jesus seems to have 'one of those moments'. We've all had them. Everything is building up, the crowds are full of hopefuls who have no intention on paying the cost of really following him, people are asking inane questions like 'please will you intervene in an inheritance dispute?' and no one seems the slightest bit aware of what is coming on the horizon for Jesus, i.e. his own crucifixion as a self offering for the life of the world.
The chapter ends in 3 striking images:
- cries out: 'I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!' It's like he's saying 'come on people - wake up spiritually!!' He likens his death to a baptism - he must 'go under' as it were. I have a baptism with which to be baptized and what stress I am under until it is completed!'
Interesting word: 'stress'. Did Jesus get stressed like us? Or was it a bit more serious? The Greek verb is συνέχω, which the NRSV translates as 'what stress I am under', other translations using the word 'distressed'. 'Stressed' sounds rather anachronistic in the New Testament. Did Jesus get stressed like us? This was something a little bit more pressing. 'Stressed' is a good way of conveying the pressure his death and its accomplishment brought to Jesus as the verb means to surround or hold. It is used of Peter's mother in law when she was 'gripped' by a fever, and of the Gerasenes who were 'seized' with fear at Jesus' exorcism of the man called 'Legion'.
He still longs to kindle a fire in us.
I used to hate long division at school. it seemed a very complicated way to make a large number small and it normally went wrong about two thirds of the way down the page. When you divide something you get down to the nub of it. The nub of following Jesus is that it's about our own death and resurrection, our own baptism. Death to self and being alive to Him. It is bound to be controversial after a while.
It was CS Lewis who said that Christianity was either of no importance, or it was of ultimate importance. The only thing it couldn't possibly be was of moderate importance. And so we wince at Jesus's talk of division - division within families particularly - didn't he come to bring peace on earth? But every decision for something or someone is a decision against something or someone else. The word of God is a two edged sword dividing soul and spirit; bone and marrow. Sorrow, like a sword, would pierce the heart of Mary as she witnessed the death of her son.
Talk of division is to get to the 'crux' of the matter. It's a call for radical discipleship.
We all like to think we're experts at predicting the weather, though since I got an iPhone, the temptation is to spend the whole time on the Met office App and forget to look up into the sky to make the entirely straightforwards prediction: I am going to need a coat later on. The people of Jesus' day knew how to interpret the weather signs but they failed to interpret the spiritual signs - and he was the primary sign. His miracles were signs that he was the Messiah; his death and resurrection were there, albeit rather hidden, inside the Old Testament Scriptures (we know this because of the Emmaus Road discourse); yet they couldn't see what was about to happen, and when it did; they ignored it.
How do we interpret the signs of the times? There's something important about what Rowan Williams said when he referred to the 'next man that sits on the throne of St Augustine': 'he should read the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other'. Do we look critically at the news with an eye on the spiritual significance of things? Do we ask God 'what is happening in this turn of events, in this trend today?' The world needs spiritually and culturally literate believers.
So, fire; division and weather. And Jesus getting stressed. We pray for grace to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest these pictures. To ask for baptism in the Spirit's fire; to have the courage to take the right route at the division of the ways, and to interpret the signs of the times as clearly as we interpret the weather.