August 17/18, 2019
In the name of Jesus, Amen
Today’s Gospel reading is one of Jesus’ sayings that are so difficult to understand that it may seem scandalous. Jesus said, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” Wow! It sounds like a villain, an arson to cast fire that destroys people. And He also said, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” It sounds like an evil person to stir up schism and strives in families, societies, etc. Of course, this is a misunderstanding about Jesus, what He is saying here, what he desired to do, and what He did and is still doing for mankind. In order to unlock the mystery of what Jesus is saying here, we have to ask some critical questions. What is the fire that Jesus cast down on earth? Why would the fire that Jesus cast cause divisions among the people? Generally speaking fire has several functions. Fire destroys. Fire purifies. Fire warms and spreads quickly. Let’s see it one by one.
On Thursday, November 8, 2018, nearly 30,000 people were forced to evacuate when a wildfire roared through Paradise, California, located about 180 miles northeast of San Francisco. When people were trying to escape, they were surrounded by fire, they were driving through fire on each side of the road. It’s like walls of fire. It’s the deadliest and most destructive fire in state history of California. In less than 24 hours, eighty-six people were dead and over 6,500 homes of two large communities had burned to the ground, not to mention businesses, supermarkets, restaurants and a retirement home — were left “pretty much…destroyed”. Tragically and ironically, the name of the town is Paradise. The town was so named likely because it is a pleasant place to live, like a paradise. But now, a ‘paradise’ was destroyed. Though peaceful and pleasant, it had been under the threats of wildfire all around. In fact, in 2008, ten years before 2018 deadliest Camp Fire, there were two other wildfires, even though they didn’t cause many fatalities.
In today’s OT reading, at the end of the passage, it reads, “Is not my Word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” God’s Word of judgment is like fire. Today, God’s Word warns against false prophets, who prophesied peace and prosperity when in fact people sinned and rebelled against God, and there were threats all around, from Assyria and later from Babylonia. The Lord says in today’s reading, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the Word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” For who among them has stood in the council of the LORD to see and to hear his Word, or who has paid attention to his Word and listened? Behold, the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked. The anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and accomplished the intents of his heart. In the latter days you will understand it clearly. Have you paid attention to God’s Word and listened? Or, do you despise the Word of the Lord? Do you stubbornly follow your own heart? As we know, in the latter days of ancient Israel, the land, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and people were taken into captivity. So also, in the Last Day of our time, the Lord will come again to judge the living and dead. The anger of the LORD will not turn back until all sins and rebellions against Him and His Word are punished and destroyed.
So, the fire that Jesus came to cast on earth is God’s Word against sin pronouncing God’s wrath and the final judgment. Jesus’ ministry already generated the fire that destroys, divides, and refines. Even from the context of His speech here, we know this is true. Jesus just condemned Pharisees and lawyers, and warned his disciples that hypocrisy and the love of possessions are dangerous distractions from waiting for the coming of the Son of man, to become unfaithful servants. Hypocrisy and the love of possessions are especially hard to remove because they are hidden and are very easily covered with good works. So, they need the fire of God’s judgment to destroy and the hammer of God’s law to break in pieces.
But now, one puzzling thing is that why Jesus said “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished” after he said, “I came to cast fire on the earth”, as if He would experience some kind of dreadful thing like being baptized by fire? The baptism that He is talking about here is certainly not a baptism by water because He was already baptized by John. Yes, Jesus is talking about His bloody and fiery baptism on the cross that would be coming soon. Jesus Himself would first experience the fiery wrath of God on behalf of YOU and me. As a matter of fact He desired it. He said, “How I wish that already it were kindled.” Jesus with great passion would undergo the fiery baptism, in which He took upon Himself all the sins of this world and bore the judgment and punishment that we should experience on the Last Day. And He accomplished that! Thanks be to God! When we are baptized into Jesus Christ, we are baptized in this fiery baptism as well. Christian baptism after Pentecost incorporates three baptisms, (1) John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance, which is is preparational to receive Jesus; (2) Jesus’ own baptism, where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were present so that when we are baptized in the Name of Triune God, we become the Father’s beloved child through Jesus; (3) Jesus’ fiery baptism on the cross, where we receive the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
Unfortunately, this fiery baptism of Jesus brings division among the people. Make no mistake. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. On the night of His birth, the angel said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”. On the night when He was betrayed, He said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.” On the night of Easter Sunday, He delivered this peace to His disciples saying, “Peace be with you” because He conquers sin and death, bringing eternal healing and everlasting peace with God. However, not everyone accepts this peace. Some will believe, and some will refuse. Because of sin and unbelief, Jesus divides like nothing else—even more than politics! It already happened in Jesus’ family. Once, Jesus’ mother and brothers came to where Jesus was teaching to take charge of Him, saying that He was out of His mind. “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.” This was already happening in Jesus’ time, especially after His resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The fiery Holy Spirit that descended upon the church on the day of Pentecost enabled the disciples to speak in tongues about the mighty work of God in Jesus. Since then, the Gospel spread like wildfire. So too does the fiery storm in families concerning the identity and work of Jesus sweep into society, into countries, and into the whole world with the spread of the Gospel. Jesus brings peace, but sin and unbelief makes it a fiery division.
So, how do you deal with the division? Jesus knows your struggle and your sadness. On the one hand, you are persecuted because of the faith, and are tempted by the world to forsake the Gospel. On the other hand, you feel the anger and pain of your family members because you love them. As a result, you may fail one way or anther. Jesus knows your pains and your weakness. He will comfort you just as He comforted Peter beside a charcoal fire in a morning after the resurrection. Remember? Peter denied Jesus three times after Jesus was arrested. So, now Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” The fire that Jesus cast on earth has become a charcoal fire of love in the heart of every believer. I pray that today this fire of Jesus’ love that Peter experienced will warm you as well, not just your body, but your heart and soul.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!