St. Matthew’s Sermon 08-18-2019


St. Matthew’s Sermon 08-18-2019

Closer to the Fire

Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. Amen

I find it funny, how the human mind works in regards to memory (or how mine works anyway, I’ve never occupied your mind to know if it’s the same). But for me, I often cannot remember what I had for dinner a few days ago, yet I’ll clearly remember a few words spoken to me way back in my childhood. And, every now and then, those memories will rise in either a spirit-lifting way or in a spirit-crushing way.

This happened to me as I was reading today’s Gospel selection earlier in the week with the opening line “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled”! Two memories of conversations I had as a child with my great-uncle, who was the nearest thing I ever had to a grandfather.

On one occasion we were talking about Noah, and how God destroyed the earth with a flood. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation moved but we wound up talking about the next destruction of the earth that, according to my uncle’s understanding, would be done with fire. He mentioned how some people opposed his view, explaining that the earth is made of rock and water, and rock and water won’t burn. My uncle’s reasoned response to their argument was; “It will if God puts the match to it.”

The other memory of my uncle’s words was of him talking about how, when he was young, he had a classmate that everyone thought was so smart and wonderful. “He’s gonna set the world on fire” everyone would say. My uncles summery of the supposed genius’ life was; “He couldn’t even get the match lit”.

These two uses of the word fire are two very different things. In the first we hear the fear-filling wrath of God, the destructive fire that will consume and destroy. The second raises thoughts of something remarkable, exciting, even sensational coming into reality.

Both of these uses are found in the Bible. A problem arises, however, when we confuse the two or exchange one for the other, while reading the various passages, which is easily done when what we’ve heard as children overrides our adult ability to reason, to see optional ways of thinking about the text we read.

Try this one for an exercise: Earlier in Luke’s Gospel John the Baptist is speaking about the coming of the Christ and says “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Is that a dire warning, or an announcement? Is John implying that the Christ will separate all the good people from the bad, gather the good into his granary and destroy all the people he doesn’t determine to be good fruit? That’s how I was taught to understand fire as a child, the destructive fire of hell!

But now try this alternative understanding. As grain and chaff are all of one plant, could John be announcing Christ’s ability and desire to remove all that is not good and useful from each individual person, or from society as a whole, and destroying it so that it can never return. That could be thought of as constructive, cleansing fire.

In this exercise we can see the options of two uses of fire; the first instilling spirit crushing fear, the second invoking spirit lifting hope.

So now, with those options in mind, how do we look at the verse from today’s reading that reads “”I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Is Jesus intending to destroy or to lift up? Is he proclaiming destruction or announcing hope?

Many are the preachers who will stand unwavering with the interpretation of destruction, often citing the following verses about division (and often drawing on Matthew’s use of the word “sword” in his parallel story). But even that is open to interpretation. Once again, is Jesus warning or announcing?

 If we see the fire as a warning of punishment then we are predisposed to see division as a warning. On the other hand, if we see fire as cleansing we might see division as the Christ-anticipated result of individuals who will refuse to be cleansed or to have their society cleansed.

 

Luke’s Gospel speaks often of cleansing; from the pronouncements of Mary, Elisabeth, Zechariah, Anna, and John in the beginning and of Christ himself in the following chapters. Through these we know what needs to be cleansed from the earth and destroyed so that it cannot return. Through these we learn that oppression, greed, and idolatry must be separated and burned. Exploitation, narcissism, and dehumanization must be cut out and destroyed. Anything that prevents the flourishing of all people and all creationmust go! When that is done we will know the Kingdom of God has come on earth as it is in heaven; and all will know the joy of life lived in fullness!

When we see the fire from this perspective we will not fear the flames, but be drawn closer to them; feeding, stoking them with every weight and sin that clings to us; fanning the flames until all evil is consumed and rendered irretrievable by us or our society, never to be seen again on the face of the earth!

That is the fire Jesus brought to the earth; join him in his passionate yearning to see it kindled!

Amen.

 

Isaiah 5:1-7
5:1 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
5:2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
5:3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.
5:4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5:5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
5:6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
5:7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

 

Psalm 82
82:1 God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
82:2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
82:3 Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
82:4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
82:5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
82:6 I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
82:7 nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
82:8 Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
11:29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
11:30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
11:31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
11:32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets–
11:33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions,
11:34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
11:35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
11:36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
11:37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented–
11:38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
11:39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised,
11:40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
12:2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Luke 12:49-56
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?