10th Sunday after Pentecost - 8/14/2022
Once again this summer, horrific forest and grassland fires have besieged various places around the globe, as well as right here in Montana. These annual infernos are notorious for wreaking havoc on homes and property, causing unimaginable suffering and even death. When such disasters are acts of God, we have learned to accept them as part of the crumbling nature of this fallen world and as stern warnings from God, as Jesus Himself says, to repent lest we also perish (Lk.13:1-6). It is much more difficult, however, to rationalize such catastrophes when the horrific loss of property and life is due to the irresponsible, careless, or even intentional actions of human beings.
Living as we do in the dryer climes of the west, we Montanans have even come to expect that, come August at least, lightning strikes will ignite our tinder-dry forests and prairies. But it is incomprehensible to us that such fiery infernos can be, and sometimes are, intentionally started by people! What kind of person would willingly and, even enjoyably, set fire to a building or a forest? The property and lives of others mean nothing to these arsonists!
What would you think, then, if the arsonist in question was Jesus Himself? I am not kidding! In our text today, we hear Jesus tell His disciples quite pointedly, "I came to cast fire on the earth." He could not have been any clearer about His fire-setting intentions! What’s more, he even goes on to express His absolute delight and resolve to be that arsonist. He adds: "and would that it was already kindled!"
Such fiery comments by Jesus are truly shocking, to say the least. This is not the cuddly Teddy Bear image that much Christian preaching portrays today. Here, Jesus hardly sounds like the God of love!
Listen again to His harshness: "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?" No, I tell you, but rather division! " What are we to make of this? After all, didn’t the angels of heaven sing at Jesus’ birth: "Glory to God in the highest and peace to His people on earth?" What gives with Jesus casting fire and bringing division among peoples rather than world peace?
Our answers are to be found in the baptism Jesus said he would have to undergo. He said, "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished."
When one mentions Jesus’ baptism, we naturally tend to think of that serene scene along the Jordan River. We picture in our mind’s eye the hairy prophet of God, John, pouring water over Jesus’ head and the Holy Spirit gracefully fluttering down upon Jesus like a peaceful dove.
But here it is clear Jesus speaks of another baptism he is to receive. By the time he spoke of this baptism he would have to undergo, he had already been baptized by John. This additional baptism Jesus associates with the fire that He came to cast upon the earth, both contextually and grammatically. It was a baptism he was anticipating with some trepidation. As some of our translations of Jesus’ description here try to indicate, the prospect of this baptism distressed Him. And so it should have. This baptism he had come to undergo was a baptism of fire, that is, a baptism of suffering and death.
That Jesus should undergo such a baptism of fire really ought to come as no surprise to anyone. After all, God had promised His people that He would send His Son, who was also called the Seed of the Woman. He would be bruised by the devil (Gen. 3). God had spoken through His prophets that His Servant would suffer, die, and be buried so that the iniquity of all sinners would be placed upon Him... and that he would be punished by God for everything (Isaiah 53).
Correspondingly, even Jesus’ water baptism was a point to his subsequent fiery baptism. Along the banks of the Jordan, Jesus was identified by God as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." The Lamb of God was the appointed sacrifice for sin. At John’s baptism, Jesus was placed in solidarity with the whole human race (Just, p. 522). He was made the substitute for sinners under the wrath of God that he might atone for them—that is, make satisfaction for their sins. He was appointed for this baptism of fire.
Hence, we can see why Jesus approached this baptism with some trepidation and some distress. His desire to do His Father’s will, as well as His love for sinners, was in direct conflict with His natural human will to avoid suffering and remain alive. On the one hand, he was most anxious to get on with it. Yet, also being truly human, Jesus would have been delighted that this "cup", as he would later call it, should pass away from Him and He would not have to drink down its dregs of suffering under the wrath of God. After all, he was innocent, yet his baptism was to receive the full outpouring of the fires of hell. From his cross, he would cry: "My God! Oh My God! Why have you forsaken me?"
Now, as distressful as such an experience would be for anyone to have to face, this baptism was equally essential for the sake of the eternal welfare of sinners like you and me. Our only hope was for Jesus to become the lightning rod of God’s wrath for us, that He might receive in His own body the due penalty for our sin. After all, only then could we enjoy the forgiveness of our sins and know peace with God.
The fire Jesus came to cast on the earth was kindled at his cross, but it was made to burn throughout the whole world through the preaching and teaching of the cross. The Apostles were the first to be proclaimers of the cross. They were specially called by Jesus and baptized with the Holy Spirit to be Jesus’ witnesses in the world. The Holy Spirit recalled everything Jesus had taught them, allowing them to truthfully proclaim Jesus and His cross. The apostles were, in essence, arsonists of Christ, setting the fire of the cross to burn in people’s lives. To signify this in a public way, on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles, what looked like flames of fire appeared above their heads. The fire continues to spread as we boldly and truthfully share, proclaim, preach, and teach the message of the cross.
The reason the message of the cross of Jesus sets the world on fire is that the cross is so polemical. It divides truth from falsehood and true religion from false religion. It is the very symbol of God’s suffering for the sake of sinners. People do not want to be reminded that their sins were the cause of the Son of God’s horrible death. The cross of Jesus also separates the sinner from any foolish desire he may have to ignore his sin or to save himself from death and hell through his own merits or good works. The message of the cross doesn’t allow people to have salvation their way.
People, even in the pagan world, can tolerate the preaching of the law. Every religion has its own rules and its code of moral conduct. Besides, most people tend to like to be told what they must do or not do. Such regulation provides safe boundaries for them. At the same time, depending on how the law is preached to them, especially if it gives people the impression that by doing all the right things one can secure a blessed life in the here and now and secure one's place in heaven, people love it. They like to feel they are in control of their destiny. It is right up the alley of the self-righteous, self-serving, sinful nature that is in them.
But what people resist, and resist most vehemently, is any preaching that their sin keeps them out of heaven and that without that sin is atoned for, there is no forgiveness... and no heaven. You preach to them the cross of Jesus, and right away their teeth are set on edge. The whole crucifixion thing becomes loathsome to them. The preacher, just like Jeremiah of old, becomes odious in their sight! They burn with resentment and anger toward the messenger, Jesus, and the true Gospel. Jesus the arsonist has cast his fire into their lives.
The message of the cross burns the conscience and sensibilities of sinners. It offends some and sounds foolish to others. In the face of the cross of Jesus, you can not whitewash your guilt. And we are people who have become quite proficient at denying blame, rationalizing it, or simply sweeping it under the rug. It is always someone else’s fault. Accordingly, people don’t want to see the cross because it reminds them that they do have to blame. The cross is a proclamation that their sin is the reason the Lord of Life had to die.
Furthermore, the message of the cross sets souls and lives on fire because it shows how messy the business of forgiveness is. It is a bloody business. Your and my sins did not simply result in the death of countless numbers of sheep and goats sacrificed in the temple at Jerusalem, a truly gruesome sight of carnage! But far worse, the bloody business of forgiving your sins and mine means the spilling of the blood of the innocent, only begotten of God!
The message of the cross, therefore, can’t help but bring about division between people who accept it and those who reject it. If there is anything that destroys unity between people, it is disagreements over religion. People can become divided over politics as well. But political decisions only have temporary consequences. The acceptance or rejection of the bloody cross of Jesus, however, has eternal consequences.
The fire of division burns everywhere. The Jews and Moslems have two millenniums of hatred and bitterness toward one another, but they are unified in their hatred of the message of Jesus crucified. Modernists, pluralists, and even atheists can tolerate Judaism, Islam, or any other religious sect or ideology, but they have no tolerance for Christianity. But as Jesus says, the fire of division cast upon the earth in the Gospel also burns hotly in families; even the best of Christian families experience it: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, the daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
We should not be mystified, therefore, by the fact that there are so many different denominations today. Wherever Jesus and his cross are taught and believed differently, there will never be true unity; there will only be division. Organizational ecumenical agreements do not establish unity and peace. At best, all they can do is declare where there is the true unity of confession and teaching. Unfortunately, most often today, all these ecumenical agreements or accords are simply agreements to disagree with! What kind of unity or peace is that? They are simply trying to hide the smoke. But where there is smoke, there is fire, and fire cannot be ignored for long. Its divisive and destructive action will eventually be seen. Only when there is a genuine agreement in what is believed and taught, especially concerning Jesus and His cross, and the means He uses to bring us salvation, can there be unity and true peace.
The message of the cross can also set ablaze our hearts when it comes to understanding suffering in our own lives. Our nature reasons that if God loves me, he’ll rescue me from suffering. He’ll keep me from suffering. This is the logic that says nothing good comes from suffering. Some will say, "I don’t want a God who allows a child to die or the innocent to suffer."
Such "logic" wars against the cross of Jesus. After all, the innocent child of God was put to death on that cross. There could be no greater tragedy than that!
The cross says loud and clear that a loving God is the God of suffering and that, through such suffering, God accomplishes not only our eternal salvation but also great good in our lives. The cross of Jesus sanctifies (sets apart) our suffering for the glory of God and the long-term good of ourselves and others. His suffering cross is our assurance that He will also accomplish good in our suffering by strengthening our relationship with Him, enriching our understanding of His grace and willingness to suffer for us, and enabling us to more adequately witness the truth of Christ to others.
Jesus’ baptism of fire (His cross) might bring division, or a piercing sword, where its purpose, meaning, and significance go unappreciated, but where it is appreciated in faith, it becomes a true blessing. After all, by His cross, Jesus accomplished God’s will and made atonement. That is why Jesus said from His cross, "It is finished." God’s consuming wrath has been satiated at the cross. There is now, in Christ, peace between the sinner and our righteous God.
The cross is much more than a sacrifice of love. The cross is Jesus’ baptism of fire to keep the flames of judgment from consuming us sinners. Jesus’ cross is like a back burn deliberately set to snuff out the advancing fire, leaving the wildfire with no fuel to burn. The fires of hell have no fury where the cross of Jesus has already atoned for sin. There is nothing left to burn.
Yes, Jesus is the consummate arsonist! The whole world is all ablaze because of the message of His cross. And thanks be to God, the fire ignited by Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice has been made to burn in our lives through the Gospel preached to us. This fire has saved us from the inferno of eternal destruction! God empowers us with His Spirit to set our world on fire by boldly proclaiming the true Gospel of Jesus Christ the Crucified so that others, through our act of arson, might also be saved! Amen.