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 lives is due to 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. Nevertheless, it is incomprehensible to us that such fiery infernos can be, and sometimes are, intentionally started by people! Who 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 if the arsonist in question was Jesus Himself? I am not kidding! In our text today, we hear Jesus tell His disciples pointedly, "I came to cast fire on the earth." He could not have been any clear about his fire-setting intentions! Moreover, he expresses his absolute delight and resolves to be that arsonist. He adds: "And would that it was already kindled!"
Such fiery comments by Jesus are shocking. That is not the cuddly Teddy Bear image prevalent in much Christian preaching today. Here, Jesus hardly sounds like the God of love!
Listen again to His harshness: "Do you think I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 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 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 think of that serene scene along the Jordan River. In our mind's eye, we picture the hairy prophet of God, John, pouring water over Jesus' head and the Holy Spirit gracefully fluttering down upon Jesus like a peaceful dove.
However, Jesus speaks of another baptism he is to receive. When he said of the baptism he would have to undergo, John had already baptized him. Both contextually and grammatically, Jesus associates this other baptism with the fire that He came to cast upon the earth. It was a baptism he was anticipating with some trepidation. As some of our translations of Jesus' description here indicate, the prospect of this baptism distressed Him. And so it should have. This baptism he had come to experience was a baptism of fire, which meant a baptism of pain and death.
That Jesus should undergo such a baptism of fire should be no surprise to anyone. After all, God had promised His people that He would send His Son, 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 God would punish him for everything (Isaiah 53).
Even Jesus' water baptism was a point to his subsequent fiery baptism. Along the banks of the Jordan, God identified Jesus 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 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 trepidation and distress. His desire to do His Father's will and His love for sinners directly conflicted with His natural human will to avoid suffering and remain alive. On the one hand, he was most anxious to get on with it. Nevertheless, as an actual human being, Jesus would have rejoiced if this "cup," as he would later refer to it, would pass from Him, and He would not have to drink down its dregs of suffering under God's wrath. 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 distressing as such an experience would be for anyone, 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 so that He might receive the due penalty for our sins in His own body. 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 proclaim Jesus and His cross truthfully. The apostles were, in essence, Christ's arsonists, igniting the fire of the cross in people's lives. To signify this publicly, on Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Apostles, a 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 message of the cross of Jesus sets the world on fire because the cross is 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 to ignore his sin or save himself from death and hell through his own merits or good works. The message of the cross does not 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 code of moral conduct. Most people like being told what they must or should 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 in control of their destiny. It is right up the alley of their self-righteous, self-serving, sinful nature.
However, people most strongly oppose preaching that their sin keeps them from heaven and that without atonement for that sin, there is no forgiveness and no heaven. You preach the cross of Jesus to them, 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 consciences and sensibilities of sinners. It offends some and sounds foolish to others. In the face of the cross of Jesus, you cannot whitewash your guilt. Furthermore, we have become proficient at denying blame, rationalizing it, or sweeping it under the rug. It is always someone else's fault. Accordingly, people do not want to see the cross because it reminds them they have someone 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 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 deaths of countless sheep and goats sacrificed in the temple at Jerusalem, a truly gruesome sight of carnage! Worse, the bloody business of forgiving your and my sins entails spilling innocent blood, only begotten by God!
Therefore, the message of the cross cannot 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. However, political decisions only have temporary consequences. However, accepting or rejecting the bloody cross of Jesus has eternal consequences.
The fire of division burns everywhere. The Jews and Moslems have two millennia of hatred and bitterness toward one another, but they are unified in their hatred of the message of Jesus's crucifixion. Modernists, pluralists, and even atheists can tolerate Judaism, Islam, or any other religious sect or ideology, but they have no tolerance for Christianity. Nevertheless, as Jesus says, the fire of division cast upon the earth in the Gospel also burns hotly in families; even the best Christian families experience it: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
We should be aware 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 have disagreements! What kind of unity or peace is that? They are simply trying to hide the smoke. However, where there is smoke, there is fire, and fire cannot be ignored for long. Its divisive and destructive actions 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 our hearts ablaze when it comes to understanding suffering in our lives. Our nature says that God will rescue me from suffering if God loves me. He will keep me from suffering. That 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 goes 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 our eternal salvation and 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 witness the truth of Christ to others more adequately.
Jesus' baptism by fire (His cross) might bring division, or a sharp sword, where its purpose, meaning, and significance go unappreciated. However, it becomes a true blessing when it is appreciated in faith. After all, on the 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 satisfied 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 by fire to keep the flames of judgment from consuming us sinners. Jesus' cross is like a backburn 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 ablaze because of the message of His cross. Moreover, 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 might also be saved through our act of arson! Amen.