Jesus said, “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, how I am strained, and constrained, and consumed until it is completed!”
How I wish it were already kindled. I am consumed until it is completed.
Jesus seems to be feeling the strain of his ministry from at least two sides: he knows that he has the most important work to do, but he feels so much resistance around him. He knows, too, that it will lead him into conflict and chaos. The tension between forging forward and knowing what he is to face is unbearable. It is consuming. No wonder he cries out from time to time. There is so much packed into these few words, so tightly pressed that they are bursting at the seams, that it is difficult to know where to begin to pick up a thread that might lead us into our own lives of ministry, our own stress, our own living baptisms.
I came to bring fire to the earth; how I wish it were already kindled.
It could be a cry of frustration, at the slowness of God’s judgement upon the Roman invaders, at the slowness of God’s action against the persecutors that had killed John, Jesus’ baptizer, who were already plotting against Jesus and his followers. It could be a cry of desolation, longing for the comfort of God’s company, a sign of God’s presence, a baptism of healing oil and cooling water.
A brief survey of biblical fire shows both sides of the same coin.
In the Torah, the presence of God is found in the fire which cut the covenant with Abraham; the fire which spoke to Moses out of the burning bush and led the children of Israel by night in a pillar of flame. God speaks to the wilderness people out of fire in the covenant of the commandments, and accepts their sacrifice by burning it from their altars. Our God, the people are told, is a consuming fire.
Chariots and horses of fire swoop down from heaven to catch up Elijah to the eternal presence of God. God’s fire visits the temple of Solomon at its dedication, and the glory of the Lord fills it up. The word of God sets fire to Jeremiah the prophet; “If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name”, there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”
Our God, the people are told, is a consuming fire, a jealous God. “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord [again to Jeremiah], and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” And in Isaiah, “For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the stormwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord execute judgement.” Isaiah and later Mark agree about a worm that shall not die and a fire that shall not be quenched.
So when Jesus says, I came to bring fire to the earth; how I wish it were already kindled, he is speaking in divided tongues of fire. Is he talking about judgement, or salvation? Is he talking about God’s loving kindness and enduring mercy, or about God’s anger? Will God’s kingdom come with the flaming sword or will we be the brand that is plucked from the fire and rescued from the flames (Zechariah 3:2)?
Maybe the choice is ours. Jesus is talking out of the midst of a crisis: what stress I am under, he cries! And he goes on to warn us that the crisis will continue in our own lives. We have choices to make, and decisions bring division. If we choose to walk the way of the cross, we may be called upon from time to time to deny ourselves, to choose the path of most, not of least resistance.
How often have you heard someone tell a joke, or make an offhand comment, or give a speech, or even a sermon that made fire burn in your bones, yet you said nothing, kept quiet for the sake of decorum and keeping the peace? I’ve done it; God knows I’ve done it more than once. Sometimes it happens by accident – a comment slips by and only in retrospect do we realize what was meant. Sometimes it happens that a sexist joke or a racist comment or a disparaging generalization is made by someone we love, or by someone who happens to have authority, or economic influence, over us, and we are afraid of the consequences of saying, “Hold on, do you mean that? Do you think that is an acceptable thing to say?” We are afraid of creating divisions. Jesus says, sorry, but that is not the way of the cross. If you are going to be a disciple, sometimes you will find yourself divided from the crowd, divided even amongst yourselves. Sometimes respecting the dignity of every human being means calling one of them to account.
Either way, we might get burned; either by a burning conscience – “there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in” – or by the social consequences, a dinner party that crashes and burns; or worse, burning our bridges with someone we hold dear, or who holds opportunities for our advancement over us. It is not always a simple decision, to divide ourselves from that which burns other, from that which burns our own souls, too. And yet the letter of Jude encourages us to save others, “by snatching them out of the fire.” By separating ourselves from sin where we are able, we might even help others to do the same.
None of this is easy. Jesus makes it quite clear the strain that he is under, and we say that we follow, as we can, in his footsteps. But we are promised safe passage through the fire, and God will never abandon us to the flames. In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “No other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any one has built on the foundation survives, that one will receive a reward. If any one’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss, though they will be saved, but only as through fire.” If we follow Jesus, we will come through fire and water and tests and trials maybe not unscathed, but saved, kept safe in God’s bosom.
The fire which Jesus came to bring has already been kindled, and we are under stress until we are fully consumed by it. But do not become weary in your bones. We have already passed through the waters of baptism and the anointing with fire and the Holy Spirit. We have already been rescued from the fires of judgement for the burning passion of God’s presence. Here is what the Psalmist has to say to us, about our baptism, about God’s consuming fire, about our compressed, stress-filled lives (from Psalm 66):
Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of God’s praise be heard,
who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip.
For thou, O God, has tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried…
Thou didst let men ride over our heads;
we went through fire and through water;
yet thou hast brought us forth to a spacious place. (RSV)
we went through fire and water;
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment. (BCP)