Sermon for August 18, 2019

When I was in college I took an interest in the campus radio station, KWAR-FM. The transmitter churned out 40 watts of broadcast power which meant the programming was heard mainly on campus but also the community. I started out as an announced for classical music, of which I knew nothing. My most embarrassing moment was to have a record on the turntable at the wrong speed, 45 rpm when it should have been at 33 rpm. But I learned, and moved up the ranks into the news department, and then finally station manager. This was a paid position by the college, $26 a month. One night someone in the library found me to say, “The radio station is on fire!” I rushed over there and beat the local fire department. Smoke was billowing out the entrance. But the only thing on my mind was text books I had left on a desk at the station. Against common sense I went into the smoke filled building, into the interior of the station, to retrieve my books. Text books were expensive and I didn’t want them as fuel for the fire. Happy to find the books intact I forgot one thing. There was a fire. The entry way was totally engulfed with smoke. I couldn’t even see the way out the front. So I headed out the back. The fire department arrived and most of the fire was soon put out with minimum damage. A troubled student, who happened to volunteer at the station, had set the fire. I had escaped possible smoke inhalation by fleeing out the back way. The back door had been sealed shut for years. Yet somehow, I was able to open it and escape. I guess it is true that when the adrenaline is flowing, you become stronger than you think; after all fire is frightening and threatening.

What was Jesus meaning when he said in the gospel reading, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”  This does not sound like Jesus. Jesus began his ministry by saying “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, sight for the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”. Or what about the incident involving the disciples James and John, two brothers with the nickname the ‘sons of thunder”?  When a village refused to offer Jesus and his disciples hospitality they had the suggestion of asking God to rain down fire and brimstone on that unfriendly place. Such a request earned from Jesus a stern rebuke. Or again, Jesus told his listeners “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” But now it sounded like Jesus thought some fear would not hurt.  In today’s lesson Jesus sounded more like his cousin, John the Baptist who warned the people: “I baptize you with water but the one more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie his sandals .He will  baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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.” John the Baptist was not talking about farming, but the coming Judgment with the warning of what will happen to the wicked.

One may wonder if Jesus was getting tired of all the wickedness in the world that he was turning into a fiery “fire and brimstone preacher”. But Jesus was not interested in punishment but repentance. Surely Jesus was troubled by the power of sin that inspired people to ignore God’s good commandments to love their neighbors.  After all Jesus told the story of what we call the Good Samaritan that called for the practice of mercy without concern for one’s race, nationality, or party affiliation. Jesus wanted to light some fires: not the fires of destruction but purification, that we would turn to him in repentance and receive the forgiveness of sins. Jesus wanted to light some fires: not hellfire, but holiness, that we be baptized with the Holy Spirit and have a zeal for righteousness, living out God’s will for our lives. Jesus wasn’t merely fed up but calls his followers to be ‘fired up” with hearts set on the treasure of the kingdom of God. In the wilderness of Glacier National Park are Lodgepole Pines, a tough, hardy tree with cones so thick that only extreme heat can burst forth the seeds. The U.S. Forest Service has discovered the importance of managed fires for such fire has a purpose for without them the seeds of the Lodgepole Pine will never be released. The Lodgepole Pine is important for the forest underbrush below it to grow and thrive. We need the fire of God’s Word to break open our cold hearts of stone, and replace with hearts burning with faith, hope, and love. We heard Jeremiah the prophet say “Is not my word like fire,, says the Lord, and like a hammer the breaks a rock in pieces?” Do not trivialize the word of God. It can make a grown person cry, when he or she understands they have sinned and fallen short, yet in spite of guilt there is grace from God that totally forgives. The word of God can bring the dead to life. When someone is down and disheartened and loved by no one the Word of God surrounds with the steadfast love of God and one is made new with a joyful outlook. I have a collection of sermons by African American preachers from the time of slavery, through Jim Crow, up to current times. The book has an interesting title: “Preaching with Sacred Fire.” The ‘sacred fire’ refers to the power of the Holy Spirit. African American pastors knew they were often preaching before a congregation of oppressed and dehumanized people. They faced a congregation of broken and tired bodies and souls. But only seeking the sacred fire, the Holy Spirit, the gospel word would heal and revitalize hope.

Remember the Easter story of two disciples headed home disappointed and depressed. They saw Jesus’ death on the cross and now felt sin, death, and devil had won the day. A stranger joins their walk home, and gives them a seven-mile Bible study. They invite the stranger for supper and when he broke the bread to say grace was he then recognized: Jesus, risen from the dead. Remember what the two disciples said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening up to us the scriptures?” Just what was the fire Jesus kindled? It was the fire of Jesus, the Son of God becoming a human being; the fire of Jesus preaching the good news to welcome all types of sinners into God’s kingdom; it was the fire of his cross, bearing all our sin and guilt, it was the fire of his resurrection, victory over death and the gift of living hope. When Jesus said he felt the pressure of his coming baptism, he meant his coming death on the cross. Certainly Jesus felt the stress for the cross would mean suffering and sacrifice. In the Psalm today we prayed “Arise, O God, and rule the earth, for you shall take all nations for your own.” Indeed, on the cross Jesus opened his arms for all,, for the rule and will of God is salvation. In the book of Acts the basic message of the apostles to all is “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved.”

Jesus has shocking words in the gospel and he did so again when he said
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, rather division!” He went on to give examples of division, hostile opposition in even one’s household. But Jesus, we disagree with you because we recall the angel’s words at your birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.” And did you not say to people you forgave and healed, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” But there can be disagreement, even division even among loved ones. Parents can argue with their children about the value of attending church regularly. Have you had such discussions? Husband and wife can argue about just how much commitment does Jesus mean when he says “Follow me”? I was at a church meeting when further meetings were scheduled based on whether the Packers were playing or not. This can be sort of a joke but it does speak of division among people about the priority one gives to Jesus and his church.  The prophet Micah warned “Put no trust in a friend, have no confidence in a loved one.” Be careful, even those closest to you may try to dilute or destroy your faith. In such times Micah called for prayer, “But as for me I will look to the Lord, I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.”

I smiled when Jesus told his listeners ‘you sure are good about talking about the weather, interpreting the signs of wind and cloud. Then he asked, “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” In other words you like to hear weather forecasts, but what about God’s forecast? His forecast for you is a faithful you, a better you, for the fire of the Holy Spirit to inspire you to trust Jesus, to share with him your every care. In preparation for the Pet Blessing service I have been reading a book called “Birds of a Feather”, about a psychologist working to help vets with PTSD with the help parrots. She told about her parrot, Malaccan Cockatoo named Mango.  One evening there was a knock on the door. Mango got down from his perch and walked to the door for he likes to meet people. Parrots can speak, and he told the person at the door, “Hewoo, I wuv you.” The man said I came over to complain about the noise your parrots make, but after a greeting like that, I will forget about it.” If the words of a parrot sounding like Elmer Fudd can disarm someone ready to complain, why cannot our words do the same. Let us pray for the Holy Spirit to speak words of love to one another, Jesus inspired words, so any divisions cannot overcome them.