Most children have vivid memories of early experiences with fire. I remember back in the days when our family grill was the natural gathering place for our family’s male friends and children on social occasions. Dad would sprinkle lighter fluid inside the grill kettle and dazzle us all with a match tossed on the wet coals. Woompf! All at once the lighter fluid would ignite and initiate the preparation of a dinner that started with burgers and ended with roasted marshmallows. Our family also happened to have a wood-burning fireplace. On the afternoon of Christmas Day Dad would always use the wrapping paper from Christmas presents as fuel for the fireplace fire. To this day I can still remember watching as the foil, tissue, and multi-colored paper crumpled from the heat and then turned the yellow flames blue, green, purple, and red. Fire was this mysterious, miraculous thing…yet there was never any doubt about its destructive power. Maybe that is the reason why such ordinary and mundane memories still linger to this day.
The book of Hebrews invokes this image of fire in saying something important about God: “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29). God is not a divine being to be manipulated in line with our own desires and whims. God is not preoccupied elsewhere or otherwise waiting around, content to be trotted out at the usual human milestone events like births, weddings, and funerals. God’s desire to bring us life means that God must communicate by way of a Word that is “like fire” and “breaks the rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29) when confronted with the dead wood and debris of human sin. There is no controlling or playing nice with such a One. God’s Word can only destroy our own self-centered words about ourselves and others (I had every right to treat him as bad as he treated me…sure I was angry, but she started it…if you name it and claim it God will give you the desire of your heart…[insert your own self-deluding monologue here]). God’s judgement in the face of human sin and alternate facts about the human soul can only consume and rage away. Even in our Gospel Reading for today, Jesus seems impatient to align himself with the fire-hurling God that Israel witnessed at Mt. Sinai and about whom the Old Testament prophets once spoke (read Jesus’ words here). If God and God’s Word is a consuming fire, Jesus had a thing or two to say that would turn conventional notions of human relationships to ashes and dust, too.
But reading on we also find these words of Jesus: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” Jesus’ death upon a cross, the place where he received once-and-for-all the fiery judgement of God that all sinners deserve to receive…this was the baptism Jesus dreaded yet the very baptism that would bring followers of Jesus life. The aftermath of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday would be made known fifty days later, when the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples and a fire that did not consume was seen above their heads (Acts 2:3). Such a fire was not a guarantee that followers of Jesus would escape in every way unharmed from a hostile world…but rather, that the Holy Spirit would strengthen them and even purify their faith in times of trial…that they might know where true peace was to be found, even when the world pushed back or was divided against them.
Jesus’ brand of peace involves truth that can be painful, conversations that must involve loving confrontation, and interventions that may be unwelcome. It is never an “easy” peace. This week we pray for an abundant measure of God’s mercy that each of us might honestly repent of the sins that God’s Law uncovers in us. As people living in Christ, we also receive the blessing of a fire that not consume…a Word of promise that sets us ablaze. May it empower us to speak the truth in love (and testify to it by our actions) to a world in need this week!