Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 18, 2019
I was in kind of a quandary choosing hymns for this Sunday. There aren’t many hymns to the scorched-earth God, or many that plead with God to “lay that hammer down, boy!” Our hymnal—and, I think, our entire tradition of hymns—contains precious few hymns about the transforming power of fire and judgment. The closest I could come was the hymn we’re singing after this sermon:
3 O fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
This quandary goes way back, even back to the Psalms. There are plenty of psalms that praise God for God’s protection:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. –Psalm 46:1
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me –Psalm 23:4
The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. 8 The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore. –Psalm 121:7-8
[H]e will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; 4 he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. –Psalm 91:3-4
But Psalms that plead for God’s purifying fire or shattering judgment are rare. The closest I’ve been able to find is David’s penitential psalm after the death of the child he conceived with Bathsheba:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. –Psalm 51:7-10
These are the words of a crushed and broken man who has seen the devastating effects of his sin and cries out for renewal. But they are a far cry from Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson:
“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 until it is completed!”
Jesus longs for God’s transforming fire—“how I wish it were already kindled!” he says—with a bring-it-on spirit and courage that few of us could match. For Jesus, God’s words sent through the prophet Jeremiah are good news!
Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?
Jesus knows that the fire of God’s word and the crushing blow of God’s judgment are ultimately good news, and they are not to be avoided or wished away, but embraced. In fact, he says, “what stress I am under until it is completed!” He knows that his trial-by-fire and the hammer-blow of his suffering and death will bring relief, not just to himself, but to whole world. Jesus’ faith in the power of God to bring new life out of suffering is a faith on fire for transformation. It is a unique faith, to be sure, but that does not mean that we cannot strive to emulate it . . . even if we cannot achieve it. A faith on fire for God’s transforming power is a faith that puts us close to the heart of Christ.
This past week I met with my contemplative prayer group from Mepkin Abbey. We are a group of men and women, both lay and clergy, who enjoy going on retreat at Mepkin and meet monthly to learn, share, and pray together. This past week we were listening to a recording from Don Bisson, a spiritual director and retreat leader, on human transformation and individuation, or how we become our most authentic selves, “Beyond Happy and Normal.” He speaks about “happy carrots” and what happens to us when we fall off the happy carrot truck.
What’s a “happy carrot?” “Happy carrots,” are “individuals and groups who are absolutely, delightfully happy to be unconscious,” people who know exactly who they are and who you should be and are happy to remain exactly as they are because this is the way things are supposed to be. Happy carrots simply accept reality on a superficial level. Happy carrots are completely happy with things the way they are, and see no reason for change. All the happy carrots go bouncing along on the happy carrot truck, but if you happen to fall off the truck, then you might end up sitting on the road all alone, looking around you, maybe a little baffled, wondering “What happened? Where are all the other carrots? And what am I doing out here all alone?”
Sometimes we fall off the happy carrot truck when we have a disorienting, life-altering event—maybe deep suffering, a profound experience of God, or an experience of deep love—that puts us in a grace-filled crisis, a place of deep wonderment. Last week, I asked you all to recall moments of bright faith, those times when you have an awakening to the truth of the Gospel. Falling off the happy carrot truck, can be one of those times of bright faith, when we begin to dig deeper into the reality of who we are and what God calls us to be. As we talked about last week, it can be an experience of deep and profound joy, but there’s a hitch: it leaves us odd, a little strange, and maybe a little ragged-looking to all the happy carrots.
But, it also puts us at the center of the heart of Christ, who understood the transforming power of suffering, love, and experiencing the fire or hammer of God.
So, does faith on fire mean that we rush headlong into suffering? I don’t think so. I think we have a model of faith on fire in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:
Jesus went . . . to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” . . . Again he went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” . . . he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. –Matthew 26:36-44
Jesus isn’t fatalistic or nihilistic about his suffering. He does ask to be released from his suffering, but he also he has the courage to submit to it if suffering is the thing that leads him deeper into God’s call and closer to God’s will. That is faith on fire.
Faith on fire enables us to submit to the fire of the word of God and to the hammer that crushes stone. And we can submit to it with courage when we remember:
- That the fire burns but does not consume
- That it purifies as a refiner’s fire purifies gold
- That the stone that the hammer smashes is the stone of our hearts
- That God then replaces that stone with a heart of flesh
Faith on fire is not about running headlong into danger or suffering—though it can lead there—but about having the courage to go inward, examine the parts of us that cry out for transformation, and be open to God’s transforming action within.
Oh how I wish it were already kindled!