“I have come to set fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled”
“Do you suppose I come to establish peace on the earth? No indeed, I have come to bring dissension.”
To be honest with you, Lord, I didn’t really want to hear those words tonight.
My mind is full of images of war: aircraft carriers, troops ready for action and innocent people fleeing from the danger of bombs to the dangers of homelessness and a freezing winter.
I think we’ve had our fill of people setting fires to burn and, again to be frank, yes we do hope you’ll establish peace on earth. We’ve prayed for it enough and to hear that you’ve come to cause dissension is really quite hard.
John said that he was preparing the way for someone who would baptise with fire, not water, and you were that someone. Yet you say you have a further baptism to go through yourself and are constrained until you do.
So it’s not comfortable reading.
We know you were talking to Jews 2000 years ago. They would have understood the baptism of fire to represent the divine judgment. They believed that judgment would be on people other than themselves. They too must have found these words disturbing.
John had already told them that it was not enough to be a son or daughter of Abraham. To be in a right relationship with God each person had to turn his or her life around and get tuned in to God’s word.
Now you’re saying that you won’t be leading your people to reign over a peaceful earth. In fact you’re going to cause break-ups in families and divide the descendants of Abraham.
The people who heard you then, were they discouraged, daunted or even disillusioned by what you said to them?
And what are you saying to us?
Are you saying that it’s not enough to be baptised and come to church regularly? That each of us has to turn our life around and get in tune with God’s word?
Are you saying that if we truly follow you our lives will be so radically different that we might cause divisions in our communities and families?
What about our world at war and longing for peace?
We hear you from a different time and so we know more of your story than your first listeners did.
We know what your terrible baptism was: the agonising betrayal and death on the cross.
And we also know now that you were indeed constrained until your death and the wonder of your resurrection.
We know the story of what happened when at last you were free and did baptise your followers with fire and send them out to tell the gospel.
We are resurrection people. So we can know that you lived alongside us, enduring all the suffering that victims of war, violence, injustice and poverty undergo. But you also still live alongside us in the light of your resurrection. You are the promise that goodness and love do overcome evil and death.
Help each of us to turn our lives around, to get in tune with God’s word.
Help us to commit ourselves more fully to living that word whatever the consequences, knowing that now, and for eternity, the tomb is empty.