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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

Fire On The Earth

Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53

I’m sure that you all know that the word, “Gospel,” means “Good News.” You know that don’t you? Well, did you hear the Good News of our Gospel lesson for today? Jesus said He came “to bring fire on the earth,” and He wished the fire “were already kindled” – already burning! He said He had “a baptism to undergo” and He couldn’t wait until it was completed. He asked, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth?” and He answers His own question, “No way… I’ve come to bring division, even among families.”

If that’s Good News, I wonder what the bad news is like?! These sure aren’t verses that you’d put on a plaque to hang on your wall!

Jesus said He came “to bring fire on the earth.” This was foretold by John the Baptist who said, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16,17) That’s talk of judgement, isn’t it?

Long ago, Isaiah had spoken for God, saying, “See, the Lord is coming with fire, and His chariots are like a whirlwind; He will bring down His anger with fury, and His rebuke with flames of fire. For with fire and with His sword the Lord will execute judgement upon all men.” (Isaiah 66:16,17)

The Prophet Malachi wrote, “Who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire.” (Malachi 3:2)

Jesus himself said, “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:6)

Jesus is not just meek and mild! He is the judge of every person! He comes to test our works. If it wasn’t for His mercy, God’s fire of judgement would consume us all! With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the Church, and the approach of the Kingdom, division and strife would be intensified. And Jesus said, “Let it start now.”

For Jesus was to be drawn into the fire of judgement He came to bring. And He says, “how I wish it were already kindled. I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!”

Jesus was speaking of his own “baptism of fire” which was soon to come His way. He was anticipating the day when His soul would be sorrowful unto death – the hour of suffering for which He had come.

The figures are opposites, aren’t they? Fire and baptism. It sounds like a paradox to say that a baptism will kindle a fire, and yet that’s what happened. Jesus’ death on the cross kindled the fire of the offense of the cross.

The figure of baptism to denote the suffering and death of Jesus goes back to His baptism by John in the Jordan River. When He placed himself alongside sinners, and asked for John’s baptism, He signified that he would take our punishment for sin upon himself.

But Jesus also made it clear that his followers would have to suffer. It’s called “the cost of discipleship.” Every would-be disciple had better understand that. It’s dangerous to be near Jesus. He doesn’t promise prosperity; He does predict the testing of our faith – the fire of tribulation for His name’s sake.

So, if discipleship is going to bring us near the fire, maybe it would be better to turn back. Maybe we should take the advice of Harry Truman: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” The fires of affliction that Jesus spoke of still confront us.

For what was the next thing Jesus says in our Gospel lesson? He said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.” With His question and answer Jesus makes it plain what He means when He says He came to bring fire on the earth. Fire and division! Isn’t Jesus the Prince of Peace? Isn’t His church the haven of peace? Isn’t His greeting, “Peace be with you?” Yes, these things are all true, but “on earth” takes in all people, and Jesus’ effect on the earth in general is quite the opposite of peace, namely division.

And this division will cut clean through other normal, human relationships, even those as close as family ties. Jesus comes calling people to stand with Him or away from Him. No straddling the fence. Jesus isn’t interested in half-hearted, luke-warm Christians.

Just as it’s dangerous to stand too close to fire, so it can be dangerous to stand close to Jesus. We may have to endure abuse, or strife, or even division from our loved ones when we’re called by Jesus’ name. “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” So Jesus said! (Matt. 10:37,38)

We’ll be tempted to not want to stand too near the fire. We may want to stand back, looking for a religion of comfort – and we won’t be the first ones. The people of Jesus’ day were looking for a messiah that would bring peace by overthrowing Roman rule. But Jesus came to bring peace from God for human hearts and lives – a peace far greater than mere civil tranquility. There is no easy peace from Jesus. The cross made that clear.

Jesus said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

There it is – that’s today’s Gospel lesson. Did you hear the Good News? It’s there! It just doesn’t jump out at us like it does sometimes.

You see, Jesus came to bring peace by taking away sin and guilt on the cross. So right away there was division because most people refused to have their sin and guilt removed by the cross. People fought the cross, just as some accepted it. Jesus knew that would happen, and said that was what He came to bring on earth: division. It’s better that some accept what He did on the cross, than that all the earth should perish in its sin! As He speaks of His coming death on the cross – His coming baptism of fire – He uses the same word that he will later speak in triumph from the cross. He said He was distressed until “it is completed.” And when His work on the cross is completed, He says, “It is finished!” Same word! And nothing greater has ever been accomplished than that which was finished – completed – on the cross!

Jesus had finished His work of redemption. The Lamb of God had made His great sacrifice for the world. Our great substitute had paid the great price of ransom for our souls.

An unknown poet penned some words that tell of a sinner who came to realize what Jesus has done for us:

Under the Law, with its ten-fold lash,

Learning, alas, how true –

That the more I tried

The sooner I died,

While the Law cried,


Hopelessly still did the battle rage,

“Oh, wretched man,” my cry –

And deliverance sought

By some deeds wrought

While my soul cried,


Then came a day when my struggles ceased,

And trembling in every limb,

At the foot of a tree

Where one died for me,

I sobbed,


Here, then, is the Good News: There is nothing for us to do to finish the work that our Lord Jesus perfected at the cross. He kindled the fire and accomplished His baptism. There is nothing for us to do for our salvation from sin and guilt, but to fall on our knees and receive the Savior and His completed work of grace.

Have you done it? If not, will you do it? It is finished!


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