This is one of those passages in the New Testament, which gives one pause; here is a Christ we can truly identify with, someone whose humanity seems to overshadow his divinity. Here is Jesus Christ declaring his impatience at the slow results of his ministry, peevish in his impatience and eager for some result. “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!” Hardly the gentle shepherd we prefer, the one we hold in our imagination of who Christ was and is.
So, what’s the deal here? Why is Christ seemingly acting, well, like we might if our plans don’t work out in a timely manner? Why does he seem to be in such a hurry to bring fire and division into the world? And where has our “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” gone? If we learn nothing more from the Old Testament and its prophets, we must learn this…prophesizing good news can seem like bad news far too often. It is not only a dangerous business but it can also lead to the frustration anyone of us might feel if those we hope to teach fail to learn. I suspect Jesus had reached that level of frustration; even his disciples could be and often were, obtuse, confused by the messages Christ was giving them.
We are taught at a young age that patience is a virtue, but some of us aren’t very good at receiving or retaining the lesson. I’ve never been a patient person, as some will verify. For example, the other day Pete Schilling, seeing me come into the sanctuary said, “Do you have a minute? I want to show you something.” I waited while Pete did a few tweaks on the camera he had mounted on a beam, which was projecting an image of the chancel area onto a television screen. When he didn’t come down the ladder right away, I assumed I’d seen what he wanted me to see so I said something along the lines of “Is that what you wanted to show me?” Pete responded, “No, wait a minute…have patience.” Interesting that my impatience was later echoed in the Luke passage by Jesus who probably suffered far too often the question: “Is that what you wanted to show us, to teach us, to have us learn and do? Is that it?” Those who hold a vision often have to wait for the rest of us to catch on and to catch up.
And, perhaps this is the key to this alarming scripture. Christ’s words are not intended to be prescriptive-I will do– but rather descriptive –this is just how it is. Christ is naming reality…the reality of what his ministry has wrought among people…people who don’t share our faith and even those who claim to be Christian, like us, yet who act and think so differently from us. Who are at times so violently contrary to us in attitude and in action. We could without much difficulty name the way our faith has pulled us apart as much as how it has brought us together under this one Lord, One Savior, we all claim to serve. Conservatives battle liberal reformers and our politics has been sullied by the fires of disagreement as to what it might mean to be a country under God, one God, the God. Religious language, rationality and social politics are everywhere even though there are those who have dismissed the language and actions of faith as unworkable for their lives. Though, many, and I am one, ask the question; “How far can we get from our source of life?” It’s a question I long to ask an atheist who is in the midst of distress…wouldn’t a faith in God help? It helps me.
Walter Wink, theologian and author suggests that:
“What killed Jesus was not irreligion, but religion itself; not lawlessness, but precisely the law; not anarchy but the upholders of order. It was not the bestial but those considered best who crucified the one in whom the divine Wisdom was visibly incarnate. And because he was not only innocent, but the very embodiment of true religion, true law and true order, this victim exposed their violence for what it was: not the defense of society but an attack against God.”
Christ spoke the truth when he named the pain, the dissent and the disruption his coming had caused and would continue to cause humanity. Battles would wage among the bigger fields between nations and faith groups, but battles and disagreement would also surface on the smaller, more intimate familial fields those that exist between brothers and sisters, between husbands and wives, between children and their parents. So this Christ who claimed to come to bring peace realized the message would not be easily swallowed. There would be division and surely, in our day, we see the truth of this as one Christian denomination battles another on the topics of who should sit in the White House, who can enter and stay in our country and who has the right to marry and to whom. It is astonishing how many ways the same set of words in scripture can be interpreted to justify such different opinions and rationalize such opposing actions. This is how Preacher Kent Edwards sees it:
Jesus is the great polarizer. It’s as if all of humanity were iron filings laid out on a sheet of paper, and Jesus is the magnet. Every single filing lines up either with the North Pole or the South Pole. Every person is either attracted to or repelled by the person of Jesus Christ, because he’s a magnet. The power and influence of his very being cannot be ignored.
I would agree. Even the atheists of the world feel a need to argue against God and Christ. How else can they define them selves? So, perhaps there is no sin in impatience if such impatience is leading to a hoped for better something in this world. It was Christ’s hope and his vision – a world where God’s love and truth would not be overcome by the divisions between his children but would ultimately be a means by which each of us might find our way home again. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were kindled!” Should this be our prayer too? Perhaps…Amen.