Saturday, June 25, 2016

Calling Down Fire

Luke 9:51-62
Ordinary 13
June 26, 2016
William G. Carter

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is on the go. He “sets his face like flint” to proclaim the message of God all the way to Jerusalem. It is his journey to cross, resurrection, and ascension as the sovereign Lord, and he is going to enlist disciples along the way. Somebody offers to join up, and Jesus says he has “let goods and kindred go.” He invites somebody else to join him, but the funeral of the man’s father causes him to stall. A third would-be disciple wants to join Jesus, and the Lord’s call is so clear that it comes before that person can even say goodbye to his family.

These are the demands of discipleship. If you are going to follow Jesus, you have to do it now. There will be no delays, no distractions, no holding back. As Jesus has committed himself to do his work, he expects the same dedication from those who are going with him. It takes clarity and commitment to follow Jesus and do his work in the world.

And even if you have that clarity and commitment, you still might get it wrong. James and John from the inner circle get it really wrong. They see how a certain village is full of people who want nothing to do with Jesus. It offends them. It angers them. So they say, “Lord, how about if we call down some fire from heaven to blast them away?” What a terrible thing to say!

Now these are James and John, the two fishermen who have left behind their nets to follow him around the country side. Remember them? According to the Bible, Jesus nicknamed them the "Boanerges," or "the Sons of Thunder." That's what they were - all thunder and no lightning, all mouth and no muscle, always going around half-cocked, ready to shoot themselves in the foot. One translator calls them not only the “Sons of Thunder,” but "the Sons of Commotion." James and John were headstrong and outspoken.

“How about if we call down some fire from heaven to away these Samaritans?” Now, why would anybody ever think that a village of Samaritans would ever welcome a Jew like Jesus? Jews and Samaritans had hated one another for centuries. The purebred Jew had no time for the mixed Samaritan blood. The memory of a Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim was an affront to the official Jewish temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritan mistranslation of the Jewish scripture was repulsive. It would be risky for Jesus to stop there anyway, which may be why he sent an advance team to check it out.

Apart from the racism that probably infected that situation, the Samaritans have broken the unwritten rule of the Middle Eastern world: they are guilty of bad hospitality. If a stranger stumbles into your midst, what do you do? The virtuous person opens the home, serves a meal, and provides a bed for rest. That's hospitality. In the Middle East, you don't offer hospitality because you like the stranger. You offer it because it is good manners.

But these Samaritans tell Jesus and his entourage to keep moving. They can see his face is set for Jerusalem, so they really don’t want him in their town. He is a Jew, his people are Jewish, and Samaritans don’t have anything to do with Jews. Jesus is now dissed by the Samaritans, and James and John take that as a personal insult. So they say, “Lord, let’s call down some fire from heaven to blast them away.”

So what’s all this stuff about fire from heaven? Well, years ago, the prophet Elijah burned up some Samaritans by calling on God to send down great balls of fire. He was a strong and somewhat ornery prophet, so when the king of Samaria sent an army to give Elijah a hard time, he let them have it, not once but twice (2 Kings 1:1-18).

And as everybody in the Gospel of Luke knows, Jesus is another great and holy prophet. Now the Samaritans are giving him a hard time. Never mind it’s nine hundred years later, James and John want doom and gloom, all in the name of God, you understand. They believe in their hearts that anybody who stands up to the prophet of God should be barbecued to a crackly crunch. It makes you wonder, as an aside, what they think is going to happen when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem.

But Jesus won’t have any of it, not at all. He refused to blast anybody away. It’s not his style. He’s been feeding the hungry, lifting up the poor, healing the sick, and teaching the simple-minded … like these disciples, who don’t seem to get it. It doesn’t matter that they have traveled with him from the beginning, doesn’t matter that they have seen signs and wonders first hand, it doesn’t matter that they saw him on the mountain, glowing like the sun and talking with the prophet Elijah. They are offended at these Samaritans and they want them destroyed. Jesus says no.

No way. He’s not going to blast anybody if they turn him away. That’s not the plan of his kingdom, and I think we can take some comfort in that. You may have noticed the last time you skipped out on church, he didn’t call down a fireball to blast you. Or the last time you played tennis on a Sunday morning when you could have been singing the hymns, he didn’t hide behind a tree and blow the ball back into your face.

In fact, at a time when Jesus is collecting disciples on the way to his cross, here are two of his closest disciples who are righteously indignant at a town of Samaritans. They can say they are offended at the racism, but they have turned a blind eye to their own ongoing racism. And their answer is to call for a horrific act of violence, an act of genocide, all in the name of religion – when it is clear they don’t have a clue about what kind of religion Christ is trying to teach them. And Jesus says no.

If they had been paying attention when he spoke a few chapters before, they would heard him say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-28) But they weren’t listening. And if they were, they probably said Jesus was being foolish and unrealistic. The world says you’re supposed to hate your enemies and blast them back into the sand. But Jesus says no.

If they were listening, these disciples would have heard Jesus tell the truth about God, that God “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish,” and as a reflection of that grace, he says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (6:35-36). Be merciful, he says. Withhold the retaliation. Restrain the violence. This is the clear Christian teaching from Jesus himself.

At the possibility of violence, he says, “No! Put your weapon away.” (22:51). When he is nailed to the cross and insulted by his own people, he does not call down fire, but says, “Father, forgive them, they are ignorant. They don’t know what they are doing” (23:34).

James and John, don’t you understand? The world is not saved by violence. The world is saved because God doesn’t give it back the violence it deserves. God holds back because God forgives. That’s called salvation. Heaven is restrained, thanks to the mercy of Jesus Christ. That’s why we baptize people: to teach them that this is the way God is.

James and John want fire. They aren’t alone in that, you know. Every day, there’s somebody in the news making a lot of noise about getting rid of this group of people or that group of people. Sometimes they plot in sleeper cells, waiting to strike. Sometimes they run for public office. Sometimes they hide out in churches.

I’ll never forget the dinner party in my first congregation. The clerk of session was barbecuing chicken, started to complain about the world, and then came up with an inventive way to remove all the people in the world whom he didn’t like. “Let’s just line them up in front of a ditch, gun them down, and bring in the bulldozer to push dirt over top.” He said this, as he brushed the chicken with barbecue sauce.

Nobody said anything, but I couldn’t let it go. “You know,” I said, “that method was already tried and it didn’t work.”  He looked up with enthusiasm, “It was? When?” And I said, “Nazi Germany.” He looked at me with fury, told me to leave his house. The following day, he put a letter of resignation in my mailbox and vowed never to return to church. He didn’t, until the Sunday after I moved up here and started to work.  Oh well.

Jesus said, “No.” They wanted fire and he said no.

Luke says it was more than a simple “no.” Jesus turned and rebuked them. That’s a super-charged word in the Gospel of Luke. Every time Jesus "rebukes," he confronts the forces of evil. Rebuking is exorcism talk. It is confrontational language that clearly draws a line between what is holy and what is hellish. In Luke’s book, Jesus rebukes evil spirits that drive people out of their minds. He rebukes fierce forces of nature that threaten human survival. He rebukes diseases of the body that damage and destroy.

Here, on the road to Jerusalem, in a Samaritan town where he is not welcome, Jesus rebukes two of his closest friends. In their wish to call down fire, James and John align themselves with the very evil that Jesus has come to confront. So what does he do? He begins his journey to Jerusalem by performing an exorcism on two of his disciples. As he moves toward the city that will act violently on him, he will not take anybody who wants to react with violence of their own. That is not the way of God, or Christ, or the kingdom of heaven.

"Lord, can we call down some fire from heaven?" No, no, a thousand times no. I know James and John must feel frustrated, angry, and rejected. Walking with Jesus, they are in good company. But by the time they get to Jerusalem, there is the promise of another kind of fire. In Jerusalem, Jesus will die, be raised, and ascend into heaven. And his very last words to James and John are these: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria." (Acts 1:8)

The fire will come, but it’s a different kind of fire. It will be the fire of Christ’s own Spirit, the fire that makes us more like him. It’s the fire that pushes us beyond all racial boundaries, so that we would “proclaim repentance and forgiveness to all nations (24:47)." It’s not the fire of destruction, but the fire of mercy. It’s not the fire of disagreement, but the fire of forbearance. It’s not the fire of self-righteousness, but the purging, purifying fire of the Holy Spirit.

If we’re going to ask heaven to send down fire, let’s pray not for the fires of arrogance, but the fire of God’s love. This is the fire that God gives to consume us, and when it does, we will never feel the need to retaliate, judge, or boast. For if we are filled with love, we will truly be Jesus’ disciples. And we will be able to walk in step with him all the way to the cross.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

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