“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Jesus has fire to cast – will it be good news fire or bad? He speaks of the baptism of His death and how pressed He is to see it through to its completion. He speaks of bringing division instead of peace – families divided because of Him. Not exactly the sort of gentle Jesus we like to hear about it, is it? Not exactly the “all is well with you,” “don’t worry be happy,” “no disaster will come near you” religion that is peddled today in the name of God is it?
In today’s OT reading, the Lord contrasts His Word with the false hope of the prosperity preachers of his day. “Is not my Word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” Fire burns and destroys, but it also renews and refines. The brush fires that plague us each summer destroy trees and homes, but they also renew the forests and cause seeds to sprout. Fire destroys the dross, but it refines and purifies gold and silver. There is the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gemorrah and the threat of the unending fire of Gehenna. Law fire.
Yet there is also the fire of the burning bush of Sinai, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites, Pentecost fire, Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit’s fire. Gospel fire. The fire that Jesus is eager to cast on the earth is the fire of His Baptism. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” said John the Baptizer pointing to Jesus. That is the fire of Pentecost, which like the burning bush, burned but did not burn up, illuminated but did not consume.
But for that fire to be kindled there must be a sacrifice, a whole burnt offering, a death. Not just any death, but the death of Jesus Himself, the Son of God in the flesh. He alone can kindle this fire; He alone can die for you, and He is totally focused on bringing it to completion. The word in this morning’s reading is translated “distressed” but that doesn’t quite convey the essence. “Totally focused,” “intensely driven” would be more the gist of it. Jesus is completely focused on saving you together with the whole world – “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame.” He had one purpose in coming – to strike a fire in the darkness to bring light and life to all by dying and rising, and nothing could deter Jesus from that path from His baptism to His cross.
When Jesus was baptized, John was outraged “You have it all wrong, cousin. Backwards. I should be baptized by you, not the other way around.” But Jesus insisted; He demanded it. “Let it be now, John. It is proper for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is the way – Jesus stands in the place of sinners, baptized as a sinner and put on a road that leads straight to a death on the cross. And He is compelled until He can cry out in His death “it is finished.”
In that death, there is Gospel fire, Pentecost fire, the fire of God’s passion to save fallen humanity. Jesus was driven to bring that kind of fire to the earth. In that death there is a peace that surpasses our understanding, a peace that the world cannot give us, a peace that comes from sins washed away, from sinners justified to live before God clothed in a righteousness not their own, a peace that comes from freedom from sin, death, the condemnation of the Law.
But we expect something else, don’t we? Something different, something more. Something more suited to our suburban life and its trials. We want peace, yes, but peace on our terms. Couldn’t we just get along kind of peace. The people in Jeremiah’s day didn’t want to listen to what Jeremiah had to say. Who wants to hear about coming death and destruction and seventy years of exile in Babylon? We plug our ears to that kind of preaching.
We want something other than a cross. It’s amazing how much of Christianity is willing to shove the cross of Jesus aside for “more important things,” “more relevant things,” “things that make a difference in my life.” We already the know the old, old story, so why bother repeating it? We need to move on to bigger and better things, right?
Well, not the way the preacher to the Hebrews puts it. Faith is myopic, tunnel-visioned, narrow, focused. Like a marathon runner zeroing in on the finish line, straining forward, not looking down, or back, or to the side. You know what happens to runners who look anywhere but to the finish line? They trip over their own shoelaces and pull up short of the finish.
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Look to Jesus, the One who died and rose again. Look to Jesus, the One who endured the cross with your sin to save you. Look to Jesus, the way a runner looks to the finish line, and don’t take the eyes of your faith off of Jesus. Keep everything else in the periphery of your visual field; the center belongs to Jesus. And without Jesus in the center, nothing else will be in focus.
Now this isn’t some Lazyboy reclinder kind of faith that puts its feet up, clicks on the TV, and says, “Jesus did it all for me, so I ain’t gotta do nothing.” This is a race not a slumber party. And you’re in the race, not in the grandstands. The life of faith is not a spectator sport where you admire the running of others. You have your race to run, and it is uniquely yours to run. No one else can do it for you. In the grandstands are all those who have gone before you, those who endured in the faith, who trusted the promise of God in Christ to their dying breath, who clung to the promise even when it appeared that God had failed, who didn’t even receive the promise in this life but hung on to it anyway for no other reason that God is true to His Word.
There is Abraham, cheering us on. Father Abraham, who was told by God that he would be the father of nations, and when his son Isaac finally miraculously appeared in the world, Sarah was old enough to be a great grandmother, God tells Abraham to take the knife and offer his only son, the son of the promise, on an altar with fire. And what did Abraham do? He trusted God, that even if Isaac was dead, God could raise him from the dead, which in effect He did, providing a substitute sacrifice.
There is Isaac, who trusted the promise of God and blessed his sons on the basis of that promise. We have Jacob, an old and nearly blind man, crossing his arms over the heads of Joseph’s sons and blessing them as his own, trusting God’s promise that they would be a great nation, and that the younger brother Ephraim would be greater than the older brother Menasseh, showing again, like Jacob and his older brother Esau, that the promise comes by gift and not by birthright.
There Moses’ parents who trusted God and disobeyed the king’s order to expose their infant son. And Moses, who chose to be identified with his own enslaved people rather than live in the luxury of Pharaoh’s household. In trust, Moses bore the reproach of Christ and exhibited the life of Christ in his own life, standing up to the king of Egypt, leading God’s people through the sea and the wilderness, keeping the Passover with the sprinkled blood that protected the first-born from death.
There are the Israelites who stood before a wall of water and in trust walked through it to freedom and life. There is Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, who trusted the promise of the Lord’s protection as the walls of her city came tumbling down.
They are cheering us on, like a relay race team in which the baton has come to us and now it’s our turn to run our lap while they cheer from the sidelines.
You know how it is with runners. They run aerodynamically, sleekly, lightly. Every ounce of excess weight is dropped. “Set aside every weight,” Hebrews says. Whatever gets in the way of trust in Jesus. Consider it dead weight. “And sin which clings so closely.” The preacher to the Hebrews recognizes that we always have the dead weight of sin clinging closely. That is the reality of this race. But we need not run as though we had two 50 pound bags of guilt on our shoulders. Jesus didn’t die on a cross so we could bear the burden. Unload it. Confess it, be forgiven of it, live in freedom. Sin is dead weight. Let Jesus take it away.
And run. Run the race of faith with joy, with exhilaration, with hope. Focus on Jesus. His joy was to save you. Your joy is to receive the salvation He won for you, to be welcomed at the end of your race into the open arms of the Savior, to have Him put the victor’s wreath on your head. And when you get weary or become discouraged, fix your faith-eyes on Jesus and let everything else recede into the periphery where it belongs. Jesus will sustain you; He will give you strength; He will see you through from death to life.
The apostle Paul wrote these words from a dark Roman dungeon as he awaited his own impending execution:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.
He who runs thus, runs well. Grant this, Lord, to us all.
In the name of Jesus,