Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Playing with fire"

Message preached August 17, 2003
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Luke 12:49-53

Order of Worship

            A dry summer, an empty pack of matches, a dozen or more strewn across the ground behind the cabin, the ashen sticks forming a dark design on the red clay. "Who was playing with these matches," the parents asked. "I donít know," I replied....

            The church is very much like a child playing with matches. Around us the land lies dry and barren. And we sit behind the cabin - so to speak - with matchbook in hand, and watch each match flare into life before tossing it into the air, watching its trail of smoke careen to the ground. Playing with fire...

            Children are fascinated by fire. Build a campfire and there is entertainment for an evening - little ones discovering new ways to let fire dance, and older ones searching for ways to keep them from it. Children are fascinated by fire. Perhaps itís because fire is so unpredictable. Perhaps itís because children are still discovering their personal boundaries. Perhaps itís because fire and children are a lot alike - unpredictable; burning all the way to the boundaries....

            Godís children are fascinated by Godís fire. Perhaps itís because Godís fire is so unpredictable. Perhaps itís because Godís children are discovering their boundaries. Perhaps itís because Godís fire and Godís children are a lot alike - unpredictable; burning all the way to the boundaries.

            "Godís word is like fire," said the prophet Jeremiah (23:29). "I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled," said Jesus (Luke 12:49). There is a part of us that is frightened by these words. They verge on being the ravings of a lunatic. Fire is dangerous, after all. It destroys. It gives pain. It takes away what is meaningful to us. Only a lunatic would speak of casting fire upon the earth.

            Godís fire is a fine topic of discussion, but weíd much rather speak of Godís love or of Godís peace. Love and peace are predictable, we know their boundaries, or so we think. How many hymns sing of Godís love? How many portray Godís peace? In comparison to these, how many hymns even mention Godís fire? There is at least one in our hymnal, we sang it this morning for only the second time in ten years. Perhaps you can think of other hymns or songs which tell of this fire of God. We sing of love and peace because we often see them as predictable. They have boundaries. ...or do they?

            Jesus asked his disciples, "Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided, father against son and son against father..." This is a dangerous piece of scripture, wouldnít you say? To play with it is like playing with fire. It can be taken in all sorts of ways, and it probably has been since the day Jesus spoke it.

            For us who believe in the importance of the family, this scripture is like fire, for it speaks of division, pain, and brokenness. We arenít particularly thrilled by it. Weíd rather hear about peace and love. I wonder, though, how a child might hear this scripture. Yes, it could be a bit frightening - a family divided against itself. Thatís precisely the wrong atmosphere in which to raise a child, isnít it? Children need stability, after all. But, beyond the fear - how might a child react to this scripture? Perhaps - just perhaps - would he or she respond: "That sounds like me" ?

            At its best, a family is a stable unit. It is stable because it is predictable, at least in theory. Of course, when a new member enters, the family becomes less stable as it adjusts to all the changes required to make room for that new member. Things become less predictable. A child entering a family has, in some way, to create space for himself or herself.

            I remember my children nursing at Karenís side, while we both were in bed. Some of them (I donít recall which of the four, Karen probably does) would lie there with legs and hands flying everywhere while nursing. I found myself somewhat pushed to the edge of the bed. The distance between myself and Karen was greater, filled by this new family member.

            Aside from nursing, adjustments are necessary when a little one enters a family. Yes, some changes are easier than others, right? On the whole, however, things become less predictable. After all, from the minute they are born children seek out their boundaries, where they belong. As the grow, they will sometimes burn all the way to the edge. Ask a child about someone who brings fire and division to a family, and she or he might reply: "that sounds like me."

            Ah, no wonder Jesus said, "You must become as little children" (Matthew 18:1-7). Indeed, children are like fire - they are unpredictable. They burn all the way to the boundaries. In a sense, they bring division. However, woA Bible Society in Turkey staff member takes the opportunity of sharing God's Word with one of the visitors to the Bible Society stand at the Antalya Arts and Craft fair. Antalya, Turkey. Photo: Bible Society in Turkeyuld anyone really say that the family is worse off because of them? No way! If the truth be told, it is this very fire that empowers a family to creatively be a family....

            Jesus came to bring fire. Thatís what he said. His fire can be unpredictable. It can burn all the way to the boundaries of how we are accustomed to do things. The Word of God causes a bit of instability as it creates space for God to dwell in us as it burns. "Godís word is like fire," Jeremiah said. Do you ever think of the Bible you hold in your hands as a fire? Perhaps we should wear gloves when we read from it to remind us that these words can burn. I know, it might be difficult to turn the pages with gloves on, but so often we approach Godís Word as if it were "ho hum," and "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." Maybe thatís due, in part, to preachers like myself who try to make it palatable to our modern senses. The problem is, thereís a lot of stuff in here that leads to heartburn. Jeremiah was right. Godís word is like a fire, but thatís not all.

            Remember the "tongues as of fire" which rested upon the disciples of Jesus on the day the church was born (Acts 2:1-4)? The Holy Spirit is also like a fire - a fire which burns away that which is not necessary, that which gets in the way of growth. If you will, think of a forest which has become overgrown. Itís part of the cycle God built into the natural order of things that wildfire periodically come and rejuvenate the forest and cleanse it so that new growth could rise from the ashes. In fact, some trees require fire for its cones to open and release the seeds of a new generation.

            Godís Spirit is a fire, even as it is a wind which blows away all that is stale and breathes into us the "air," if you will, we need to live. As a fire, the Holy Spirit not only burns away the "dead branches" that litter our lives and inhibit our growth, it also empowers our journey with Jesus. The human body burns calories as it functions, doing what God created it to do. Think of the Spirit as that "burning" which happens in the body of Christ, the church. Yes, the human body continues to burn calories even when it sits still, but too many of us eat more than we burn. As a result, we get fat. The church in North America is in danger of doing the same. The Holy Spirit lights a fire under the posterior of Christís body, and gets us into motion.

            Now, I know that when the church is burning calories, there is always the opportunity for disagreement and dissension. People on fire for the Lord are not always on the same page. Over the years the church of Jesus Christ has split apart in more ways than we can count. Sometimes it seems like the very thing which should unite us - Godís Spirit and Godís Word - is what divides us. This is where we can grow afraid of fire in a spiritual sense. After all, this fire is unpredictable. It can burn all the way to the boundaries of our relationships in Christ.

            Sounds like my family. Children grow like wildfire, we often say. That statement is truer than we may care to admit, for it doesnít just concern the literal inches that they can add to their height in the course of a year. No, as they grow, their intellect, their emotions - or, to put it into biblical terms, their heart, soul, and mind are being fired up by God. Is the result predictable? No. Unless, of course, weíre talking about their ultimate destiny - their destination in God. But even that involves choice on the part of each growing person.

            Fire is not necessarily a bad thing, my friends, whether weíre talking about the family or the church. A lack of fire may indicate that we are taking each other for granted, a peace that really is not peace. In a deeper sense, it may indicate that we are taking God for granted. Now, please, Iím not making a case for us to bicker and argue and divide. Believe me, thereís more than enough of that in this world. In fact, when we live out our faith, when we follow Jesus, the response of those around us will not necessarily be - "Wow, look at those Christians. Arenít they cool?" The reality may be just the opposite. In days not that long ago, and in some places even today, being on fire for the Lord can get you killed. When Jesus spoke of this fire, he wasnít just whistliní dixie. It led him to a cross ... and beyond.

            No, Iím not making a case for us to bicker and argue and divide. As I said, thereís more than enough of that in this world. Iím just saying that fiery times can be the result of Godís activity in our midst. It could well be a sign that the church is alive and well, and that the family is adjusting to Godís love and Godís peace.

            For you see, the matchbook of Godís word is labeled "love and peace." Open it up, though, and there are match-sticks inside. Godís love burns brightly. Godís peace is like a flame. The Holy Spirit is alive and active. And we, if you will, are all children playing with fire. May God set you aflame. Amen.

online resources for  Luke 12:49-53

For commentaries consulted, see Luke.


©2003 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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