Sermon by Revd Canon Myra Shackley
At first sight today’s gospel seems frighteningly appropriate for this summer of record temperatures and unprecedented wildfires. Entire regions of our beautiful world consumed by fire over the last few months. The destruction of 1000 year old trees, uncontrollable fires in our own backyard on the moors and immensely destructive crop fires at a time of food anxiety. It all seems terribly biblical, redolent of God’s judgement. And it is a dead ringer for yet another sermon on the evils of climate change.
But I’m going to take a different tack today and play with the metaphor that Jesus is using, that of fire.’ I come to bring FIRE to the earth’, he says. And not just any fire, but the consuming fire of God. A holy fire which will purify the world and its peoples, burning away evil, cleansing in preparation for the emergence of new, green, growth.
This is not a wildly cheerful gospel passage. Speaking as it does of division and conflict, we would hardly expect it to be, as Jesus was talking in the context of his final journey to Jerusalem with a palpably rising sense of urgency and an underlying frustration. There was so much that the disciples didn’t understand. The time of his death, which he describes as the baptism with which he is to be baptised, is very near. The Jesus we see in this passage seems out of character with the Jesus who loves and heals and cares for the poor. His rant sounds more like John the Baptist than the Beatitudes.
But we need to focus and understand the core message here – he has not come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote. He has come to set in motion God’s radical plan for the world. To purge it, inflame it, cleanse it. Make a new start, a new covenant. The kind of stress that Jesus is under is not anxiety, in the sense that we often speak of stress today, but a total absorption in his mission. And that mission is to redeem a broken world and initiate a new one. It will never be a world without divisions, as we are only human. We know that we can still expect division in our communities on account of Christ (the recent Lambeth conference has shown us that). But we are called to expose the follies and incongruities of a generation which can (for instance) forecast the weather for days ahead through satellite technology but, although we see and know so much, still fail to see in Jesus, and in his message, God’s summons to awake, to ignite, or to die.
Like all people since the beginning of time Jesus’s listeners were obviously keen weather watchers. A west wind off the Mediterranean meant a chance of rain, a south wind from the Negev desert meant it was going to be a scorcher. But although his listeners could read the signs of the weather correctly, they couldn’t read the signs of the times– and despite his preaching and teaching they STILL haven’t realised that these mighty works were a sign and prelude to dramatic change; the start, indeed, of a new world. ‘I come to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus says “and how I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” – a reference, of course, to the ordeal which is to come for him.
We Christians might think of ourselves as water people, for that is our initiation rite, the water of baptism symbolising the washing away of a past life and the start of a new life in Christ. But we are also fire people – the candles on our altar symbolising the presence of the Holy Spirit who came upon the disciples in tongues of fire at Pentecost. The idea of an eternal fire, eternal flame, is as important to us today as it was to our ancestors. Are not our great sporting events, such as the recent Commonwealth Games, initiated by a lighted torch which itself has come from an eternal flame which never goes out? The symbolism of fire which Jesus is using would have been familiar to his listeners from the eternal fire on the outer altar of the Temple, a reminder to the Jews of the column of fire which had guided their ancestors through the wilderness.
Fire can symbolise a lot of different things – destruction, purification, renewal, but also an unchanging desire to kindle a light in eternal darkness. Some elemental need, just the same as that experienced by our most distant ancestors, compels us to kindle fire in the night whether in firepit, barbecue or bonfire. We are drawn by the flames, by the light combating the darkness. Fire saved your life against a cave bear and lit the night. Fire protected against evil. Making fire from nothing is still an act full of magic. And speaking as the most reluctant and truculent Pixie in my Brownie pack as a child I can still remember the wonder of being taught how to make a campfire. And I can still do it, even using the two sticks method….
Hazard a guess at the fastest-growing type of fundraising event, pre-Covid, in the UK. You won’t believe it but the answer is firewalking, the act of walking barefoot over hot coals at 650C. It used to be used in corporate and team-building seminars and self-help workshops as a confidence-building exercise but is becoming increasingly popular for charity fundraising. And the biggest customer for charity firewalking events in the UK? The NHS (numerous hospitals and related charities). You couldn’t make it up.
It is not something I’ve ever tried but apparently the secret to avoiding serious burns is to walk steadily forward with courage and commitment. Stop and you are burned. And perhaps there is a metaphor here, too, for the Christian life. You need to have the faith which trumps the fear – much like the Israelites in our first reading today crossing the dry bed of the Red Sea, or the great heroes of the faith who the writer of Hebrews said through FAITH conquered kingdoms and quenched raging fire.
So at a time when we’ve been thinking of all these fiery images we find ourselves in the quiet, dog days of summer contemplating the start of a new academic year ahead. It might, therefore, be a reasonable time to ask ourselves what part of our old lives we would like to leave behind us this summer. What bad habits might we like to purge away? The passion of faith that becomes certainty? The tolerance that becomes intolerant? The self absorption that obscures the needs of others? The strength of identity that becomes unlistening? The burnout experienced from too many demands made on our time which makes it difficult for us to establish priorities?
Our faith has probably been literally on the back burner over the summer as so much has intervened. But now is the time to go for ignition, now is the time to find our vital spark which will kindle us and light us through the darker times ahead. Because, with apologies to Game of Thrones fans, we all know that winter is coming and we will need all the warmth we can get. But we will also need the fire of the Holy Spirit to see us through, to be our song in the night. We will need GOD’s fire to warm our hands and the Spirit’s light to boost our faith and to comfort our souls. And so it is appropriate to ask ..
Come down O love divine,
Seek thou this soul of mine
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing
O comforter draw near, within my heart appear
And kindle it thy holy flame bestowing