A Sermon from Sherborne

Bringing fire to the earth

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on Sunday 18 August 2019 for Trinity 9 by The Reverend Christopher Huitson.


A boy asked his father what Armageddon meant but his father did not know and could not help which made the boy rather cross. His father related the story to a friend saying “I don’t know why he was so cross; it’s not as though it’s the end of the world!”

There have been a number of occasions, so scientists have deduced, when our world did come close to ending. For instance, about 66 million years ago a huge asteroid or comet, tens of miles in diameter collided with this planet in the area of the Yucatan peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico. It crashed into the earth and produced a vast crater estimated to be over 90 miles wide and 12 miles deep. It would have produced a great fire ball and sent so much debris into the atmosphere that the climate was altered for many years as sunlight was blocked by dust. It is estimated that at least 75% of all plant and animal life became extinct. This was a fiery destruction on a grand scale though human beings hadn’t evolved at that time so there were no people to observe that event or its aftermath.

Was this the kind of thing Jesus had in mind when he said the words which began today’s Gospel reading in St. Luke? “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”?

Well I don’t think so, though the gospels certainly record sayings of Jesus which talk about destruction though usually of Jerusalem rather than the whole world: “When you see Jerusalem encircled by armies, then you may be sure that her devastation is near.” But he does also say things which some have interpreted as pointing to the end of the world and such ideas find amplification in the Book Revelation. But what he has to say about fire in the verses we heard read for our gospel today is rather enigmatic and his words can be interpreted in a number of ways.

In the Old Testament, fire could be an earthly sign of the presence of God, a theophany. So, Moses is brought into God’s presence by means of the burning bush and the wanderings of the Children of Israel after the Exodus are accompanied by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But the symbolism was not to be confused with God’s real nature and so Elijah, when he meets God, but is protected from the full force of his presence which would be too awesome for a mere human being to endure, finds God not in the destructive gale nor in the earthquake nor in the raging fire but in the still small voice, words difficult to translate so that the revised English bible puts it as “a faint murmuring sound”.

Then again Jesus could be talking about the fire of divine judgement. Frequently in prophetic and apocalyptic writings fire and sword are linked together. St. John the Baptist prophesied that the Messiah would come, who would baptise with the spirit and burn up the chaff of the threshing floor? It was here, at harvest time, where the mixture of grain and chaff was thrown into the air so that the heavy grain fell to the floor while the debris, the chaff, was blown away by the wind. This was swept up and burnt. Fire was easily understood as standing for judgement and destruction. You will remember James and John faced with an inhospitable Samaritan village asking Jesus whether he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and consume the unhelpful villagers. They would have thought of passages from the O.T. when fire was an agent of punishment and destruction.  But Jesus rebukes them and they move on to another more welcoming village.

Or you might think of the tongues of fire of Pentecost cleansing and empowering those upon whom the fire rested. Here the fire is not presented as being destructive but is in parallel to the wind as a sign of power and motivation. So, this fire that Jesus came to cast on the earth seems most likely to be a fire of cleansing rather than an apocalyptic tool of destruction heralding the end of all things. Certainly, Jesus was prepared to challenge the Temple authorities and symbolically cleanses the Temple, not with fire, but by throwing down the tables of the money changers and sellers of sacrificial doves.

St. Luke links this casting of fire with a saying about baptism. Jesus says that he has a baptism to be baptized with and we assume that Jesus was thinking of his approaching clash with the authorities which would result in his crucifixion. The idea of baptism here is as a description of catastrophe. This would be a new use of the word to baptise which has no precedent in classical Greek nor in the Greek version of the Old Testament though that is not to imply that Jesus might not invent a new understanding of baptism. You will, however, immediately think of the time when James and John asked to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his glory as recorded in St. Mark’s gospel. Jesus rejects their request by saying “can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” They say that they can and Jesus tells them that they will indeed face similar trials and a martyr’s death but that what they ask for is not in his gift.

The baptism referred to in St. Mark is paralleled by the cup which Jesus will drink and again we remember the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before Jesus was arrested where Jesus prays that he might be spared having to drink the cup. This is the cup which symbolised Jesus’ destiny which we know was his death as a sacrifice.

So we see that Jesus was using baptism in a new and unusual sense and so was talking about death and martyrdom.

The gospels chart a progression in the life of Jesus and this period of Jesus’ ministry is a lot darker than the earlier days of parables and healing miracles and the people hanging on his words.  It seems that times were changing and indeed Jesus reminds people that they can predict the next day’s weather from the wind direction or cloud formations but can’t interpret what was happening at that time and how things were going to turn out. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers” but now he sees himself as becoming a divisive figure not of his own volition but because human nature is such that people take sides.

The Old Testament certainly placed great emphasis on peace amongst family and friends and presented harmony in the family as characteristic of the age of salvation. But the prophets also saw that there was going to be a time of upheaval before the age of salvation arrived. Part of that upheaval would be a corruption in society such that a person could no longer trust his closest friends or family members. Conflict in families would be a precursor of the age to come. The prophet, Micah uses words which Jesus may have been half quoting: “Son maligns father, daughter rebels against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law, and a person’s enemies are found under his own roof.”  So it is that Jesus warns people that his summons to discipleship will produce divisions even in families – not that he wants that to happen – it’s just that human nature being what it is even close relations will disagree evenly violently. But there is still hope, for Jesus sees that these divisions produced by his summons to discipleship are themselves the preliminaries of salvation.

The fire purges what needs to be cleansed and Jesus drains the cup and is baptised with sacrificial death.  He endures loss of trust amongst his closest companions with betrayal by Judas, denial by Peter and desertion by the other disciples. They have all shared many meals with Jesus including that very special Last Supper and the social code of that society was that you would support and fight to protect a person with whom you had broken bread. But Jesus sees that the death he dies and the sacrifice he makes is not least on behalf of his followers and friends. When they make an attempt to fight those who had come to arrest Jesus, he immediately puts a stop to it. He alone has to face arrest, trial and death.

But that was not the end; there is hope. These dark times are followed by the joy of the resurrection and that gift Jesus shares with us. Our time on this earth may be a relatively easy path or one that is hard or hazardous. But Jesus has trodden the road before us and he will bring us with him to the glory of paradise.

The Reverend Christopher Huitson 18/08/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne