Fire and Rain
Start with the James Taylor song, “Fire and Rain” which is a gentle and mournful song about the end of a relationship.
Fire and Rain are two elements Jesus uses in this passage - which is so hard to hear and interpret. But, unlike Sweet Baby James, Jesus doesn’t sound melancholy and resigned. He sounds cranky and confrontational. This isn’t Jesus, Meek and Mild, that we expect to encounter.
Reminded me of the story about the flight attendent on a Jet Blue flight this week that made the news. Flight attendents are usually so pleasant and cheerful and helpful and encouraging. And they have to be. Even when passengers misbehave, or don’t follow regulations, or are extra demanding, flight attendents have to stay cool. It’s their job. But this guy finally had had it. A passenger pushed him too far, and he lost it - cussed her out and then grabbed a beer and slid down the emergency exit. We don’t want to ride with that guy! and here is Jesus sounded only slightly less exasperated with his followers and the crowd. Is this what flying with Jesus is going to be like? Maybe we should be the ones pulling the escape lever and sliding down out of church, making our escape. (In fact, I really like the image of our nice wide steps out front covered with a big red inflatable slide and the congregation exiting in a hurry.)
But before we do - I think we ought to at least listen to try to hear what this passage is really saying to us: And the first thing to notice is where in the narrative Luke places this exchange. At this point, Jesus has “set his face” towards Jerusalem. He has been preaching forgiveness over vengeance, grace over works, faith and courage rather than fear. And he knows, clearly he knows, that making these choices is going to cost him his life. He knows that the cross awaits him. And yet his disciples lag behind him in understanding in every way. So he tries to bring them to understanding by talking about fire and rain.
First fire. And this is an exchange between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus tells them, I have come to kindle a fire on the earth. Fire is a symbol of God’s presence. When God led Moses and the Hebrew people out of Egypt, he led them with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud during the day. The burning fire, which lit up the night, was a majestic and awe-ful manifestation of the invisible God. God made Himself known in the fire. In the same way, Jesus is the visible presence of the invisible God. He is burning with a passion for God’s will and God’s way. He is the way human beings know God’s way and to follow him is to follow God’s leading.
Jesus knows that his time on earth is limited. And if people are going to follow God, Jesus is going to have to have disciples who are “on fire” for God to lead them when Jesus himself is gone. What Jesus wanted more than anything else was not to have a 120 half committed disciples but Jesus wanted 12 fully committed disciples. Those 12 fully committed disciples would change the world.
And he seems to be working with some pretty wet kindling. The disciples ask dumb questions. They miss the point of his preaching. They put earthly loyalties ahead of total trust in Him.
Two thousand years later, not much has changed. Jesus’ disciples are still smoking and smouldering, but only rarely catching fire. And I’m not talking just about those in the pews. In fact this week a series of articles in the New York Times concerned a phenomenon they called “clergy burnout”. Ministers are leaving their calling in droves, and many answered a survey saying that they are staying only because they don’t have any other way to make a living. My favorite comment on this was by Bill Easum, who has been in the ministry even longer than . . . well, longer than I have. He said, “How is it that so many ministers can be burned out, when most of them have never been on fire?”
This fear of burning people out is something I hear in relation to church work and church workers among folks around here, too. We don’t want to ask people to do too much, or make too much of a commitment to the work of the church because we don’t want them to get “burned out”. We turn down opportunities to serve, to “pace ourselves” because we don’t want to get “burned out”. Meanwhile, the people who work the hardest and most diligently - teaching Sunday School, serving meals, preparing music for worship, calling on neighbors, giving sacrificially, supporting the youth program, the mission work, etc. - seem to reap the greatest blessings. They have a glow about them, when you see them at work. And they get tired. But they don’t get burned out.
Perhaps we should worry less about getting burned out and more about catching fire and actually living out what we say our commitment is to Christ and his mission.
Garth Brooks Refrain:
Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived
If you're standing outside the fire
Jesus said, “Would that the fire were already kindled.” Add these words - in my life. What would it mean for our community and our world if each of us would surrender to the fire of Jesus’ love in our lives? Become totally committed to living the life that he has invited us to share.
As I’ve been thinking about that kind of commitment, I was reminded of a story of what Julius Caesar’s soldiers did when they came to conquer Britain. Do you know that story? The Romans approached the island nation by sea of course. The Brits saw them coming a long way off. They massed in the highlands above the beach and waited to see what would happen. But when the Romans reached the shore, they did something that no one expected, and which showed their commitment to their mission so unmistakably that the Britons were filled with awe and fear. Do you know what they did? They burned their boats. There was no turning back. They were there to conquer or to die.
That’s the kind of burning commitment that Jesus is trying to kindle in his disciples - the kind that says, “I am following you now, Lord. I will not turn back. When struggles come, when difficulties arise, when other priorities vie for my attention and my loyalty, I am still going to follow you.” That’s the kind of discipleship that Jesus needed 2000 years ago, and that’s the kind of discipleship Jesus needs, still today, to set the world on fire.
The second image Jesus uses is the sign of rain. And this is addressed to the crowd. Not the disciples. The hangers-on. The spectators in his religious road show. To them he says, “You guys talk about the weather. You’re really good at figuring out the obvious: Clouds in the sky? Looks like rain. Wind from the south? Gonna be a scorcher! Instead of standing around talking about the weather, you might want to turn your attention to what God is doing right here and right now.
Part of Culpepper's (Luke, New Interpreters Bible) reflections on these verses:
To what do we pay close attention, and to what do we turn a blind eye?...
Jesus' sayings challenge us to examine the balance of attention and neglect in our own lives, to consider whether these there is a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while jeopardizing the things of greatest value and importance. Have we given as much attention to the health of the church as we have to our golf score? Have we given as much attention to the maintenance of our spiritual disciplines as to the maintenance schedule for our car? Where in the scale of our attention to detail does our devotion to the teachings of our Lord rank? [p. 269]
Do we put off attending to those things that matter - put living our faith off for some “future” more convenient time? Jesus says there is no time like the present. Today. Now. This is the opportune moment. This emphasis on the present is not an aberration. Jesus starts out his ministry by reading a prophecy and his only commentary is “TODAY this scripture is fulfilled among you.” He says to Zaccheus, “Today salvation has come to your house.” He tells the criminal on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
The Apostle Paul, in his preaching of the Gospel picks this up so beautifully when he says to the church in Corinth, “Now is the acceptable day of the Lord. Today is the day of salvation.”
Don’t put it off. Pay attention. God is moving in the world right now. Will we participate in what God is doing right now?
Fire and Rain. Unlike James Taylor’s use of the images in his soft, sweet song, Jesus’ talk about fire and rain has hard edges. These sayings challenge and accuse us. The fire talk burns us, and it’s a hard rain that washes away our complacency. Maybe we prefer the softer, sweeter song. But we should remember that that sweet song is about the end of a relationship. “Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone. . . . I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, but I always thought that I’d see you again.”
And Jesus’ more difficult sayings are spoken out of his own burning desire that the relationship he offers us should not end - but deepen, strengthen, become something lasting and beautiful and true. Jesus’ fire and rain are his way of urgently encouraging us to become the disciples he has invited us to be. To not miss the opportunity we have in the present moment to follow him.
I had this sermon all written, when I thought maybe I’d look up the lyrics to the james taylor song I remembered from so many years ago. And much to my surprise, there was a verse that I didn’t remember at all. Not at all. It is a prayer. Let us pray:
Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
And I won't make it any other way
Sweet Jesus, our time is at hand. Help us to make our stand with you. Kindle in us the fire of a deeply committed relationship with you - one that begins this day, one that will last throughout eternity.