Being Baptised With Fire!

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August 20, 2022
Living In God’s Kingdom – All Welcome!
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August 20, 2022

I was reflecting this week on a colleague’s struggle she and her family have been having with the National Disability Insurance Agency as they tried to organise appropriate, helpful, timely services to be provided for her brother in the last few months of his life.  The determination to make this happen was driven by an ethical standpoint as practicing Christians, and after seeing her brother having to live with the failures of the system held rigidly in place through deliberate, entrenched bureaucratic delays, while she and the family tried to hold our governments and bureaucrats to account.  The unjust, unethical system of decision-making lit a fire in the family’s heart.

I heard Jesus say to his disciples and those gathered round: 

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  Luke 12:49.

I suspect everyone involved in matters of justice for God’s little ones echo the words of Jesus.  However, these words initially recall the prophet Elijah, who drew fire down from the Lord against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:36-40); and on the soldiers of King Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:10, 12, 14). The desire for vengeance and punishment are captured by the deliberate use and imagery of fire and are seductive. 

Jesus’ disciples had wanted to pull fire down from heaven on the Samaritans (Luke 9:54) although Jesus had not allowed it.  Jesus was also reflecting on the judgement promised by John where the tree not bearing fruit is to be thrown into the fire (Luke 3:9).  There are many such stories throughout the bible including the gospels where fire is used to describe judgement and punishment and is a recurring theme.

However, our own experience of terrible bushfires here in Australia and around the world as climate change presses increasingly dangerously upon us all, means the use of fire as a metaphor can make us feel vulnerable, frightened and angry.

So I want to take us in a different direction to hellfire, judgement and punishment.  It is too easy for all of us to head in that direction, enjoying the experience of vengeance when we feel hard done by. 

I want to remind us all, fire is also a sign and gift of the Holy Spirit.   When Jesus started his ministry, he talked about bringing good news to the poor, liberty to the captives and freedom for the oppressed. He brings a message of peace and good news with the joyful gifting of God’s kingdom for all as we reflected last week.  (Luke 4:18) 

Sadly, Jesus knows those who are comfortable with the world as it is, do not want change, do not want to be held to account for their disproportionate use of its resources. They profit from poverty and oppression of others, and usually seek to kill the messenger, just as they did with Jesus.

In Luke’s gospel (12:49-59), we are told Jesus is bringing the fire of judgement, and Jesus tells us plainly, the consequences for him personally will be a baptism, literally total immersion in the stress and madness of conflict, division, terror and death.  Jesus brings a message of love and peace, but the world’s response is to feel threatened, so the world brings division and death to deny it.

As Jesus prophetically describes what is happening, I am reminded not only of my colleague’s fight, but also Martin Luther King Jr’s struggle, seeking justice for black Americans, the First Nations people seeking justice for themselves following invasion, colonialism, racism and death, the treatment of activists seeking justice for refugees, and the fight to slow down the climate changes. There is a long list.

As Jesus describes the baptism he is facing, he could also be referring to his baptism in the Holy Spirit, rather than to a baptism of judgement and punishment.  The word ‘distressed’ can also be used for enduring, impatiently, such is Jesus’ determination to accomplish his work and fulfill his vocation as God’s Son.  God’s sense of impatience while the world procrastinates and denies God, is expressed really strongly and clearly by Jesus who is our hope and who freely gifts God’s Holy Spirit to all God’s faithful people. 

Let us think for a moment, about the impatience of this man who knows his message of peace and love will divide families.  It is a power struggle, its about control and who we allow to direct and fill our lives.  The imagery of father against son, daughter against mother is powerful.  We wriggle with discomfort as this is spoken out loud.  Would we break with our families over our faith?  Have you already done so?  I suspect many of you have with your choice to follow Jesus and to be here in church today.  Does this feel like a burning light in your life, a fire which can’t be quenched, a determination to see this through as Jesus did?

Jesus is reflecting on our relationships to explain our emotional responses to the invitation to live now in God.  It is not a threat but a welcome.  Jesus is asking whether we understand what is happening.  We can read the weather, why can we not read what is happening in our hearts and minds?  If we continue to live in the world, according to the world’s own demands, our hypocrisy in God’s kingdom will be like a fire in our hearts and minds, making us angry, disconnected, or asleep and wilfully deaf and blind in our lives.  We will live half lives as we try and maintain the world’s ordering and put out the fire God has lit in our hearts.  In the end, the accounting for such hypocrisy will happen in this world, and we will be thrown into prison. 

I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.  Luke 12:59

Jesus was called for a purpose into God’s world: to wake us up, turn up the heat, make us ask questions, not accept bland answers but instead to challenge the very oppressive, controlling justice system and greedy selfish consuming lives we are invited to live. Instead, we can let God light the very fires of heaven in our hearts and share it with all who will listen. 

May you be a burning and a shining light in God’s church.

The Lord be with you.

Lucy Morris
Lucy Morris
Anglican Priest, International Speaker, Published Author, Social Justice Advocate and Activist.

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