Sermon 18 August 2013    Year C: proper 15.

Fire on the earth.             

The writer William Golding stepped on to the English literary scene in 1954 with Lord of the Flies. In the following year he published his second novel, The Inheritors – an imaginative reconstruction of the life of a small group of Neanderthals and their encounter with Homo Sapiens.

The story opens with the little band making their way from their winter quarters by the sea to the uplands where they will spend the summer. Among them an old woman is carefully carrying a large clay ball. Evening comes on and they halt to spend the night in a sheltered place. Before they begin to forage for food and settle down, the old woman gently breaks open the clay ball and breathes softly into it. The others, seeing what she is doing, bring dry twigs and leaves which she places carefully into the two halves of the opened ball. A spark flies out, a wisp of smoke curls into the air and a flame flickers into life and steadies: ‘The fire is awake again’, she announces to the others.

Human beings seem always to have acknowledged the importance – indeed the necessity – of fire for human life. The ancients regarded it as one of the four basic constituents of the created order, with earth, air and water. Some of the earliest Western philosophers taught that fire is the fundamental substance both of the physical world and of the human soul.

The Persians evolved a religion around it. The Greeks believed that fire was divine in origin, withheld by the gods from mortals until Prometheus stole it from them and gave it to the human race. For the Romans, the security and prosperity of the State were guaranteed by the sacred fire which was kept  burning perpetually in the Temple of Vesta , the goddess of home, hearth and family.

It is part of the fascination of fire that it comes to us in so many different forms – sun and stars, lightning and volcanoes, the violent conflagration of forest fires and torched cities, sparks struck from flint, logs burning on the hearth, the quiet glow of candles and lamps.

Fire is a boon but it is also ambiguous in its effects; what warms and comforts us can also burn and shrivel. What gives light can also dazzle and blind. Fire purges and purifies and cauterises; it also scorches and blisters and destroys. We use fire for our own purposes but we are also aware that it is more powerful than we are and that it can break loose, engulf and consume us.

Fire gives us figures of speech for strong emotions; we are set on fire with love, with courage; we glow with pleasure, burn with indignation, with zeal, with rage. It represents inspiration and ardour – Shakespeare invoked the muse of fire upon the "Wooden O" of his Bankside theatre in 16th century Southwark.

Human beings seem to have instinctively felt that fire belongs to and descends from a realm beyond our own. Like the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, our tradition associates fire with the Divine. God speaks to Moses from the burning bush. He comes down on Sinai and addresses Israel ‘from out of the midst of the fire on the mountain’. He is described as ‘a devouring fire, a jealous God’. In a Pillar of Fire he leads and protects his people through the hazards and uncertainties of their Wilderness journey. He assures a later generation that he will be a wall of fire around Jerusalem against their enemies. On Mount Carmel he shows himself to be a God ‘who answers by fire’.  

So when Jesus says that he has ‘come to cast fire on the earth’ he is drawing on a wealth of allusion. He is also reported (though not by the Evangelists) as having said, ‘He who is near me is near the fire’. John the Baptist, speaking beforehand of his coming, said of him that ‘he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’, a prophecy which came to fulfilment at Pentecost.  

Among its many effects, fire purges away dross and impurity, it cleanses and refines and makes new what has become sullied and debased. Fire is the agent of transformation and renewal; it is out of fire that the Phoenix of new life arises.

The New Testament speaks of what it is for us to be made new in Jesus through the fire which he has cast upon the earth. It tells of a whole new relationship with God, in which ‘his commandments are not burdensome’. Long before Christianity is any kind of ethical requirement, long before it is a system of morals and right behaviour, it is Gospel - Good News - about what is there beyond ourselves - namely the Kingdom - the Good News of God dealing with us on the basis of acceptance and forgiveness. So Jesus comes to us: ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’, he says: Change your attitude, your mind-set. We are to stop thinking of our relationship with God being primarily a matter of law-giver and subject. We are to believe the altogether extraordinary and unlooked for and almost unbelievable news that God chooses to be God in a totally different way from what we assume - a disruptive God who breaks into our relationships, upsets our assumptions and who forgives and loves and accepts. To take on this new basis for living with God and with one another, is to be set free for a fundamental change of heart and mind. This is the fire which Jesus brings to our world.

There is nothing we can do to earn or to win the love of God; that love is already ours as a free gift from God. This is what sets us free from despair, because our weaknesses, our failures, our relapses, cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That love is always there if we will have it so - wanting it from the heart of our heart, reaching out for it in no matter how clumsy and inarticulate a way, receiving it, believing that this is the God we have in Jesus.

To live in the love of God is to begin the patient transformation of our being, the long, slow, refining and maturing of the Christian character, the ripening of the harvest of the Spirit. The fire is awake - the celestial fire from above, from which he wills to kindle the flame of sacred love on the mean altar of our heart.

Eric Simmons CR