In 1988 there were a series of wild fires in Yellowstone National Park – most of them started by lightning. More than 1/3 of the park was destroyed. Naturalists lamented that such wide-spread destruction meant that an entire generation of Americans would not see the Park in its pristine condition. How surprised they were the following Spring when Yellowstone blossomed into an explosion of color. The tall pine forest had cast dark shadows which ordinarily inhibited growth of wildflowers. With the competition gone because of the fires, the wild flowers flourished, carpeting valleys and hills in a kaleidoscope of yellows, blues and reds. Even the forest benefited from the fires. The most common tree in the park is the lodge pole pine whose seeds are found in a pine cones which are glued shut by resin. It takes the heat from forest fires to melt the resin allowing the cone scales to separate and release seeds. After the fire the seeds sprouted, the pine forest was soon growing anew with younger and stronger trees and today the forest, thirty-some years on, is fully restored. The fires which were initially viewed as a tragedy became recognized as part of the circle of life, death and re-birth that God wove into creation. Tragedy produced triumph.
That story from nature might help us to understand the saying of Jesus in Luke’s gospel: “I have come to set the earth on fire and how I wish it were already blazing.” Fire can be damaging and Jesus points out that following him has a fire-y impact. “A household will be divided,” Jesus says. Unfortunately we as a society know all too well about being divided. How people think about the 2020 election divides some families so they no longer speak to one another. Reaction to the decision about Roe v. Wade divides families with recriminations and accusations flying back and forth. What to do about gun violence divides families with deeply held beliefs brooking no compromise. Our national history of racism divides families with Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory being thrown around as nightmarish bogeymen. While none of these divisions are directly related to faith they all flow out of the values that we hold most dear which, for believers, comes from our faith. The challenge before us – are we going to let the fire of division burn it all to the ground or are we going to let this fire of faith serve the creative and rejuvenating role that it plays in nature?
The Letter to the Hebrews provides the solution: Persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus helps us overcome the anguish of division. What do we see with fixed eyes? First, that the fire he came to cast on earth is the fire of love. Fire as love is a familiar trope. The great sixteenth century Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, wrote about “the living flame of love.” The image of love as fire is found in popular culture. Think of the classic (which is to say old) Johnny Cash song, “I fell into a burning ring a fire.” As those images reminds us, love is not all hearts and flowers but at times has the purifying function of burning away all that is not love. When our eyes are fixed on Jesus we find divine love burns away selfishness and pride. In The Brothers Karamazov the wisdom figure, Fr. Zosima, reminds us: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy … but active love is labor and fortitude.” Every parent can testify to the “harsh and dreadful” aspects of love. In order to keep their child on the right path parents must at times push them in right direction. The loving thing to do is tough for both child and parent. The fire that Jesus came to cast upon earth is designed to burn out all that is ego to create a space to be filled with divine love.
Fire also provides light. When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus he lights the way to trust in the plan of God. As he was facing his death in Gethsemane he was not shy about stating what he wanted – “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me” – but he made that prayer in the context of a desire to follow where God was leading. “Yet not my will but yours be done.” The fire Jesus came to cast included a baptism by fire, an experience of living in the will of God even when it caused great anguish. As the epistle puts it: “For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross.” While we do not face anything quite as dreadful as the cross our call to surrender to the will of God is just as real. Facing sickness, family trouble, financial hardship, the grief of loss. loneliness we must join our prayer with Jesus: not my will but yours be done. The fire Jesus cast on earth lights our way to trust that in following God’s will, all will be well.
Of course, fire provides warmth. When we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus we find the importance of warm relationships. Peter no doubt drove him a little crazy with his bluster and self-importance. James and John irritated him with their temper and self-righteousness. The whole lot of them exasperated him with their ambition and jealousy. But he didn’t give up on them, he continued to work with them. The fire Jesus cast on earth has given us a similar set of companions for the journey – with all the glory and all the problems. So the promise: keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus will fill us with the fire of love, enlighten our path and warm our relationships. That is the fire Jesus casts upon the earth. How I wish it were already blazing.