Calling Fire from Heaven
By Linda Rex
June 26, 2022, PROPER 8—As I was preparing to write this blog, I began to hear a noise outside my window. The fury of a thunderstorm was being unleashed, dropping heavy raindrops and tiny pellets of hail on the concrete. The thunder growling from the sky caused the cat napping nearby to raise her head and stare at the sheets of rain flying sideways by my window.
This was a timely event because I had just been reading the gospel account in Luke 9:51–62 where Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, was passing through Samaria. He had sent some disciples ahead of him to prepare a place for them to stay, but they were rejected by the people in that city. James and John, attempting to be helpful, were indignant and asked Jesus if he wanted them to call down fire from heaven and consume the errant ones. It’s understandable where James and John got their nickname “Sons of Thunder”!
Jesus’ response to their request isn’t in the earliest manuscripts, but it coincides with the apostle Paul’s message in our New Testament reading for this Sunday, Galatians 5:1, 13–25. Paul contrasted the works of our flesh—things like outbursts of anger, strife, dissensions, and factions, with the things of the Spirit—things like kindness, peace, patience, and self-control. The apostle reminded his readers that we live by the Spirit—our true life is in Christ by the Spirit, but we are meant to walk by the Spirit—our daily existence is meant to be walked out moment by moment in every situation in the Spirit, not in our flesh.
Our automatic human response to things like rejection, abuse, or disrespect may resemble that of John and James—we may ignite with passionate fury, seeking the harm of the responsible party. But Jesus’ response is different. Here, he just moved on to another town, recognizing that he could not do the job which he had been given by his Father in that particular town. And he began to talk with his followers about the cost of discipleship.
In the gospel passage for today, Luke described three separate responses to Jesus’ call to follow him. The first person gave an emphatic commitment to Jesus, that he would follow the Messiah wherever he went. But Jesus pointed out that, unlike the foxes and birds, the Messiah didn’t have a place to stay at night. His disciples had requested a place to stay but had been rejected—would this person be willing to accept such rejection and continue to follow Jesus, especially if it meant doing without the basics of life?
Bring this forward to today: As the cost of filling our gas tanks here in America begins to double or triple and the prices of our groceries skyrocket, we are faced anew with the question, will we trust God to care and provide for us? Will we continue to follow Christ when it seems that he isn’t going to make our life easier or more comfortable? What price are we willing to pay in order to follow Christ?
The second person who was asked by Jesus to follow him requested that Jesus allow him to bury his father before he did so. Though Jesus would not want us to harm or neglect our families, the reality is that we often make elaborate excuses for not simply obeying Jesus’ command to follow him. We find reasons that we cannot do as he asks, and we excuse ourselves by reasonable arguments as to why we should be able to continue on our way, unhampered by Jesus’ calling upon our lives.
In essence, Christ was saying to the man, “Let the spiritually dead take care of the physically dead. You go and proclaim the good news. That is the more urgent task.” We can care for and love our families, and still share the good news with the world while we are doing it. Jesus was reminding his disciples that there is an all-encompassing priority about the gospel. As he said elsewhere, seek his kingdom first, and all those things we’re concerned about will be provided.
The third person Luke described in this passage asked if he could first say goodbye to his family before he followed Christ. The disciples would have remembered that Elisha had asked Elijah this very thing when he was asked to follow the prophet, and Elijah had permitted it. But Jesus was describing an even more radical commitment to himself, one in which all took second place, including the customary expectations of society and family.
Jesus told this person that someone who begins to plow needs to keep looking forward, and not look back. Today most people in our nation plow using large equipment. Back then though, there was a single plow, possibly pulled by animals. Unless the person guiding the plow kept their eyes on where they were going, they would not create a straight row, thus ruining the possibilities of a good harvest. If they turned to look back from where they came, the row would end up horribly crooked and their efforts would be fruitless—a good picture of what happens when we take our eyes off of Jesus.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus in many ways is like walking by the Spirit and not by our flesh. The spiritual reality is that true life has come in the sending of the fire of the Spirit. The Spirit’s indwelling is the life the Christ in us, bringing us into fellowship with the Father. We live our lives in moment-by-moment dependency upon and in relationship with God by the Spirit. We follow the lead of the Spirit and in doing so, we follow Christ. We listen to and heed the living Word of God, Jesus, as we, by the Spirit, drink in of the written Word, allowing God to speak deep into our souls, moving us to obey.
We don’t turn back to gaze upon the spiritual death we once were living in, but keep our eyes focused forward on the living Word Jesus. He has set us free—so we live free, abandoning our past associations, plans, and deeds, and we embrace the new life he has given us by the Spirit. Jesus has moved us in his life, death, resurrection and ascension from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light. We have no desire to go back to our slavery to evil, sin, and death. So we keep our eyes on him, our mind and heart fixed upon his, trusting him to finish what he has begun in us, no matter the cost to ourselves.
This is a challenging passage for us today. Our world is changing. Times for many are getting more and more difficult. It is a struggle for some to simply find something to eat or a place to live. The good news is we are not doing any of this on our own. We have a Savior who dwells in us and with us, who knows what it means to be homeless and hungry, to be despised and rejected, and yet be held in the midst of the Father’s love. In the midst of the fury of the evil one’s efforts to kill, steal, and destroy, he holds us in his care and will lead us safely home. As we follow him in faith, he will finish what he has begun in our lives. Praise God!
Heavenly Father, as things get harder and harder for us, continue to keep us in your tender loving care. Thank you, Jesus, for understanding us so well and for holding us steadfastly in the Father’s arms. Grant us the grace by your Spirit to pay the cost of discipleship you ask of us, faithfully enduring to the end. Amen.
“When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem; and He sent messengers on ahead of Him, and they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for Him. But they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem. When His disciples James and John saw this, they said, ‘Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But He turned and rebuked them, …. And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, someone said to Him, ‘I will follow You wherever You go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.’ And He said to another, ‘Follow Me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.’ But He said to him, ‘Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.’ Another also said, ‘I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.’ ” Luke 9:51–62 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/06/calling-fire-from-heaven.pdf ]
In the Strength of that Food
By Linda Rex
August 8, 2021, PROPER 14—I was looking on a neighborhood site this morning, seeing what Nashvillians have on their mind, when I came across a story about a cat. This cat would leave the house in the morning to go hunting, apparently, and come home at night to sleep in the owner’s house. She was a beloved pet who was well-cared for by her owner.
The owner noticed one day, though, that someone was replacing the collars on the cat. She began, over time, to realize that the cat must have another owner somewhere else who was also taking care of her. The cat was at home in both people’s houses, allowing them both to believe they were the sole owner and caregiver for her. I was amused by how the smart pet got her needs taken care of abundantly by having two homes instead of one.
This resonated a little with our readings for this Sunday, which talk about finding our provision in Christ. For example, 1 Kings 19:4–8 is about the time when the prophet Elijah, after facilitating a triumphant display of God’s power and a recommitment of the people to God, received a death threat from Queen Jezebel. Elijah fled into the wilderness, crawled under a tree and asked God to take his life. After the supreme heights of spiritual victory, the prophet hit bottom, and could not go any farther.
In this short clip, we read that God took seriously Elijah’s depression and exhaustion. An angel brought him food, and then the prophet slept. More food appeared, so Elijah ate and slept once more. Eating again, he then traveled, “in the strength of that food” for forty days and nights to Mount Horeb to meet with God. It was at Horeb that God showed himself to Elijah in “the still small voice” rather than in the big, boisterous natural events of a windstorm or earthquake.
There is much we can learn from this short glimpse into Elijah’s life and ministry. In our gospel passage for today, Jesus repeated the phrase, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus called himself the living bread. He revealed himself as the “I am” of the Old Testament, who was the One who met Elijah in the midst of his struggle, and took care of his needs. The people of Jesus’ day, however, could not get past the fact that Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph, someone who grew up in their village and that everyone knew. How could he possibly have descended from heaven?
Jesus was making some very serious claims. He was saying, in effect, that he was God, present in their midst. He was saying that he eternally existed and yet was born and raised among them as a human being. He told them that his flesh was to be their sustenance—he was to be the source of their life, and that he was going to give his flesh for the world. This was all really hard for his hearers to get their mind around. They simply could not accept the full implications of what he was teaching.
Drawing upon Elijah’s experience, though, let’s look at what Jesus was offering them—and offering us today. First, they were like Elijah, and like the rest of us, hiding in the wilderness of evil, sin and death—facing the consequences of all our decisions as human beings to do things our own way, under our own power. There is no freedom from our slavery to sin, self, and Satan apart from God’s intervention. What hope do we have? Only God himself can deliver us from our bondage to these things. And this is what Jesus came to do.
Secondly, we often as human beings often do our best to get right with God on our own. We can be incredibly religious in how we go about it too. Or we can simply say to ourselves, why bother? There is no way for us to make things right with God or ever be what we should be. So, we don’t even try. Thankfully, this is also why Jesus came. In fact, Jesus tells us to find our rest in him—to take on his yoke, for it is light and easy. Jesus lived our life, died our death and rose again so that these chains would be broken and we would have new life in him. What a precious gift! We have freedom in Jesus as we rest in him, trusting in his perfect finished work, not in ourselves or any of our own efforts.
Thirdly, we are reminded to feed on Christ. Yes, we do regularly take communion in remembrance of what Christ has done, but in this instance, what Jesus means is that we draw our life, our sustenance, our existence from him. We feed upon him by living life in an active, ongoing relationship with him, spending time in conversation with him, trusting in his love and grace, reading his word, fellowshipping with other believers, walking in love, and growing up in Christ.
And finally, it is in the strength of this nourishment, this divine food, that we meet with God. It is in and through Jesus that we are brought up into the inner fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, in union and communion with the Triune God. Christ bears our glorified humanity in the Father’s presence now and forever, and shares this close, intimate relationship with each of us as we turn to him in faith. What could be more glorious than that? Always and ever, in Christ, we are held in the midst of the divine life and love, included in their loving fellowship.
Whatever struggles we may have in this life, and no matter how dark into the depths of despair we may go, we can have great peace as we rest in Christ and in his finished work. Our life is in him now. He is our hope, for he is our life. The Father draws us to his Son—inviting us to come, to believe, and to rest in him. Jesus promises, as we do so, that beyond living with him now day by day in the Spirit, when he returns in glory, he will raise us up to live with him forever and ever in the new heavens and new earth. Now that is a meal worth savoring!
Thank you, Father, for drawing us up into relationship with you through Jesus in the Spirit. Thank you, Jesus, for offering yourself to us and giving us real life—life in the Spirit—a life full of faith, hope and love in fellowship with you now and forever. Grant us the grace to rest in you, trusting in your finished work, your love and care. Amen.
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.’ He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, ‘Arise, eat.’ Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise, eat, because the journey is too great for you.’ So he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.” 1 Kings 19:4–8 NASB
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” John 6:(35, 41–51) 47–51 NASB
The “Violence” of God
By Linda Rex
Now that I actually do have cable TV in my house, the other day I was flipping through channels futilely trying to find something I wanted to watch. I happened upon a preacher and his wife who were diligently informing their listeners of the imminence of Jesus’ coming and they pointed to several current events, including the current cycle of “blood moons” as proof of their prediction.
Naturally I flashed back to my earlier years which were filled with “World Tomorrow” broadcasts and sermons about the tribulation coming soon! At that point, my finger hit the up key and I was looking at the next crazy option on the menu (which wasn’t much better).
Later this week I was talking with a sincere, Bible-believing Christian who is on fire for Jesus, and I found myself once again in that place. The end is near! We’ve got to get ready! We must be prepared or we won’t escape disaster! We’ve got to do something now!
Now, I respect these people’s desire to love and serve God, and their sincere belief that Christ is coming soon and that they’ve got to get everyone ready so they don’t miss out. But I am just as concerned that they do not realize how much they are like the Jews of Jesus’ day who expectantly waited for a messiah to come and rescue them from their oppressors and restore to them their kingdom. They so anticipated a conquering deliverer and majestic savior that they didn’t recognize Jesus when he did come.
Sure, John was down at the river baptizing everyone and telling them to get their act together in preparation for his coming. But even he became so unsure of Jesus that after a while he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matt. 11:3).
John the Baptizer, whom Jesus described as the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and was the Elijah to come, (Luke 1:17, 76) had forgotten the lesson of Elijah: God doesn’t always speak to us or rescue us in big and powerful ways. No, he prefers the opposite. Thomas F. Torrance describes it eloquently, I believe:
Recall the contrast between Elijah on Mount Carmel and Elijah under the juniper tree, dejected and dispirited because the events of history after Mount Carmel have not taken the course he had hoped. God had certainly vindicated Elijah’s faith, and the prophets of Baal had been overthrown, but the tyrant forces of evil were still in control defying God’s sovereignty. Then Elijah is taught a supreme lesson on Mount Horeb. He is shown a terrific display of violence in wind, earthquake and fire, but God was not in the wind, or earthquake or fire. After the fire there came a still small voice and immediately Elijah wrapped his face in his mantle: that was the violence of God. It is still the same story with John the Baptist. He expected the events of history after the baptism of Jesus to take quite a different course. He expected as Messiah a mighty deliverer coming in judgement and bringing upheaval and violence, who would redeem Israel from the New Testament Ahab and Jezebel, Herod and Herodias, and restore to God his sovereignty over his people. But instead of all that, he saw the meek and mild Jesus, preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness to the poor and needy, and healing the sick…Like Elijah, John had misunderstood the violence of God and was offended at the weakness of Jesus, but in Jesus the still small voice of God had become flesh, and that was more powerful than all the imaginable forces of nature put together and unleashed in their fury….
Jesus did not repudiate the preaching of John the Baptist, the proclamation of judgment: on the contrary he continued it, and … he searched the soul of man with the fire of divine judgment….In the incarnate life of Jesus, and above all in his death, God does not execute his judgment on evil simply by smiting it violently away by a stroke of his hand, but by entering into it from within, into the very heart of the blackest evil, and making its sorrow and guilt and suffering his own. And it is because it is God himself who enters in, in order to let the whole of human evil go over him, that his very intervention in meekness has violent and explosive force. It is the very power of God. And so the cross with all its incredible meekness and patience and compassion is no deed of passive and beautiful heroism simply, but the most potent and aggressive deed that heaven and earth have ever known: the attack of God’s holy love upon the inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil, upon all the piled up contradiction of sin.1
I do realize that the creeds tell us that one day Jesus Christ will return in power and glory. And on that day we will become most truly who we are in him and will shine like the sun. But I think we need to reconsider exactly what Jesus is going to do when he comes.
Will he start striking down all the evil people and evil governments? Will he start killing people right and left? Too often this has been the description I have heard of what Jesus is going to do when he returns.
Wouldn’t a greater, more violent attack upon evil be to just make it irrelevant? To so fill the world and universe with light and goodness that darkness has nowhere to go except away? To so expose the reality of human hearts that they can no longer pretend or hide behind apparent goodness and kindness but by God’s grace become what they truly always were meant to be?
Yes, I wonder.
I think that it is interesting how through the centuries since Jesus died and was resurrected we have continued to see Torrance’s “inhumanity of man and the tyranny of evil.” Even though Jesus is present in the world today by the Holy Spirit, we still see the forces of evil and humanity defying the sovereignty of God.
But at the same time, we witness daily, if we look closely, “the meek and mild Jesus, preaching the gospel of grace and forgiveness to the poor and needy, and healing the sick.” When we actively participate in the ministry Jesus is doing in the world, even now we participate in the kingdom of God. As we actively participate in what God in Jesus through the Spirit is doing and we actually live in relationship with God in Christ led by and filled with the Spirit of God moment by moment, the tyranny of evil and inhumanity of man is being violently overthrown in our hearts and lives and in the hearts and the lives of others every day.
It is in this divine ministry through human instruments that once again we see and experience the “violence” of God at work in our world. And all of this is in anticipation of the fullness of his kingdom at Jesus’ return in glory. In my view, this is what we need to be focusing on.
Dear Jesus, please give us eyes to see and ears to hear who you really are! Father, please take away all that blinds us to your great love for us. Thank you for allowing us to participate each day in your violent work of redemption. Let all we think, say and do be a pure reflection of your light in Jesus by your Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, ‘Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?’” Matthew 11:2–3
1. Torrance, Thomas F., “Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ”, Walker, Robert T. ed. Downer’s Grove, IL (InterVarsity Press, 2008). Pages 149-150.