None of these passages are warm and fuzzy. Hot, yes, but destructively so. Psalms is a good place to start the lesson. We like to think of Psalm 23 when we talk of the Psalms, but Psalm 80 is about burning the grape vine in the fire. It describes what happens to those who turn away from God.
“You brought a vine out of Egypt,” that great Exodus with its saving Passover. The vine, Israel, was planted and produced some good fruit, including, “the son of man you have raised up for yourself.” Yet, the next verse reads, “Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire.”
Isaiah explains why God has to send the fire. “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” And, “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” God can be difficult, He expects the best. We produce good fruit or we burn.
The author of Hebrews eases the pain of this message by stressing the positive. We need the faith Moses and the Hebrews had at the Red Sea, the faith Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, and all the others who have shown us the way. But mostly, we need to, “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” Jesus is that very Son of Man Psalm 80 spoke of. He is the Vine.
The vine was such an important symbol for Judeans in Jesus time that they sculpted a vine growing all around the entrance to the Holy Place of the Temple. The vine was made entirely of gold and the grapes on the vine were as large as a human head. We need to take a lesson from the fact that the gold ended up in Rome, probably to help pay for the construction of the Coliseum. God expected His people to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, visit the lonely, in short, do good. God wants justice, not our gold. Of course, our gold can often bring justice, that is, to feed the hungry, nurse the sick, etc.
Now for the difficult passage: “I have come to bring fire on earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Throughout the Tanak, the Christian Old Testament, fire is used to describe the Word of God and the Judgment of God. All of chapter 12 is loaded with Tanak images and many of them deal with the end times, that is, with judgment.
But let’s consider the other meaning of fire first. “I have come to bring fire on earth.” Jesus spent his ministry delivering God’s Word to Abraham’s people; the Words of justice and love. “How I wish it were already kindled!” And why not? Imagine a world filled with the Love and Justice of God.
At the beginning of his ministry, Luke records the visit Jesus made to his home in Nazareth where he read the passage from Isaiah about preaching good news to the poor, proclaiming freedom, giving sight to the blind, and proclaiming the Year of Jubilee. He made it clear that he was here to fulfill God’s promise.
But that promise is the Word and the Word of God is fire. It is not possible to speak of Love without speaking of burning away sin. The Word burns. Love is not a squishy feeling, all loaded with chocolate and sprinkles. Love is a fire that consumes our old ways. Love demands giving up everything that is not like God. We are made in his image, not the image of the Liar. When we return to God and live the life of His Love, the darkness of the Liar will be burned away.
Love demands that we think of others before ourselves and that we think of God before others. Anything less comes from the Liar. If I give to the poor, but only after I’ve made sure they’re good people who really deserve it and I only give from my extra money, I’m not practicing Love. Love is full time, no reservations.
So, what does all this have to do with Judgment? Think of two people going through the airport security. One has no belt, no shoes, no pockets. He walks through with hardly a pause. The other is weighted down with “stuff” and he makes jokes about bombs. He will have plenty of time to get to know the TSA staff. That’s Judgment. If I practice Love and trust in God, it will be of little notice. If I follow the Liar….
Be righteous and do good.