SERMON Fire and Death from Heaven

I did not preach today, but if I had, it would have been something like this.

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 19:15–16, 19–21
  • Psalm 16
  • Galatians 5:1, 13–25
  • Luke 9:51–62

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:51–62 ESV)

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a regular devotional reading through the Old Testament book of Joshua. It’s a tough book to read, because it’s the story of Israel taking its patrimony, conquering the land of promise, a fight God demanded be waged without mercy, without quarter, without negotiations or deals.

So far, we’ve seen Jericho and Ai put to the sword, their streets run red with the blood of all who dwelt in them, burnt to the ground and left as ruins — ruins that, at least in the biblical narrative, stand “to this day” as a silent witness to the war, and to the command of God. To the calling of a people to follow that God.

But it is our story, this conquest. It is who we are. It is what God once demanded of us. It is, too often, what we still demand of ourselves. Because we think it’s what God wants.

Something I want you all to remember — Israel failed in its conquest of Canaan. Oh, Israel takes and settles the land. But long after the powerful united kingdom under David and Solomon is established (and then shattered by civil war), the land of promise is still full of Canaanites. Israel could not keep the commandment of God to show no mercy, make no deals, and reserve for God alone the plundered wealth of the Canaanites. We will see this later this week when my devotional gets to the people of the city of Gibeon — Hivites according to Joshua, and Amorites according to Samuel, but either way, Canaanites all the same — who deceive Israel into making a covenant with them. God has commanded Israel, demanded his people set their face on the expulsion and extermination of the Canaanites.

And Israel cannot. They cannot. We cannot.

So as the disciples wander through Samaria, they are wandering across a long-ago conquered land, a place once inhabited by people who called themselves Hivites and Amorites and Jebusites. They are wandering through conquered villages, through land now solidly Israelite but a millennia before was called by other names in other tongues. Names that likely persisted just as the people, their customs and their gods and their languages, held on even as they were conquered, enslaved, and assimilated into Israel.

And all that before civil war brought idolatry, Assyrian conquerors, Babylonians, Persians, Alexander the Great and his successors, and finally, Romans. While no conquest is ever permanent, every conqueror has left a mark on this land, on this people.

The Samaritans are a remnant, what was left of the people of the idolatrous northern Kingdom of Israel. They have a version of the Torah, but they long ago abandoned worship in Jerusalem, and never really acknowledged the centrality of the temple. They would worship at Schechem (modern Nablus) and Penuel (where Jacob wrestled with God), where the rebel leader-turned-king Jeroboam would place golden calves and tell his new nation:

You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. (1 Kings 12:28)

This people have not faced Jerusalem for some time. Not for many centuries.

So it makes sense, when the Jesus show wanders through, they wouldn’t be that supportive of a prophet with his face set toward Jerusalem. Why would they want anything from Jesus? What would Jesus mean to them?

What began centuries before in Samaria as a rebellion against centralized authority — against Solomon’s rapacious successor who taxed and conscripted far too much — has hardened into an unthinking prejudice. Into blind mistrust, fear, and smoldering hated.

So of course they don’t receive Jesus and his followers. Why would they? The people of Samaria renounced their portion of King David long ago. They cast off those promises God made to his people in and through David. “We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse!” they said. And they meant it. So who is Jesus to them? The fulfillment of promises? Long awaited redemption? The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Not hardly.

That the disciples want these people — these enemies who have rejected and shown no hospitality to Jesus — wiped off the face of the earth makes sense. After all, they have said no, and that no should be met with a strong rebuke. Even retribution. No one should say no, not even to forgiveness, healing, and grace!

And they believe they can, these disciples of Jesus, command fire from heaven. They believe they should.

I wish we had the words of Jesus’ rebuke here. I wish we has exactly what Jesus told his disciples. I wish we knew whether it was “No!” or whether it was more than that.

But whatever Jesus said, we know this. Unlike his namesake in the Old Testament whose book we have been reflecting upon — Joshua, ַיְהוֹשֻׁע, “the one who saves,” rendered into Greek as Ἰησοῦς, or Jesus — he did not raise his javelin at this city and command its destruction. He did not order his army to march around it and blow the trumpets, or lie in wait to ambush it. He did not put it to the sword, let its streets run red with blood, and then burn it down. He did not indulge his disciples’ fantasies about vengeance and retribution.

He moved on. He moved on.

He let his enemies be. He let his people’s enemies be. He let dead history stay dead. It would not matter any more. Not the generations and not the centuries.

Because there has been enough conquest here. Enough bloodshed. Enough fire from heaven. Yes, there will be more. It never ends, this fire from heaven, which we call down upon the wicked, upon enemies, upon those who have wronged us or broken the law. We call it down. And it comes. It never seems to stop.

But Jesus moves on. He will have no part in fire from heaven. And in Samaria, among the people who disowned David and his promises, among the descendants of the Hivites and the Amorites and the other Canaanites once fated for conquest and colonization, he finds followers. Some come to him. Some he calls. Others know the importance of following, but wish to tidy up their affairs before the wander off with Jesus.

Among the enemies of God, Jesus finds followers.

We who follow Jesus, whether we find him or whether he finds and calls us, should move on too. Whatever history tells us, or whatever our political and social arrangements say about who our friends and enemies are, we move on. We don’t look back to the past, and we don’t get stuck in the present moment. We don’t wallow or lament the cruelty, the hatred, the anger, or the callous lack of welcome and hospitality. We move on. We set our faces forward, toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross, toward the empty tomb, toward that salvation which takes away the sin of the world.

Regardless of where we are, or who is with us, we proclaim the kingdom of God.

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