Fire From Heaven
by David Swanson
July 1, 2013
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?
What a question! These men, James and John, were the disciples of Jesus. Soon to be apostles, they will be called on to carry the message and mission of Jesus forward. “Fire from heaven, Lord? Yes?” At first reading it might seem obvious: These guys are being buffoons. They don’t get that the Lord they are questioning does not subscribe to the blow up your enemies method of politics. The first verse of this passage is a turning point in Luke’s story of Jesus. Jesus is “setting his face to Jerusalem.” He’s going to go the city where he will be revealed as the crucified Messiah. As readers familiar with the story’s shape, we know this, but clearly James and John don’t get it. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
What’s funny is that James and John were practically quoting scripture when they asked Jesus this question. In 2 Kings 1, the story immediately preceding today’s lectionary passage, Elijah has a run in with some Samaritans himself, or, at least the precursor to the Samaritans: the government and army of the northern kingdom of Israel, whose capital was, of course, Samaria. After Elijah has criticized the regime for consulting Baal-zebub, the God of Ekron, the king sends a commander of fifty troops to go bring Elijah to the royal court. Of course, you can imagine the king was not excited about Elijah publicly criticizing his policies, and the army showing up at your front door to take you in is not usually a happy thing. But what does Elijah do? He defies them: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” “Then,” the text goes on, “fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty.”
James and John knew all about Samaritans. They were the type who need a good burning every once in a while! It was no surprise they would not receive Jesus, a Jewish rabbi headed to Jerusalem. Samaritans, after all, had long ago been banned from the temple in Jerusalem and had set up their own temple on another mountain, Gerizim. They were deemed half-breeds and had become religious deviants. They were no good. No good. James and John knew this. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Elijah had known this all those centuries before. “If I am a man of God…” fire from heaven.
We’ve heard in a recent reading, another Elijah story in which fire came down from heaven to consume the meat, the wood, the stones, the dust and even the water poured over Elijah’s sacrifice. In that story—the showdown of the gods—Elijah was proved again to be a man of God. Fire from Heaven is proof. Fire from Heaven is the sign that your God is bigger, badder, and ready to burn. Fire from Heaven is the signal that the other god is no god at all. Fire from heaven ends the contest. Game over. Lights out.
At Duke, our good professors are regularly challenging us to find ourselves in the story. To live the story of the bible and so allow it to be Scripture for us. James and John were doing it. They were ready to prove to the Samaritans, to themselves, to any Roman centurion that happened by, that Jesus was a man of God like Elijah. There are even some manuscripts that add, “As Elijah did?” onto the disciples’ question. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them as Elijah did?”
And Jesus rebukes them. Sodom and Gomorrah will not happen all over again. No fire from heaven. But why? When I told a friend that I would be preaching about the disciples’ request to send down fire, he asked, “So, it will be about revenge?” I think I said yes. And so it is, maybe. The Samaritans won’t receive Jesus, they get nuked. It’s payback isn’t it? But I don’t think this can be right. The disciples have seen people reject Jesus. They have missed the point themselves and avoided being torched. Rejecting Jesus accidentally or on purpose has not meant painful death for anyone in the story. Why now? Why would they think such a thing?
James and John could only make their request because they were prepared to. In that time and place they would have been trained within their social and religious life to see Samaritans as the half-breeds. Samaritans were corrupted religiously, genetically. They were unclean. For James and John a Samaritan rejection of the Messiah would have just followed. It’s what you would expect. Israelite society, as the dominant society in that time and place was busy scapegoating, as dominant societies always do, the ones who they decided were on the outside. The Samaritans were the enemies who marked the boundaries of who was in and who was out. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
So it was not merely a question of revenge, but rather a question about proof. The issue at the heart of this is not even the threat of violence. What Jesus was rejecting was the whole game. Jesus was rejecting a God who needed to be proven true over and against other gods. He was rejecting a people of God who needed to be proven holy over and against another people. Jesus said no. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” No. No.
So, if Jesus is rejecting this fire from heaven, why does it keep showing up? What is it about fire from heaven that holds such sway for the writers of scripture? Why is God a source of fire again and again? Is Jesus rejecting this God of fire that is seen throughout the scriptures? No again. Ancient Israelite worship centered on offering sacrifices to God. These were meat and grain sacrifices, offered on a fire to God. To worship at the temple was to be in close proximity to life and death. You could not miss the heat of the fire. Like in Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, it is God’s fire that consumes the sacrifice. In fact, God is the fire.
In Exodus 24, the narrator tells us, “To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” Deuteronomy 4, reminds us that, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”
And in Isaiah 33, “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’’
Remembering these images, Hebrews 12 becomes important because it helps sort out some of what Jesus means to all this fire of God:
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm…
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to… Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken… so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God… with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire.’”
God, in Jesus, has inaugurated a new kingdom. This kingdom cannot be reduced to the fearful specter of the storm on Sinai. Rather, the fear of God’s holiness there has been reframed by a different kind fear in the “joyful assembly.” This is not Christians trashing the Israelite religion, I hope. I don’t think this is simply supercessionism. This is Jesus and the New Testament writers rejecting an image of God in which God’s holiness is something that inspires competition between gods and between peoples, and a fear of being killed by that holiness.
To reject this image of God, opens the door for another image of God’s consuming fire that appears through the Bible. Earlier in the book of Hebrews, in chapter 2, the writer has reminded us that Jesus came to free those enslaved to the fear of death. And so it is that Jesus’ “no” in response to the disciples request to call down fire from heaven is rooted in a final rejection of the word spoken by “the blood of Abel,” as Hebrews calls it. Abel was killed in the first act of religious violence. Cain called down fire on his brother and struck him down. But that game is over for Jesus’ disciples.
Hebrews points us back to the fire image. The end of the passage reminds us that God is a consuming fire. The fiery God Jesus returns us to is no less hot than the stormy God on Mount Sinai. It’s just that God’s fire, scary as it may be, is the fire of refinement, not the fire of death. It is the fire that promises to burn away everything that will not last. The assembly of Hebrews may be joyful, but it is not without fear. The fear is not the old fear, however. It’s not the fear that we’ll be killed by a holy God. Jesus doesn’t want the Samaritans or any worshippers to fear for their lives.
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Instead, ask with Isaiah 33, “‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’’’ No one can, without being changed. God’s fire is the fire that will make us new as we live in the joyful assembly. In other words, God’s fire threatens all of us.
Jesus rejected violence toward the Samaritans as he turned to go to Jerusalem, where the presence of God was in the temple—where the holy fire burned. It would cost him everything. He would be afraid. He, I’m sure, would be tempted to call down fire from heaven at each turn in the journey, just as his disciples were. But he didn’t.
If it is God’s universal love that levels the playing field of life between different peoples—different kinds of people—it is also the universality of God’s threat that does so. To espouse this fiery one as Lord is to commit to having the rug pulled out from under you as it was for James and John. They were so sure that they knew what was going on, that they knew who they were and who Samaritans were, they were willing to commit an atrocity. Following God may be, as Jesus said, to build on the rock, but it is also a commitment to shifting sand, to being wrong, to rediscovering that all that was normal has been turned on its head. This shifting sand is for everyone who follows God, a universal threat to slave and free, Jew and Samaritan. This is why in Part II of Luke’s story, the book of Acts, Phillip, in chapter 8, goes back to the Samaritans, and they are baptized, joined into a new humanity where those who were enemies become friends.
Two weeks ago, U.N. observers entered into the Syrian village of Al-Kubeir. They had been prevented from entering in the days previous despite rumors of great violence there. As they entered, the village was empty. No people, no bodies, but signs of battle were everywhere. Shattered and burned buildings hung like broken ghosts everywhere. Fires still smouldered. The smell was the smell of burning flesh. Blood stained the walls and rubble. It was as if the entire village were consumed by a great fiery hand.
The village was destroyed by Bashar Al Assad’s army and allied militias. It was a Sunni muslim village surrounded by Alawite villages. It had been deemed a threat. They had been consumed in their place on the wrong side of power. What if this were that Samaritan village? All too often Christians have done nothing, or even perpetrated violence like this when Jesus rejected it.
That smoldering village is what the end of the road looks like if we allow scapegoats to take the blame, outsiders to be vilified. The question stands before us: are we actually willing to abandon the cry, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” in favor of the shifting sands under the feet of those who ask “Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire?’’
Neuchterlein, Paul J. “The Work of Rene Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics.” Currents in Theology and Mission 26, no. 3 (1999): 196-209.
The New Interpreter’s Bible : General Articles & Introduction, Commentary, & Reflections for Each Book of the Bible, Including the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. Bible. English. New International. 1994. edited by Press Abingdon. Vol. 9, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
“Observers Smell ‘Burnt Flesh’ in Syrian Village: U.N.”. The Hindustan Times, 2013.
Rowe, Christopher Kavin. Early Narrative Christology : The Lord in the Gospel of Luke. Beihefte Zur Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft Und Die Kunde Der Älteren Kirche ; Bd. 139. Berlin ; New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2006.
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