Friends, the statement of Jesus that we have in the Gospel for today is frightening: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” He’s throwing fire down, much like the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Okay, so how do we make sense of all this? I thought the angels on Christmas morning said that he had come as the Prince of Peace? Jesus is the Incarnation of the God who is nothing but love, but this enfleshment takes place in the midst of a fallen, sinful world. Therefore, it will appear as something threatening, strange, off-putting.
The world, on the biblical reading, is a dysfunctional family. When Jesus comes, he necessarily comes as a breaker of the peace, as a threat to the dysfunctional family. Now we can begin to understand that strange language about setting three against two and two against three.
This is why Jesus wants to cast a consuming fire on the earth. He wants to burn away all that is opposed to God’s desire for us. He has to clear the ground before something new can be built. Is this utterly painful? Yes!