Charles Wesley, younger brother of the great Methodist reformer John Wesley, wrote over 6,000 hymns over the course of his lifetime. That’s less than one hymn per week for his entire life, which is impressively prolific. One of his most well know hymns is as follows,
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to Thee.
Lamb of God, I look to Thee;
Thou shalt my Example be;
Thou art gentle, meek, and mild;
Thou wast once a little child.
Loving Jesus, gentle Lamb,
In Thy gracious hands I am;
Make me, Saviour, what Thou art,
Live Thyself within my heart.”
When I was very little, despite not being brought up in a churchgoing household , I would sing the first verse of this song every night as my night-time prayer. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who did the same thing. It conjures up images of a very quiet, gentle man, humbly going about his business of teaching people right from wrong and helping them come to God in a very quiet and obedient way.
It’s the view that millions have grown up with of Jesus; of a peaceful, kind man with a loving word for everybody. It feels safe and warm to think of him like that. Another verse from the full version says,
“Put Thy hands upon my head,
Let me in Thine arms be stayed,
Let me lean upon Thy breast,
Lull me, lull me, Lord to rest.”
The image of being rocked gently to sleep, like a child, is comforting. Nothing dangerous is here at all.
Now, I want you to take that image of Jesus with you as you go back to the River Jordan in the first century. You come to the scene knowing who Jesus is, knowing this about him and knowing that, when you see John the Baptist, he will be preaching about Jesus. You settle yourself for a nice cosy talk about this meek and mild man, when all of a sudden this crazy guy at the front with wild, matted hair, camel hair clothes and a diet of locusts starts ranting at the powerful, religious leaders of the time. Then, when he’s done taking them down a peg or two, he starts speaking of Jesus,
“I baptize you with water, but someone is coming who is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He has his winnowing shovel with him, to thresh out all the grain and gather the wheat into his barn; but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out.”
Baptising with fire? Burning the chaff? Surely this isn’t the “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” Charles Wesley wrote about? It must be a different person.
But it isn’t. This is the same Jesus, a man who, later on in the same gospel, said,
“I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to receive, and how distressed I am until it is over! Do you suppose that I came to bring peace to the world? No, not peace, but division. From now on a family of five will be divided, three against two and two against three. Fathers will be against their sons, and sons against their fathers; mothers will be against their daughters, and daughters against their mothers; mothers-in-law will be against their daughters-in-law, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law.”
He came to set the earth on fire! He didn’t come to bring peace, but to bring division! This doesn’t sound safe and cosy at all.
And, there’s the thing. Jesus isn’t calling us to a safe and cosy life or a safe and cosy world. He’s calling us to a dangerous and divided one. A world where people will turn against each other, because of him.
He isn’t saying that his intention is to divide people and families, but that his message is so hard for some people to hear that this is an inevitable consequence; that the decision we make about whether or not to follow him will change our lives and the landscape around us so drastically, much as a raging fire would do, that division and discord are guaranteed to follow.
And when John talks of Jesus baptising with fire and separating the wheat from the chaff he’s talking of judgement, a judgement that we will all face one day based on that decision to follow him or not; where Jesus will stand and say whether we, like wheat, have borne good fruit, or, like chaff, have done nothing in our lives to justify escaping being thrown away and burnt up.
It’s something that we sometimes don’t like to talk about, but from the very beginning of his ministry it was clear that Jesus was here, not just to call us to follow him and to be saved, but also to judge us in our response to that calling. Do we listen and respond in true faith, wanting to be changed and transformed by the fire Jesus brings, or do we ignore or reject him?
This is what the fire Jesus brings is for. This Holy Fire he brings acts in different ways for different people; and we can see that just by looking at different translations of the Bible. If you look at Hebrews 12: 29 in the Good News Bible, you’ll see a reference to God as “a destroying fire”. His is a fire which destroys all of the bad, sinful things on earth. And it is, as the NIV puts is, “a consuming fire”, totally overwhelming everything in its path. There is nothing which can escape it at it consumes everything on earth. However, as well as being “destroying” and “consuming”, The Message tells us that this is a “cleansing” fire,
“God is not an indifferent bystander. He’s actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and he won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God himself is Fire!”
While this fire consumes all and it destroys, it only destroys the things which need to be burnt. God himself protects the good things, the wheat, from the fire.
We heard this promised earlier in the reading from Isaiah,
“Do not be afraid—I will save you.
I have called you by name—you are mine.
When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you;
your troubles will not overwhelm you.
When you pass through fire, you will not be burned;
the hard trials that come will not hurt you.”
If we really listen to Jesus’ call to us, if we let him in and allow him to change our attitudes, or values, our desires and our lives, then we will be protected from the fires raging around us. This doesn’t mean that we will avoid incredibly difficult times; both Isaiah and Jesus make that abundantly clear, in fact, Jesus tells us that we will go through hard times precisely because we choose to follow him.
However, we know that, by following Jesus, by entering into that relationship with him, we will be recognised and accepted by him at the end of days. That fire which burns around us also burns inside us. When we invite Jesus in he sets about us with that winnowing fork as well, separating the wheat from the chaff in our lives and burning it up. And he doesn’t stop until we are cleansed. We need to work with him to do that, to accept that transformation in the way we act, think, speak and live. We can’t rely on our outward appearance, or our attendance at Church each Sunday, or even just doing good things; instead, we need to look at every aspect of ourselves and ask where our motivation lies, where our focus is. Do we do things for ourselves, or to look good, or simply because we think it’s the right thing to do; or are we living our lives for Christ and in Christ? Are we doing the things we do to bring glory to him? Are we doing things to point others to him? Are we living as he wants us to and because he wants us to?
Doing this is tough, but it changes that fire which Jesus brings from a destroying, consuming one to a refining one; cleaning the impurities from our lives so that we can be welcomed into God’s Kingdom where the safety and security which we feel when reading Charles Wesley’s hymn comes to pass, and his wish,
“Give me, dearest God, a place
In the Kingdom of Thy grace.”