Tested by Fire

Week of Sunday November 14
Gospel Luke 21:5-19  but read the whole chapter.

7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’10Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

I remember my first fire.  It was burning out of control in scrub land which was largely inaccessible due to the terrain.  And because it was an army ammunition proofing range. No one was wanting to go in there!

So we farmers (and sons) waited in my uncle's paddock which sat above the  scrub.  No one was quite sure how to attack the problem. Although minus unexploded shells, the area of  below us was still too thick and too steep to get into and burn a fire break.

Four hundred yards below us the leisurely fire front reached the base of our hill. In a space of seconds- less than 10- it had exploded up the slope, far faster than any living creature could run.  We fled back into the ploughed paddock. If not for that bare ground we would have been burned alive, almost before we realised.

Explaining the dangers of fire in hill country to someone who has not been there is almost impossible.  Friends of mine from the tropics are mystified about why we even have these fires in Australia. Even Australian city dwellers do not really understand the uncontrollable forces at play.  Unless we have been there, and perhaps lost friends and family, we do not and cannot understand.

And my first fire was a very small fire.

Brian Stoffregen asks

How does one preach apocalyptic literature to people who are not suffering? Do we have to convince them that they are suffering for this literature to make sense? This type of literature was written during periods of great persecution and suffering; to encourage the believers to remain faithful through the ordeal. Can it speak to our comfortable people today?

I begin to understand the question.  I once suggested in a sermon, that I suspected the Sudanese members of our congregation, who are war refugees, might read Mark 13 (the Little Apocalypse, on which much of the material in Luke is based) rather differently to we native born Australians. The serious nods told me I was correct.  And the wry smiles from the same Sudanese told me I had no idea how much differently.

How then do I even begin to preach, or read the text for myself? I too have never really suffered. I’ve only been to the smallest of fires.

I think that recognition of the genre is the most important step I can take. Stoffregen lists the characteristics of prophetic literature and wisdom literature from the Hebrew scriptures compared to apocalyptic literature.  He notes of apocalyptic literature that 

•   Present time is one of suffering 
•   Why? The world is under evil powers who afflict the faithful
•   Future: a reversal of fortunes: the faithful righteous who suffer now, will be rewarded; and the godless unrighteous who bring suffering to others, will suffer (usually in a different or recreated world)
•   Purpose: encourage the people to continue their faithfulness and patience during the present suffering 

We see that we are in a “time of fire.” Things are extreme.  Repentance is no longer on the agenda; we have gone beyond that time. Simply to survive is the task. Compare apocalyptic literature to the characteristics of the prophetic genre:

•   Present time is one of suffering
•   Why? The people have sinned.
•   Future may be a time of blessing if the people repent.
•   Purpose: call the people to repent and change their ways in the present time

John Shearman says

By its very nature, eschatology is hyperbolic. It can never be literally interpreted. Its purpose was to warn of judgement to come and to encourage the faithful that, come what may, God is still in control of historical events.

Hyperbole is important. Hyperbole exaggerates to convey the importance and the emotional intensity of an event, but it is not meant to be literal.  If we do not recognise hyperbole for what it is, we will be misinterpreting the text.

My fire was such a tiny fire.  We won.  In 2005 a hundred and forty five thousand hectares were burned in South Australia, in only a few hours.  Nine people were killed, ninety three houses burned, and some 47,000 farm animals burned to death, or later put down. At North Shields people survived by fleeing into the sea. One of my friends was burned to death. She had no bare paddock into which to flee; the fire was too great and too fast.

Wikipedia and other places record some bare facts of the event. But we cannot tell the tale without hyperbole.

“The roar of the flames streaming far and wide mingled with the groans of the falling victims; and, owing to the height of the hill and the mass of the burning pile, one would have thought that the whole city was ablaze,” wrote Josephus of the destruction of Jerusalem.

Can a survivor of the Eyre Peninsula fires tell the tale truthfully without hyperbole?  How much do the bare facts of the event, such as would be placed in a report to a government enquiry, tell the truth and witness to the severity of what happened?

How can we explain without the drama of hyperbole? We need hyperbole, but in using it we would understand that we were explaining, not foretelling. In the reading from Luke, he  does not foretell. He explains. As John Petty puts it,

The text is not a prophecy.... but an interpretation of history.

The text has nothing to do with predictions of the future, and any interpretation which treats it so is fatally flawed from the start.  Luke was not written primarily for 21st-century Christians anxious about the future.  It was written for a beleaguered and persecuted minority under the thumb of Rome.  How were they to deal with this situation?  Luke says to listen for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and use Jesus himself as a model.

If we take the text as explanation, it seems to me to become much more powerful. Whatever Jesus may have said of the temple, that fact that Luke chooses the words of chapter 21 is amazing.  For when Luke writes, Jerusalem and the temple are already destroyed. When he has Jesus say

Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven...

he is repeating history. Jesus is dead. Jerusalem is destroyed. Vesuvius has erupted and buried Pompeii, wars and massacres have multiplied, and the horrified tales have spread across the world with the travellers and soldiers of the empire.  People’s horror driven hyperbole has been honed around campfires into the mnemonic cadences of tradition. Luke is telling a restrained history of a world often on the border unbearable suffering.

It is clear that this horror has entered the church.  There has been betrayal within, “even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends.” (16) Some have been executed.  Yet Luke says, not as untested promise, with no hint of whistling in the dark, and in the face of hysterical hatred,

But not a hair of your head will perish. In your endurance, you will possess your lives.

He bears witness to the experience of the church. The text is hyperbole honed by reality and truth, not religious bravado. It is not untried foretelling, but truth tried by fire.

It is like listening to the restrained story of our faith, and our hoped for future, told by a disciple of many years experience, and comparing that to the bravado of young convert whose naiveté is untempered. Petty said any interpretation which treats the text as future prediction “ is fatally flawed from the start.” The flaw is not merely(!) to misinterpret the genre. The fatal flaw is to cut ourselves off from the church’s experience of God. It is to ignore our memory and our witness that by endurance we possess our lives. We ignore the gift of God.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module