Fanning the Flame of God

Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:1-12

Dean Cornwell and I have a unique commonality: we have both been called into vocations that cause lots of people to respond with shock and disbelief. When I told the lady at the bank that I am the new pastor of South Bay Christian Church, she looked at me like I was crazy, and I have a feeling Dean has been getting some similar reactions when he explains that yes, he is moving to the Democratic Republic of Congo for two years to serve as a missionary Communications Director at the Protestant University.

After all, Pastors don’t look like me. And missionaries to the Congo don’t look like Dean. Pastors look like… well, they might look and sound a lot like Dean. Missionaries, on the other hand—aren’t missionaries strapping young men and women just out of college?

Does anyone remember the movie Freaky Friday? Has there been a switcheroo? Or could it be that the divine lines got twisted, and Dean and I have somehow managed to receive each other’s vocational assignments?

Our scripture reading today proclaims a word of encouragement to all Christians as we seek to respond to the call God has put on our hearts. The letters to Timothy, with their attention to the details and characteristics of church leadership, make ideal resources for occasions such as today’s commissioning. But I think both Dean and I have another commonality when it comes to these letters. Tradition tells us that Timothy is a young pastor in need of continued instruction and supervision from his superior, Paul. These nuggets of wisdom are directed toward a spring chicken—and I don’t think Dean minds me mentioning that he is perhaps more of a summer chicken. When Dean suggested a reading from the letters to Timothy, I am relatively sure he did not intend for me to preach from 1 Timothy 4:11, which proclaims, "Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity." Likewise, I’ll be honest and say that I paged past the mandate in 1 Timothy 2:12, in which the writer of the letter states, "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

Some folks would call it irony. Some folks would call it unbiblical. I call this glorious opportunity to preach a word from the second letter to Timothy on the day of Dean Cornwell’s Commissioning a mark of the wideness of God’s vision and the depth of God’s voice.

All this breaking of stereotypes and overturning of what our society thinks are age-appropriate roles is a pretty clear indicator to me that the Spirit of God is at work in this place. Where that brilliant Spirit is, some rather exceptional and unexpected things can happen.

The Spirit of God is often imagined as a flame: consuming, fervent, transformative. Moses encountered God through a burning bush that altered his entire understanding of his life and work. In the book of Acts, the Spirit of God came in the form of tongues of fire, demonstrating the indwelling presence and movement of God through an awesome display of blazing heat. Fire, though seemingly mysterious in its magnificent campfire dance of orange and blue and red, is actually quite straightforward. Fire needs oxygen and fuel. If a fire runs out of fuel or air, it will crackle to a smoky memory of flame. Sometimes that’s a good thing. When the hills of Southern California are aflame, it is necessary to put it out quickly, the best way to do that is to add water and subtract fuel.

I doubt that the fire of the Spirit of God that is within God’s children can ever be fully extinguished. God is too persistent, too passionately in love with Creation to let that flame go out. But it can be neglected. It can be stifled. It can be reduced to a skeletal and hesitant flame, or a faintly smoldering heap of embers. And that is never a good thing.

In the second letter to Timothy, Paul writes about the necessity of fanning the flame of the gift of God. That fire burns in the hearts of all of those who have been called by God to a life of discipleship. Working with God to keep that fire going strong requires a lot of us. It requires that we live prayerfully, opening ourselves up to the gift of mutual communication with God. It requires that we continually increase our love of God and neighbor. It requires that we find ways to serve as the hands and feet of Christ in a hurting world. It requires that we turn away from greed, rage, and grudges fans.

When we do the hard work of tending the flame of the gift of God, that flame is emboldened. The temptation to be timid, lukewarm followers of Christ becomes weak, for the spirit God gives us is one of courage. When we live in a spirit of God’s power and love, when we live as disciples—disciplined and taught in the imitation of Christ—all the reasons convincing us of sure failure are erased. Age—young or old—no longer prevents us from answering God’s call. Gender—male or female—no longer determines what we can or cannot do to share the gospel. The size of a congregation—whether it is seven members or seventy—no longer frustrates the vitality of the Spirit in our midst.

The Los Angeles Times ran an article yesterday about the Dream Center, a joint ministry of the Assemblies of God and Foursquare Gospel churches that is located in Echo Park. The center has been accepting hundreds of Katrina evacuees from the Gulf Coast, and offering them a full year of room and board to help them get off their feet again after their devastating losses. The deeply moving article described a loving and spirit-filled group of people dedicated to tangibly demonstrating the compassion of Jesus. Before the hurricane hit, the center had a program in which they adopted 50 blocks of local neighborhoods, offering assistance to residents in whatever form was needed. They painted, babysat, provided food, and fixed cars—all because they believe that each person they helped was created in the image of God. They were ready and willing to help when the disaster struck. Teaaka Burton, a new resident of the Dream Center, was quoted as saying, "Since we’ve gotten here, they’ve showed us nothing but mad, mad love."

The thing that struck me about the Dream Center is not just that they are responding faithfully to the needs of the persons evacuated from Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. There have been lots of stories—and we all thank God for this—of both Christian and secular organizations alike showing extraordinary generosity and kindness in the face of the recent calamity. What struck me about the Dream Center is that ten years ago, they started off with a nine-member congregation with a 21-year-old pastor. That’s even younger than I am! But that church did what it could to fan the flame of the gift of God in their midst, and as a result, they gained the power to offer love—in the form of warm beds and hot meals—to over two hundred evacuees. Their willingness to serve their brothers and sisters—to suffer for the sake of the gospel— is a sign of God’s holy fire at work.

When God’s flame is cultivated within the hearts of men and women, we are enabled to follow more closely the path of Jesus. We are invited beyond the safe walls of half-hearted Christianity into the Kingdom of God. We are persuaded to live for God, to respond to the surprising and challenging visions God has for each of us.

When we rekindle the gift of God, we discover that our whole being— our waking and sleeping, our rejoicing and lamenting, our playing and working— exists within and because of the Source of Life. We discover that we have the power and the courage to live more fully, even if that means accepting suffering and sacrifice are part and parcel of the life of discipleship.

I want to close with an important Word that was first spoken by the prophet Joel and remembered by Peter in the book of Acts as he preached in the presence of the tongues of fire.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

The Spirit has been poured out on this place. The flame of the gift of God is being fanned, and it is a fire that impassions us to respond faithfully to the grace given to us in Jesus Christ. It is a fire that opens us to the surprising and remarkable ways that God calls to his people. It is a fire to cultivate and to celebrate. An old man among us has dreamed a dream, and it is God’s dream. May we all be so courageous as to answer the Gift of God within us!

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