REKINDLE THE FLAME
2 Timothy 1:6
August 14, 2016 — Kevin Rees - (audio not available)
Any spiritual fire requires the right balance between heat, oxygen, and fuel; but the spark comes from God.
Fire-craft is an ancient skill. Making, keeping, and transporting fire draws a fine line between life and death for many people groups; even today. Modern survivalists are reviving the skill, I guess for the zombie apocalypse, but people who live outside the reach of reliable amenities such as electricity, water, and modern transportation still shape their days around making, keeping, and transporting fire. We lived in such a place in Uganda, but go to Sri Lanka or rural China or the extreme northern expanses of Canada, etc., and you will still find the centrality of fire. Humanly speaking, it is easy to understand why some people revere and/or fear fire as a supernatural entity—because it was often the difference between life and death. Fire is necessary, but impossible to tame truly. Too much is death; too little is death, as well.
In modern America, starting a matchless fire may be something over which only the Boy and Girl Scouts® still fuss. But our Native American compatriots still pass on the skill from generation to generation. I’ve always given a second look to fire-craft—mostly out of curiosity. Flint and spark, tinder and kindling, and flame and fuel—these are the main players in the older stories that course through all our human tribes.
So, what do you need for fire? You need heat. You need oxygen. You need a sufficient source of combustible fuel. Take away any one of those three and there can be no fire. But you also need all three of those components in the right balance or there is no lasting fire. For instance, too much oxygen or air, and the fire either blows up or blows out. Too little heat and the fire peters out; too much heat and the fire can quickly get out of control. Too wet the wood or too dense, or conversely too dry or too spongey, and the fire cannot progress through the necessary stages to become a full flame. It really is a craft. There really is a balance. One must develop a skill to make, keep, and transport fire.
Earlier this summer I burned a large burn pile in the back yard—probably 8’ tall and easily 15’ around at the base. It was a mixture of green wood, dead wood, hard wood, soft wood, leafy branches and yard waste still left over from the previous homeowner as well as many worn-out cardboard boxes that had been soaked in the rain and dried in the sun many times. (And I was sad to learn, after the fact, that the pile was also spiked with poison ivy.) The full day it took me to tend that fire became a vivid analogy of pastoring, especially pastoring here at Tucker Street Church, in line with 2 Timothy 1:6—“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands.”
In actuality, I had made three full attempts to light this fire but could not achieve a full flame. Either the pile was too wet, or too windy so that I reconsidered the try on grounds of safety, or too wildly stacked that my starter fire didn’t ignite the whole pile. I even tried lighter fluid from the grill, old motor oil from the shed, and diesel (don’t use gasoline!)—but three solid attempts failed before I finally found the right conditions. It is illustrative that my successful attempt was the simplest and most Boy Scout-ish of them all—no accelerants, just tinder as fine as a pencil lead, kindling about as thick as my thumb, well-chosen sticks of maple as thick as my wrist, and several very carefully split, very thin wedges of hardwood.
I’ve seen gimmick-dependent ministries that flare up and die down much like my accelerant-heavy fire. There is activity at first, and a burst of heat, but not enough bio mass in the right places or in the right arrangement to reach a full flame. A stick-fire isn’t going to reach maturity without the heavier combustibles. On the other hand, I’ve also seen plenty of examples of great, hefty logs tossed into the cold fire ring with nothing to catch them on fire. Clearly a single match or a squirt of lighter fluid isn’t going to set a 10” round of red oak alight—no matter how much the oak complains or how true the match strikes. Barring an act of God (e.g. lightning) there has to be a little bit of every size of twig, stick, branch, and log for the flame to reach maturity.
It is not a surprise, nor is it an insult to say, that we have an ample supply of 10” red oak here. But what we don’t have is the fine tinder, or the dry kindling, or the smaller branches of hardwood that can raise the temperature in the church hot enough to rekindle the big logs. We are not burning brightly—or at all—as of late. But today is a new day. The seasoned veterans cannot burn hotly without the new believers, and the hungry, and the well-established yet untested new crop of disciples burning brightly. Yet when the seasoned veterans rekindle, then their heat helps the previous stages of development progress. It is this type of symbiosis: either burn all together or cool off alone.
So the analogy continues. After those several tries (and I have burned dozens of burn piles in the last 20 years) I had to move through the elementary steps all over again—no short-cuts. I had to have several pre-selected pieces of firewood at hand and ready to add to the immature fire in the right order. There was no way around this step—kneeling down in the mud, getting smoke in my eyes, sometimes getting singed from the fire. Rake, shovel, axe, and saw were all ready to go nearby. I walked all over the property to gather pine needles, which is hard when there are very few pine trees! (I learned several weeks later that I could have used a manual pencil sharpener to make my own tinder from the shavings from pencil-sized twigs.) I heaped a snowball-sized clump of loosely packed tinder and lit the match under it—some smoke, a slow exhale of breath, then flame. I quickly and carefully added my bone-dry kindling a couple of sticks at a time so as not to crush the tinder and smother the flame. I took off my hat and used it to fan the flame. More kindling a little bit thicker in diameter than before; I heard one of the best sounds in the world—the crackle of fire when the water escapes the wood as steam. Now there was heat! Slowly, slowly add the poplar, add the cherry, then the oak, then the locust.
Heat, oxygen, and fuel—not too much too soon, but also not too little too late. Block the wind, now let it through. Fan a little more. Fan a little less. Add a little more fuel. Rearrange it carefully. It is a primeval joy to see a fire stand up. It is very shepherd-like.
We often think of a shepherd as a tender occupation. But it really is not. It is fragile at first, but not soft. A shepherd of the flame is there to keep the fire going; that is it. It is not to convince anyone else why the fire is important. It is not to compare fire with other fire-craftsmen. It is not to make appropriate small talk with the twigs, the branches, or the logs before during or after the assembly. The keeper of the flame is the keeper of the flame; it is as simple as that—beginning, middle, and end. If he is trying also to cook a meal in the kitchen while the flame is burning out in the yard, then he would not be a suitable chef or a suitable shepherd of the flame. The shepherd of the fire’s only task is to keep the flame burning and, when appropriate, to train others to transport the flame to a new burn-site (e.g. make disciples).
Yes, there are times when the sudden cloudburst drenches the fire and he has to start again. Yes, there are times when the north wind kicks up and complicates his central calling. Yes, there are times when the wood is just too wet, too scattered, or too green to burn thus requiring patience. And sadly, yes, there are times when nothing is cooperating and the shepherd has to carry the embers of the fire of God deep inside his own soul. But when it all works together then even the most gnarled joints of ironwood that the wood-splitter just could not split and even the most rigid stumps of old-growth locust will burn. And when those “big boys” catch fire, they can burn for a week. But even the biggest, hottest fires are fragile at first.
I. WE NEED A REMINDER (vs. 6a)
6a For this reason I remind you…
We need a reminder, this morning—a reminder just like Paul gave to Timothy—that faith is enough to meet the challenge of life and ministry. Heat, oxygen, and fuel—any spiritual fire must have those elements, but the true spark of life comes from God alone.
Timothy has that true spark. In verse 5 Paul called it “sincere faith”—which is to say, woodenly—non-hypocritical (anhupokrino) faith. The hypocrite (hupokrino) has a counterfeit and insincere spark—there is heat and friction, but it doesn’t come from the Spirit of God and therefore does not generate life but accelerates death. Paul senses the need to remind Timothy personally, as a mentor to a protégé … as a spiritual father to a spiritual son … that he has what it takes. There are plenty who will insinuate or accuse that you do not have what it takes, but a spiritual father has the clout to stand in the gap for you and say, “No. Let me speak the good word over you once again. You are in Christ and therefore, the words spoken over him apply to you by imputation: ‘You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’”
Timothy was likely opposed by the church for his perceived inexperience; for his perceived timidity; for his perceived weaknesses—although he was none of those things. Before he was ever called by a church, he was called by God. Though they may reject him, he is not rejected. Timothy needed this reminder. We need this reminder as well. Remember who you are! You are a not the holder of hands or the singer of songs or the pray-er of prayers or the preacher of sermons; you are a keeper of the sacred flame!
Here is a two-pronged application that is worthy of full consideration: are you a Timothy and do you have a Timothy? Are you a Timothy—are you being discipled by someone? It doesn’t matter if you are 85 or 25, are you learning from someone about what it means to know Christ, love God and others, and serve the world? Do you have someone, like I did again this week, who you can call and say: “Please pray for me because this is what I am facing?” In fact, I have many such people. We don’t talk every month, but when the pressure is on, I know that from any or all of them I can receive unvarnished answers about this life of faith. This need to be discipled never ceases—are you a Timothy?
Also, do you have a Timothy? Do you have someone you are actively mentoring; someone who wants to be discipled by you? This is not like having an apprentice or like being a sponsor. If it is just an information dump—you to him or her—then it is probably not disciple-making. Disciple-making is life-on-life; a two-way relationship that gives and receives grace and truth. I am still praying for a Timothy here in Dyersburg. I have some Timothys that I am discipling over Skype® every month, but disciple-making cannot truly happen by remote. Being discipled and becoming a discipler at the same time—this is healthy and wholesome. In fact, it is the heartbeat of New Testament ministry.
II. WE NEED A REKINDLING (vs. 6b)
6b … to fan into flame the gift of God …
What does Paul want to remind Timothy about specifically? Paul wants Timothy to “fan into flame the gift of God.” The language is poetic; occurring nowhere else in the New Testament. I want you to again-enliven-the-fire. For Timothy the flame is already there, even if it is only inside his heart at the beginning. But the necessary action as he is going to take over leadership in the churches while Paul’s leadership winds down is to fan into flame the gift of God.
Notice a few things about this teaching. It is present tense, so the idea is to keep on fanning into the flame (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament). It is not a once-and-done. It is not a “drive-by” task, but an on-going process. And it is singular, so Timothy has to do this work himself. Clearly, the spark is from God; Timothy cannot generate that part, but shepherding the flame into fullness in his own sphere is his own responsibility as he depends upon the Spirit. This is very important!
Timothy has spent considerable time ministering at Corinth and at Ephesus, but he is not responsible for reviving those churches, per se; for fanning their flames into roaring infernos. That may or may not happen based on the individual responsibility to tend to their own flame and the gift of God in their own heart. But the primary flame that Timothy is responsible to keep is the gift of God in his own life. Does that imply that Timothy sequester himself from other Christians? Of course not. We are lights of the world, sharing our flame to those around us. But how can he do this if he lets his own flame fade? Fan into flame the gift of God, so that you can share the light of Christ with those who come inside the circle of your campfire. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
The opposite, of course, would be to quench or extinguish the flame. Don’t smother it yourself or the Spirit in you. Don’t allow others to smother it in you or for you. Absolutely not! Your flame is given to you for the edification of all the saints—but it is God’s property, so to speak. Just remember that people prefer the darkness to the light. Your light might intimidate the children of darkness. So let them rage, but you—I want you to fan your flame. It is as much part of your calling as where you go, or what you say.
This is where my analogy of burning my backyard burn-pile breaks down. A pastor, even a bishop like Timothy—who seems to be over several churches by the time of his martyrdom in Ephesus—can arrange the tinder, stack the kindling, and add the fuel to the fire, but he cannot set it alight. Or will not, just like Elijah built the altar and stacked the wood but waited for fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38). Maybe that is the most faithful posture—having done everything to light, but then wait for the fire to come down.
So while we wait for that ultimate provision of the fire of God outside of us, how can we fan into flame the gift of God inside of us? A few suggestions. Use your gift in service to others. (Non-use will trend toward entropy.) Stir the coals. Collect more firewood to last the cold, dark night. Block the wind. Disciple a partner to learn alongside you. Rest well. Take pains to sharpen your axe. Then wait for God!
Some people may not know what their gift is. To that I would say, the best way I’ve found to discover the gift of God in you is to serve in many different areas. Serve in the nursery. Teach the teens. Volunteer to learn the sound system. Go on a mission trip. Feed the needy. Some service projects will drain you, but I would gamble that at least one will pump you up. That one is probably the gift. Now that doesn’t mean stop serving in places that drain your energy, but isolate the gift. Nurture it. Feed it. Protect it. Develop it. Why, so that you gain mastery for the sake of mastery? No way! Gain mastery for the purpose of serving others and glorying God. You’ve been blessed; so use it to become a blessing to others.
My gift is to teach the Scriptures. It pumps me up every time. And I know it is my primary gift because of service. I also know this, on the flip side, because when I am censured or if my opportunity to lead through teaching is taken away, I am severely conflicted. So, how do I fan into flame my gift, for instace? I remain curious. I chase down ideas. I listen to others; even others with those whom I do not necessarily agree. But I also choose, at times, when to stop listening to discouragement. I remain ever the learner. I create margin in my day to think, pray, and create. But why fan this flame? So that I can outshine other teachers? Boo; may it never be! I fan into flame the gift of God because God’s truth sets slaves free—just like it set me free. It is my joy to contribute in the process where hearts turn toward Jesus in the truth. So, what is your primary gift? What are you going to do to keep this flame at full intensity?
III. WE NEED A REAFFIRMATION (vs. 6c)
6c … which is in you through the laying on of my hands.
Finally, after Paul gives a reminder and some sage advice about rekindling, he gives a solid reaffirmation. He takes Timothy back to his ordination day; a milestone that they shared years before. He doesn’t add anything new, but simply indicates that the confidence he had in Timothy back then, he still has. “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (1Timothy 4:14).
The gift came from God, but with the laying on of hands by the elders—here Paul merely mentions himself—the collective church affirms Timothy. Paul did not give the gift to Timothy, but recognized the divine gift by the symbolic gesture of laying on of hands.
So look at the bones of this timely reaffirmation: Timothy, I was there with you at the beginning. I’m here with you at the end, if only in spirit. Others in the church many use many other non-biblical metrics to evaluate you: attendance, eloquence, charisma, even your physical health. But you will always have this milestone. Go back there in your mind and remember that God chose you, that I witnessed God’s work in your life, and that I validated the gift that the Spirit gave you for service.
Church, do you need a reminder this morning? Run to the Scriptures. Church, do you need a rekindling? Fan into flame the Spirit’s gift. Church, do you need a reaffirmation? Cling to your calling. In Christ you have already been given “all things pertaining to life and godliness through the knowledge of him to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). You are a keeper of the flame—no more, no less.