Five years after I was born a book was published which became something of a Christian classic.
The book was called ‘Through Gates of Splendour’, it told the story of the author’s husband, Jim Elliot, who was martyred aged 28 along with fellow missionaries to the Auca Indians in Ecuador, and it featured an appendix with a string of the many highly ‘quotable quotes’ from his journals.
With almost prophetic awareness, he reflected at one point in his journal on a verse from Psalm 104 (v.4):
“[He makes] His ministers a flame of fire.” Am I ignitable? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things.’ Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this my soul short life? In me there dwells the spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God’s house consumed Him.
This book was part of the staple ‘devotional’ diet on which I was nourished as a relatively new Christian: and you don’t need a PhD to figure out why such quotes as the one above have inspired succeeding generations of Christians, and why they found a ready echo in our hearts.
We disdain all mediocrity. Don’t we all? Or am I alone (surely not!) in desiring to make a difference through my living for the Lord? When we first encounter and come to know the Lord, our hearts are often just about bursting with joy, with wonder, with the thrill of romance and adventure: it feels like a huge big fire has been lit in our hearts – a fire which we hope will never die down. God deliver me from the dread asbestos of ‘other things’! We want to be on fire for the Lord.
The imagery is powerful. In the hearts and minds of us all, there’s something almost primal about fire.
Perhaps because it’s a graphic reminder of the fiery centre of that fragile stellar system which remains our erstwhile home, that blazing sun without which there’s neither light nor life: and perhaps as well, therefore, fire becomes as telling a portrayal as any of the God Who is Himself the source of all creation and the author of all life.
No wonder poor Moses got the shock of his life when his daily desert routines were so rudely interrupted by the Lord. No gentle tap on the shoulder with a quiet request for a chat: no hand-delivered appointment card with the prospect of possible work.
Just fire and flames. A bush ablaze with a fire which wouldn’t go out. A consuming fire which wasn’t consumed. And right in the poor man’s face. You want to know what God is like? Mr. Moses, meet your Maker!
Poor man! Talk about a baptism of fire. There’s a lifetime of work still to do for this man who’s been drifting towards his retirement: and the fire which he sees in the bush that’s ablaze is the fire he’ll require in his soul to be following through on this call.
This man who’ll have to face the might of Pharaoh as he sets the people free: this man who’ll have to bear the ire of Israel as he drags them through the desert in his wake, sometimes almost single-handed it will seem to him: this man who’ll have to teach and train his people in the truth of God with so much passion and persistence that the Word of God is well-nigh burned into their consciousness: this man will need to be, throughout his days, a man on fire.
And he will be – and that by the grace of the God Who Himself is ever ablaze; through the Spirit of God anointing the man and drenching him right from the start in the flammable fuel of heaven.
No wonder as well that the small group of Jesus’ disciples, convening discretely to figure out what to do next in the light of their Lord’s death and rising – no wonder that they, just the same, got the fright of their lives. Fire! A noisy and sudden eruption of fire invading their personal space, as the God Who is fire burst into the house, without so much as a ‘by-your-leave’ knock at the door, and bathed every one with the flames of His fire-laden Spirit.
Mr. Moses, your wish has at last been fulfilled. Remember the cry of Moses, the man on fire? “Oh that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!” [Numbers 11.29]. He just did.
Because they, too, will now need to be men and women on fire. To do what their Lord has commanded; to get up, and go into that hostile and hazardous world; to declare in the face of imperious demands from both Rome and religion alike that they edit their message and ditch any claims about Jesus – to declare nonetheless that Jesus is Lord and that life is alone found in Him: well, yes, they will need to be men and women on fire.
And down the centuries – ever so often, and often in an all too literal way – down the centuries they will indeed be men and women on fire: drenched in the blazing grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, saturated with the oil of the Spirit of God, and burned at the stake for the message of freedom they brought.
It’s men and women on fire that we all require to be: men and women whose hearts are ablaze with a deepening delight in our Lord: men and women whose service of Christ is a furnace that’s fuelled by the indwelling Spirit of God: men and women on fire. That’s true in every generation of the Lord’s on-going work.
And that’s why the theme of our weekend away is, I hope evocatively, Stirring the embers.
Embers are what happens when the blazing flames die back. Embers are residual. Embers are the state we’re in when faith has lost a measure of its urgency, when hope has lost that sense of real expectancy, when love has lost its warm and graceful vibrancy.
Embers are better than nothing. Of course. There’s still a degree of brightness and warmth. There’s still some sense of the fire there once was. And for some, once the flames have died back to that gentler condition of embers – well, for some that’s a preferable, much more ‘comfortable’ fire, less fierce and intense, less wild and disturbing and pure.
But embers simply are not adequate.
The bush in the desert was never a polite little pile of gently glowing ash, something more suited to an Ideal Home advertisement. It was ablaze, a frightening sight with voracious and unceasing flames.
And in just the same way, the Pentecost church was never just a warm and homely fellowship of cosy, friendly followers of Jesus: the church was a furnace of faith, her members on fire, her message always blazing out across the Roman world, her ministers (small ‘m’ please: they all of them shared in the life-giving ministry which Jesus continues to have) – her ministers great, leaping flames of fire (back to the Psalm with which I began).
No wonder we’re told that fear fell on people and cities all over the place. Fires are a scary phenomenon – fearsome and frightening; and yet always so fascinating too. Fear came upon whole communities: and faith started stirring in the hearts of the hardened and hopeless.
No wonder! This was a great rampaging fire whose every flame proclaimed the living and life-giving God.
Fire. Not merely glowing embers.
And where the fire of our faith and our hope and our love has burned back (and maybe burned out: how easily that can happen in our busy, beavering lives), when that fire in Christ’s church has burned back to leave her members merely embers – well, how we need the Son of God to bring out His bellows, and to breathe upon these embers great blasts of the wind of God’s Spirit.
You can see why Jim Elliot wrote as he did: and why the burden which lay on his heart finds a resonance still in us all.
Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. Make me a flame of fire: please God I’ll be ignitable!
My faith erupting into great leaping flames of delight in the Lord Jesus Christ: my hope simply bursting into flames of huge expectancy as I rest and rejoice in the resurrecting God: my love for the Lord and His people exploding into flames of warm, committed care for one and all.
Make me a flame of fire! Please, Lord. Brightening the life of the place where I live. Warming the hearts of the people I meet. Powering the thrust of the service I give.
That’s been my prayer and my hope for us here: that’s what the weekend away is about: that’s been the end which I’ve sought to pursue: and that’s what I trust we shall see!
“He makes His servants flames of fire.” To which we surely say, Amen!
Yours in Christ’s service