2 Timothy 1:5-10
I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 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. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who has saved us and called us to a holy life--not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
The fire starts small. They always do. Whoever heard of a fire that started as tall as an oak? And who knows what it was that triggered that small spark in the first place? But something did, and before long that tiny spark caught on the dry leaves, and little orange and yellow flames began their quickstep across the forest floor.
The dance engaged with twigs and briar - old weeds dried up and stifling the life out of the earth. Dry brushwood picked up the halting rhythm and before long the crackling pace took hold of the oldest, driest trees as the smallest, tiniest spark became an overwhelming force. The old wood burns.
It rages on for forty days and forty nights and at its conclusion all that seems to be left is a smouldering ruin. But wait. Just for a few days. Maybe just two or three. Then look again. Green shoots dot the forest floor. Now the green blade riseth.
The forest, once dominated by stagnant old growth finds new life as forever smothered shoots see the light and warmth of the sun for the first time. Nervously poking their heads through the ash, engaging with the elements they have never before seen, fire gives way to life, and ash marks the ending of the old to make space for the new as something fresh and vital springs from the flame.
Let me give you a bit of natural history. We all love our forests and woodland. And we hate the idea of fires burning them up, but a few years ago it began to become clear that forests have actually evolved not only to cope with fires, set naturally by lightening, but actually to depend on them.
Did you know that some seeds actually require the heat and the smoke generated by a forest fire simply to germinate? Other new plants simply cannot get the light and water they need unless old dry dead underbrush is burned up. Hold on to that thought because it’s vital for this Lent.
But have you noticed how we often think of fire in such negative terms? We are afraid of it because it remains uncontrollable, able to burn through those things we hold most dearly. The biggest problem with fire is that we cannot control what it burns up, all of which brings us to Lent and Ash Wednesday.
The Bible is full of metaphors about fire and many of them strike fear into us; the fear of judgement and hell. Who can forget the words of the writer to the Hebrews who refers to our God as a consuming fire? But the metaphors are most definitely not all negative. In Exodus 3 the Lord revealed himself to Moses in a bush that was on fire but not consumed by the fire. When the Lord led the people of Israel through the desert it was in a cloud by day and by a pillar of fire at night.
When Elijah was carried into heaven in 2 Kings 2 it was in a chariot of fire. In Zechariah 2 God offers his protection as a wall of fire. And perhaps the most important one is that when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples at Pentecost it was as if there were tongues of flame upon their heads.
The two readings that we have used tonight also make clear uses of the positive yet scary nature of fire. In St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul reminds him to fan the gift he was given into flame. The reference to Timothy’s timidity suggests that he was scared to be all that he was called to be, and maybe that his young age meant leading his church was difficult for him.
When you fan something into flame you really don’t necessarily know what it’s going to do next, so it requires courage and a step of faith. At some point in their lives most children will play with fire, and most children will be burned by it and learn that it is not something to be played with. Likewise we can be scared of the gifts God has given us and the possibilities of where they may take us if we fan them into flame.
Then in our Gospel reading John the Baptiser refers to Jesus as baptising his followers with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Why fire? Well maybe it’s because of that reference to burning up chaff. We normally associate the wheat and the chaff with God’s people and those who have put themselves outside the kingdom. But what if there’s another meaning here?
What if the wheat and the chaff also refers to what is going on inside each one of us? And this brings us back to our opening motif of the forest fire. In order for there to be space for new growth it is necessary that we put the old dead wood, the chaff, that which is dried up and useless in our lives, to the torch and let it be burned up.
When we do that we find a very different meaning to the use of ash. In addition to its traditional use as a sign of repentance, it also becomes a sign of willingness to let the flame of God, sent by the Lord himself, to turn to ash those parts of our lives that are getting in the way of the potential for growth, for us to be able to give back to the community of the gifts that have space to grow within us.
And so that is what we’re going to ask you to do this Lent. After you have received ash on your foreheads, take a piece of paper from the pile in front of us which poses a question, ‘What is God asking me to offer up to the fire of the Holy Spirit to be turned to ash in order to make way for new growth?’
You may well have various disciplines that you’re doing over the course of this Lent, but we would ask you to keep this sheet with your Bible and bring it out every day, asking God in prayer what it is that you should be offering up. What is getting in the way of you offering your gifts? Write on to the paper the things which come to mind and let God make it clear to you. And talk about it with someone you trust.
It may be, for example, that your fear of being noticed stops you from doing your very best with a public gift. Or it may be that your love of talking stops you from seeking the silence of God’s presence. Maybe it’s your fear of what people might say about you that stops you from offering yourself for a ministry to which God is calling you, or perhaps it’s the way you treat people that is stopping you from growing in loving relationships.
It could be anything, and the hardest part of that is that if you make this offering to God you don’t know where the flame will stop, and you don’t know what will be left.
But that is the point of Lent, that we allow ourselves to be challenged by God and changed, that the old is burned up to make way for something new. Whoever said that a forest fire could be anything but painful. But that is why you should be prepared to talk with someone you trust about the process. We’ll make ourselves available to you as well.
So when you receive ash shortly, with those timeless words, ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn away from sin and be faithful unto Christ’, remember that you are receiving ash also as a prophecy, that the ash represents that you are willing to let the Lord set his fire on the dead wood in your life to make way for new growth.