Don’t put a glass over the flame | Sermon from Senior Sunday, 5/20/18

Based on Jeremiah 1:4-8

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

I get enthusiastic about an idea, an enthusiasm that sometimes gets me carried away. When I was in my first senior year of college (I took the bonus lap fifth year) I got enthusiastic about a great idea. Well, it seemed like a great idea. I probably should have found a glass to put over the flame of my enthusiasm, but no, the idea took hold and I took a risk.

I gathered the first-year students who lived on my hall. I was their RA. I told them I had this great idea. The girls floor, our sister floor as they were known, had been pranking us. Little pranks, but it was time to get them back. We gathered water bottles and went over to their floor.

Quietly, as quiet as church mice, we crept up to their floor, each of us taking a room. I stood in the middle of the hall, everyone standing in front of a closed door, bottles of water in their hands. With everyone looking at me, I silently held up three fingers, then two, then one, then knock knock knock! Everyone knocked on the door in front of them. We knew the girls would be home and, indeed, almost every door opened. When the doors had opened, we threw water on them, sprayed them with shaving cream, and ran away.

This was tons of fun until I got a text from one of the judicial officers of the college, who also happened to be my dad. “What were you thinking?!” it said. The next thing I knew, I was in big trouble. Property damage had occurred, the RA of that floor (who is now my wife, by the way) was infuriated and demanding severe punishment.

Perhaps, I should have put a glass over the flame of my enthusiasm.

But no, don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

That was a risky endeavor, and somewhere inside of me, I knew it. I knew there was risk of getting in trouble, maybe even losing my job as an RA. But I still took the risk, I still plunged in headfirst.

So why is it, I wonder sometimes still, that I’m so hesitant to take other risks?

Looking back now, I can see how God spent the better part of a year calling me into ordained ministry, to become a pastor as you see me now. Most of 2010, I wrestled with God, telling God no, deciding that I knew the better path: law school. And so, I pursued that path, even though somewhere deep inside of me, I knew God was calling me into ministry. But it felt too foreign, it felt too out of the box; it felt too risky. The call to ministry was like a flame inside of me, but I didn’t want that particular flame. I looked around for a glass to put over the flame, a glass like the time I told God, “I’m not worthy of this,” or “I spent the better part of 10 years not believing very much in you.” I wanted desperately to put a glass over the flame.

Unlike that poorly designed prank, I didn’t want to take this risk. I’m hesitant to take risks when they actually matter. I’d rather put a glass over the flame.

But no, don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

I imagine Jeremiah in much the same predicament: not wanting to take a risk. There he is, living his life, doing his thing, when God calls. In verse 5, God begins to speak to Jeremiah, telling him that not only does God know him, but that God has ordained that he would become a prophet, that he has been consecrated, literally set-aside for this particular task. This sounds like a big honor, we might be tempted to think. We might think Jeremiah’s response would be: God has chosen me? For this big task? That’s great!

Imagine if you heard God’s literal voice speak to you in this way. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, I consecrated you, I ordained you to be fill-in-the-blank.” I think our initial reaction would be to think this is absolutely amazing! God has chosen, God has called, God has made clear, and it’s me! I get to do something big!

In fact, we might even wish that God spoke this clearly to us. Maybe you’re sitting out there today wondering how God has been calling you thus far and how God will be calling you while in college. Maybe you’re out of college and wondering if God ever did call you, or if you missed your call, or if you spent an entire career doing the wrong calling. It seems that this is one of the risks of life: that we’ll miss God’s call on our lives. So wouldn’t it be great if God spoke to us the way God spoke to Jeremiah?! With that clarity of purpose, with that focus on the right thing to do. If God was that clear about calling with us, we’d probably be deeply grateful.

But no, Jeremiah’s not grateful. Clearly he doesn’t understand what it’s like to be us: wondering if we heard God’s call. Instead, Jeremiah uses that standard form of complaint in the Old Testament, “Ah, Lord God!” This is the Hebrew equivalent of that famous complaint, “But mom! I don’t wanna!” Jeremiah just said to God, “But God, I don’t wanna!”

So ungrateful. If only we could hear God like this! If only God spoke to us like this! We wouldn’t put a glass over the flame God was implanting within us. No, we would let it burn a holy passion inside of us! But Jeremiah wants to put a glass over the flame, lamenting, complaining to God about this gift of a clear call.

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

Jeremiah continues his ungrateful lament: I am only a boy, I don’t know how to speak. What do I know about being a prophet?! But God, I don’t wanna! He expresses grave doubts about this call. And justifiably so; he must know that to be a prophet is to be an agitator of the status quo. To be a prophet is to do things like walk around with a yoke around your neck, spend a few years naked in public, not to mention confronting powerful authorities like Moses and Pharaoh or Isaiah and the Kings of Judah. Jeremiah has lots of justifiable reason to doubt God’s call.

Just as I had lots of reason to doubt God’s call to ordained ministry. Who am I, one who was an unbeliever for a long time? Who am I, one who rejected you and faith off and on for a decade? Who am I, one who despised you and criticized you? You called me? That’s crazy.

And perhaps, rather than wanting to hear God speak a call into your life as God did for Jeremiah, you’re sitting out there today wishing you didn’t know God’s call. You’re full of doubt: is the college I chose the right choice? Is this job I’m working the right one? Am I doing the right things in retirement? Have I chosen the right major? Am I headed toward the right career? You have a sense of how God is calling, but you wish that call wasn’t so. It’s too scary, too foreign; it simply creates too much doubt.

And so, like Jeremiah, we look around for a glass to put over the flame that God has clearly put on our hearts. But God, we say…this can’t be it. But God, we say…this can’t be how you’re calling. But God…I like my life. But God, I don’t wanna!

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

It’s tempting, as it must have been for Jeremiah, to want to be complacent in the face of God’s call. We’re headed to college to get a degree, we think. We’re headed there to play a sport. We’re going to college because it’s the next thing you do in life: graduate high school, go to college, get a job. This is just the way things are done; the natural order of things. Or, we think, we’re going to college to party, to find a spouse, or just to have a good time away from the confines of living with parents. But, somewhere inside of us a flame burns that says there’s so much more to college than this.

It’s tempting, for those of us past our college experiences, to be complacent in the face of God’s call. We’ve lived here all our lives with our families and just want to enjoy them without the agitation of the fire in our souls. We moved back here for a particular job and we just want to do it without doubt. We retired here to be close to family or for the community we feel with others in this small town. We just want to live out our lives in peace, not bothered by the muss and fuss of life beyond the pretty walls we’ve constructed around our existence. But, somewhere inside of us, a flame burns that says, there’s so much more to life than this.

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

Some of you, by now, might have recognized that lyric. “Don’t put a glass over the flame,” the band Mumford and Sons tells us in their song “Hopeless Wanderer.” “Don’t let your heart grow cold,” they continue, invoking the imagery of God speaking to us: “I will call you by name, I will share your road.” They say these words amidst a song of doubt, amidst a life they find they’re living as hopeless wanderers. As they begin the bridge from where this lyric comes, they say “so when your hope’s on fire, but you know your desire, don’t put a glass over the flame, don’t let your heart grow cold.”

God’s call has a funny way of setting our hope on fire. We have our small hopes: to live out our lives in peace, to simply do our job, to get a degree from college, or just to have a good time. And yet, there’s a fire within us that threatens to burn down those hopes by calling to us, telling us deep inside our souls that there’s so much more to our existence than our small hopes.

God’s call has a funny way of setting our hope on fire.

We look around us and see a world distressed, a world full of fear and reasons to fear, a world that scares us and makes us want to retreat into our safe little lives. And yet, somewhere deep in the recesses of our soul, a fire burns, longing to set us on fire with the message of the gospel first spoken by another prophet, Isaiah, and proclaimed by Jesus: “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) That, God’s gospel message, sets us on fire because we contain the hope that the world needs: the love of God that will heal us all.

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

There’s a flame inside of you that wants to set you on fire. The Holy Spirit lives inside of us like a flame; it’s the fulfillment of the promise God makes to Jeremiah, “I am with you….” God says. As Mumford and Sons reminds us, God is with us, God shares our road, even as God calls us in ways that create grave doubts within us, just as Jeremiah faced grave doubts of his own.

We know the fire burns because the Holy Spirit came down from heaven on the birthday of the church, the first Pentecost, some 2000 years ago. Today is the anniversary of that spectacular event, where fire burned on the tongues of the first disciples, where the passion of the Holy Spirit first found its implanting in human souls. The flame of the Holy Spirit set fire to the small hopes of the disciples, consuming their old desires with a burning passion to share the gospel. The disciples burned with a passion from that day forward and so it has been for Christians ever since.

For the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God, lives within us like a flame; a holy passion that burns within us, calling us out into the world to be the hands and feet of Christ. Even though we have doubts, even if it’s scary, we have awareness that God has called to us, saying, “there’s so much more to life than this.”

For, as with Jeremiah, the call of God is bold, which means it’s scary. It’s terrifying. And, yet, just as with Jeremiah, God is calling us still. It’s the flame inside of you; the one we’re tempted to put a glass over, the one that threatens to consume if we’d let it, the one that wants to burn down our small hopes.

And that call comes to us all. We might think that only a select few get the clarity of call like we hear in Jeremiah’s story, but this is simply not true. For the call of God on our lives is simple and yet profound: don’t put a glass over the flame; instead, let it consume, creating within you a burning passion to share the gospel.

God’s call on our lives is to live a life that exudes the gospel message that sets people free from oppression, that opens the eyes of those blind, that makes the poor a top priority, that declares God loves us without condition just as we are. When we let the Holy Spirit live through us like that, when we let the fire consume us, we reveal to the world the very heart of God, becoming agents of healing to a world that too often feels like it went mad.

The world needs us. The world needs us to let the fire consume. For when it does, we become a healing people who seek first to understand before being understood; who recognize that the oppressed plight of our marginalized brothers and sisters require our empathy and partnership, not bootstraps; who know without doubt that God’s love drives out fear, even fear of foreigners and immigrants and terrorism; because we know that the God who calls us by name and shares our road is the same God who will not allow evil to reign forever, who will not ignore the calls of the marginalized, who always acts for justice; this is the God who wins, not by the means we might expect, but through offering healing to the world in the most unexpected of ways: through the lives of you and me.

We can be agents of healing if we’ll kindle the flame that burns within us; the flame that is the the Holy Spirit. For healing to occur, for the gospel to spread, offering its freedom and love, all we need do is kindle the flame within us.

The call of God on our lives is as clear as it is simple:

don’t put a glass over the flame of the Holy Spirit.

Instead, let the flame work on you like a phoenix. In ancient mythology, the phoenix, at the end of its life, is suddenly consumed by a flame, turning the bird into nothing but ashes. But out of the ashes, a new phoenix arises, refined by the fire that had ended its old life.

So it is with the Holy Spirit, the flame within us. It may set our small hopes on fire: hopes for just a degree, hopes for a good time, hopes to live out a quiet life. And that fire may hurt, it may singe, it may cause us to not only say “But God…” but even to say, “no, God! This hurts too much.”

But out of that fire that consumes, we arise. Like the phoenix of old, the Holy Spirit’s fire refines us. The old hopes have died, but a new hope emerges.

And that new hope is the gospel message, “to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” the healing message the world desperately needs.

Don’t put a glass over the flame.

[pause]

Our world is in desperate need of healing. We need only look to the school shootings this week, to headlines like “more deaths of school children than service members so far in 2018” to understand how much the world needs the gospel. We must be agents of healing in the world, sharing the love of God into a world full of hate; sharing the peace of God into a world where fear gives the illusion of reigning. The world needs people of deep faith, for it’s through faith, through you and I empowered by the Holy Spirit, that the world is healed.

And that faith begins by accepting the call of God on your life: the call to burn with a passion for the gospel.

Perhaps, this morning, you don’t know what it means to live out the gospel in your life. That’s ok. Start praying, start talking with mentors, come talk with me. And, in the mean time, take care of your faith: come to worship, spend time alone with God, for it’s through keeping up our faith like a discipline that we learn to hear God speak. Don’t put a glass over the flame, let it grow until it refines you and you hear God speak, telling you how to spread the gospel through your life.

But perhaps, this morning, you relate to Jeremiah, “Ah, LORD God; But God, I don’t wanna!” Is what your soul says. You know how God has called you to live out the gospel, but you want to squelch it. You’ve got a glass over the flame of the Holy Spirit, lest it do what it was designed to do and consume you, refining you into the person God has called you to be. Lift the glass. Yes, it’s dangerous. But, like Mr. Beaver in The Chronicles of Narnia reminds us, God might be dangerous, “but he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you!” There’s so much more to college, so much more to life, than your small hopes.

But perhaps still, this morning, you find it difficult to relate to this sermon. “What fire?” you wonder. You don’t know about a flame in your life, you don’t sense the Holy Spirit. That’s ok. God is faithful to come to us when we ask. Ask God this morning to come into your life, declare to God your faith, and experience the power of the flame that won’t die; the Holy Spirit that is God’s very presence in our lives. Be bold this day; don’t choose to keep your small hopes, ask God to come into your life and set them on fire that you, too, might be an agent of healing.

Don’t put a glass over the flame. Don’t let your heart grow cold. God is calling you by name, God will share your road, for God is with us. That road might be fraught with challenges, it is most certainly risky, it might make us go “But God…!” and the fire of the Holy Spirit might singe, but that is our calling, for the world needs the gospel we carry. The world needs who God is calling us to be: agents of healing: people of faith who know how to bring the peace and love of God into the world, who have the boldness, like Jeremiah, to speak truth to power, who have the courage to do what God calls them to do, no matter how strange it may seem.

Our duty is to say, with our final hymn, “Here I am, Lord, is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me; I will hold your people in my heart.” Make that your prayer as we conclude our service. Come to the altar rail as we sing and dedicate your life to Christ, telling him that you will follow where he leads. Come to the altar rail and give your life to Christ for the first time, accepting that on you to, there is a calling. Come to the altar rail this morning and say yes to the Holy Spirit, declare to God that you will not put a glass over the flame any longer.

The world needs you. The world needs us. The world needs people of faith: agents of healing. We, as a church community and as Christians, empowered together by the Holy Spirit, can spread God’s healing message to the world around us. So don’t put a glass over the flame. Let the Spirit, like a phoenix, consume you, for out of the ashes, out of God’s call on our lives, we arise!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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