First sermon in the new series, “One Life.”
Right after I graduated from seminary, Jennifer and I took some time to work at a camp in Wisconsin before heading off to our first pastoral appointment. Honey Rock is Wheaton College’s outdoor center, and we went up there for the winter season to work with retreat groups and college classes that came in for a weekend or a week.
Now, winter in northern Wisconsin is like living in a freezer, and most of the buildings at the camp were heated by wood fireplaces and stoves. So, one of the major jobs we had every day was starting and stoking the fires in all the buildings the groups would use.
Jennifer was great at this. I stunk at it—always have. We didn’t light fires in the Army because in combat they tend to attract enemy artillery fire, so I hadn’t had a lot of practice. Now, I knew how to build a fire from my Cub Scout days. I knew about tinder and kindling and all that, but for whatever reason the fires I would try to light would take close to a whole pack of matches, lots of blowing, and uttering non-pastoral words in order to get going. Maybe it was a lack of patience due to the cold, maybe a failure to gather the right materials…I don’t know.
A couple of years later I was leading youth backpacking trips with some guys who were Eagle Scouts, and because of them the rule on those trips was that you could only use one match to start a fire. I’d watch these guys carefully pull all the right materials together, strike one match and make a fire perfectly every time (some of which were so big they could be seen from space). “We have to learn this,” said one, “because what if you only have one match?” What if this is all you have? One spark, one shot, one chance to get it right.
I remember that when I read these words from Paul, written to his apprentice Timothy: “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you.” Timothy is a young pastor who seems to wondering if he can keep the flame going. His life, a one match fire, is fading out and Paul writes this letter in order to encourage him and to teach him how to fan the flame back into a roaring blaze so that his one life can give light and heat to those around him.
This series is about that one match—the one life that we have to live. One shot is all we get here in the present world. One shot, one spark, one chance to live the life God meant for us to live, the kind of “abundant life” that Jesus talked about (John 10:10). Some of us will have a long time, some a short time. Some will find it easy to start the fire, while some will struggle. But, in the end, we only get one life. How will you use it? Where will you invest you life, apply it, stoke it? How will your life bring light and heat to a dark world? How will you keep the flame kindled when it dies down from lack of care or outside forces that seek to snuff it out? How can you live that life in such a way that it doesn’t burn out, but continues to give light and heat long after you’re gone? I once read a quote from poet Mary Oliver who actually put the question in the most profound way for me: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s the question I want you to think about over the next several weeks.
To do that, we’re going to get some wisdom from one we know lived a wild and precious life for God. The Apostle Paul, as we heard in our summer series on the Book of Acts, had an encounter with Jesus that radically changed his life and sent him on a wild and precious journey, with adventures, hardships, and triumphs all the way through. Paul used his one life to the full and I think that definitely qualifies him as a guide for us as we think about our one life. Right in the greeting of the letter Paul tells us that he has invested his life for a singular purpose: “for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). It’s not been an easy life by any stretch: Indeed, Paul writes to Timothy from prison (v. 8) and has suffered immeasurably throughout his life (v. 12). But the apostle knows that his life has mattered, that God has used him to spark a movement that would catch fire and spread, bringing the light of Christ into the Gentile world. Looking back from the end, Paul now has perspective to share to those who are just starting out or who are in the middle of life—an opportunity to think about what you will do with your one wild and precious life.
And so Paul writes to Timothy, “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (v. 6). Timothy was young, so young that in his first letter Paul urged him to not let anyone look down on him because of his youth (I Timothy 4:12), and Paul writes to the Corinthian church to tell them not to regard Timothy as a junior or an inferior (1 Corinthians 16:10-11). It’s clear from reading the letter that Timothy has been struggling. The faith that he was brought up in at the knee of his mother and grandmother is being challenged by forces both within and outside the church he pastors. He’s questioning whether his life really matters.
It’s an existential crisis—one that can hit any of us no matter if we’re young or old. I’m turning 50 in a couple of months and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. You start thinking about how far you’ve come, and you look ahead to how you might use the time you have left to leave your mark on the world. It’s never too early or too late to think about that, especially when the spark might be fading, like it was for Timothy.
And so Paul says to Timothy, remember, you’ve been given a great gift. You just have to rekindle it! And what is that gift? What are the basic fuels for living a God-ignited, wild, and precious life?
Well, remember that Paul talks a lot about the gifts of God in his writing. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul tells us that one of the gifts God gives us is grace, which saves us from sin and saves us for God’s work in the world. In I Corinthians 12 he talks about the spiritual gifts we are all given for ministry. To Timothy, however, Paul alludes to another gift given to Timothy through the laying on of hands: the gift of the very spirit of God active in his life and in our lives. It’s not a spirit of fear or cowardice, which governs the lives of so many people in our world—fear of failure, fear of death, fear that our lives don’t matter. Instead, Paul says, this spirit is “a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline” (v. 7). When you start a fire, you need three things: fuel, air, and a spark. If you want to live the kind of gifted life that God wants to stoke in you, the base conditions for making it glow are the Spirit-given gifts of power, love, and self-discipline.
First, “power.” At lot of people in this world are suspicious of power and rightly so. Many people spend their one life trying to grasp power and exercise it over others, using fear or intimidation in order to keep that power. The old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” is evident everywhere we look in the world. But the power Paul is talking about here is power that comes not from a selfish desire or from a title or an office. Instead, this is the power of the Holy Spirit—a power that can work through us for the benefit of the world. It’s not power that we gain, it’s power that’s given to us as a working gift. When our one life is empowered by the Spirit of God, we are able to use our lives in ways that bring God’s glory, light, and heat to the world. It’s a power that gives us the ability to do and say things that bring healing and hope where they are most needed in a dark world.
Notice that Paul says this power was conveyed to Timothy “through the laying on of my hands.” The power of the Spirit is given to and through the church for God’s purposes in the world. When Joe and I were ordained, we had hands laid on us, and now we lay hands on people for their healing and commissioning for ministry. As a church, we lay hands on people to pray for them, to strengthen them, to heal them. It’s not the hands that matter, it’s the Spirit that works through them that matters. God’s power always comes through us on the way to someone else.
And that Spirit power will also lead us into places we would not have imagined if we’re willing to follow the Spirit’s lead. Paul followed the leading of the Spirit all over the Mediterranean world and the same Spirit empowered him to preach to people as well as endure suffering. When the Spirit gets a hold of your life and begins to run wild, you don’t know where it will take you. Life in the Spirit is the foundation of a wild and precious life!
We know what kind of power Paul is talking about here because he modifies it with the gift of “love.” Power without love is destructive. Love without power is nothing but wishy-washy good feelings. Power and love together enables God’s people to change the world.
Love is a gift of the Spirit that needs a lot of tending. The word here in Greek is agape, which implies a love that is sacrificial, unconditional, and self-giving. It’s not a love that’s dependent on feelings, but is rather an act of the will. We can only love like this because God first loved us in this way, offering us the gift of love in Jesus Christ.
We need the Spirit in order to love like this. We need the Spirit to remind us and empower us to love our enemies, to love the seemingly unlovable, to love enough to forgive. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then to love our neighbors as ourselves. The gift of the Spirit enables us to live that commandment throughout our lives.
Lastly, Paul says, the Spirit gives us the gift of a spirit of self-discipline. Lots of forces pull at our one life and vie for our attention. The Spirit gives us the ability to discern what God wants for our lives. Self-discipline enables us to say “no” to temptation and “yes” to the will of God. Like fuel in a fire, however, that discipline needs to be constantly fed on a daily basis in order to keep the flame going. The more we allow the Spirit to fill our lives, the more resources we have to use our one life for God’s glory.
The purpose of all these gifts, says Paul, is so that we can live the life of the gospel—to invest our one life in service to God and in reflecting God’s glory. It’s not an easy life we’re called to, however. It’s not like the life that is constantly advertised to us every day—a life of ease, of consumption, of security. Instead, Paul says, the one life that God calls us to involves suffering, which is the inevitable result of living a life that doesn’t conform to the self-serving standards of this world. Paul writes from prison, where he is languishing because of his faith and he invites Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God (there it is again) who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works (according to our own power), but according to God’s own purpose and grace” (v. 8-9).
Timothy might have thought he was suffering enough! We all want to do our best to avoid it. But I think what Paul means here is that if we are singularly focused on the one life God intends for us,
Indeed, Paul says, it was through Jesus own suffering, investing his one life and his death on a cross in the purposes of God, which “brought immortality to light through the gospel” (v. 10). Jesus’ death and resurrection sparked a flame that will ultimately refine and reshape the world into God’s new creation. Paul invested his one life in that promise and it sent him running as a herald to announce the good news. We have hope for our one life because of this good news, and we are called to live that life for the one who made our new lives possible. This is where we find meaning for our lives.
This summer I had a chance to read a classic old book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Frankl, you may know, was a Jewish psychiatrist who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, as were millions of other Jews during the Holocaust. Frankl writes about what life was like the camps: every prisoner starving, looking like skeletons; hard labor every day and constant beatings by sadistic guards; inhumane living conditions and the constant threat of death by disease or the gas chambers.
As he worked hard daily to survive, Frankl began to notice that some of the prisoners simply gave up. One morning, they stopped eating, the refused to get up off their wooden pallet beds despite the beatings of the Nazi guards. A short time later these prisoners would be dead. As a psychiatrist, he began to ask himself what the difference was between those who survived and those who died.
Frankl discovered a clear delineation between survivors and those who succumbed: It was all about meaning. Those who believed they had something to live for were able to endure unimaginable suffering and survive, while those who gave up hope and convinced themselves they had nothing to live for soon perished. It wasn’t the suffering—everyone in the camps suffered. But it was how people responded to the suffering that made all the difference. Frankl came to understand that life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, nor is it a quest for power. Life, at base, is a quest for meaning.
A lot of people waste their one wild and precious life searching for things that don’t matter. I’ve done enough funerals for seemingly successful, wealthy people who committed suicide to know that Frankl’s observation is absolutely true. If we don’t see our one life as having value, purpose, and meaning, then no amount of stuff, no house, no car, no bank account, no pleasure, no relationship will fill that void. People who strive after these things are always living in a spirit of fear, wondering how they will keep it all together. Often that fear can lead to depression, lack of hope, and despair. Interestingly, we often call that condition, “Burnout.”
But God didn’t create us for that. Life is a gift of God but God didn’t create us to waste that life striving after things that don’t matter. God created us for relationship, for meaningful work in his good creation, and for a purpose that reflects his glory. He created us to be the carriers of his power, his love, his good news to the world. He came in person in Jesus Christ to live and die for us, showing us the way of life we were created for, and then Jesus rose again to show us the life that awaits us both now and in the future. It’s a life that isn’t easy, but it’s a life that matters for eternity.
My prayer for this series is that it acts as a fresh blowing of the Spirit on our church, a wind that will fan the flames of our passion, both individually and collectively. I want to invite you to think about your one life over these next six weeks. Are you burned out from trying to make it work? Can you see the way forward through the smoke? Is your faith a cold ember needing revival? Or maybe you’ve gone the other way and your life is a raging wildfire that’s out of control and consuming everything and everyone around you. Maybe you need boundaries and a constructive purpose. This is a chance to really consider how the Spirit can change you.
And then, toward the end of the series, I’ll invite you to think about how this church can be aflame with God’s purpose, kind of like our United Methodist logo suggests. We’ve been working through a new visioning process that we’re going to show you at the end of this series. The ten lay people who have been working on this with me are excited to show you what God has been showing us. We are imagining a church that is, like our founder John Wesley described, “strangely warmed” and giving light and heat to God’s kingdom in our community. Part of this series will be giving you a chance to invest your one life—your time, your talent, your treasure—into what God is doing through all of us in our life together. It takes a community to fan the flames. Paul reminded Timothy of the women in his life, his mother and grandmother, who passed the flame of faith on to him. All of us are called to receive the gift, the spark and then, as the old campfire song says, to “pass it on.”
I remind you to kindle the gift of God that is within you. May your one life reflect the light and heat of Christ!