Christianity and the need for fire
The following is from a sermon that I preached elsewhere, but wanted to share. I don’t normally post sermons here, but I felt this one lent itself.
‘For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.’ Romans 12:3-11
This afternoon I would like to speak on the subject of zeal. It is something that I have been chewing over this week and I wanted to share some of what I’ve seen with you.
Now I’m sure there are many here who are more zealous than I am, so it is not something I am speaking on because I know a lot about it, but because I want to be more zealous.
Paul says here to the Roman church, ‘Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.’
So Paul sees our zeal for the Lord as something that we can have overtaken by sleepiness.
Very occasionally I will nod off, while I am doing something else. Does anyone here do that occasionally?
I have been known to nod off while I am reading. While I am in the cinema. My Father- in- law jokes that he has slept through some of the finest classical music radio 3 has to offer.
But what a sadness when we become slothful in our zeal. So I am praying for myself this week, that I will not become sleepy in my zeal. The Lord wants us to maintain it, and I take it that this requires effort and investment.
We cannot keep a hold of our zeal for the Lord, like we can an ache in the leg or the back. Those things without any effort or doing on our part can come and go. We don’t need to be skilled at maintaining them. But maintaining zeal is more complicated. It requires a steady investment in the things of the Lord that will warm and increase our desire for him; growing steadily into passion and being fed.
Can you build a good fire?
Think more of zeal like a flame in a fireplace. It needs to be maintained. It is said today that many children don’t understand how to light a fire. They don’t understand how to light a match and if you give them one they hold it incorrectly, with their hand above the flame which licks upwards. They certainly don’t know how to build a fire and to keep it going like all kids would have once learnt from their parents. As you will know if you have a fire, you have to take care of it and work it, to ensure that it is takes hold properly. That there is a good draft if possible. And then to feed the fire well.
I wonder if many Christians don’t know how to build and feed their zeal.
Zeal needs to be conscientiously maintained like this.
Paul says to Titus: ‘Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous for good works.’ Titus 2:14
What did Jesus say to the Laodicean church: ‘Be zealous and repent.’ Rev 3:19
So what is zeal in religion?
J.C. Ryle defines it like this: ‘Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do his will, and to advance his glory in the world in every possible way….
…This desire is so strong, when it really reigns in a man, that it impels him to make any sacrifice,- to go through any trouble- to deny himself to any amount,- to suffer, to work, to labour, to toil, - to spend himself and to be spent, and even to die,- if only he can please God and honour Christ.’*
Wow! These are serious things and I would like some of that attitude.
Think of the people who are zealous for certain things in our world. They are usually people of one thing. So the American gymnast— Simone Biles- she is zealous for one thing. The hospital consultant is a person of one thing. The artist seeking to be recognised or the musician signed by a record company. I think of when I was a kid and I wanted to learn to juggle with three balls. I was zealous for one thing and nothing would distract me. I think we can underplay the fact that to be zealous for the Lord is to be a person of one thing.
Ryle says that you see this with all of the apostles.
‘But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus….’ Acts 20:24
Paul does not value anything else, but the service of his Lord. Today, as has always been the case, the devil attacks us if we say we are devoted to the Lord only. He makes us feel smallminded and narrow. People may tell us we need to broaden our interests. Get a few more things into our life. Focus on other things and don’t get to serious they say, if we meet any difficulty in the Christian life. BUT NO- the key to being zealous in the Christian life is to be a person of one thing.
Can I ask you this afternoon, if you are a person of one thing? Is the whole direction and shape of your life commanded by Jesus your captain. Is he leading you in the way you should go, and steering you into the works that he has prepared for you.
Never believe the lie that you are narrow and boring, because you aren’t torn in 365 directions like the world. Who cares if we are narrow and boring to them? We know that we have joy in his service and that it is better to spend one day in his courts than a thousand elsewhere. We know that his yoke is easy. So be a person of one thing, and encourage those around you to be the same.
Christianity is happily filled with the story of men and women who were zealous for the name of Jesus. They were the ones who accomplished great things. Pick any of the great missionaries or defenders of the faith and we wont have to look far before we discover they were zealous.
Latimer to Ridley as they were burnt at the stake in Oxford, for refusing to go the way of Rome: ‘Courage brother Ridley! We shall
light such a candle this day as, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.’ This was zeal.
But of course it was Jesus Christ who was most zealous. When Jesus cleansed the temple, his disciples remembered the words according to John: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’ In Jesus’ ministry we see a fixed desire to serve his Father, which ultimately causes him to be obedient to death. Notice also that he was a man of one thing: ‘My food is to do my Father’s will and to finish his work’ (John 4:34). That was enough for Jesus and if it was enough to keep the son of God nourished and sustained it should be enough for us.
I knew a man once, who at the start of each day would get out of bed and say to himself, ‘another exciting day on planet earth.’ He was a wonderful Christian man. And I guess that the embers of zeal are fanned best at the start of the day. In a great house in the winter the servants would go around lighting the fires early in the morning and we need to get our fire lit early by reading the word first thing. I don’t really buy into the idea that we can just have a verse here or there a prayer here or there throughout the day. We need to get on our knees and spend time with the Lord at the start of the day. I know that many here will have been walking with the Lord for many years, but if you are to keep your fervour, you need to have this time. Remember the challenge in Romans 12 is not to be slothful in zeal. The apostle assumes that we might lose what we once had.
If that is you, please do not despair. Rather, take the little embers that there are and breathe on them. God is well able to take those embers and create a roaring fire. If we are the bits of wood, he stacks us against other believers to catch fire from them, which is fellowship. Through fellowship he breathes on us. Secondly, he causes the wind of the spirit and the sword of the spirit his word to blow on us and ignite the embers of faith. And we have a part in this by inviting the spirit and feeding ourselves on the word. And Jesus, he is the one that our hearts are born for and so by making him the object of our affection again, the fire starts to come.
Now we know that there are many counterfeits for true zeal for the Lord. The Bible says that zeal without knowledge is bad. We also know that we can clang like a gong and make a lot of noise (1 Corinthians 13) and all of this is meaningless on its own. That is not true zeal. Being zealous is not being the loudest or most spiritually bouncy. Rather it is to have a true burning deep love for Jesus and
love for other believers, as well as those we meet. 1 Corinthians 13 rings loudly in our ears as we think about what true zeal is. So let’s not be confused into thinking that those who make the most noise are necessarily the most zealous. I could stand here and jump up and down and fling my arms around and that would be no guarantee of true zeal.
1 Corinthians 13 would tell us that faith without love is nothing.
However, I wonder if zeal without knowledge is not the problem in our time. Rather, a simple lack of zeal is our problem. Rather we could spend a lot more time stirring one another up to love and action. Being fervent in Spirit, according to Romans 12 involves serving the Lord. Our zeal will die if we only want to burn brightly for our own sakes. To enjoy Jesus for ourselves. We are to serve the Lord with our fire once we get it kindled. After all, he has prepared good works for each one of us to walk in. He has made us a light to give light to those around us like a city on a hill.
When asked the secret of his success in establishing gospel work, preaching in the fields, setting up methodism, John Wesley replied:
‘I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.’
There is something attractive about gospel fire when it is burning in a person. Don’t you remember when you first saw a person burn with the passion of God? Didn’t it excite your heart and thrill you like nothing else? Do you remember how you would go anywhere to hear them or spend time with them? You would have crossed a wild river to be able to get to them and catch what they had.
My challenge as I end is to simply be that person. The old saying is that it only takes one spark to start a mighty fire. Be that spark.
We have different gifts as we heard in Romans 12, and it is true that some people are particularly gifted in leading others, for example and to do so, with zeal. However, all of us without limit are to be a zealous Christian. Be the sort of Christian says Ryle, that others will miss when you have gone!!
Each of us is responsible for taking care of our own zeal. No-one else can fan it for us. We need to be those who seek the Lord personally for the love and fire that comes from the Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ.
Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
*Quote from J.C.Ryle ‘Practical religion’ Banner of Truth. J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) was the Bishop of Liverpool. You will never be disappointed with a book by him and you may want to begin with his chapter on zeal!