St Clement's, Leigh on Sea
Ash Wednesday 21st February 1996
The Lighter Side of Lent
Ash Wednesday would seem to be as appropriate an occasion as any other to talk about burning.
Jesus spoke about "letting our light shine before men" and not "hiding our light under a bran tub". It's probable that he had some kind of oil-lamp in mind when he said this.
I haven't got an oil lamp with me today, but I have got something which will do as well - an ordinary cigarette lighter.
This lighter has three parts - the fuel, the wick and the flint.
All three of them are necessary to the burning, flame-producing process; and yet each one is quite different and works in a different way from the other two.
Let's take the fuel first.
Petrol, propane, butane or whatever it is. You certainly won't get a flame if you don't have that. But all these inflammable liquids or gases need careful controlling. Just setting fire to a quantity of petrol will produce a spectacular result for sure, but not the result we want. Well get the burning all right, but the destructive sort of burning that we insure ourselves against and pay the fire brigade to put out.
Next think of the wick By itself it will hardly burn at all; it will just produce an unpleasant smell before going out in a puff of smoke. But soak it in the fuel and it will draw it up by capillary attraction, in a steady controlled flow and produce a well regulated flame.
But without the flint, neither wick nor fuel will light at all.
The job of the flint is to produce a shower of short-lived sparks, hot enough to ignite the wick and the fuel, but not long enough lasting to be a danger.
These three elements of the lighter, the fuel, the wick, and the flint have very different natures from each other. In this they correspond to three very differently natured people that you meet in any church in the course of our Christian discipleship.
Lent is the time to ask ourselves two questions. Am I fuel, flint or wick by nature?; and am I using that nature to its fullest possible extent in the service of Jesus Christ? The Fuel-christian is the enthusiastic, quick-tempered, flamboyant, let's-get-a-move-on person, very active, and creative, but perhaps rather impatient with those who are not like him. To the Fuel-christians here tonight I would say this: Give thanks to God for your nature; be as keen as you will for the things of God. But take care. Do not think that God can only work your way. Speed, decisiveness and accuracy are all good thins - but they are not necessarily as essential to God as they seem to you to be. So be tolerant of the slow, the hesitant, the disorganized, or those who, like the wick, proceed at a more measured pace than you would choose. Remember that, without the wick your fuel would burn uncontrollably and do harm rather than good.
Wick-christians are those who steadily and gradually soak up the goodness of God and transport the fuel from the reservoir enabling it to burn in a controlled manner. To the Wick-christians I would say this: Give thanks to God for your nature. But be careful of this. Don't suppose that you can burn without the Fuel-christians. They are as necessary to you as you are to them. So be tolerant of those who are always wanting to "get things done"; beware of becoming so set in your slow-burning ways that you accumulate a whole lot of lampblack which reduces your efficiency. By all means be a creature of habit; but remember, that is what God has made you, just as he made the Fuel-christians more inflammable. Don't suppose that what comes to you easily by nature is of the same value as a virtue you have acquired by grace and self-discipline. It is those who repent and change that rejoice the angels of God, not those who remain what they are by nature, however attractive that may be. From time to time God may make demands upon you which run clean contrary to the nature you were born with.
Flint-christians are those bright sparks whose ideas get the flame burning in the first place. A flash of genius and the fuel on the wick is alight.
If you're a Flint-christian, an ideas person then thank God for your nature. But be careful. Ideas need putting into practice, and ideas-people are notorious for expecting others to do the hard graft and getting very shirty when they don't. Remember, ther e are good ideas, bad ideas, and ideas "whose hour has not yet come". Don't go off in a huff if the wick fails to ignite first time you offer it a bright-spark idea. Wait a little and try again. Be patient but persevering. Don't get discouraged just because your ideas don't catch on.
And to all three types, Flint-, Wick- and Fuel-christians I would say this.
Remember you are all part of one and the same lighter or oil lamp.
Without that framework within which you are contained you wouldn't be able to work at all. Even so Christians are all part of one body, the Church the body of Christ in this place and that place, the local lighter, the local oil-lamp in Leigh on Sea, Lewisham or wherever it may be.
Suppose the flint were to say to the fuel "I have no need of your".
It would be mistaken. A flint can't work without something to ignite; or imagine the wick saying to the flint "I have no need of you". It is wrong. It can't light itself however hard it tries. Of if the fuel says to the wick "I can burn without you, thank you". It can indeed, but only by becoming a dangerous fireball in the process.
Or if any of the three says to the lighter or oil-lamp "We don't need you" they would be wrong. The body of the lighter is necessary to keep the three elements in the right relationship with each other in order for them to do their respective jobs properly. It's like the people who say "I don't need the Church in order to do God's will".
Without the Church our usefulness will be that of a wick without fuel or a flint without a wick.
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