I have a confession – I do love a good steam train. There’s something about the ‘golden age of railways’ which captures the hearts of those of us who live in a more functional age. It’s the theatre of it – the noise, the smoke, the beautiful designs of the locomotives. I fully accept that it is not a practical or environmentally friendly way to travel nowadays – but nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, eh?
For all their beauty and romantic appeal, though, fundamental to all of these trains is the basic requirement for a huge amount of coal. Steam trains need fire, and this fire has to be stoked. At least one person is needed to be shovelling the coal on a fairly continuous basis – he or she is called, not unreasonably, The Stoker. Fire needs fuel, and the link to today’s passage is the central phrase found in v19: ‘do not put out the Spirit’s fire’.
As St Paul finishes his short letter to the young church in Thessalonica, he wants to end where he started: as they began their faith ‘with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction… [and] the joy given by the Holy Spirit’ (1:5-6) so he wants this same spiritual fire to keep burning in their (and our) lives.
This section is like many of Paul’s closing chapters: vellum was expensive, so letters had to be fitted onto one sheet of paper. As space ran out, he runs through a list of profound instructions at breakneck speed – but they give us some sense of how we keep stoking our spiritual fire.
It starts with joy and gratitude (v16 and v18), bathed in prayer (v17). Again and again, we have noted how gratitude fuels so much of our thriving in faith and life. Gratitude keeps our eyes lifted up to God, rather than down on our circumstances or in on ourselves.
Paul then adds some more overtly practical advice specifically related to things of the Spirit in verses 20-22. We should listen to all messages purportedly from the Lord: not uncritically, but weighing each one. The good ones we should treasure and hang onto, the bad ones we should steer clear of.
There’s always a lot of chatter in the Christian world about what God might be saying, and the internet has unfortunately got a reputation for giving airtime to all kinds of views. It can be easy to be cynical, but Paul cautions us to be neither naive nor dismissive. God’s word is ‘the most precious thing this world affords’, and the more of it we can receive, the better. That’s ultimately always founded in Scripture, but God still speaks today – if not words of biblical authority, words which we would do well to heed.
When King George called for a national day of prayer and fasting in May 1940, the result was a miraculous rescue of hundreds of thousands of stranded soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk. What would have happened if the church had dismissed the king as a crank?
We need the fire, and part of our calling as followers of Jesus is to keep stoking it. Today, let us bathe the day in gratitude, and be ready to weigh whatever we sense the Lord is saying to us.