The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Luke 12:49-56) positively invites the inclusion in worship of our hymn of the week.
It was first published in a two-volume collection of hymns entitled Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749). Unusually, this collection was not an ‘official’ (i.e. edited and published by John Wesley) Methodist publication, but a private venture of brother Charles originally sold by subscription. Its purpose was to give Charles, who married in April that same year, to gain the independent source of income he would need to raise a family. (There is an interesting short article about this hymnal on the GBOD website.)
A number of the hymns were inspired by Charles’ experiences as an itinerant preacher and many refer to specific events. ‘See how great a flame aspires’ is the fourth of four hymns entitled ‘After preaching to the Newcastle Colliers’. Charles Wesley’s biographer Thomas Jackson wrote ‘Perhaps the imagery was suggested by the large fires connected with the collieries, which illuminate the whole of that part of the country in the darkest nights.’ Jackson’s suggestion, which has subsequently been often repeated, does give the hymn, with its vivid and dramatic imagery, an interesting back-story.
In fact, the metaphor of fire is mainly limited to the first verse. The lines
To bring fire on earth he came;
Kindled in some hearts it is.
Refer explicitly to our gospel text:
I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? (Luke 12:49)
However Charles has lifted the verse out of its context and applied it in a quite different direction. In the gospel the imagery of fire turns into a prophecy about division brought about by Jesus’ ministry. For Charles the fire is ‘Jesus’ love’, which is ‘kindled by a spark of grace’.
The second verse explores a different but no less dynamic image, that of a river, which spreads and grows until
Sin’s strongholds it now o’erthrows
The final verse has yet a third image, that of a cloud bringing rain to a ‘thirsty land’. This may also have been suggested by the gospel text:
When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is. (Luke 12:54)
But is also obviously connected with the story in 1 Kings 18:41-46 where Elijah’s servant reports the appearance of ‘a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand’ which marks the end of a drought. For Charles the cloud is the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, then, through three dynamic images – a wild fire, a river in flood and a coming storm – the hymn is a powerful and impressive expression of the vitality and the growth of the gospel, of which Wesley was a witness in his own time.
See how great a flame aspires,
Kindled by a spark of grace!
Jesus’ love the nations fires,
Sets the kingdoms on a blaze:
To bring fire on earth He came;
Kindled in some hearts it is:
O that all might catch the flame,
All partake the glorious bliss!
When He first the work begun,
Small and feeble was His day:
Now the word doth swiftly run;
Now it wins its widening way:
More and more it spread and grows,
Ever mighty to prevail;
Sin’s strongholds it now o’erthrows,
Shakes the trembling gates of hell.
Sons of God, your Saviour praise!
He the door has opened wide!
He has given the word of grace,
Jesu’s word is glorified;
Jesus, mighty to redeem,
He alone the work hath wrought;
Worthy is the work of Him,
Him Who spake a world from naught.
Saw ye not the cloud arise,
Little as a human hand?
Now it spreads along the skies,
Hangs o’er all the thirsty land:
Lo, the promise of a shower
Drops already from above;
But the Lord will shortly pour
All the Spirit of His love.