September 09, 2019
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some parables are meant to be overheard by those who are not (apparently) the primary audience. As Luke frames these parables in chapter 15, there are two audiences: there are the Pharisees who are out on the fringes, sneering at Jesus for the bad company he was keeping at table. But then there were the “sinners,” the members of that alleged “bad company” with whom Jesus was sitting at the table when he told his triplet of “lost-and-found” parables in Luke 15. Verse 3 informs us that Jesus “told them this parable,” but the antecedent for the “them” is not clear: is it the “tax collectors and sinners” who were gathered all around him for dinner that evening or was the “them” the eye-rolling and snippy Pharisees who are critiquing Jesus from a distance?
Well, it is probably both, and yet it is instructive to wonder how differently these parables sounded in the ears of those two groups.
Let’s start with the “bad company” in front of Jesus. To them these must have been great stories because if they needed a reminder that they were the ones God needed to seek out and find, all they had to do was look over their shoulders at the scolding religious leaders looking in through the windows. The Pharisees and company never failed to signal the message that folks like these tax collectors and the like were not God’s kind of people. They were lost to God. They were, therefore, unwelcome among the truly righteous because the only thing these greasy folks would accomplish would be the messing up of the already found and saved folks. Indeed, the religious establishment viewed those other people as being quite literally “lost causes,” so much so that it seems never to have occurred to the Pharisees to reach out to such sinners.
It reminds me of a motif that runs through the wonderfully poignant and humorous movie Babe. The animals on Hoggett Farm all had pre-conceived notions about one another: sheep were convinced that dogs were stupid, dogs were convinced that sheep were stupid and—as the narrator often intoned—nothing would convince them otherwise. “The way things are is the way things are” the animal characters would say to one another as a way to bolster their iron-clad worldviews.
So also for the Pharisees: there were good and righteous people like themselves—these were people whom God could not fail to love because they were just so morally attractive. But then there were pagans like tax collectors and prostitutes whom God could not possibly love no matter what (such that there was nothing the Pharisees could do to change that circumstance, either). That was simply the way things were.
So if you fit into the category of a “lost cause” but then heard Jesus tell three stories about how God is the champion of lost causes . . . well, it must have sounded like Good News for sure. What’s more, to hear that there was even more joy over one of those being found than in the static piety of the ostensibly already-found must have sounded swoon-worthy to those people. Because then it turns out that there is no such thing as lost causes—just lost and wandering people waiting to be found by God’s grace.
It goes without saying, therefore, that Jesus’ parables sounded rather different in the ears of the Pharisees. In the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin joy busts out all over and there is no mistaking the fact that such divine joy is getting aimed at Jesus’ “bad company” and not at the Pharisees themselves. But in the end—just to be sure no one misses the point—Jesus will conclude with an elder brother refusing to enter into the joy of a party, and there is no way the Pharisees missed recognizing themselves in the portrait of that surly kid.
I wonder sometimes which set of ears most characterizes many people in the church yet today. Does the gospel sound wonderful to us only when we see ourselves as the target of God’s grace and joy and happiness? Or does it sound best to us when we see others getting caught up in the divine embrace, even if those “others” are people very unlike us (and maybe even people we ourselves do not particularly care for or are able to relate to)? And if we can feel joy over the salvation of “others,” is it because we properly know that when you get right down to it, we are all the same? Life-long church members and newly saved drug addicts; conservative Christians with a backlog of moral virtue and more progressive folks whose views don’t always jibe with our own—we are all the same. We all need the same amount of grace to get saved.
If we stop thinking in terms of “Us vs. Them” in the church, maybe we will arrive at a day when we all have just one set of ears through which to hear parables like the ones in Luke 15: ears that are highly adept at picking out the tune of sheer joy that just is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ!
It is easy when preaching on these texts—especially the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin—to produce a sermon that is long on inducing guilt (“Why aren’t you going out and seeking others more often!?”) and short on celebrating the joy of salvation. Yes, at least one major thrust of Jesus’ parables is precisely to tell us that—contrary to those judgmental Pharisees—we should be seeking the lost. True enough. This text is shot through with a sense of mission. But let’s get the motivation right: it’s not because this is some grim religious duty that, darn it, we just have to do if we want God to love us.
No, it’s because we remember the joy of our own salvation, of our own having been found by the Savior, and it is now our privilege to beam that joy to all and to invite others to come and join the celebration by letting Jesus become their Lord and Savior too. It comes when we remember the never-ending well of love and hope that motivates God’s own search. He won’t give up. He can’t. There’s just too much love involved for him to throw in the towel even when the odds are really long.
If we can preach sermons that center on that, then we are proclaiming Good News indeed.
Two small items in the Greek text may be interesting. First, in Luke 15:2 we are told that one of the main reasons the Pharisees disdained Jesus so much was because he “welcomes” sinners and tax collectors. The Greek verb for “welcome” is PROSDECHOMAI from the root DECHOMAI, which literally can mean to bring into one’s arms. The image here is very nearly of an embrace. This is not just a polite word of “Welcome” spoken at the front door of someone’s house when a guest arrives but more an active embrace, a drawing in, of this person. (It reminds you of the big embrace that the father gives to his prodigal son later on in Luke 15).
Another small point is in verse 4 when the shepherd is said to leave his 99 sheep not just “in the open” as the NIV translates it but more along the lines of the NRSV’s translation of “in the wilderness” as the Greek there is EREMO, which is the word for the desert or wilderness—a dangerous place to be and a very dangerous place to be left unsupervised and unprotected.
From a sermon by Hugh Reed, as quoted in Paul Scott Wilson, Setting Words on Fire: Putting God at the Center of the Sermon (Abingdon, 2008, pp. 159-60):
Allan (not his real name) came to me at my previous church in Hamilton, wanting to be baptized. He was a child (or victim) of the “me decade” and felt compelled to leave home and family to find himself and, of course, lost himself, becoming a stranger to himself and the world, wandering the streets of Vancouver trapped in a world of drugs. One night he managed to get off the street for a night in one of the shelters. He crashed into the bunk, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the groans, and trying not to be overcome by the odors of the strangers in the bunks around him. He didn’t know where he was, he didn’t know who he was, but he wanted it to be over with and he considered how he might take his own life.
He was shaken out of this thoughts when someone came in and called out a name from another world.
“Is Allan Roberts here?”
That had been his name once but he hadn’t heard it for some time. He hardly knew Allan Roberts anymore. It couldn’t be him being called.
The caller persisted, “Is there anybody named Allan Roberts here?”
No one else answered and so Allan took a risk. “I’m Allan Roberts (or used to be).”
“Your mother’s on the phone.”
My mother, no, you’ve made a mistake. I don’t know where I am, how could my mother know where I am?
“If you’re Allan Roberts, your mother’s on the phone.”
Unsure what to expect, he went to the desk in the hall and took the receiver. “Allan,” it was his mother, “It’s time for you to come home.”
“Mom, I don’t know where I am, I have no money, you don’t know what I’m like anymore. I can’t go home.”
“It’s time for you to come home. There’s a Salvation Army officer who’s coming to you with a plane ticket. He’s going to take you to the airport to get you home.”
She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him.
He went home and, supported and loved by his mother, who had never ceased to know him even though he had forgotten himself, and influenced and inspired by the faith that had sustained his mother’s hope and love, he began attending church services and one day came to my office seeking to be baptized.
He did not find his own way to my office . . . A path, not of his own making, [was] made by the love that found him, that knew him better than he knew himself, and invited him to “follow me.”
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Author: Stan Mast
If our last reading from Jeremiah 18:1-11 offered a note of hope (and it did with that fourfold repetition of the little word “if”), there seems to be absolutely no such note in this reading. Which makes it a very tough text to preach today.
Oh, if all we do is explain what the text said back then to those folks, we can make this an interesting, albeit bleak Bible study. But if we want to apply it to the life of God’s people today, we face a major challenge in preaching a Gospel sermon on this text, because there is precious little here that even hints of grace. We might better turn to the other Lectionary readings from Exodus 32, Psalm 51, I Timothy 2, and Luke 15, all of which also deal with sin but in an obviously gracious way.
But let’s not give up too soon. Let’s examine the text carefully to ascertain what it says, and to whom, and why. Then let’s wrestle with how to preach it to Christian audiences and the seekers who might be in their midst.
As we’ve seen in past essays on Jeremiah and as verses 11-12 clearly say, this word of prophecy is addressed to God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem sometime between 626 and 587, probably just before the first or second conquest of Jerusalem. In other words, it was addressed to people who lived in a world very different from ours. How can we bridge the gap between them and us, so that God’s word to them is relevant to us?
That difficulty is multiplied by the nature of God’s word to them. It is a word of unalloyed gloom and doom. It begins with these word in verses 11 and 12 about a scorching wind from the desert, a sirocco. The prevailing winds in Israel come from the west off the Mediterranean and though they might bring the occasional severe thunderstorm, they are for the most part gentle, refreshing, moisture filled, and thus essential to a semi-arid region.
But this threatening wind comes from the blazing desert and it is not intended to bring comfort or even correction (“not to winnow or cleanse”). It is too strong for those positive purposes. This is not merely a severe thunderstorm that might break off a few branches or blow off shingles or an EF 1 tornado that will take off a few roofs and flip over camping trailers or even a Category 3 hurricane that will flatten whole villages and flood entire counties. This wind, clearly a symbol for the ferocious might of the armies from the north, will utterly destroy all of Judah and especially Jerusalem.
Jeremiah conveys the devastation this sirocco will bring in a series of 4 visions (“I looked”), in which he sees the undoing of creation. A careful reading shows a reversal of Genesis 1 and 2. So in verse 23, the created world is returned to the chaos of Genesis 1:2, “formless and empty” (the famous “tohu vbohu”). The celestial bodies that brought light to creation are gone and all is darkness. In verse 24, the mountains that cannot be moved are “quaking and swaying.” In verse 25, humanity (hadam) has disappeared, and even the numberless birds “have flown away.” Verse 26 shows that all signs of civilization are gone, as cultivated fields (“fruitful land”) have become desert and human dwellings have all been levelled (“all its towns lay in ruins”).
Lest we think that Jeremiah’s visions are a figment of the prophet’s frazzled imagination, God himself utters a final word: “the whole land will be ruined…. Therefore, the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark….” It’s like the funeral of the world. And it’s all because of God’s judgment, says Jeremiah. Make no mistake; all this devastation comes not from the power of nature or the might of nations, though God may use those means. No, this all comes from God. This will happen, “because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.” Our text is as stern and strong a word of judgment as we will find anywhere in Scripture.
Why on earth would God send such a ferocious wind upon his beloved people? (Note that God still calls them “my people” in verses 11 and 22, and he offers that mysterious and incongruous qualification in verse 27b, “though I will not destroy [them] completely.”) But apart from those tiny notes of amelioration, God seems absolutely determined to punish his people.
Why would a covenant God do this? Because his covenant people have completely broken the covenant with their Lord. They have brought this on themselves, says a verse between the two parts of our text. “Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment. How bitter it is! How it pierces to the (God’s?) heart (verse 18).”
What sin could warrant such punishment? Verse 22 is very clear. “My people are fools” in the deepest sense of that biblical word: “they do not know me” and therefore “they do not know how to do good.” It’s not just that they had lost all intellectual knowledge of God’s existence and nature. They still prayed and offered sacrifices to and “believed” in their God.
But in their day to day behavior they demonstrated that they had no close relationship with Yahweh and no understanding of what God wanted of them. They were like senseless, brutal children whose only skill was doing evil (think of the British school boys in Lord of the Flies or Chucky from the horror movies). Though they still talked about God occasionally, they lived utterly godless lives, except when they turned to the false gods of the nations. Over the centuries they have unmade themselves as God’s people; therefore God will now unmake them.
And that’s exactly what happened. After years and years of cajoling and promising and warning and threatening, God finally did it, in stages, until the Promised Land looked exactly like the visions of Jeremiah. God did what God said.
Now, what are we to make of that in our sermons on this horrifying text? Rev. Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Seminary, recently described a good sermon in these words. “A sermon heralds God’s deliverance. It is about hope and joy. A sermon should present grace as so beautiful that people want it. A sermon should present God’s kingdom as being such a joyful prospect that you want to get in on it.” I agree. So how can we preach such a sermon on this text?
I can think of three ways. First, we could preach a sermon that emphasizes exactly what Jeremiah 18 says. God judges his people’s sins in the midst of history by the use of both natural and national forces.
Now, we have to be careful that we don’t do what a certain American TV preacher did a while back, when he “prophesied” that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment upon America’s tolerance of homosexuality. Identifying a particular disaster as God’s direct judgment upon a particular sin is dangerous.
But Jeremiah 18 reminds us in a powerful way that God does know, and God does care, and God will act against human sin. History does not just roll along as a close system of cause and effect. The message of the Bible is that God does intervene in various ways, including judgment. And that is good news, because it means that the inmates are not in charge. God will not let human sin finally destroy God’s world and people. He will stop it by acts of judgment, including the Final Judgment. So, it is, in fact, an act of mercy, even grace, to warn people of God’s judgment.
Second, we should not end our sermons on this text on a note of judgment. We have to emphasize grace in the end. And, in fact, a dark text like this give us the opportunity to show grace in all its beauty, because grace saves us from judgment. A deep look at sin and judgment in the terms used by Jeremiah 18 shows us exactly what grace saves us from—our own self-destroying folly and God’s destructive judgment.
“Sin” is such a general word that it is almost meaningless. God’s description of sin in verse 22 gives color and texture to sin, so that we recognize it in ourselves. And “judgment” is such a common word that it carries no threat. But Jeremiah’s vision of the results of God’s fierce anger should capture the attention of a generation raised on dystopian novels and movies. Once we have captured the attention and imagination of listeners with Jeremiah’s vivid images and piercing analysis, we can preach the grace of God in Christ in all its stunning beauty.
In other words, we could preach a hard hitting evangelistic sermon on this text especially if we connect it with the other Lectionary readings for today. In all of them, grace triumphs over sin and judgment. There is a mediator (Exodus 32) and deep confession (Psalm 51). Heaven rejoices over lost ones who repent (Luke 15). Even the chief of sinners can become the most important missionary the world has ever seen (I Timothy 1).
Third, we could use the almost apocalyptic language of this text to preach a contrasting message of apocalyptic hope. Jeremiah’s vision of a world ruined by sin and judgment presents us an opportunity to paint a bright picture of the new heavens and the new earth that God will usher in with the second coming of Christ.
Our world seems to be heading toward ruin even as we preach, whether it’s through climate change or international tension or partisan politics or racial divisions or incurable diseases. In many places, the world already resembles Jeremiah’s 4 visions. Millenials as well as boomers will resonate with the Bible’s alternative vision of a world in which there is no more mourning or sighing or weeping or dying, because swords have been beaten into plowshares, the groaning of a fallen creation has been replaced by the joy of a new creation, and people from every nation and tribe and language are gathered around the throne of the Lamb who shed his blood to make the foulest clean (Revelation 5 and 7).
I just finished re-reading 1984, the extremely grim portrayal of a world ruled by Big Brother. The insanity of that dystopian world was depressing. So I appreciated the Afterword by Eric Fromm. He pointed out that the Enlightenment brought a new literary genre into the world, the utopian novel filled with hope for a new world created by human effort. However, the horrors of WW I and II resulted in the reversal of utopian hopes and the creation of dystopian novels. The leading examples were Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Fromm points out that even as the Enlightenment brought a hope rooted in a resurgent humanism, the near destruction of the civilization by world-wide war spawned a hopelessness rooted in human evil. That hopelessness is now the dominant mood of our time, says Fromm. And that gives us as Christian preachers a powerful connecting point for such seemingly hopeless texts as Jeremiah 18.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years ago a psychologist who works in Britain’s penal system described the startlingly loopy ways by which criminals attempt to sneak out from under their own crimes. He opened his article by reminding readers that in his pseudo-suicide note years ago, O.J. Simpson had the audacity to write, “Sometimes I feel like a battered husband.” Whether or not O.J. killed his former wife, one fact that is nowhere in dispute is that while they were married, he beat the living daylights out of her on more than one occasion.
But, according to this British doctor, O.J.’s reversal of who was the battered one is typical. He recounts a time when a man who had just been sentenced to life in prison for murder emerged from the courtroom red-faced with rage. “That wasn’t justice, it was a kangaroo court,” he fumed. “They didn’t even call no medical evidence!” “Oh,” the psychologist replied, “what kind of evidence should they have mentioned?” “What she died of,” the man snapped. “And what did she die of?” “Hemorrhage.” “How did she get the hemorrhage?” the doctor asked. “They pulled the knife out,” was the murderer’s reply.
Denial becomes amnesia, amnesia transmutes into innocence. Yet another man, convicted of raping a woman, complained that a combination of whiskey and marijuana had reduced the night in question to a fog in his mind. “How can I defend myself when I can’t remember nothing?” he complained. “But if you cannot remember anything, you can’t deny the charges either, can you?” the doctor shot back. The rapist was wholly unmoved by that line of logic. This psychologist concludes, “In amnesia’s house there are many mansions, one of which is distortion of memory in the service of self-esteem.”
The art of self-deception is one we each know well, though few would care to admit that. In fact, the better you are at self-deception, the less you are aware of it. First we deceive ourselves and then we further deceive ourselves that we have not, after all, deceived ourselves. Mind and memory can play such fanciful tricks on us, resulting in sometimes silly consequences and sometimes dire ones.
On the silly side is something that happened to Ronald Reagan. During a 1980 campaign stop Reagan, with trembling lips and obvious conviction, told a World War II story about a pilot and his bombardier. Their plane had been hit but while the pilot could have ejected, the bombardier was too wounded, and his ejection seat too damaged, to get out of the spiraling plane. So the pilot reached over, took the man’s hand and said, “Never mind, son, we’ll ride it down together.” It was a very moving story, until one reporter realized that if both men had died in the crash, there would have been no one to report these final words. Turned out Reagan was just remembering a scene from a movie.
On the more dire side of the ledger is the defense Nazi Adolf Eichmann offered at Nuremberg. Eichmann had been in charge of the massive transportation system that efficiently moved Europe’s Jews from one destination to another, ultimately winding most of them up at one of the Third Reich’s many death camps. But Eichmann claimed his innocence in it all, saying that he was only in charge of transport and had no knowledge of where the Jews were going or what might happen to them once they got there.
But these examples have to do with forgetfulness about specific incidents. The larger self-deception in which we are involved has to do with issues of who we are. Most people are loathe to admit that they are just generally bent toward the bad, inclined to do it wrong. So when the Christian tradition declares to any and all, “You are a sinner,” most people these days reply, “What did I do?” If sin exists at all, it is merely episodic, an occasional (and inexplicable) “lapse” from our better nature, which is at bottom “pretty good.”
How foreign is the notion articulated by theologian Emil Brunner. Brunner once noted that we can, in principle, avoid any particular sin. And we often do. Few if any people give in to every dark impulse. The average person, whether or not he is particularly religious, resists many temptations that come his way on the average day. He does not slip the Snickers bar into his coat instead of paying for it, does not exceed the speed limit, does not shove the person ahead of him in line for the subway, does not grab and grope at the co-worker whose sexy dress just flat out is turning him on that day.
In principle the sinner can, and often does, avoid any particular sin, Brunner noted. But what we cannot do is avoid every sin. We cannot not be sinners. We cannot claim that we have never done it wrong. We cannot promise that we will never do another wrong thing, speak another cross word, or think another angry thought in the future. Even if the alcoholic promises never to take another drink or the adulterer vows never again to wake up in the wrong bed–and even if they keep those promises–what they cannot promise is that in addition to staying sober or chaste they will also remain just overall sinless.
Christians are often accused of being rather neurotic when it comes to sin. We leap from one wrong deed to the catastrophic conclusion that we are just generally depraved. Like the poet of Psalm 51 we claim that we’ve been sinful from the moment sperm met egg in our conception. And much of our world sees that and cries out, “Good grief! Aren’t you taking this guilt trip just a little bit far!?” We prefer to trace the reason for any given sin not clear back to some defect with which we were born but to more immediate surroundings.
It is in this sense that Psalm 51 can serve as a bracing tonic. Here is a showcase display window of the elements that go into a well-rounded doctrine of sin. Two elements take center stage: one is the fact that it is the psalmist himself who is the problem, and the other is the notion that not only is God our judge, he’s right when he renders a harsh verdict. We properly stand before God, and God properly stands over against the shape of our lives.
The psalmist is unstinting in saying, “I am the one in need of repair! It’s my heart that needs fixing. No, it needs replacing.” So the psalmist begs for a new creation, for a radical re-wiring on the inside. There is in Psalm 51 virtually no hint of outward circumstances that contributed to this sin. The psalmist claims that he has been sinful since conception but he does not blame his mother or father for that, it’s just the way things are. Nor does he say that since he came into the world already bent, he’s just a victim of nature.
Instead he says that because he came into the world already corrupt, that is all the more reason to beg for new creation. Because he is willing to fess up in this psalm he feels the sting of God’s judgment, the crushing of his bones. He really feels bad. In fact, he’s downright miserable. He is very much, to borrow a contemporary phrase, “down on himself.” It is unrelenting.
Nevertheless, Psalm 51 is not finally bleak. Therein lies the mystery of faith. In the alchemy of grace words that are darker than dark lead to a brightness that cannot be quelled. The psalm begins drenched with grace. The first verse could be translated literally as, “Grace me in your grace, O God!” In the original Hebrew the first line is just three words, two of which drip with divine mercy. (A really literal rendering would be something like, “Grace, God, Grace!”) The last of those three words is a term I can never get enough of: the Hebrew word chesed. It’s the Old Testament’s favorite way of characterizing God. It is a word so redolent of good stuff, so fragrant of fresh starts, so freighted with joy, that no one has ever come up with an adequate translation. “Unfailing love,” “lovingkindness,” “abiding mercy” are a few of the attempts.
But what chesed is finally all about is the ineffable desire God has to forgive. Grace is the oxygen of heaven–there’s always more of it than there is of sin. Psalm 51 banks on this hyper-abundant grace, but not cheaply. God is not some ineffectual figure who is too much of a wimp to generate any anger. Sometimes we see this: perhaps a father is just too tender-hearted (or maybe just too much of a moral limp noodle) ever to get very upset. So a smart-aleck son may recklessly smash up the car only to have his father say, “That’s OK. We’ll get it fixed and forget about it.” To such a father the flippant son may reply, “Yeah, I figured you’d say that! That’s why I wasn’t terribly careful in the first place!” Sometimes a person’s easy forgiveness becomes something others bank on in self-serving ways.
But not here. The fierce rightness of God’s judgment, the utter dread with which the psalmist faces the possibility of being cast out of the light, make it clear that God’s penchant for grace is not being invoked in a manipulative way. But that is because a genuine awareness of God’s grace emerges only from a knowledge of sin’s seriousness. Here is a central wonder of the faith: the more soberly serious we are about sin and the reality of God’s judgment, the more joyfully exuberant we are about the shining splendor of grace and the way it drenches our lives with monsoons of forgiveness. We stand constantly under Jesus’ cross as the most stunning reminder of just how fierce God’s judgment on sin is. And yet we find joy emerging from the darkness, even because of the darkness!
We’re born bent. We’ve got a problem that goes well beyond this or that isolated instance of sinful behavior. We need to face these dark facts. We need to tremble at the prospect of being cast out of God’s holy light. And if you think that sounds like a dark, morose way to live, if that all sounds like a “bummer” and a “downer” and just flat out no fun at all, that’s because you are forgetting the alchemy, the magic, of grace.
Theologian Miroslav Volf has pondered the shape and nature of life with God in what we often call “heaven.” Volf speculated that even in our renewed state, the memory of what was bad in this world may still be there. Perhaps our conscious awareness of the good will require our being able to contrast good with evil. In other words, we will know what evil is, but we will never choose to do it because, as Volf writes, the love of God will so continually flood into our hearts that we will never have time or desire for anything else.
Our explorations of God’s New Creation, our sheer, unalloyed delight in one another, will provide a rich kaleidoscope of multi-layered and ever-changing patterns of joy. This will be a life so interesting, so filled with abiding curiosity to see what is around the next corner of God’s universe, that the thought of spoiling this will not occur to us.
Such a vision, such a hope, is possible because the grace of God abides forever. It’s what allows us to take the risk of honesty and confession. It is what lets a few shafts of light from the New Creation pierce the darkness of our hearts already now. Attempting to skirt our own sin, ducking this way and that to avoid the truth about ourselves is a never-ending process that brings no peace. “Let me hear joy” the psalmist cries out in verse 8. In the end he does hear this joy. Through the mystery and riddle of grace that joy somehow emerges out of a reflection on death and sin and judgment. From that joy comes something else: the peace of God that surpasses all understanding; the peace of God that leads the way home.
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Author: Chelsey Harmon
We’re heading into a number of weeks reading Paul’s advice and encouragement to his partner in ministry, Timothy. Timothy was Paul’s closest companion in ministry, his trusted confidante, his mentee, someone he trusted to do the important work of guiding the church. Paul trusted Timothy so much that he left Timothy with the embattled Ephesus congregation during a time that Elders (or more generically, leaders with influence) within the congregation were causing very serious dissension. It was to be Timothy’s job to confront the false teachings and teachers, and guide the church back onto the road of unity and healthy faith and doctrine. No small task!
Imagine yourself as Timothy—the sidekick to the confident and more than competent Paul. Compared to Paul, Timothy was young. Compared to Paul, Timothy was of mixed lineage. Compared to Paul, Timothy was timid! What chance did he have of dealing with these influential teachers in the church?
So Paul wrote to Timothy to keep the faith and to fight the good fight. Paul wrote to Timothy to encourage him. Paul wrote to Timothy to establish him as one with authority among the church in Ephesus, because, of course, the whole congregation heard the letter be read.
Our lectionary selection today is just one small example of Paul at his task of uplifting Timothy; how he went about encouraging Timothy is really interesting. In place of the traditional “thanksgiving” section of an epistle, Paul bursts forth in praise of and personal testimony to God’s grace. Paul wrote his story (using “I” or “me” eleven times!) within the context of God’s story in a way that makes clear that it could be anyone’s story!
We’re meant to read between the lines: if God saw Paul as good enough to use, then Timothy, you’re good enough too. If God saw Paul as worthy of love and mercy and grace, then Timothy, you are worthy too. If God came to save Paul, the worst of sinners, then Timothy, God can save you too. If God tells his story and builds his church through the likes of Paul, then Timothy, guess what? God’s doing that through you too.
And guess what, friends? If God saw Paul and Timothy as good enough to use, then we’re good enough too. If God saw Paul and Timothy as worthy of love and mercy and grace, then we are too. If God came to save sinners like Paul and Timothy, God came to save sinners like you and me. And if God tells his story and builds his church through the likes of Paul and Timothy, God continues to tell his story and build his church through each of us.
It reminds me of that children’s song/game, “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” Pardon me if you don’t have the joy of knowing it.
Paul: “Who is God using to build his kingdom?”
the Holy Spirit: “Timothy is used by God to build his kingdom!”
Timothy: “Who me?”
Paul and the Holy Spirit: “Yes, you!”
Timothy: “Couldn’t be!”
the Holy Spirit: “Then who?”
Paul: “Who is God using to build his kingdom?”
the Holy Spirit: “I’m using you to build God’s kingdom!”
Us: “Who me?”
the Holy Spirit: “Yes, you!”
Us: “Couldn’t be!”
the Holy Spirit: “Then who?”
Like Timothy, our self-doubt and comparisons to people who are ‘better’ at it than us can become our stumbling blocks to faithfulness. But it’s not really about our gifts, skills, authority, or our acceptance by a community of faith. It’s about the unfathomably patient Jesus Christ manifesting his character through the story of our lives. Trust that and be faithful.
If that hasn’t convinced you… the root word for “trust/faith” is used six times in the five middle verses of Paul’s testimony. Paul wrote that his ministry (and by association anyone’s ministry) was entrusted to him by God, the same God who also judges Paul faithful. Paul described his sordid past as a time of unbelief (same root word!), and he understood that his faith was the result of the overflowing grace of the Lord. The saying that is “sure and worthy of full acceptance” uses the same root word (as seen by some translations referring to it as a “faithful” or “trustworthy saying”)! And finally, what’s it all this retelling about for Paul? It’s all about others seeing God at work and coming to trust by believing for themselves.
In The Message, Peterson translates verse 16 as, “And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever.” In other words, if me, Paul, why not you, Timothy? The people who were being swayed by the bad teachings going down in Ephesus were right on the edge; they could really benefit from a living example of Jesus’ manifold patience and purposes in their midst.
Imagine the confidence this was meant to instill in Timothy. It’s as though Paul was trying to say to Timothy, “Colleague, friend, confidante, you already have everything you need! We have what we need because we know our place and space in Jesus Christ’s story. Jesus strengthens you, finds you faithful, appoints you to his service, pours out his abundant grace and mercy upon you.”
Paul could write that because he knew it to be true. Paul is the foremost of sinners saved by grace, and the prime example of a life shining the work of God. In the verses following our selected text, Paul passed the proverbial baton on to Timothy: “I am giving you these instructions, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies made earlier about you, so that by following them you may fight the good fight, having faith and a good conscience.” (v 18, emphasis added) Prophecies are invitations from God to live in a way that will find yourself within God’s will and plan. What greater plan of God is there than this trustworthy saying worthy of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”? Timothy’s task was to help the people in Ephesus understand how this was true in their lives, turn from their ignorant following of the false teachers, know firsthand the overflowing grace of God. Grace that would produce within each of them the faith and love that is only found in Christ Jesus.
Wowsers! Truly no small task. But the king of the ages, the immortal and invisible, the only God, will be the one who receives the glory and honour, forever and ever. Amen.
Most of us can sing “Amazing Grace” by heart. The famous hymn was written by John Newton, many years after his conversion and entry into the ministry following a career in the slave trade. Newton had a conversion experience during a dangerous storm on a slave ship in 1748, but he didn’t leave the business until his health forced him to retire in 1754. He was eventually ordained, and shortly after that wrote “Faith’s Review and Expectation” (“Amazing Grace’s” original name) in 1772. Like Paul’s text today, this song is Newton’s praise and thanks to God for his abundant and undeserved mercy and grace. Newton sings of God’s grace being the constant agent at work to sustain him, a wretch!
But it isn’t just in the famous hymn that Newton exhibited such similar sentiments to Paul’s about his own past. His tract, “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade,” published in 1788, Newton uses the same sort of language as Paul to describe the work of Jesus in his life. Like Paul, Newton wrote about his past sinful lifestyle: “My headstrong passions and follies plunged me, in early life, into succession of difficulties and hardships…” Like Paul, Newton wrote about being ignorant in his sinfulness, “I should have quitted it sooner, had I considered it, as I now do, to be unlawful and wrong. But I never had a scruple upon this head at the time; nor was such a thought once suggested to me, by any friend. What I did, I did ignorantly; considering it as the line of life which Divine Providence had allotted me…” (emphasis added) Like Paul, Newton gave God the credit: “but the good providence of God, without my expectation and almost against my will, delivered me from those scenes of wickedness and woe…” And finally, like we know it was for Paul’s persecution, Newton named God’s merciful work in bringing an end to his work in the slave trade: he wrote of leaving the Coast of Guinea in 1754 as Captain, not intending for it to be his final trip, “but through the mercy of God it proved so. I fitted out for a fourth voyage, and was upon the point of sailing, when I was arrested by a sudden illness, and I resigned the ship to another Captain.”
Paul and John Newton didn’t try to hide their past. In that same tract he wrote about his deep remorse about his role in the slave trade and how it haunted him: “I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.”