September 30, 2019
The Proper 22C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 17:5-10 from the Lectionary Gospel; Lamentations 1:1-6 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 37:1-9 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Timothy 1:1-14 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Gospel: Belgic Confession Article 24
Author: Scott Hoezee
You get the feeling that even the people who put together various Bible translations don’t know what in the world to make of—or therefore what in the world to do with—the first part of Luke 17. The NRSV chose as its sub-heading “Some Sayings of Jesus.” The NIV opted for something that looks like the beginning of a shopping list: “Sin, Faith, Duty” (you’re tempted to add “Eggs, Milk, Cheese . . .”)
As younger folks have been given to say in recent years when encountering any utterance they deem a bit off-beat, so we could say of Luke 17, “Well that was random.”
Indeed, not a few preachers might well be tempted to take the week off from the Gospel text and try something else from the Lectionary. (And lucky for you, the CEP website does provide sermon jump-start articles on all 4 texts each Sunday!)
But suppose you want to stick with this text. It actually will yield some fine insights.
True, what we seem to have here are some strung-together statements that at first blush seem to not flow well one into the other (and that are anyway rather difficult to figure out even in isolation from each other). The Lectionary probably has not helped matters by choosing to start at verse 5 but the words of the disciples (called “apostles” here, which is an odd anachronism in and of itself—see the “Textual Notes” part of these sermon starters) appear to be some kind of response to the words of Jesus in verses 1-4 about forgiving those who offend us. When the disciples ask for more faith in verse 5, it seems to be in reaction to Jesus’ advice in verse 4 about a seven-fold forgiveness for a seven-time offender. Thus, it’s a little tough to hack off the first four verses of Luke 17 when preaching on this text. (I myself find that replies make more sense when seen in the context of that which is being replied TO! Many and mysterious are the ways of the Lectionary . . .)
But despite the oddities of this passage, what also strikes you when reading it is that Jesus seems to be unusually direct in these verses. Assuming that Jesus was not typically sarcastic or mean-spirited (I suppose we can assume that he was never guilty of sinful patterns of speech that belittle others), it may be that Jesus’ point in these words was that we may at times be guilty of making the Christian faith out to be harder—and maybe more noble—than necessary.
Let me explain. Jesus has just admitted in verses 1-4 that life is full of unsavory people who are intent on tripping us up spiritually. Maybe those who cause others to stumble would indeed be better off at the bottom of the sea, sunk to the depths mafia-style with a cinderblock for a necklace. But the fact is that most of the people who may deserve such a watery grave won’t get one and will keep on causing scandals and spiritual upset for others (take a look at the Lectionary Psalm reading for this same week when Psalm 37 counsels us to NOT be upset that the wicked prosper as often as not).
These folks are not going to go away and no church—no matter how pious, holy, spiritual, or wonderful—will ever be free of them, either. (Notice that in verse 3 Jesus admitted that the person who sins against you may well be another “disciple” or “brother” and not always some anonymous person from outside the community. Nine times out of ten, we know the names of the people who cause us the greatest hurts in life—most of the time they are also people who at one time or another we called our friends and who we may well call “friend” again in the future!).
The probability that we will be hurt by one another even in the community of faith is high and ongoing.
But the thing to do is to be honest about such hurts and to confront those who offend us. Nothing feels better than a good old fashioned confrontation. Especially when you are convinced that you are the wounded (and so innocent) party, it is something of a moral head-rush to upbraid the one who inflicted the hurt. There is no indignation as sweet as righteous indignation, after all!
But Jesus makes clear that it can never be for the sake of revenge that you do such confronting but with the hope of restoration such that the moment the offender repents, your next job is to get off your high horse of confrontation and forgive this person, letting the matter drop for good. What’s more, that posture of forgiveness needs to be true even for repeat offenders who do the same thing to you over and over and over. (And let’s be honest, the people whom we know and maybe even love who hurt us tend to inflict the same hurt repeatedly across the years. “Why is she ALWAYS like that?” we ask about a mother-in-law, a sister, a friend, a coworker. And the little adverb “always” is apt: those who criticize you for your weight, for your clothing, for the kind of car you drive, for your work habits, or for the overall cut of your jib rarely proffer such critiques just once!)
“Keep on forgiving, “Jesus said in verse 4. So in verse 5, where this lection technically begins, the disciples reply, “Fine, Lord. We can do that just as soon as you increase our faith.” We know, I think, where that request came from. There is more than a hint of an attitude of “Yeah right!” behind this. Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh. Easy for HIM to talk. As someone once said, God forgives wholesale but most of us muddle through on the retail level of forgiveness. God is a five-star general of forgiveness whereas the rest of us are mere lance corporals.
The disciples—to use another analogy—feel like a multi-millionaire just told them to go and take care of the endemic problem of hunger in certain African nations. In response the disciples say, “Sure, we will get right on that right after you grant us a couple million of your bucks, OK?” You’ve got all the goodies, they are saying to Jesus, so how about sharing some with us spiritually impoverished guys?
But Jesus doesn’t let it go at that. Instead he reaches for a bit of good old gospel hyperbole—what someone once called the language of sacred excess—and says, “Increase your faith?! Why? The smallest faith in the world can tell trees to walk. You’ve got more faith than that right now so don’t go telling me that you don’t have enough in your faith tank to forgive someone seven times in a row.”
In other words, what you need is not more faith but fewer excuses.
To hammer home Jesus’ actual point a bit more, Jesus then tells a story that as much as says, “Oh and by the way, WHEN you have forgiven someone seven times with the faith you already have, don’t come trotting back to me like some dancing dog and expect a pat on the head for being such a super disciple. You’ll be doing no more than what you’ve seen me do, and what I do is what I’ve seen my Father do. It’s the family way in the kingdom of God and when you act in accordance with who you are by grace, that’s wonderful but you’ll just have to pardon me if we don’t crank up the angel choir with the Hallelujah Chorus each time you forgive your mother-in-law for telling you for the umpteenth time that you may not be good enough for her daughter. This is just how it goes in life. Deal with it and let’s move on.”
This really is the nitty-gritty reality of life. Maybe the NIV was right to sub-title the section with something that resembles a shopping list. This is just how it goes on Monday afternoons and Thursday mornings. We have to deal with “Sin, Faith, Duty” even as we learn how to live as a Christian sister or brother to John, Phil, Judy, Sharon . . . “Sin, Faith, Duty” really is like a daily “To Do” list. We maybe don’t like it, but this is very often what the life of grace simply must look like.
Is there anything important about the fact that Luke puts in the anachronism of “apostles” in verse 5? It may be no more than a slip of the pen as Luke wrote this gospel long after “apostles” had become the common term for Jesus’ followers. But it may also have been intentionally put there as a way to signal to the reader that the tensions that surround forgiveness and the need to put up with one another’s failings again and again was indeed going to persist on and on even into the apostolic age of the church. Maybe they really had been known only as “disciples” on the day this conversation with Jesus took place. But the question at hand persisted even long after those same people became known as “apostles.” Those who have ears to hear . . .
In his novel The Blood of the Lamb, author Peter DeVries skewered his Calvinist upbringing in many ways. In one particular scene he shows a group of devout men talking with the pastor in a living room of someone’s house. The men seem to be having a grim contest to see who can outdo whom in belittling their own spiritual works. No matter what act of service got mentioned, it was immediately decried as no more than “a filthy rag” that could not but stink to highest heaven compared to the shining glories that God alone possesses. The narrator of the novel observes this scene and then wryly comments, “This being what we thought of virtue, you can imagine what we made of vice.”
Is Luke 17:10 in the Bible to foster an atmosphere of spiritual denigration and abasement? Is Jesus saying here that at the end of every day, the work of a Mother Teresa, of a parish nurse, of a missionary in China, of a Hospice volunteer really amounts to no more than a pile of dirty rags performed by worthless servants who can do no more than plod through the Christian life as a grim set of duties, receiving neither divine nor human approbation or praise?
No. The same Jesus who in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain made it clear that great blessing attends those who live in kingdom ways cannot be interpreted here as saying that this same kingdom-shaped lifestyle is of no account in God’s sight. Nor did Jesus die on the cross for people who, even after being washed by grace, are even still to be accounted as “worthless.” If we rarify or isolate this saying of Jesus and so use it as a blanket statement on how we view Christian living, we make a grave mistake borne of exegetical ignorance of what is really happening in Luke 17.
As noted above in this set of sermon starters, the upshot of Jesus’ words appear to be a response to comments from the disciples that indicate they perhaps thought that loving the unlovable and forgiving even repeat offenders constituted some lofty act of super-Christian living. Jesus tells them that this is not so: they already had all they needed to lead Godly lives that exuded grace and forgiveness. What’s more, exhibiting those traits needed to be considered routine, not so extraordinary as to warrant arresting spectacles of celebration and such.
Author: Stan Mast
In the entire 3 year Lectionary reading cycle this is the only time we dip into Lamentations. Most preachers and readers will say that’s a good thing. I certainly said that when I first encountered this text. I mean, what do you do with 6 short verses of pure lament?
That how I felt until I thought of my friend and former parishioner, Susan (not her real name). Can you imagine what it is like to lose everything? That’s what happened to Susan. At the age of 58 she had to retire from her beloved job as a teacher, due to a childhood brain injury that rendered her increasingly unable to function in the classroom. So she lost her income. Her physical health followed that downhill plunge, along with increasing emotional distress. Then she lost her ability to drive. Now she sits in her tiny condo far from friends, with no family, and no way to get around, utterly isolated and overwhelmed by life. So she cries and cries, begging for help, thrashing about in her agony, trying to trust her God, but crushed by her problems.
Numerous people try to help, but it’s never enough. Nothing is ever enough. Her friends get frustrated by her unsolvable difficulties and by her constant complaint. Recently, she was perseverating over the event that resulted in the loss of her driving privileges. It has become the center of her pain. And, I, compassionate counselor that I am, told her that it was one event and it was done and she needed to get over it. “Don’t let one event ruin the rest of your life,” I said in my best prophetic voice. (Don’t bombard me with well-deserved insults, just keep reading.)
That’s when my study of Lamentations 1 pierced my heart like a two edged sword. Lamentations 1 says, in effect, “It’s OK to cry. Cry your heart out, for now at least. Don’t stem the flow; let your tears roll down like a river.” Unlike the Psalms of lament, most of Lamentations doesn’t address God, asking for relief from the causes of the tears. It simply weeps at the mind numbing horror that has overwhelmed the people of God. Lamentations is pure lament, and I need to hear it. So does Susan. And so does your church. So preach it, sister and brother!
To do that you’ll need to help folks understand the historical setting. This is a post-apocalyptic reflection after Judah has been conquered by Babylon and, more to the point, Jerusalem has been utterly destroyed. What our last reading in Jeremiah 32 predicted has happened with incomprehensible devastation. Here the focus is on Jerusalem, the deserted city. Our reading describes the destruction by comparing the now lonely city to what it had been.
That description is very carefully crafted. In fact, this outpouring of raw grief is a meticulously constructed poem. Each of the five laments in this book has 22 verses, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. (Except the middle lament in chapter 3, which has 66 verses, 3 x 22.) Indeed, each verse begins with the successive letters of that alphabet. Further, this alphabetic acrostic poem is filled with what one scholar called “eerily unsettling images.” In other words, someone (tradition says it was Jeremiah, modern scholars aren’t so sure) has expended a great deal of creative energy to make this raw lament just right. Such sorrow deserves the best. We might call it “a grief observed (a marvelous book by C.S. Lewis).”
Further, to preach this faithfully, you’ll need to be aware of the deep theology rumbling just below the surface and erupting occasionally into full view (cf. verse 5). First, the writer assumes that these cursed Babylonians who have ruined our lives are actually agents of divine retribution. Though they were the hands and feet that did the work of destruction, it was God himself who destroyed the city and the temple. Why would God do such an unthinkable thing? Because of Israel’s blatant God-defying sin and covenant breaking rebellion. That was the root cause of Israel’s woes.
And though lament and cries for redress of the enemy are understandable, Lamentations says that the proper response in the wake of judgment should be sincere repentance. Thus, this book that begins with lament ends with repentance.
In between the lament and the repentance are some of the loveliest passages in Scripture about God’s continuing love and merciful use of punishment: “his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (3:22-23).”
Here are some of the details of this lament that should give color and texture to your sermon. Note how the writer shows us the desolation of Jerusalem by contrasting the present with the past. The once thriving city is now deserted. Jerusalem is like a woman: once a wife, now a widow; once a queen, now a slave; once a mother, now childless as all her children have “gone into exile….”
That brings us to the depth of her sorrow; “there is none to comfort her.” Does it get any sadder than that? You’ve lost it all and there is no one to comfort you. (At least Susan has me, poor comforter that I am.) All your “lovers” (in Israel’s case the false gods after which she had run with idolatrous lust) and all your “friends” (in Israel’s case the surrounding nations to whom she had appealed for help against the Babylonians)—all of them gone or now enemies.
Now, from the image of Jerusalem as a forlorn widow, the text moves to the nation of Judah “gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place.” Those last haunting words come directly from God’s warning to Israel as they took possession of the Promised Land, their land of rest, in Deuteronomy 28:65. For centuries, Israel knew that if they forsook Yahweh they would lose their resting place. And now they have.
As a result, the rhythms and rituals of life have been completely disrupted. The roads to Jerusalem are deserted as “no one comes to her appointed feasts,” leaving the priests to groan and the maidens to grieve. Those who opposed God’s people all those years have now become their masters. The princes of Judah have become as feeble as a starving deer pursued by hunters. In one image after another, the reversal of fortune of God’s chosen people is depicted in heartbreaking detail.
Then, erupting to the surface comes the deep theology of divine retribution in the disturbing sentence in verse 5. “The Lord, Yahweh, our covenant God whose lovingkindness endures forever, has brought her grief because of her many sins.” By the rivers of Babylon Israel asked again and again, how did this happen? Why did it happen? The prophet speaks God’s truth into Israel’s grief. It’s your fault. Hard as that was to hear, Israel needed to hear that or they would never have repented.
But that prophetic explanation didn’t make the pain any less. In fact, it increased it. So the ancient people of God lamented. As you preach this text, it is important to linger on their lament as a way of eliciting and validating the lament of God’s people today. While we must be careful not to imply that all suffering is caused by our sin, we must also allow the suffering to weep. Sometimes all you can do is mourn. That is perfectly legitimate, even if your grief is tied to your sin.
In fact, if you don’t lament, if your repress your sorrow, it can go underground and cause any number of deep problems. In a culture that practices denial and amnesia, Lamentations encourages truth telling. Speak the truth about how you feel and let the tears flow. Your tears aren’t isolated tears; they are part of the river of tears that flows through the story of God’s people throughout the ages.
And that means that the church must learn to value lament. As The New Interpreter’s Bible puts it, “What seems to be required from the churches… in the face of suffering, therefore, is not, initially at least, answers, dogmas, or solutions. Instead, what is needed is a profoundly expanded capacity to hear the pain of the afflicted.”
But there is a place for answers, dogmas, solutions, that is, the Gospel. Which is to say that we cannot stop with lament. We should not discourage it, as I did with my friend Susan. But encouraging lament cannot be our last word. The last word in Lamentations is a call to return to the God whose ways are often inscrutable. And that means we must call people to the ultimate act of our mysterious God—the Word becoming flesh. At the heart of the Story is the incarnation of God, who became the Man of Sorrows.
These sad words from Jeremiah actually help us flesh out that familiar title from Isaiah 53. There is a sense in which the church is Jerusalem, the lonely widow whose children have been taken by the enemy. Often it seems as though there is no one to comfort us in this sad world. But even as Jeremiah identified with sinful Israel in its lament, giving voice to the sorrow of the very people he prophesied against, so Jesus identifies with the sorrow of his sinful church. Jeremiah is a type of Christ. This is why some parts of the worldwide church use Lamentations during the last 3 days of Holy Week to give voice to our sorrow and Christ’s.
But the Christ did more than sympathize and empathize with the suffering of his people. He actually took upon himself the sins that ultimately cause all suffering. He even went into exile in his death (“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), so that we can have “a resting place.” As one scholar put it, “the verses in our passage, which speak of desolation, judgment, humiliation, and mourning… become not a piece of descriptive history or emotional outpouring, but a prophecy fulfilled in the person of Christ himself, the one who ‘suffers’ for the ‘multitude of the nations’ transgressions (verse 5), much like Isaiah’s suffering servant.” Further, when the Incarnate Word went back to the Father, he gave us another Comforter to be with us forever.
Thus, the bottomless lament of our text leads us finally to the bottomless care of the very God who not only hates our sin, but also loves us so much that he sent the Man of Sorrows to make our joy complete. So, preach the importance of lament, but above all preach Christ who came to restore “the splendor [of] the daughter of Zion.”
I am writing this piece on September 11, the 19th anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks in America, an event that left a nation in mourning. Since then we have other reasons to mourn as a people. We have discovered the sad truth about such events as enunciated by Frank Yamada. “National tragedies threaten to render communities speechless. The collective grief can be overwhelming.” Thank God we have biblical passages like Lamentations 1 to help us give voice to our sorrow. But thank God even more that we have a Savior who has come to bear our griefs and sorrows with us and for us.
Author: Scott Hoezee
The Book of Psalms—and sometimes individual poems within it—can be pretty good at the proverbial “talking out of both sides of one’s mouth at the same time.” Taken individually, some psalms paint a very pretty picture of how the righteous always prosper and how the wicked always fail miserably. Then again, other psalms admit that the wicked very often do just fine, thank you very much, even as the righteous often have a miserable time of it in this world. Some poems praise God for his nearness and love, other poems lament loudly God’s seeming absence and God’s deafness to our cries. Mostly the Psalms are pretty good at encouraging us to take the long look in such matters. Whatever good may be happening for the wicked now and whatever bad may be experienced by the righteous for now, in the end everything will turn out just fine when the coming of God’s justice is all in all.
In the midst of all that, however, Psalm 37 may stand out as saying a little bit of everything! Although we are focusing on only the first 9 verses in the RCL reading, the psalm goes on a good bit longer. Along the way it says some things that we all know only too well: wicked people often prosper. Crooks get away with their crimes. The nasty people of society are not only not miserable, they are often living it up in opulence and having a great time in life. The righteous are told not to fret this. It’s not right, it’s not just but in the long run it’s still better to be righteous than to be wicked and evil.
Verse 16 goes on to admit that the righteous very often do get the short end of life’s stick. “Better is the little the righteous have than the abundance of the wicked.”
That all sounds fine but then you also get this sentiment in verses 25-26: “I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are ever giving liberally and lending, and their children become a blessing.” And now we are tempted to say “Whoa, hold up there a sec, Mr. or Ms. Psalmist. Because I have seen the righteous in grave poverty and there are plenty of children from good homes whose lives seem somewhere just south of anything anyone would label ‘blessed.’”
Realism and honesty; optimism and a little wishful thinking: it seems we get a little bit of everything in Psalm 37. Even in just these first 9 verses we get simultaneously a call to not fret the success of the wicked and also promises that God will feather the nests of all good people even as any minute now their goodness is going to shine like the noonday sun for all to see. What are we to make of such poetic see-sawing?
Well, maybe we need to take a step back to ponder what this Psalm’s core intention is. In some ways this resembles some of the wisdom literature you can find in the Book of Proverbs. In particular some of this sounds an awful lot like those addresses in Proverbs from a father to a son. It’s as though the psalmist here knows how beguilingly good the lifestyles of the (wicked) rich and famous can look to younger people. Who doesn’t want to live in the lap of luxury? Who doesn’t want a life free of having to worry all the time about making ends meet or having enough to pay the bills come the end of the month? Who isn’t confused and distressed at times to see how hardworking and honest people often get the short end of the stick even as slackers and cheats not only manage to make more money but never get caught in their shenanigans?
I mean, we have all known people—fellow students in school, fellow employees at some place of work, fellow family members—who do it all wrong but always come out smelling like a rose. How many of us don’t have the nagging sense at times that if we did just ONE thing wrong at work, the boss would come down on us like a ton of bricks even as our fellow workers screw up all the time and have yet to receive so much as a stern glance from the boss.
So why not join them in their nefarious deeds and their slacker patterns of behavior? Why can’t we cash in on life’s gravy train the way so many other folks do? Why live within the tensions of so much inherent unfairness? Just give in to the ways of the world. Go along to get along. Grab for the gusto while you can.
But to these tempting and alluring alternative paths, the psalmist wants to instruct his children—and all of us—to not give in. This is the father in Proverbs urging his son to not give in to the shallow allures of harlots (and the “harlot” of folly personified). Or in a more pop vein, this is Yoda in Star Wars warning young Luke Skywalker not to take “the quick and easy path” as Darth Vader did and end up serving the Dark Side forever. It’s Robert Frost urging the road less traveled by and M. Scott Peck’s later appropriation of Frost’s image for his bestselling book in telling us that the harder path is almost always the better path, that the allures of what’s handy and easy and apparently profitable almost always lead to at best short-term gain but long-term ruin.
So yes, parts of Psalm 37 seem a bit too good to be true and a bit too much at variance with what our own eyes can see when we look around us. But maybe we should read all of this as the earnestness of a loving parent doing anything and everything he/she can to keep a child on the straight and narrow, to take the long look and trust that at the end of the day, our God has got this thing. Things are going to turn out the way we all along knew they should. Be patient, take a deep breath, recognize that the joy that God’s children have is deeper and more lasting than any short-term flash-in-the-pan, live-for-the-moment pleasure or success of devious people.
This is hard to do! But are we willing—as the psalmist was—to do all we can (even if it leads to a rhetorical excess here and there) to celebrate the joy of righteousness and help our younger people to do the same? Do we feel the divine urgency of this ancient poet?
When I made my Profession of Faith during my high school years—this is my denomination’s equivalent of what some call “Confirmation”—we sang a hymn often associated with Professions of Faith, “O Jesus, I Have Promised.” It is a hymn about committing oneself to Jesus, to follow him and to desire him alone. One of the lines in the hymn might resonate with the sentiments of Psalm 37: “O let me feel you near me, the world is ever near. I see the sights that dazzle, the tempting sounds I hear.” It was to head off the allure of just such dazzle and such that the writer of Psalm 37 wanted to convey, to blunt these temptations for his readers, perhaps for especially his younger readers.
Of course, we live in a culture that fosters and celebrates the allure of all those dazzling sights. Not a few observers have noted over the years that in the advertising industry, you can see what could be called “designer envy.” We are made to feel perpetually restless, as though no matter what we currently possess, it’s not good enough. We have to be motivated to get the next new iPhone by being made to feel that the iPhone 9 we were ABSOLUTELY told we had to have two years ago is now almost an embarrassment and so you just gotta line up early at the Apple store for the iPhone 11 the moment it goes on sale.
But it’s not just products: it is whole lifestyles we are tempted to aspire to achieve. What else could be the purpose of a show whose very title betrays what we are supposed to desire: Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Or it reminds me of an early scene in the movie Jerry Maguire when a single mom sitting in the coach section of an airplane overhears a conversation from First Class in which someone – it turns out to be Jerry Maguire – is bragging on and on about his high-flying rich lifestyle and the pyrotechnic relationship he has with his drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend. At one point she sighs as she overhears all this, prompting her little boy in the seat next to her to ask what is wrong. “First Class is what is wrong,” she replies. “It used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life.”
Never mind that at the end of the day none of these people – be they Kardashians or Maguires or fill-in-the-celebrity-blank people – are moral exemplars or people any righteous person should want to emulate. But they are so dazzling . . .
To this Psalm 37 counsels, “Don’t go there. Don’t aspire to that. Don’t want that.”
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Author: Chelsey Harmon
The lectionary brings us this week from Paul’s first letter to his second letter to Timothy. Right away, we can feel that the stakes are higher, the emotions more intense. There’s talk of tears and mothers and grandmothers, of emotional longings and deep faith and trust. Why? Because things haven’t gotten better since the first letter; they’ve actually gotten worse. Paul is under house arrest now—with all of the suffering that that entails (and then some, as we discover in this letter). On top of that, all of the same problems plaguing the church in Ephesus then are still plaguing the church now. In fact, the situation with the false teachers leading members of the church astray may be even worse. Like he did in the opening of the first letter, Paul sets out quickly to encourage Timothy for the work yet to do. And like Paul always does, everything connects to God.
Though the NRSV translates the word in verse 6 as “rekindle,” other translations give a fuller sense of the definition: “fan into flame.” Paul isn’t accusing Timothy of having given up on the task set before him in Ephesus, instead Paul is encouraging Timothy to not give up on the task in the midst of very little fruit and intense pressure. “Light it up!” Paul says to his timid mentee turned colleague.
What’s being “lit” is the gifts of God within Timothy. In essence, it’s the power of the Holy Spirit that will burn brightly if Timothy allows it. Paul underscores that that power was part of the gifts given to Timothy when hands were laid upon him in prayer and God’s purposes for ministry through Timothy were prophesied. Paul teaches elsewhere in his letters about such gifts (the Greek word is charisma), specifically, that their purposes are always for the building up of the church. So it’s no surprise that, since what Timothy needs are the gifts of God, Timothy doesn’t have to worry about what he needs running out while he is going about the call. Like the bush that burned but was never consumed, God’s message and presence doesn’t run out. It may end when it’s planned purpose or time has passed, but the Holy Spirit is faithful!
By reminding Timothy to fan the flame of God within, Paul is encouraging Timothy to continue in teaching the true gospel and devoting himself to personal piety through the gifts and presence of the Holy Spirit within him. The flame of the Holy Spirit, akin to the image of the burning bush that was lit even before Moses saw it, is already lit and present within him; Timothy’s just letting it grow. In other words, Timothy is to feed the fire of God through his relationship with God and to let the Holy Spirit shine brightly through the practice of Timothy’s gifts—especially Timothy’s effectiveness at teaching sound doctrine. Through continuous communion with the triune God, God will overflow from Timothy’s internal life to the external world. This isn’t something special for Timothy and Paul; it’s the way God works in his church. We all have flames of the Holy Spirit alit in our lives, gifts or manifestations of God seeking to encourage his church within ourselves. Like God was doing with Timothy, the Holy Spirit is waiting for us to cooperate!
The power within, for life and fire, for service and strength, is the Holy Spirit, whom Paul calls upon multiple times in these fourteen verses. The power of the Holy Spirit is the fire that burns through Timothy’s—and our—love, boldness in the things of God, and self-discipline (which isn’t the same as the fruit of self-control, but more likely meant to be associated with sound thinking that is not swayed by other ideas like those of the false teachers). The power of the Holy Spirit is what sustains Paul and Timothy—and us—through hard times. The Holy Spirit is who called Paul and Timothy—and us—to our ministry tasks. God’s character and way of working has not changed!
Along with the Holy Spirit’s powerful presence with him, Timothy is sustained by another gift of God: faith. The faith he has, the faith he has received, the faith that connects to ancestors, are the deep roots for his quasi burning bush that is God’s presence within. Paul names Timothy’s mother and grandmother as sources of strength. In Paul’s eyes, Lois and Eunice represent people with vibrant faith, women who are at one with Christ and living the Christlike life, and Paul is confident that the same faith is alive in Timothy. Imagine being told by your mentor that you are in the same category as the person whose faith you admire the most. That’s one of those statements that is both humbling and confidence boosting. “Shine bright, Timothy! You come from good stock and are rooted in a family of faith!”
Timothy is also rooted in Paul. The Holy Spirit used Paul to shape and guide Timothy into ministry, and Paul is deeply rooted in the faith of their ancestors (verse 3). Paul and Timothy’s roots are so connected, that Paul actually wants Timothy to return to him in person during these last days of his imprisonment. And at the very least, Paul wants Timothy to stay connected to him through their shared role in the proclaiming the gospel of grace. Paul is, once again, overwhelmed by the grace that he’s known. It has fueled him, burned within him, fanned into flame and transformed the world through his ministry. Therefore, Paul declares with confidence, “I will not be ashamed and I hope that you are not either.”
I once heard a recording of Dallas Willard making a presentation at a church. While talking about confession, he said one those profound yet simple statements that we all know to be true but find difficult to shift to living as true in our lives. He said, “Reputation is bad for you… it’s actually very bad for you… it’s manning the facades.”
Paul seems to have understood what Dallas was getting at here: reputation based on anything but one’s devotion to the gospel, evidenced by one’s love and sound belief, doesn’t matter. Most of the time, we’re ashamed about the wrong things, but we should not be ashamed of doing the things of God—even if it puts us in a shameful position like being a law breaker. Isn’t it interesting that the two sources of evidence are internal as well as external? Our love shown to others is just as much a sign of God within as believing and trusting the true things of God in our minds and hearts.
But back to having a shameful reputation as a law breaker for the gospel… I don’t want to universalize this point too much—sometimes law-abiding is the way to protect and preserve the gospel—and I do not want to tell anyone under real persecution for their faith what God is asking them to do. But in North America, our law-abiding has somehow become synonymous with gospel obedience: following the law of the land equals following the way of Christ. How did that happen? I suspect that Paul would still have to talk about suffering as he did back then and would still have to declare that he was not ashamed of his choices to live within God’s will. If we really sat down and compared our lives to Paul’s, most of us wouldn’t find a whole lot of common ground.
Would Paul have been a peaceful protestor who ran the risk of being arrested in today’s world? Was Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow civil rights workers ashamed of the days they spent in jail? What about the preachers and believers who are escorted off of Capitol Hill for reciting Scripture about God’s justice and our call to care for the marginalized? The fire of the Holy Spirit continues to be strong and burning within God’s people! Paul’s encouragement to take stock of where we come from, who we come from, and what is alive in us unlocks our eyes to see the strength just waiting to be unleashed for God’s kingdom good. May we not be ashamed and may we be willing to suffer for its cause, entrusting our lives to Christ, learning from the great cloud of witnesses that root us in the family of faith.
What is the “deposit” with God (translated by the NRSV as “what I have entrusted”) that Paul refers to in verse 12? Scholars can’t seem to agree on one option because of the grammatical structure, nor do Paul’s other instances of the word shed any light. The two options that rise to the top fit the context equally well, and Paul could have meant for us to have both of them in mind since both were very true for him personally.
One idea is that Paul is referring to his own life. The letter we have before us is sometimes called Paul’s last will and testament, his passing of the torch. There is significant debate as to whether Paul actually wrote the letter or if someone else did after he died. Much like the debates as to whether or not Moses wrote all of the books accredited to him, it’s important to keep in mind the sense author attribution is meant to provide. In other words, what does making this one of Paul’s last letters add to the text? He’s been arrested, is under house arrest, has had his “court date”… and the writing is on the wall—his current hardships and sufferings are likely going to end with his death. Therefore, these words would be of comfort to one in suffering: even in death, our lives are in God’s hands. If you grew up in the Reformed tradition you likely just thought of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul—in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour, Jesus Christ…”
The other idea regarding what Paul is describing as “entrusted” to God is the gospel itself—it’s the gospel he is entrusting to Timothy in verse 14, after all. If it’s the gospel, then “the day” that Paul refers to is likely the day of judgement when Jesus finally and fully reveals the good news and establishes the fulfillment of the gospel’s promises through the new heaven and new earth. Language about the day of judgement fits the Old Testament motif as well as Paul’s teachings in his other letters. When that day comes, the perfect revelation of the gospel will make the work of his apostles complete.
Furthermore, all of the verbs that Paul uses for himself in verse 12 are in the perfect tense. “I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.” (emphasis added on perfect tense verbs) The perfect tense is used when an action is complete, but has ongoing results—it keeps having an effect. Paul’s trusting, his knowing, and his confidence all stemmed from a decision or experience in time, but that decision or experience continued to significantly shape everything about his life, faith, and ministry. It’s easy to see how this works with either understandings of the “deposit.” It doesn’t really matter if Paul is referring to his very life or to the gospel of grace that constantly overwhelmed him with awe, because both were in the perfect tense for Paul; they were continuously having an effect but rooted in a specific action of God: his conversion and calling.