October 07, 2019
The Proper 23C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 17:11-19 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 29:1,4-7from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 111 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Timothy 2:8-15 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 2 (Lord’s Day 1)
Author: Scott Hoezee
As a college German major, I’ve known for a while of a curiosity in that language. In German if you thank someone by saying “Danke,” the person whom you are thanking is likely to respond with “Bitte,” which is the German equivalent of “You’re welcome.” Except that “bitte” is also the word for “please” and is further a cognate of the verb “bitten,” which means to ask for something, to make a request (it may even be an off-shoot of “beten” which is the German verb for “to pray”).
A few years ago we lived near an Italian family and so whenever the children of this family came over to play with my kids, I’d try to learn a little Italian. One day I asked the oldest girl in that family how to say “You’re welcome” in Italian. I already knew how to say “Grazie” (“thank you”) but didn’t know how to respond if someone said “Grazie” to me. She said to say “Prego.” She then said that curiously enough a form of that word (“prega”) can also mean “please” and that the verb form (“pregare”) can mean to ask for something or even to pray for something.
And a little linguistic light bulb went off in my head: in German and Italian “bitte” and “prego” as a way of saying “you’re welcome” loop around to words that have to do with asking for something in the first place. Linguistically both languages suggest a tight connection between the asking for something and the subsequent giving thanks for it in the form of what the thanked person says in reply to your word of gratitude.
Please. Thank you. You’re welcome.
Bitte. Danke. Bitte.
Prega. Grazie. Prego.
You ask for something and you perhaps say “Please.” You get what you ask for and after saying “Thanks,” the person whom you are thanking gives your original “please” a half-twist so as to turn it into “you’re welcome,” completing a kind of natural cycle, closing a kind of natural loop.
And make no mistake: it is a natural loop. When it is not closed, when the circle is not completed, things are out of joint. Unexpressed thanks is an insidious way to hurt someone. A sin of omission if ever there were one, a lack of thanks-giving is a passive form of verbal abuse. We all know how we can wound people through what we actively spew out of our mouths. But silence can have a heft all its own–failing to thank people is an emptiness with substance, a gratitude vacuum that suffocates. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, life is out of joint when we fail to give thanks. The insensate way by which some people receive and receive and receive yet without ever saying “Thank you” is a baffling phenomenon–baffling, it seems, even to God, as this brief story in Luke 17 makes clear.
“Didn’t I heal ten lepers? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to praise God except this foreigner?” That last question is the narrative time-bomb of this story: the only thankful leper was a Samaritan. The nine Jewish lepers didn’t say a word to Jesus. Only the “loathsome” (by Jewish standards) Samaritan comes back to render proper thanks.
Ingratitude little by little kills those who never receive the gratitude they deserve in life. But anything that kills others is not exactly healthy for the person who fails to say “Thanks” either. Failing to express gratitude sooner or later coarsens us even as it fosters an undue sense of entitlement. After a time, we don’t deign to say “Thank you” to various workers in our lives because we feel we deserve the service they’ve rendered. We’ve earned it. We’ve paid our dues, laid down our cash, slaved away at our own job to make this dinner out, this vacation, this shopping spree possible. To say “Thank you” to certain people would be to admit that maybe what we’re getting in life is less an accomplishment and more part and parcel of the larger gift of God. But for some people that is simply too demeaning.
In the film The Remains of the Day, Anthony Hopkins plays a butler to a super-rich family. While researching this role, Mr. Hopkins interviewed a real-life butler. This butler told Hopkins that his goal in life is complete and total obsequiousness–a skilled ability to blend into the woodwork of any room like a mere fixture, on a par with table lamps and andirons. In fact, Anthony Hopkins said one sentence he will never forget is when this man said that you can sum up an excellent butler this way: “The room seems emptier when he’s in it.”
The room seems emptier when he’s in it. The goal is to do your work, fill your wine glasses, clear the plates and silverware without being noticed, much less thanked. But that’s just the problem with routine ingratitude: it makes people disappear. You are the center of your own universe and others don’t warrant entree into that inner sanctum of yourself.
But a simple word of thanks makes people visible again, it humanizes them. In the film Schindler’s List, the evil camp commandant, Amon Goeth, was known to deal with boredom by taking his rifle and randomly shooting passing Jews from his balcony. They weren’t human to him, they were just animals. All except for Helen Hirsch, who becomes his maid and for whom he develops affection. The startling moment when Oskar Schindler realizes this is when Helen quietly steals into the room and clears a plate of cookies. But before she is able silently to exit the room, Goeth says, “Helen, thank you.” He noticed her. He humanized her. And it showed because he thanked her. He thanked her by name.
“What is the chief goal of human life?” the Westminster Catechism famously asks in its opening question and answer. “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” is the answer. A chief way we do that is by thanking God moment by moment for the gifts that God has lavished upon us. That great big gratitude sounds a keynote and sets the tone for all of life, which means that Christians should just generally be the most polite, thankful people around. We are on the lookout for chances to say little words of thanks to all kinds of people as the natural, effervescent overflow of the thanks that constantly bubbles up in our hearts.
After expressing his wonderment at the fact that only 1 out of 10 had returned with thanksgiving, Jesus says to the Samaritan who did come back, “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” Has SAVED you. That’s what it literally says in the Greek, although most Bibles translate it as “healed you” or perhaps “has made you whole.” All ten lepers were healed, but there is a hint in Jesus’ final words that maybe just the one who came back to say “Thank you” was also saved in some deeper sense. Perhaps we could guess that only those who properly respond to the goodness of God show that they “get it,” they understand how the universe works and so in that way show that salvation is operative in their lives.
In her novel, Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler introduces us to Delia Grinstead. Delia is a lovely,
loveable, and utterly giving wife and mother who regularly does her level best to keep her household running smoothly. But as her children grow up, they become “great, galumphing, unmannerly, and supercilious creatures” who ignore Delia and who flinch from her hugs. What’s more, they expect that their favorite foods will always be in the pantry or the fridge, but they never thank Delia for purchasing these sundries (though they will complain loudly should she forget one day). Meanwhile Delia’s husband is so wrapped up in his medical practice that he, too, brushes past Delia day in and day out, regularly failing to notice the spic-n-span house, the clean laundry, the warm food set before his distracted face each evening.
After years of this neglect, Delia begins to feel like “a tiny gnat, whirring around her family’s edges.” Their ongoing lack of gratitude has killed something in Delia–not all at once, mind you, but day by day Delia dies a little, wilting like a flower that receives too little moisture. She doesn’t even realize how dead she has become until one day she meets someone who is kind, who thanks Delia for a little something. This stranger’s kind gratitude is like a few precious drops of water applied to her soul–a few little thankful droplets that reveal just how dry, cracked, and barren the landscape of her soul had become.
Finally the day comes when Delia just walks away from her family. She’s taking a stroll on a beach and just keeps on going. Once her family realizes she is missing, they have a curiously difficult time describing Delia to the police. They just can’t seem to recall the color of her eyes, her height or weight, what she was wearing when they last saw her. Of course, they’d never really seen her to begin with. They had been blinded by ingratitude.
Author: Stan Mast
When most preachers think of Jeremiah 29, they will focus on the oft-preached optimism of verses 10-14. Who hasn’t quoted those words to discouraged believers? “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
But the Lectionary doesn’t take us to future hope today; it dwells in the difficult present to deal with two huge questions: how do God’s people live in a hostile foreign land and how do we know what prophetic word to heed when times are tough? The prophetic word of Jeremiah can be summed up with prepositions—“In, not of, but for.” That would be the title of my sermon on this text.
It’s important to place this brief text in the narrative/theological arc of Jeremiah. We began our study with the call of Jeremiah to be a prophet who would uproot and tear down, and then plant and build. Then we heard stern words about sin and judgment, coupled with a call to repent and the promise that God would relent if Israel would repent. As God’s punishment was about to fall upon his sinful people, Jeremiah performed an act of prophetic hope by purchasing a piece of land in a soon to be conquered country. Then God’s judgment came crashing down and Jerusalem was devastated. In our last reading, we heard the deep sorrow of Jeremiah and Judah and, maybe even, Yahweh over the desolation of Jerusalem. All was lost. It was the end of the world.
But it wasn’t the end of the world, because there were still people alive. And so was God. Here the living God tells his surviving people how to live now that the world as they knew it was over. It is interesting that the Lectionary doesn’t focus on those optimistic verses later in Jeremiah 29. I think there is a good reason for that choice of text. It points to the great issue between Jeremiah and the false prophets—the latter said we should be optimistic about the near future while Jeremiah said that we should be realistic about the immediate present.
As Jeremiah 28 reveals, the false prophets were saying that this exile was a temporary thing; in fact, in two years you will go back to the Promised Land. So, you should struggle against the Babylonians. Don’t submit to them; they are not part of God’s will for you. Instead, rebel and win your freedom. That is the will of God for his people in that foreign place.
Jeremiah agreed that Israel would go back to the Land, but not for a long time, not for 70 years, not until Israel had learned its lesson there in Babylon. It was a terrible mistake, a total lie, to think that Israel could win freedom by waging guerilla warfare against the all-powerful Babylonians. So, don’t listen to those prophets. Listen to the Word of the Lord through Jeremiah.
The word of the Lord came to the Exiles in an unusual form—a letter sent in a diplomatic pouch to Nebuchadnezzar himself (as we learn in verses 2-3, which are not part of our reading). Those unassigned verses reveal that the letter was sent after the first deportation of Judah in 597. Rather than being the end of deportation, two more would follow in 586 and 581. Clearly, the false prophets were dead wrong about a two year exile.
Anyway, this letter from Jeremiah contains the word of the Lord, as its very first line announces clearly. “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” There is a world of meaning in those few words. In a letter that would be channeled to the Exiles through the great King Nebuchadnezzar, the God of Israel claims that he is still in control.
He is “Yahweh Almighty,” the Lord of hosts, whose armies could defeat the armies of Babylon, if that is what God willed. But God willed, instead, to use Babylon to accomplish his own purpose, namely, to carry Israel from Jerusalem to Babylon. Indeed, says Yahweh, “I carried them into exile.” Exile is my will for you right now, so submitting to Babylon is submitting to me. But don’t think for a moment that I am done with you, because I am still “the God of Israel.” You are exiled, but not forgotten. And as Yahweh will say in a moment, I will bring you back to the Land and to myself.
In the meantime, here’s what you must do. Live in the present, not the future. But lay foundations for the future by living normally. No, you are not in the Promised Land, in the Holy City with its Temple, but you can still live by faith away from all those props for your faith. Maintain faithful living no matter where you are living. Transfer your faith to that foreign place and let it be your not-so-temporary home.
That is exactly what God commands—make Babylon your home away from home. Build houses and settle down; Ezekiel the prophet lived in his own home as he spoke to the Exiles (Ezekiel 8:1). Forget about temporary dwellings, like tents. You will be there a while. Plant gardens and eat what they produce. Become self-supporting in captivity; your captors expect that. Most important, continue to have families, so that there will be a people in existence when I finally bring my people back to the Land. Don’t sit in misery; get married and have children, so that your children may have families, and their children may have families, for three generations (about 70 years). Be like the Israelites in Egypt long ago; “increase in numbers; do not decrease.”
The false prophets were saying that the future lay with the remnant left behind in the Promised Land. God was punishing the exiles for their great sin and blessing the remnant for their faithfulness. That seemed the most reasonable reading of the historical circumstances. But through Jeremiah God said that it was exactly the opposite. That remnant would be mixed with foreigners and become the mongrel Samaritans, while the cursed exiles would be the hope of Israel, once Yahweh completed their chastening.
From our perspective, that all seems like good advice. Maybe the exiles thought so too, eventually. But the last part of God’s will for them in exile must have gone down hard. It was shocking, unprecedented, a “you have got to be kidding me” order. “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile….” Well, okay, that makes some sense. If Babylon is war-ravaged and sinks into poverty, that will affect us, too. So, we can see that it pays to seek the welfare of this foreign land, because as God says, “if it prospers, you too will prosper.” But, “pray to the Lord for it?” Wait a minute! These people have ruined our lives. These people are the enemy. We want to call down God’s curses on them and you are telling us that we have to pray for them. That’s too much.
But it was the will of the Lord, not just for the Jewish exiles, but also for Christian exiles. Remember how Jesus put it? “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons and daughters of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44) And Jesus practiced what he preached. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
So, obviously, the word of the Lord for the exiles in Babylon has relevance for Christians in America or Canada or wherever you live. Peter calls all of us “aliens and exiles” in I Peter 2:11 and give advice that sounds much like Jeremiah. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits (verse 12).”
The problem is that we probably don’t need to be told to settle down and live normal lives among the pagans. We already do that very well, too well actually. Indeed, often our lives look very much like the lives of the pagans around us. Even worse, we not only pray for our “captors,” we even treat them as though they are our Saviors. Think of the zeal and the hope American Christians exhibit in their political allegiances. Nebuchadnezzar is the one who can make our lives great again. And if not him, then Cyrus the Great will change things in our favor when he takes control. (Plug in the names of your favorite political or economic or military leader.) Have we made America (or Canada, etc.) our hope, rather than simply our home away from home? Is our country more important than the church and the Kingdom of God?
This is very tricky and troubled water to navigate. I mean, Paul does tell us at least twice that we should pray for (even, maybe especially) our pagan leaders (Romans 13 and I Timothy 2). We are to invest in the peace and prosperity of our native lands, for if they prosper so will we. But we must never forget that we are, in fact, “aliens and exiles.” And the day will come when our Lord will visit this earth again and the nations will be judged for their rebellion (see the book of Jeremiah in many places).
As we look forward to that “day of judgment, day of wonders,” we must live normally in the present, “in the world, not of the world, but for the world” that God loves.
Is there a place for rebelling against the powers that be, as the false prophets urged the exiles to do? Is Jeremiah’s advice applicable for every situation, or was it directed to a specific time and place? One thinks of Jews in Nazi concentration camps, their twentieth century Babylon. Does Jeremiah 29:4-7 apply to them?
In my Dutch Reformed circles we are mourning the death of Diet Eman, author of the memoir, Things We Could Not Say. She was a survivor of WW II and Nazi atrocities. She joined the Dutch underground and fought the Nazis with everything she had. Her recent death was commemorated with great praise and honor for her courageous rebellion. Was she disobeying the will of God as enunciated in Jeremiah 29?
Or was the situation in Babylon qualitatively different than in Nazi Germany. Their Babylonian captors, after all, did not forbid the Exiles to worship Yahweh and the Jews in Babylon were given freedom to build and plant and marry and live normally, albeit in a foreign land. Very different than Nazi Germany. And maybe very different than situations in our world today (think of Christians in Iraq), maybe even in an increasingly secular North America (where there is a huge culture war with sexual rights battling religious rights). Christ is coming to judge the living and the dead. How shall we then live in the meantime?
Author: Scott Hoezee
In a recent sermon starter on another psalm, I observed that although the poetry of the Psalms and the wisdom literature of Proverbs or Ecclesiastes are distinct in terms of biblical literary genre, there is a lot of crossover between the Books of Psalms and Proverbs. Psalm 111 is another example of this with its final verse containing what is also the headline verse for all of Proverbs: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. So as we would do were we reading Proverbs 1, so for Psalm 111, we need to wonder what that line means and then see the rest of Psalm 111 in that light.
What is the fear of the Lord, the fear of “Yahweh,” Israel’s God? To state the merely obvious, it does not per se mean “fear” in the sense of terror or being frightened/scared. Yes, there is an element of trepidation that should attend any mere mortal who would approach an almighty and holy God—a proper awe and due respect—but that is not the main upshot of “fear” in this context. Instead it means reverence, it means knowing Who is who in the cosmic scheme of things and then ordering your life accordingly. It means recognizing that the world was not created for your own private benefit or convenience. It means acknowledging that similarly you are not in a position to re-create or re-cast or re-shape the world as you go along to make things more convenient for you. You cannot make up the rules as you go along to make sure that good old #1 always comes out on top.
The fear of the Lord means that you own up to the fact that God alone is sovereign. He set up the cosmos in certain ways and knowing that means that the wise person seeks to discern what works and what does not work in God’s good design. God, of course, also gave his people the gift of the Law. This is life’s Owner’s Manual. The Do’s and Don’ts of the Law are not arbitrary hoops God likes watching his creatures jump through. Instead these are laws on the order of the Law of Gravity: the laws reveal the way things are. You can ignore the Law of Gravity if you wish and defy it by stepping off a sheer cliff face but . . . gravity will not be suspended because you want it so. The Law of Gravity is less something you obey and more something you yield to!
Wisdom, however, is less about laws and more about street smarts, savvy, making careful observations of life so you can figure out what’s what and then go with that wise flow. You should not need a rule to tell you it’s dumb to spit into the wind or saw off the branch you’re sitting on. You should not need a law to tell you that as often as not, when you are trying to argue with a genuinely foolish person, you will probably be better off just walking away quietly. You don’t need a rulebook to discern the truth of the proverb that says “Better a meal of herbs and water where love is than a rich feast where there is hatred.” Just watch your surly Uncle Lloyd ignite a political debate at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table and you will quickly conclude that delicious though Grandma’s turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes are, you wish you had just swung through the Burger King drive-thru and eaten in your car with someone you love. It would have been much more enjoyable!
The fear of the Lord discerns that the world is not random. It’s not a booming buzzing confusion. It’s not some Hamlet-like fool strutting about a stage spouting sound and fury that in the end means nothing. There is order. There is sense to the world. The wise person knows this and so figures some stuff out as he or she goes along.
This cluster of insights from the final verse of Psalm 111 then frames up the first 9 verses. Because this psalmist is celebrating the works of God and how faithful followers of God spend lots of time pondering those works, delighting in those works, rehearsing over and over the splendors of what God has done. And it’s not just the works of God in creation but in also redemption and in God’s having formed a covenant with Israel. These saving and redeeming acts also reveal a lot about God’s character, and those who are devoted to God will savor these things, too. Any God who cares enough for people as to make a covenant with them and intervene on their behalf can surely be trusted to show us the right ways to live.
This is a God, in short, who gives laws and reveals wise insights for one very basic reason: God wants people to flourish. God wants people to avoid those things that might harm them and to engage instead in lifestyles that, by virtue of going with God’s flow, will bring them delight and joy. God doesn’t want people to be perpetually frustrated on account of their fighting against how the world was set up in the first place. Instead God wants people to get into the zone of heeding the way things work so that they will thrive.
Because the psalmist knows—as does the wider wisdom tradition of Scripture—that it is sheer folly to fancy oneself as being a “self-made individual.” It is folly to think you can just move life’s moral boundary fences to more convenient places and not suffer any negative consequences as a result. Ruination and destruction are the end destinations for all those who refuse to acknowledge that there is a God and that this God knows best what works and what fails in life. The beginning of wisdom is to acknowledge both the existence of God and the fact that no one has a better inside track to knowing what leads to delight and flourishing than the God who created the whole shebang in the first place!
So wise up! Get wisdom! Flee folly! Ponder long and hard the things of God and order your life accordingly. Because God really does have your best interests at heart. It only makes sense to figure out as best you can what God’s designs for life in this creation are and then fit yourself into that picture even as you extol God over and over for the marvelous things he has created and done.
As my colleague Stan Mast reminded us in his sermon starter on Psalm 111 in 2016, it ought not really strike us as odd that something like Psalm 111 calls us over and over to extol the things of God, to get jump-up-and-down excited about God’s works in creation and redemption and the fact that contained in those works are great wonder and power. Anyone who finds it off-putting to be ordered to extol the virtues and works of God should just take a look around at how most people act in the rest of life.
Watch a major league baseball player connect with a pitch and send the ball sailing over the back fence for a home run and what happens? The crowd leaps to their feet and cheers go up as accolades get heaped on the hitter.
In late-September Beatles singer Paul McCartney appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late night show. The audience gave McCartney a sustained standing ovation with thunderous clapping and cheering as they extolled the songwriting skills of a man whose music has touched millions for over 50 years now.
It’s not that it’s unusual to suggest people extol someone for their great works of art or other achievements. It’s just that we too often fail to notice what God has done. If we could see more clearly the wondrous works of God, probably no psalmist would need to goad us to extol God for it all. We’d be too busy standing on our feet, clapping, and cheering!
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Paul gives Timothy three commands and a saying in the lectionary section for this week. Remember God… Remind others… Do your best.
Maybe I’ve watched too many cheesy movies—the ones where someone is leaving on the train and never coming back and they stick their head out the window and yell, “Remember I love you!” or someone is on their deathbed or hanging from a cliff and they know their time is running out and they frantically, maybe even tearfully, say, “Remember what’s important in life!” When I read Paul’s words here, this is the sort of intensity I imagine.
I’m not sure that Paul’s command to Timothy to “remember Jesus Christ” has that same level of emotion behind it, but it definitely has that same sort of import and emphasis behind it. When it comes down to it, Paul is essentially saying, this is what matters: “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David.” Jesus Christ, the eternal conqueror of death, the promised and anointed one. Jesus Christ, the resurrected King. “That is my gospel,” Paul writes. These truths are enough motivation and reason for Paul to personally be willing to go through all of the hardships and trials and sufferings and frustrations and pains, they are enough to fuel his ability to endure by keeping his eye on the prize: Jesus Christ, the resurrected King.
In today’s world, we would say that Paul is subtweeting his foes, the false teachers in Ephesus. Without mentioning them at all, he cuts to the heart of what separates him and Timothy from these folks messing up the church: who Jesus is and what that means. It’s as though Paul is voicing this deep lament about what he sees happening in the church in Ephesus (and elsewhere), and that he wants people to understand that there’s enough complexity in the simple truth that Jesus is the resurrected King that we don’t need to add more to it. Nor do we need to make any sort of conversation about who we are more important than this conversation about who God is. Besides, Paul argues, most of the time, this other stuff is about personal gain, but the way of God will more than likely include deep suffering. (Take a look back through the first letter if you need to be reminded about what the false teachers were up to.)
Consider the sure saying he flows right into in verses 11-13. They’re worth reading again: “If we die with Christ, we live with Christ; if we endure we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” Jesus has conquered death, and invites us to the resurrected life. That resurrected life is not one free from hardship, but is a life that enfolds us into our God-given role to rule (going all the way back to our created purpose). Choosing to reject association with Jesus means we reject all of it—rejecting also, then, the goodness that would come from a life lived with him. And through it all, God will remain who God is; no matter who we are, God is faithful to his purposes as the resurrected King as evidenced in the word of truth that is not chained or contained.
So Paul says to Timothy, remind everybody of these simple yet complex and powerful realities. Remember all of this, and remind others of it all because this is truly a matter of life and death. In fact, when it comes down to it, this is all that really matters. Remind them that what they are doing has consequences that reach far beyond themselves and impacts people’s relationship with the triune God.
These are convicting words from the apostle Paul! These are the kinds of conversations that the church needs to get better at having and reminds me of a gospel lectionary from this summer: Jesus comes to bring division (Luke 12.49-56). As we seek to discern such divisions, we would do well to first remember Jesus Christ as the resurrected King, and to plumb the depths of that mystery. By doing so, we’ll begin to see in powerful ways that nothing can stop the word of truth from doing its work in the world through the Holy Spirit, God-with-us—as well as where we have walked away from the work of God in the world.
And so finally, at least in our section for this Sunday, Paul says to Timothy, remember God, remind others, and do your best as you explore and live out the impact of the truth. As one who lives in such a way that Jesus Christ is your resurrected King and your gospel, you will have no reason to be ashamed of what you believe or what you do because you will be an agent of the unbound and unchainable word of God. The unchainable word (does Paul mean Jesus or the scriptures here? maybe the Holy Spirit kept it ambiguous for a reason…) will not return to God empty, and God has purposes for it which he invites us into.
By choosing not to deny those purposes, but to endure the challenge of living in but not of the world, we become people like Timothy, explaining the word of truth rightly through word and deed. We become like Paul, enduring for the sake of people coming to know salvation through Jesus Christ. And we become like Christ himself, embodied truth, dying with him, rising with him, reigning with him forever.
When Paul writes that “the word of God is not chained” in verse 9, he’s doing more than making a nice play on words with his present state as a prisoner of the Roman government; he’s making a profoundly important theological statement. The verb “chained” is in the perfect passive indicative. The passive indicative emphasizes that the Word will not be chained by any force; the perfect emphasizes that this is a done deal—a completed action with ongoing effect. In other words, the Word of God cannot be chained because of how God designed and decreed it to be. This is part of the great promise God made through the prophet in Isaiah 55.9-11. What a comfort!
As Paul sits awaiting death and sees the end of his ministry on earth, maybe he’s wondering how effective he’s been, maybe he’s pondering all of the disappointments of the wayward churches’ responses (like the present situation in Ephesus). But knowing that though his own influence and reach may be chained, that he’s just one smaller piece in a grander Word that cannot be stopped, Paul can push on to the very end without shame. And if the Word continues to be unchainable, what power does it have today? within us? in the world? Do we believe and live as though this is true?
The word picture command to avoid “wrangling over words” because wrangling ruins the people who listen to it, is a strong one. (This whole section is full of strong images, isn’t it…) What is it to “wrangle”? The definition of the Greek word is to have a “to dispute about words, split hairs.” When do we need to dispute over words or split hairs? It’s usually when we’re in trouble, caught out and trying to save face, or wanting to manipulate a situation to our advantage in some way. Either those or we just can’t stand to be wrong and will try to win at all costs. This is something we all do to some degree, and something we’ve been doing since childhood when our little lies snowballed into bigger and bigger deals as we wrangled over our words with the authority figure who we answered to. Most of the time, though, the adult we were wrangling with wasn’t in any trouble of being fooled, and we were the ones who were getting into trouble!
But when that wrangling is about the truth of the gospel, the stakes for our public witness are very high, and none of the motivations and reasons for wrangling I listed above are worthy of the gospel. In fact, they are indicators that the gospel isn’t enlivened in a person (or at the least that Jesus does not have full reign over that particular part of someone’s life).
Earlier this year, Prosperity Gospel Evangelist Kenneth Copeland got caught out in such a moment by the TV show Inside Edition. (You can watch the interview for yourself here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9LtF34MrsfI). Watching Copeland work so hard to twist the words of the interviewer to try to justify his use of a private jets to avoid “the demons in a tube” (Copeland’s description of what it is like to fly commercial), or the way he makes excuses for his wealth—which he is not shy to admit to being—or the way he constantly switched between trying to flatter the reporter to rebuking/yelling at her as though she is the one in the wrong—all while doing so in the name and justification of Jesus Christ—is quite alarming. How many people have come to ruin, or found themselves “in chains” to a ministry like Copeland’s? And how many are pulled away and isolated from faith communities where they will hear the word of truth because of ministries like this?
Honestly, Prosperity Gospel evangelists are one of those examples that tempts me to pray the words of the second half of verse 12… that Jesus would deny people like Kenneth Copeland or the false teachers in Ephesus and Jesus would start doing it in public and right now! But Timothy is told that it’s his job to remind these false teachers of the truth, so it’s our job to continue to speak out against false gospels and to call wrangling for what it is: a harm to the gospel borne out of selfish greed. We endure this task just like Paul did, for the sake of people coming to know the truth and experience the saving, rescuing power of Jesus Christ.