October 14, 2019
The Proper 24C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 18:1-8 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 31:27-34 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 121 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 98 (Lord’s Day 35)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Most of us know the opening to the various iterations of the “Law & Order” TV series that has been running for years and is now streaming on various channels. We hear a two-note musical beat, the screen fades from black to reveal . . . a dead body on the floor, someone’s discovering a corpse in a trash dumpster, or some other result of a terrible crime. The then police show up, someone wonders aloud what in the world happened here, and we then go to the opening credits and the show is off. Whodunnit? How will the police solve this? Who will the suspect be?
That’s a fine way to open a TV mystery drama, and as many homileticians have been advising for years now, it’s not a bad way to open a sermon. Gone is the day when preachers could get away with sermons that open, “Beloved, today we are going to consider the theme of justification. We shall consider it in three parts: first, its biblical meaning; second, its role in the order of salvation; and third its forensic application. Firstly then . . .”
People today prefer inductive sermons. They like to enter a sermon through the doorway of a story to which they can relate on an experiential level. They want the sermon—and many times also what ends up being the core theme of the sermon—to unfold slowly, opening up like a flower, spooling out more like a poem than a dry set of instructions. Let your sermon hook listeners early on, the homiletician Eugene Lowry says, with an intriguing question or with a mystery that needs solving. Don’t tip your hand too early as to what you’re up to.
Good advice. Jesus himself usually followed it. “Once upon a time there was this farmer, see, and he was throwing seed all over the creation . . .” If having heard that much from Jesus you had no idea where he was going, that seems to have been the point. You’d just have to keep listening.
But then there’s Luke 18. “Beloved,” Luke seems to say, “this morning our theme is the need to keep praying and not give up. Let us now consider this theme . . .” and even though Luke then goes on to relay a parable from Jesus (which in and of itself did not state its theme at the outset), nevertheless Luke seems a little clunky here, a little heavy-handed on the didactic side of things. The opening of Luke 18 is a little like opening a “Law & Order” episode by announcing even before the opening credits, “And so we will eventually see that it was the ex-wife who dumped this man’s body into the dumpster where it was discovered by a homeless man.”
Why do it this way? If “Law & Order” did that, most viewers would change the channel. Given the nature of Jesus’ ministry, the explanation for this may be a secret hidden in plain sight in that there may well be more going on in this deceptively simple parable than meets the eye at first glance.
The first item to note is the oddity that the character who will later be made more-or-less analogous to God is not a nice character at all. He is a kind of anti-hero. This judge is a self-centered narcissist. He gives little or no thought to God in the course of his work and really does not much care for other people, either. It looks as though this is one judge who is very much in it for himself. He is proud and arrogant and does not typically see much farther than the tip of his own nose.
The only other character of the story is a widow with a complaint, an allegation, a legal case for the courts. As plaintiffs go, this widow should have, by ancient Israelite law, been able to garner the court’s attention more easily than most. There is even a law in the Old Testament that says that only an orphan could be considered a more urgent case than a widow. All along in the judicial codes given to Israel, God made it clear that the neediest and most vulnerable people were to be cared for way ahead of everyone else. So although not the most urgent of all possible plaintiffs, a widow did rank in the Top 2 categories of persons most deserving of very diligent judicial care.
We have no clue precisely what her case was about but it doesn’t matter–this unjust judge wanted nothing to do with her in any event. He wouldn’t even take the case. Lacking any other recourse, the widow pursued the only avenue open to her: becoming a public nuisance! Some commentators speculate that after a while, the woman did not content herself with standing in line in front of the judge’s formal bench at the courthouse. It’s possible she started essentially to stalk the man, approaching him in the marketplace when he was trying to buy a bag of onions, waiting for him outside his sports club and nailing him the minute he stepped out of the building, following him into restaurants and loudly inquiring after her case while the man waited to get seated.
Basically she hit him where he lived: in his public reputation. He maybe didn’t care about other people and had little or no regard for even God, but his own ego was another matter. He did care what others thought of him. Now, of course, a standard way to connect this unjust and dreadful judge to God is by way of the rhetorical move of what in Latin is known as “ad minior maius” which is the “how much more” line of thought we often read in the gospels. You read this in the “scorpion for bread” story.
What earthly father, if his son asked for a piece of bread, would give the boy a scorpion instead? And so if even you imperfect earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more so with God who is perfect and loving, etc. In the case of Luke 18, you thus expect the line of thought to be, “If persistence can pay off with even a lousy human judge, how much more effective will not we be when we pray to a perfectly just and loving God!?”
But notice that Jesus doesn’t quite say that, does he? Instead he says “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”
Well, OK, but what are we supposed to hear from him other than sheer exasperation (and self-centered exasperation at that)? Are we supposed to make God exasperated, too? Are we to imagine that even God worries about getting a black eye, a bad public reputation and so gives in to us on that basis? And what about verse 7 when Jesus asks, speaking of God, “Will he keep putting them off?” Why doesn’t Jesus say flat out that God will never put us off in the first place when we pray to him? Throwing in the word “keep” makes it sound as though God does sometimes put us off but that the good news is that he won’t keep doing it. So does God put us off sometimes, even for a little while?
These are difficult questions. By implication we can assume that God’s character is the opposite of the unjust judge. Maybe that is so obvious a point that Jesus scarcely needs to mention it directly. Even so, there is a curious implication that there is some point of contact, some point of comparison, between the how and the why of this judge’s having given in to the widow and God’s giving in to us when we pray.
But this passage makes clear that in the end it’s not about whether, or to what extent or in what manner, God will rain down justice on the earth. It’s not about whether God wants to do that or even whether or not there are seasons when for some inscrutable reason God has to put us off for a while. There are countless unknown variables that go into God’s providential maintenance of the world. We cannot see all ends and so there are prayers that go unanswered–not unheeded perhaps but unanswered in the sense of our not receiving what we wanted or what we deemed the best outcome. That kind of disappointment usually leads us to begin wondering what God is up to, what is on God’s mind, what kind of a God he is.
In Luke 18 Jesus turns the tables on us and puts the focus back on our faith. We have to assume the best about our God’s goodness, love, justice, and mercy. By faith we hang on to our belief in all that whether we are awash in answered prayers at any given moment or not. But in the end we should worry less about the character of God and more about the strength and the persistence of our faith. God may well be, as Christians say he is, the most generous source of grace and light in the universe. But if people stop praying to him, how can they expect ever to help display God’s hidden kingdom to the world? How can those who will not pray access and tap into the power and love of God?
In verse 5 the unjust judge complains that the woman is “bothering” him. In the original Greek, however, the word translated here as “bother” literally means to give somebody a black eye. It wasn’t just that she was bugging the living daylights out of him, she was doing it in such a way as to damage his reputation. It was embarrassing finally! So purely out of a sense of self-preservation, the judge gives in. It’s difficult to imagine a worse motive, but there it is. Persistence, the willingness to badger somebody and give him a public black eye, paid off in the end.
Over the years of her work among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta—and her many trips to raise awareness and money for the cause—many stories have been told about St. Mother Teresa, of course. In a sermon on this passage, the preacher Tom Long once told of a time when Mother Teresa was in New York City to meet with the president and a vice-president of a large company. Before the meeting, however, the two executives had privately agreed not to give her any money.
Eventually the diminutive Mother Teresa arrived and was seated across from the two men separated by a very large mahogany desk. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but we just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Teresa said. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” She then renewed her plea, and the executives then renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money.
“Let us pray” she said yet again. “Dear God, I pray that you will soften the hearts of these men to see how necessary it is to help your needy children. Amen.” As she opened her eyes, she was looking at the now beet-red face of the executives even as the lead exec reached for his checkbook.
Author: Stan Mast
We’ve come a long way in our 9 week journey through Jeremiah (and Lamentations), from the past of his call to the distant future of the New Covenant. Last week, we heard God tell Israel how to live in Exile during the 70 years they would be in Babylon. Now we are taken to the time after the Exile and into the time of Christ and beyond that into our day.
Time was pregnant just before the Exile, swollen with import and foreboding. The Northern Kingdom had been gone for 150 years now, and Judah was only months away from the devastation we have studied in the past weeks. Nebuchadnezzar is at the city gates and the world is about to come to a violent end. Now, out of the blue, comes a prophetic word about a whole new beginning, a new covenant even. Just when it seemed that all was lost and it was over forever, God intervenes again and makes promises that change everything.
God says in effect, these times are awful, but these days aren’t the only days you’ll ever know. Four times God points ahead to better days: “in those days,” the days are coming,” “the time is coming,” “after that time.”
With doom at the door, it was very hard for Judah to believe that there could be any hope at any time, so God emphasizes over and over that the words being spoken to them by Jeremiah were in fact God’s own word. Five times we read that the preceding words come from the very mouth of God with this formula– “declares the Lord.”
The word of the Lord in these verses has two parts, the first having to do with Israel’s return from exile (verses 27-30), the second focusing on the new covenant with Israel after that return (verses 31-34).
In words that hark back to God’s call to Jeremiah in chapter 1, God promises that after the uprooting and destruction, God will plant and rebuild his chosen people in the Promised Land. “Just as I watched over them to uproot and tear down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring disaster, so I will watch over them to build and plant, declares the Lord.” Note that both aspects of Israel’s fate are under the control of Yahweh; he “watched over” both.
This promise of return is not a new promise in Jeremiah. We’ve already heard it quintessentially in Jeremiah 29, but this time God says it more forcefully. Indeed, in the remainder of this chapter we hear words that form the basis of modern day Zionism. God says, Israel will never cease to be “a nation before me (verse 36).” He will never reject the “descendants of Israel (verse 37).” And most tellingly, “The city will never again be uprooted or demolished (verse 40).”
God underlines that promise about Israel’s perpetual place in God’s Promised Land with these mysterious words about sour grapes and sins in verses 29-30. Apparently there was a proverb going around in ancient Israel. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In other words, the sins of the fathers are visited on their children. There was some truth in that saying; indeed, it sounds a lot like Exodus 20:5 where the fathers’ sins result in problems for the children “to the third and fourth generation.” At the time of the Exile, Israel had accumulated many generations of sin and God was finally done with it. Their corporate guilt led to the Exile.
In the coming days, after the Exile and after the new covenant goes into effect, that proverb won’t be spoken anymore in Israel. Instead “everyone will die for his own sins….” Does that mean that the whole concept of corporate responsibility is officially abolished? No, it means that after God’s punishment of Israel’s corporate guilt, God will begin again, dealing with individual sins and never again punishing Israel corporately as he did with the Exile. After centuries of prophetic condemnation of Israel’s corporate guilt, that cycle has been broken. Now it is the day of individual responsibility and forgiveness.
That’s because God “will make a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah.” This is the first and only place the Old Testament speaks explicitly of a “new” covenant. Yes, God’s covenant with his people had been renewed and restated many times in the Old Testament. Think of the covenants with Noah, with Abraham, with Moses, with David. Think of the great covenant renewals after Israel’s sin with the golden calf in Exodus 34 and as Israel entered the Promised Land in Deuteronomy 29. But this is a whole new covenant.
Well, not entirely new. There was that business of the Promised Land that goes all the way back to Abraham and is renewed here in verses 27 and 28. Speaking of Abraham, the very center of the Abrahamic covenant was the promise that “I will be your God and you shall be my people,” which is repeated here in verse 33b. That covenant relationship will continue. Even the horror of the Exile did not break that relationship, though it seemed that God had forsaken them.
But there are several new features/promises in the new covenant. “It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt….” Clearly a reference to the Mosaic covenant that was anchored in the Exodus and expressed in Torah, those words of verse 32 do not mean that the new covenant isn’t anchored in God’s redemptive action and has nothing to do with Torah.
Rather, as the next words say, the newness has to do with the possibility of breaking the covenant. Though Yahweh was a loving and faithful husband to his covenant partner, that partner broke that covenant again and again by disobeying Torah. In the new covenant, Israel (whether the Jewish people or the New Israel that is the church) will not be able to break covenant as their forefathers did. Israel could break covenant because it was based on Torah obedience. The new covenant will be based on forgiveness which will cancel disobedience and make covenant breaking impossible.
That doesn’t mean that Torah won’t matter in the new covenant. Indeed, rather than having to obey a law written on stone tablets, God’s people will actually have that law written on their hearts. “I will put my law in their mind and write it upon their hearts.” Despite all the Pauline warnings about misuse of Torah, the new covenant does not reject God’s law. Instead that law is injected into God’s people. Or as Ezekiel puts it, God will put a new heart and a right spirit in his people so they will desire to do God’s will and be able to do it (cf. Romans 8:1-4).. We know that this promise was fulfilled with the gift of the Spirit who produces the fruit of a Christ-like life.
That Spirit is also the explanation of the promise of verse 34 that “they will all know me from the least of them to the greatest.” Some have taken these words about not needing to teach each other as an argument against witnessing and teaching and preaching. But what it really means is that the Spirit is our ultimate teacher. “He will lead you into all the truth.” “It is the Spirit crying ‘Abba, Father….’” We come to a deep relational knowledge of God through the work of the Spirit. Israel never arrived at that kind of knowledge in spite of all her prophets and priests. Only through the Spirit can we come to know God as intimately as a married couple know each other.
That new knowledge of God will be based on God’s forgiveness. Israel knew God as creator and deliverer, as lawgiver and judge, as provider and punisher, but in the new covenant God’s people will know their God first of all as a forgiver and forgetter. That is not to say that forgiveness is unknown in the old covenant; a quick look at God’s seminal revelation of himself in Exodus 34:6,7 will prove that. But in the new covenant forgiveness will be the distinguishing action of God. Never again will the sins of God’s people be punished as with the Exile. Now they will be forgiven and forgotten.
John Goldingay summarizes: “the act of forgiveness that Yahweh will now undertake in restoring his people after the collapse of the covenant will break into their spirits in a wholly new way. They will know themselves as an extraordinarily loved and forgiven people. That will change them inside and make them respond to Yahweh in a way they never have before.”
All of that will be true because of the sacrifice of Christ, says Hebrews 8 and 10, where Jeremiah 31:31-34 are quoted at length. Interestingly, the word “make” in verse 31 means literally “cut,” which harks back to Genesis 15 where the making of the covenant with Abraham was concluded with the cutting of animals and God passing between them symbolically. In the new covenant, the cutting that sealed the covenant had to do not with the sacrifice of an animal, but with the sacrifice of Christ (Hebrews 10:11-17). Because of his sacrifice, sins are forgiven and forgotten. There is no more sacrifice for sins, or punishment.
Some of the promises of Jeremiah 31 were fulfilled when Israel returned from Exile. Others had to wait for the days when Jesus died on the cross and then sent the Spirit. But complete fulfillment remains until the final coming of God in Christ. The sad fact is that even with the Spirit within, we still don’t obey Torah completely. And even with Christ showing us the Father, we still don’t know God fully. And even understanding the sacrifice of the cross, we still don’t receive forgiveness internally all the time. So, there is still a time coming (“in those days”) when the new covenant will be fulfilled completely in all God’s children.
In a day that glorifies individual choice, it is fascinating that we still have a sense of corporate responsibility. Think of the way climate change prophets call on us to change our polluting ways for the sake of the next generation. We don’t want the sins of the fathers to be visited upon their grandchildren. And think of how poverty can become generational, as the ways of the parents are visited upon multiple generations. On the other hand, think of how individuals sometimes break out of that pattern and change the family financial tree. Both individual choice and corporate responsibility are realities in life. We can be thankful that God’s grace is greater than both, teaching a new way to live, revealing a new way to relate to God, and giving a new beginning through the redeeming work of Christ.
As I thought about how the new covenant is the same as the old and yet very different, I recalled watching Sesame Street with our kids. Bert and Ernie were teaching the concepts of “same” and “different” with successive pictures of similar and dissimilar objects. It might be helpful to do something like that to help children think about old and new covenant.
Author: Scott Hoezee
When I was a little kid, I remember Psalm 121 being read in church or sometimes at our dinner table. Back then various versions of the Bible translated that first line, “ I lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.” Read this way, it is clear that our help comes somehow from the hills. But then somewhere along the line most Bible translations switched such that now you are likely to read, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?” Now it appears that whatever the psalmist sees up there in the hills, it is not per se the source of his help but causes him instead to ask where his help does in fact come from. You could fruitfully put the word “but” in front of the second line: “but where does my help come from?” It is clear that the psalmist’s help does not come from the hills, which in turn makes the next verse the true answer to his question: true help comes only from Yahweh, from the God of Israel, who created the heavens and the earth.
What’s going on here? Some commentators believe—and thus newer Bible translations reflect—that when the psalmist looks up to the hills, he sees the so-called “high places” in Canaan where the altars to Baal and the fertility poles to Asherah had been erected. Israel had been ordered to dismantle all those Canaanite shrines but we know from history that the people did not fully follow through on that command. Remnants of Canaanite religion remained in the Promised Land and—just as God (and Moses) had predicted—those remnants of idolatry became a snare for the people. So perhaps the psalmist saw the so-called “help” of false religion up there in the hills and this in turn caused him to reject those fake gods in order to embrace the real God of Israel.
Many people grew up learning that Psalm 121 was “the traveler’s psalm.” Families used to read this the night before a big vacation road trip. Of course, this is partly on target: Psalm 121 is one of many “Psalms of Ascent” in the Psalter as these were the pilgrimage songs the people of Israel would sing or recite on their way up to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s holy festivals like Passover. As such, once the true God of Israel is identified as the only true source of “help” in life, the psalm goes on to talk about the kinds of things people on a road trip might wonder or be concerned about: the heat of the sun, feet slipping on uneven paths, the harm that the moon at night might cause (the fear of moon-induced difficulties or madness was an ancient concern and is even the root of our word “lunacy”), and quite literally our comings and goings.
This is a traveler’s song after all. But the “travel” in question is finally so much more than just actually hitting the road for a trip. There is a larger and more urgent sense in which this poem is about our overall journey in life through a sometimes perilous world. The fact that Psalm 121 begins with the psalmist lifting up his eyes only to see the allures of false comfort and fake religion reminds us that as we travel through life, we also can look around and see all the things that some people embrace as the source of help and comfort and life itself but that the discerning pilgrim will recognize as finally hollow and a very far cry from the only true source of help through the Lord Jesus Christ.
What in our culture today might constitute the equivalent of the “high places” of false worship to the idols Baal and Asherah? In one sense these things are legion. The philosopher James K.A. Smith has written much in recent years about the idolatry of your average shopping mall—a place most of us frequent with some regularity and where a lot of young people hang out on a far more routine basis. Shopping malls are a kind of modern “church” in the sense that they put before our eyes the things we are to worship. But look at the display showcase windows, Smith advises, and what do you see?
Well, among other things you see what is held up before our eyes as the ideal male and female body: thin, athletic, beautiful, handsome. You also see, as often as not, highly sexualized versions of humanity. Whether it is male and female models at Hollister stores or the outright sexual images of scantily clad women in the display windows of Victoria’s Secret, the message is clear: we are supposed to be all about sex, about being sexy, about buying clothes that will make us be just that attractive.
Or there is the idol of consumerism just generally. Williams Sonoma shows you the kitchen gadgets and high-end cookware you simply must have in order to cook like the celebrity chefs on Food Network. The Apple Store provides slick videos on giant wall screens that display the newest version of the iPhone or iPad that lets you know that the phone you bought 10 months ago that has only two measly cameras on it absolutely has to be replaced with the newer version with three cameras on it.
And, of course, you need all those cameras so that on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter you can take pictures of your life, of your vacation, of the accomplishments of your children that will make you the envy of all your friends. (Below is an image of a mockery of Instagram posts that skewers the actual fact that people are inciting the envy of others as often as not in what they post):
Behind all of it, of course, is the great idol of money. It’s all about the bling, the lifestyle, the high-end indulging of the best places, the best food, the best restaurants, the nicest cars, the slickest new gadget.
We, too, can lift up our eyes to “the hills” all around us and see what passes as today’s latest, greatest source of “help” in life. But it’s all false. We need the discipline of the psalmist to yank our attention back to the one true God who alone can watch over us because this God loves us, has our best interests at heart, has all the grace needed to forgive our sins and puts our feet back on level paths when in our foolishness we stray and start pursuing those alluring false gods who scream their counter-messages at us every day.
The Songs of Ascent often convey the message that this journey toward God is often a fraught one. There are perils along the way. Even when we are just generally headed in the right direction, dangers abound. It is only by the grace of God that we can stay on the right path, lift up our eyes to the true Source of help, and so somehow in the end arrive at the place where our loving Creator God wanted us to be in the first place.
In a recent sermon starter I mentioned the classic 1980s novel by Tom Wolfe The Bonfire of the Vanities. A year or so after this novel came out—a novel that adroitly and perceptively managed to capture the spirit of acquisitiveness that so characterized that “yuppie” decade of conspicuous consumption—I heard Wolfe give a lecture at Michigan State University. Among other things, he talked about the research he did for the novel. Because he wanted to deal with the whole sweep of life in a place like New York City, Wolfe spent time both in corporate boardrooms with deeply beveled oak paneling and out on the streets among gang members in the dirty back alleys of the city.
At one point Wolfe noticed that some of the gang members and other younger people he interviewed were wearing a curious kind of necklace. Upon closer inspection he realized that what some of these folks were wearing on a chain like a necklace was actually the hood ornament off of Mercedes Benz cars—hood ornaments that had clearly been literally torn off the front of such cars.
The cars from which the hood-ornament-turned-necklace came were owned and driven by the wealthy elite of New York. And that is when it dawned on Wolfe: in both higher-end and lower-end New York it was all about status symbols: those who could afford it drove the actual cars; those who could not afford it donned the key symbol of luxury from the hood of those same cars. But it was all the same: it was all about money, about status. Indeed, it was the very same status symbol for both groups!
The temptation to reach for all the wrong things as sources of status, comfort, and Psalm 121-like “help” are common to all. Believers needs to see all this and ask the key question: “Yes, but where does my help come from?”
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Author: Chelsey Harmon
Well, one thing’s clear from today’s epistle lectionary: no one can accuse Paul of a triumphal view of ministry here on earth.
These two letters to Timothy were meant to be encouragements to not just a colleague, but a protégé and mentee who was in a really tough ministry locale. Now, towards the closing of his last letter to Timothy, Paul tells him that what Timothy’s facing in Ephesus is pretty much what he’s going to face everywhere he goes as he follows God’s call to serve and minister. Ouch.
But don’t we know this to be true, close to two thousand years later? Paul nails human nature pretty well here. People aren’t going to be willing to accept sound doctrine or teachings because it doesn’t fit what they want to hear. Instead of being willing to be shaped by the truth, they will look and listen for the truth they want to hear and cling to the teachers who will give them what they want. Not only that, they’ll keep looking and listening for what they want to hear and heap up a stack of teachings and teachers who support their view of things. It turns out that the era of ‘my truth’ isn’t bound to the last few years. In our modern era where the internet has made the world of ideas everyone’s oyster, where people are able to choose the preachers they listen to, the podcasts that posit a worldview that matches what they want to hear, and can follow on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook (and what other platforms am I leaving out? who can keep up!?) an influencer that can instantly confirm a bias, justification, or desire, who cares what the pastor at says on Sundays from that holy book?
Paul personally understands and shares here that doing ministry the way that God will approve of may not “work” or look like success, but it is the call. Doing it God’s way—which is what Paul has been describing and commanding Timothy to do and to be for two letters!—comes out of the depths of the riches of Scripture and the faith’s roots passed down to him from what his mother and grandmother and later Paul himself, instilled in Timothy. The way that Paul describes it, using the prefect tense for the verbs “to know” and “to be equipped,” Timothy knows deep down that everything Paul is writing to Timothy is true. He’s lived it, his life and work has flowed from it—just as Paul has lived and had his whole life’s purposes flow from it.
And here, even at the end of Paul’s life and ministry on earth (more on that next week), all Paul wants is that Timothy not give up on it even though it is hard and likely will not work. When we can’t measure our success for the gospel on how it is received, what do we measure it on? Paul argues that the measure is in being faithful to the work set before us. The author of Hebrews describes it as running the race that is set before us, the path that Jesus has laid as the author, perfecter, and pace setter of our races.
Timothy and Paul may be ministers, but the idea is the same for every follower of Christ. Do we go with every whim and desire, or do we stick with what God’s has laid before us? Do we look for a faith leader who will make us feel better or the one who reveals to us the invitations to transformation that the Spirit of God is consistently and constantly making? Do we listen for the sound bites, or do we dive in deep on our own into the rich word of truth? Will we stay rooted in the faith, or will we wander away with the myths?
In times such as these and those, the call is to take on steadfastness. Paul doesn’t use that word, but it fits the description of verse 5: soberness (Gordon Fee suggests the translation “keep your head”), enduring suffering, doing the work, carrying out the ministry.
Paul is on his way out, but he has set Timothy up well by reminding Timothy that his faith has been rooted in his life through his spiritual and familial ancestors. But even more so, Timothy has the God inspired Scriptures which he has known and studied since he was a child. At the time, this was what we now call the Old Testament, but now, it includes both the Old and New Testament. Paul makes the move from talking to Timothy alone to talking about everyone who follows Jesus Christ as he writes that “everyone… will be made proficient” for their callings because of the Scriptures. The God-breathed words in all of these pages contains what we need for our proclamation of the gospel and kingdom of God in both word and deed; as they reveal to us the sovereign God who promises God’s own self will be with us, we get what we need to encourage us when we want to give up; and these teachings set the record straight about not only what is true and noble, but also what is right to do.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who breathed the inspiration for the holy words, the Scriptures are all we need. In contrast to heaping up or accumulating teachers who will say what we want to hear, and in direct challenge to the temptation to just keep listening to those teachers and never getting into action about what we hear, Paul urges all who follow Jesus to stick with the one message. Last week we were reminded that there is enough mystery and complexity to the simple reality of Jesus as resurrected King. This week we’re reminded that sticking to the arena that is life in the kingdom of God will not be easy, but it is the call.
Of course, we know that the ministry or our Christian witness in every area of our lives will not always be triumphant in the here and now. But the sacred words of our faith affirms to us that Jesus is triumphant. As we live in the already and not yet of the reality of Christ’s final rule and reign, we are simply asked to stay connected to our roots in faith and to be faithful to the call God has placed on our lives, individually and corporately as his church.
Over the last couple of years the “If your pastor doesn’t preach on______ this Sunday…” trend has emerged on Christian social media. You can fill in the blank with any hot button issue of the day. If your pastor doesn’t preach on immigration or family separation this Sunday… if your pastor doesn’t preach on gun violence this Sunday… if your pastor doesn’t preach on racism this Sunday… Whatever was in the news that week, your pastor better preach on it on Sunday, because the full statement is “If your pastor doesn’t preach on ____ this Sunday, then you should leave your church/ get up and walk out/ or get a new church.”
The sentiment is good. The Scriptures and sermons are meant to be practical and applicable to what’s happening in the world right here, right now. And truly, people’s ears are itching to hear God’s speak to the world’s maladies.
But the order or starting point seems to be reversed. The whole point of the Revised Common Lectionary, after all, is to guide a faith community through the canon in a way that reflects the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Not starting with the hot topic of the moment, but to shape God’s people with sound teaching, encouragement, rebuking, and correcting week in and week out so that they already know the truth about the tough issues plaguing the world today. “All Scripture,” Paul says, “is inspired by God and useful for teaching… so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Because when it comes down to it, the measure doesn’t stop at what the preacher says—it’s includes how the Spirit of God works through what the preacher says to change how the listener lives. Because of the tendency that Paul illuminated, that we humans will look for a teacher that will say what we want to hear, it’s easier to focus on what we hear right now rather than the difference what we hear ought to make for what we do all the time. In other words, it’s human nature to look for an excuse to let ourselves off the hook or make someone else responsible.
And if anyone’s worried that we preachers are just looking for our own “out” or excuse here… we need only remind them of Paul’s words for Timothy and those who teach: we proclaim God’s message well aware that God is the judge of the living and the dead.