October 10, 2016
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 now in reruns. 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 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 will 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 his 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 queer 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.
Mother Theresa was recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. 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, of course. In a sermon on this passage, the preacher Tom Long once told of a time when Mother Theresa 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 Theresa arrived and was seated across from the two men separated by a very large desk. They listened to her plea but then said, “We appreciate what you do but just cannot commit any funds at this time.”
“Let us pray” Mother Theresa said. She then asked God to soften the hearts of these men. After saying “Amen,” she renewed her plea and they renewed their answer that they were not going to commit any money.
“Let us pray” she said yet again, at which point the executive relented and asked for a checkbook!
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
I am not sure why the Revised Common Lectionary’s series of passages from Jeremiah skips around the way it does (one week Jeremiah 32 but then next time around it’s back to chapter 29 and now we leap to chapter 31) but I think I can understand why the Lectionary saved this passage from the 31st chapter for last. Contained here are some of the most well-known words of this entire book. The reason is clear enough to see: the New Covenant Jeremiah predicts certainly looks to have found its ultimate fulfillment in Christ, particularly the part about writing God’s law onto our very hearts, which surely looks like (among other things) a preview of the post-Pentecost fact of the Spirit’s making each believer a living Temple of God himself.
Of course, the passage contains some other curious items that we don’t always pay as much attention to. First are the words about how children will no longer be punished for the sins of the fathers. That much sounds like good and fair news. But then we’re told that it’s not as though people would stop dying on account of their sins, it’s just that each of us would die on account of only our own sins, not on account of someone else’s. That’s fair too, I suppose, but it seems like a rather odd way to lead into verse 31 and its lyric introduction of the New Covenant imagery.
On the other end of this lection are words that are lyric but perhaps a bit confusing in terms of when this was to come about. Jeremiah predicts that the day would come when everybody would know God (thus rendering witnessing a moot point) and that the reason this day of universal God-knowledge would come about was because God was going to forgive everyone’s sins.
So on the one hand we have words to the effect that people were going to die on account of their sins. On the other hand we have a prediction that God was going to forgive all sins. In between is the promise of a new way by which God would get the knowledge of himself and his law across to people and it ends up being a promise with huge ramifications: everyone would simply know who God is. It sounds almost as though it would be automatic.
We need to note that God is talking here about the context of his own chosen people and so is not applying this knowledge of God universally. Even if we bear that caveat in mind, we could still wonder whether such a day ever came for Israel in even the post-exilic times. Like many prophecies, therefore, this one may have multiple horizons of fulfillment such that we could rightly affirm that the ultimate such horizon has come only in Christ and in the context of God’s Pentecostal indwelling Spirit. All of us who are now baptized into Christ receive the Holy Spirit and even if the presence of that Spirit does not mean we will automatically lead peerless moral lives, it surely does mean that the venue for God’s works has shifted from the corporate to the very, very personal.
Interestingly enough, the Lectionary pairs this passage with the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18. In some ways, however, Jeremiah 31 gives us the reverse of the parable in Luke: because in this case it has been God himself who has been the persistent one, begging on and on for his people to listen to him, to follow his ways, to stay true to the God who loves them and rescued them from Egypt. But if it’s true in Luke that the persistence of a widow can be enough to get results from the judge / God, oddly enough when God himself is the one doing the begging, it is not enough!
Our persistence pays off, God’s never did!
In the long run, for God to get the results he wanted, he needed to do more than be patient. He needed to do a wholesale renovation of the human heart. He needed to stop standing on the outside of the door and knocking and instead had to move right in, busting down the door and setting up shop inside the human mind and heart. But the path to making that a reality was a hard path, a sacrificial path, a path that ended at a cross. Because the thing that was keeping humanity for giving in to the persistence of even God was a face of sin and death so stubborn, so deeply entrenched, that only the death of God’s Son could overcome it.
In the context of Jeremiah 31, it is almost as though the first verses (vss. 27-30) are saying that so long as sin remains our stubborn human problem, we’re just going to keep dying. Whether you die on account of someone else’s sin or on account of your own, death just keeps happening because sin just keeps happening. And so on the far side of this passage (vs. 34) we are told that God is going to find a way to forgive all those sins once and for all. In between (vss. 31-33) we learn what it is that is going to snap the cycle of sin/death and so lead to a new day of knowledge/life: God is going to take on the problem himself. He’s going to do a new thing. He’s going to find a way to move right into the human heart with a new grace and a new life-giving power that would turn things around once and for all.
This is the divine plan. Or as we call it more commonly today, this is the Gospel.
Mention the word “covenant” to the average person today and you won’t get much of a reaction. It’s not a word that gets a lot of play in everyday conversation. If you Google it, you’ll find about 30 million search results but you would have to go through hundreds of Google search pages before you ran out of search results that were the names of churches, hospitals, schools, retirement communities, and the like. Somehow “covenant” is a good name for establishments even though it’s not a word we typically use in day-to-day life.
We are far more familiar with words listed as synonyms for “covenant” like “contract” or “deal” or “agreement.” The closest most people get to anything remotely akin to the biblical sense of the word is probably due to the popularity of the first Indiana Jones movie where “the Ark of the Covenant” plays a prominent role. But even in that case, the meaning of “covenant” is at best foggy to most people who watch that film.
Most people figure a covenant is pretty much like a contract and so if they have any associations with this word at all, it is in the realm of all that is proper and legal and official. You sign on the dotted. You make promises. You become obligated to make payments on loans or to perform certain tasks as stipulated by a customer. It’s all very cut and dried and bloodless.
How very different “covenant” is in the Bible and especially in a passage like Jeremiah 31! From the Call of Abram forward, covenant in the Bible is the lifeline of God’s relationship with humanity. True, even in the Ancient Near East you can find lots of cut-and-dried legal associations with the various types of covenants that existed back then. But when it came to God’s relationship to Israel, covenant was always more than a transaction.
Covenant was life itself. Covenant was hope and promise and grace all rolled into one. The covenant opened up a future for all creation that would not be possible were it not for the existence of the covenant. And if we Christians are now right to believe that all of God’s covenant promises found their “Yes” in Christ Jesus, the crucified Lord of lords and King of kings, then we can know for sure that this is a word freighted with meaning.
Author: Stan Mast
Walter Brueggemann is a giant in Old Testament studies. Among his many contributions to the field is his famous distinction among Psalms of orientation, Psalms of disorientation, and Psalms of re-orientation. Psalms of orientation are those Psalms in which all is well because the writer is experiencing a “season of well-being that evokes gratitude for the constancy of blessing.” Such Psalms articulate joy, delight, goodness, coherence, and the reliability of God and God’s creation and God’s governing law. Psalm 121 is a Psalm of orientation, probably intended to teach the children of Israel the basics of Israel’s faith.
Psalms of disorientation are written by believers who have experienced a breakdown in the kind of child-like faith expressed in Psalms like 121. Their lives are now in disarray, as they are surrounded by enemies, or languish on beds of illness, or struggle with unanswered prayer, or wonder where God is and when God will act. All the certainties expressed in the Psalms of orientation seem child-like and naive now, and the Psalmist doesn’t know what to make of the world. Psalm 22, for example, is filled with such disorientation.
The Psalms of re-orientation are penned by believers who have come through the disorientation to a new and more mature faith. God’s grace has come in new surprising ways and life is now oriented around God again, but in a more realistic way. Psalm 73 is a good example of such a Psalm.
When preaching on Psalm 121, it might be helpful to acknowledge that it will seem naïve and child-like to anyone whose faith is being challenged severely. Indeed, Psalm 121 may seem downright untrue to such a disoriented believer. So I suggest that you pick up on the fact that Psalm 121 is one of the Psalms of Ascent that Israel sang to its children as they went up to Jerusalem. It was specifically designed to teach the children of God how reliable God is even in difficult times, like the long pilgrimage up the steep hills and mountains of the Promised Land. A sermon I preached many years ago shows how you might preach on Psalm 121, taking account of Brueggemann’s insights.
Have you ever sung with your children on a long trip? That’s what Psalm 121 is–one of Israel’s songs for the journey. When we travelled long distances with our kids, we would sing songs with them to keep them occupied. I remember singing all the songs on a certain Bill Gaither (yes, Gaither) tape a hundred times on a trip to Denver. Then we moved on to “Old MacDonald” and “There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea” and “B-I-N-G-O.” And when the boys got older, there was the ever popular and exceedingly irritating “Ninety Nine Bottle of Beer on the Wall.” As we hurtled over the Great Plains, we sang with our children to keep them happy.
As the people of Israel tramped through the hills of Judea on their way to Jerusalem for the great feast days, they sang songs like Psalm 121 to keep the children of God happy. They weren’t on a pleasure trip in an air conditioned car over smooth ribbons of interstate, so they didn’t sing little ditties. They were on a spiritual pilgrimage on donkeys or their own two feet on paths that were narrow and dangerous, so they sang deeply spiritual Psalms. That’s the key to understanding this Psalm and the other songs for the journey. Though they were travelling physically from their homes all over the Promised Land to God’s home in the temple in Jerusalem, their journey was really spiritual. They were on a journey into the very presence of God.
We are on the same journey. We have been delivered from bondage to the power of evil through the Red Sea of Christ’s blood. We have been led into the Promised Land by the power and light of the Spirit of Christ. We have been abundantly blessed, but we are still a distance from God. We believe in him, but we don’t experience his presence as fully or as often as we should and could. We walk by faith, not by sight. Our journey into God’s presence is neither short nor easy nor safe. So, as we join Israel on pilgrimage, their songs will lift us.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?” The Israelites were literally looking up at the hills through which they climbed as they made their ascent up to Mt. Zion on which was perched the Temple where God was present in the Holy of Holies. Even if you live in relatively flat Michigan as I do, their question is still our question, our central question for the journey. Where does my help come from? My help comes from high above the hills, high above Jerusalem, high above the Temple. “My help comes from the Lord, Yahweh, the Maker of heaven and earth.” My help comes from the one who has the power to make the universe. Because he has that kind of power, I can be sure that no matter what I meet on my journey, he can help me, so that I will finally come into the presence of God.
What kind of help can we count on? Well, there is a constant refrain that runs through this song for the journey. “Yahweh watches over you.” Yahweh is mentioned 6 times and watch over is found 5 times. As you travel through this world on the way to your face-to-face meeting with your Maker and Redeemer, you can count on that—Yahweh watches over you. That is one of the most familiar, most beloved, most comforting, and most puzzling ideas in all of God’s Word.
Years ago Bette Middler sang a lovely song entitled, “God is watching us.” Do you remember that heartbreaking conclusion? “God is watching us…from a distance.” Where’s the help in those words? I much prefer the old hymn with which we’ll end the service. “Why should I be discouraged, why should the shadows come, why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home; when Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is he; his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
But what does “he watches me” amount to? Does he merely observe me, however closely, but do nothing? Or does he watch and then intervene? And if so, then how do we account for those times when he doesn’t seem to intervene? Was he not watching at that time? Was he, as Elijah said when he mocked Baal, “deep in thought, or busy, or travelling, or sleeping (I Kings 18:27)?” My help comes from the Lord who watches over me. But what on earth does that mean?
Well, this song for the journey spells out in simple child-like language three results of God’s watching over. Verse 3 sings, “He will not let your foot slip” as you journey to God. This is not talking about physically slipping. Any child knows that God doesn’t keep us from slipping in that way. When I was ten years old, I was walking along the crossbar of a swing set, showing off for a girl, when suddenly my foot slipped and fell and broke my left arm. God let my foot slip. Many of us have done things like that, so Psalm cannot mean that God will keep us from physically slipping. And this is not talking about stumbling morally. We’ve all done that on our journey.
In the Old Testament this phrase in verse 3 most often refers to spiritual slips, when we slip off the path to God. For example, in Ps. 73:2, the Psalmist took his eyes off the Lord and began to envy the prosperity of the wicked. The result, he says, is “my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.” Psalm 121 is a promise that, no matter what happens to us, Yahweh will not let our foot slip off the path to God. We will be able to complete our journey into God’s presence.
Verses 5 and 6 sing, “Yahweh is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.” Neither the heat of the sun nor the cold of night, neither the dangers of the day nor the madness of the moonlight, neither cancer nor stroke, depression nor anxiety will keep you from finishing your journey into the presence of God. Yes, those things may come into your life, but the Lord will shade you, protect you, watch over you in such a way that all the dangers that fill the world by day and by night will not keep you from your destination.
Finally, verse 7 sings the ultimate help. “The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life.” Those words may stick in our throats, because, of course, all of us have experienced harm in this life. We all bear scars from the multiple wounds of life. That’s why it is important to ask what this means. A look at the original Hebrew is most helpful. The word harm doesn’t mean hurtful things. It means evil. And the word life means soul. As we journey to God we can sing that God will not let evil harm our soul. The journey is long and hard and painful, but God will keep evil from destroying our soul. The Lord will help us on our journey into his presence, so that even in the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to fear evil. He watches over us, so that evil cannot keep our souls from meeting God face to face.
Does that explanation help you to sing this song? I want to make sure that it becomes one of your favorite songs for the journey, so let me add two things—one from the New York Times and the other from the New Testament. The one from the Times has to do with how God watches over, and the other from the New Testament reminds us of who watches over.
In the New York Times Magazine there was an article by William Safire titled “Overwatch.” Safire had heard President Bush use the word in a speech about the war in Iraq. “Our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces and eventually overwatching those forces.” Never having heard that word “overwatch” before, Safire, a wordsmith with a distinctly left orientation, assumed that it was some sort of right wing political jargon.
But he discovered that it is military language with a long history. Here’s the definition: ”a tactical movement technique in which one element is positioned to support the movement of another element with immediate fire.” Let’s say that a group of tanks is engaged in direct battle with the enemy. Up on the hills surrounding the battlefield are several more groups of tanks who can at a moment’s notice pour overwhelming fire down on the enemy if needed. Those supporting units take a position where they can observe the terrain and provide effective cover for the tanks down below. Those tanks on the hills are overwatching the situation—not leading, nor partnering, but overwatching.
Think of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when Judas led that motley crew to arrest him. As they surrounded Jesus and the eleven apostles, Peter whipped out his sword and hacked off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus put the ear back on, told Peter to put up his sword, and said, “Don’t you know that I could have called twelve legions of angels.” That’s 72,000 angels, invisible to the overwhelmed apostles who felt all alone against the sword-wielding mob. But overwatching them, looking on from a strategic position, was enough fire power to obliterate their enemies. When they felt most alone, God was overwatching them.
I wonder if that helps us understand this song for the journey. Sometimes when he watches over us, the Lord gets directly involved and actually fights our battles for us. We call those miracles. Sometimes when he watches over us, he partners with us, so that we fight along with him. We have this sense of cooperating with God. And other times when he watches over us, he overwatches us, so that we feel that we are fighting all alone. We think he isn’t watching over us in those moments, but he is in fact overwatching us, surveying the whole terrain of our lives ready to provide effective help when and how we need it most.
That brings me to my New Testament lesson in Ephesians 1, which re-orients our faith in the God who watches over us. The old song, Psalm 121, assures us that the God who watches over us is Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, who sits on the throne at the center of the universe. But you and I know a new song, the song of the one named “Yahweh Saves,” which, as you know, is the meaning of the name, Jesus. Ephesians 1 reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth, the Man who died and rose for us, has ascended to the throne at the center of the universe, where he rules all things for the church. That gives us a whole new way of understanding the God who watches over us.
The Ascension and Coronation of Jesus re-orients our faith in God’s care as we journey upwards to our final meeting with God. Ephesians 1 assures us that God is not at a distance, because of the work of Jesus. He is at the right hand of the Father, and he is at our right hand as well. He sits in the throne-room and he is “with us always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).” Here’s how Q and A 49 of the old Heidelberg Catechism explains the practical benefits of Christ’s ascension. “First, Jesus pleads our cause in the presence of the Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven…. And third, Jesus sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee….”
Because of the ascended Christ, we are intimately connected to the God who watches over us. As we continue our journey into the presence of God, there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from his love in Christ Jesus. “Why should I be discouraged? I know he watches me.”
The more mature and travel-worn pilgrims among us may still find Psalm 121 to be naïve and unrealistic. My wife was telling me the other day about a line in Lewis Smedes’s wonderful memoir, My God and I. He was writing about how awful high school was. As he walked the halls of Muskegon High School all alone, he says, “God may have been with me, but he sure didn’t make it very obvious.” Undoubtedly, that was a time when God’s constant care took the form of overwatching. Only later did Smedes discover that his God was always with him.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Author: Scott Hoezee
It is almost certainly one of the last bits of Pauline writing we have in the New Testament. That’s true whether you think this really was penned by Paul himself at his life’s end or is the last bit of pseudepigraphical Paul. Either way, this is it. And what a grab bag of treasures and oddments it is!
We’ve got a classic text on biblical inspiration. We’ve got indelible words on the need to preach in season and out of season. We’ve got a moving testimony from a man at the end of his life’s race and ready to receive his crown of righteousness. And as if all that is not enough, we end up with a hodge-podge of people to be scorned and people to be praised as well as reminders to grab a left-behind jacket and a few much-loved pieces of literature. The passage is one-part soaring Scripture and one-part the kind of sticky post-it note you’d put on the back door to remind you before leaving the house “Grab Jacket!”
Oddly enough, though, when you take a step back and take in this entire passage in one glance, it has a rather striking unity to it after all. And the golden nugget at the center of all this that lends such unity to these otherwise rapid-fire and seemingly random reflections is the Word of God.
Not for the first time in his correspondence with Timothy Paul reminds Timothy of the life-giving nature of God’s revealed and inspired Word. It is all-but certain that the “Holy Scriptures” Paul refers to here are what today we’d call the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Everyone knows, of course, that you can read those Scriptures from Genesis to Malachi and never encounter the name “Jesus Christ.” Yet Paul tells Timothy that the better he knows those very chapters and verses, the more wise he will become for salvation in Jesus Christ. Huh? If you take a flat-footed literalist approach to the Old Testament, that makes no sense because nothing in all those thirty-nine books mentions Jesus. Yet Paul says he’s there and you will tee up your soul the best for the salvation uniquely offered in Christ if you know those words well.
Paul saw clearly what we too often miss today: the Bible is finally a single Story with a single plot from beginning to end. If you had told Paul it seemed odd to suggest someone could become wise unto salvation in Jesus Christ from a bunch of writings that don’t talk about any of that, I’d guess Paul would have found the comment merely baffling. Of COURSE the whole of Scripture leads you right to the foot of Jesus’ cross and right to the entrance of his empty tomb. That is precisely what the whole thing had been about from the get go. Once you realize what God has been up to since the dawn of time and even earlier than that, everything falls into place and makes singular, final sense in Christ alone.
True, Paul wrote all this before he knew fully that there would be four gospels added to the canon of Scripture not to mention his very own letters and those of several apostolic colleagues. But you get the feeling that to Paul’s way of looking at things, that all was just bonus material, just gravy, just the cherry on the top of an already really good biblical confection. And he most assuredly would have found patently absurd any and all who would eventually try to put a chasm between the Testaments or suggest that the God of one part was a different God (and/or a different kind of God) from the other one).
It’s all one Story and finally one Message and that is why Paul immediately is reminded to urge Timothy one last time to keep on preaching it come what may. It’s the only true Message there is. So preach it. Preach it often and over and over again. Don’t be surprised that some people will eventually start hankering for something else or outright reject the Word of truth. That won’t be surprising and surely has nothing to do with the veracity of the Gospel because the larger Story to which the Scriptures bear witness tells us that this is also to be expected. There is a devil, there is a counter-narrative, there is an abiding attempt to oppose God. None of this is breaking news. So don’t let it deter you.
Even the kind of “P.S.” with which Paul concludes what may be his last epistle is about this (the passage actually continues a few more verses beyond where this lection stops). After all, what do you think was on those “parchments” Paul was so eager to have back? It most certainly was not some ancient world equivalent of Newsweek or a collection of his mother’s favorite recipes. These, too, were no doubt sacred writings, copies of Scripture, commentary on Scripture, precious notes on the Gospel. Even the line about the metalworker Alexander is finally all about keeping the Message clear. “He opposed our message” Paul says and in saying that, he knew he’d said it all. This warning about someone Timothy may again encounter is likewise finally all about keeping one’s eyes on the prize that just is the inspired Word of God.
Today those of us who preach do so in a world of so many competing stories and counter-narratives. We’re steeped in a culture that wants to respect all stories lest any one story gain the upper hand and come to dominate in ways that might mean squashing other claims to truth or relevance or whatever. And let’s admit that history teaches us the mayhem that can come when someone uses even the one true Story of Scripture as a kind of weapon with which to bash critics or naysayers. If we actually pay close enough attention to where the Gospel brings the whole Story of God’s saving Love, we’ll know that’s not right.
Still, it remains as challenging as ever to contend for the faith and for the Story of God’s Word. Ours is also a world with lots of “itching ears” that hanker for “new and improved” stories over against the old and traditional ones. But if God’s Word is Life itself and if the whole Story climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one named Jesus, then we just have to keep preaching it and talking about it in season and out of season and until that time when God himself will make all things new.
Many readers remember the striking image author Kathleen Norris sketched in her book Dakota. The memoir recounts Norris’s move from the metropolis of New York City to the quiet rural confines of tiny Lemmon, North Dakota, and her return to church life along the way too. She notes “I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that had caused my grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used its spine broke” (Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, by Kathleen Norris, Houghton Mifflin 1993, p. 94). Something about how those well-used Bible spoke to her of a larger truth puts me in mind of Paul’s focus on the enduring Word of the Scriptures in 2 Timothy 3 and 4.