Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2016
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Commentary
There are lots of passages like this in the Bible even as we sing such sentiments in any number of songs and hymns. I am referring to texts that seem to have an utter confidence that God always comes through in the clutch. In this part of 2 Timothy 4 it’s the verse where Paul confidently says God will rescue him from every evil attack. That’s right up there with Psalm 103 and those lines about how God will always deliver us from the pit and heal all our diseases. Or the end of the short hallel Psalm 113 where it sounds like God will always settle childless mothers into homes full of children and set paupers at the tables of rich princes. Or the words of Jesus about prayer where he makes it sound like every time we ask, seek, and knock we will receive, find, and have the door opened for us just as we hope.
These things are all in the Bible and so you just have to believe they are true and yet . . . there is that whole school of hard knocks realism thing that makes you always want to say, “Yes, but . . .” Fact is, lots of childless couples never get the baby they long for. Most poor people stay that way and don’t eat off bone china with the elite. Lots of our diseases take our lives and—to riff on C.S. Lewis—many of us have pounded on God’s door until our knuckles were raw and bleeding and it most certainly was not opened unto us. Indeed, (Lewis again) all we seem to hear is the sound of the door being bolted and double-bolted on the other side.
All preachers know how dodgy it is to present such texts to a congregation that inevitably consists of people still grieving the unhealed cancer that took a spouse or the unanswered prayers for a child’s safety while serving in Iraq. I recall both Lewis B. Smedes and the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor talking about “the problem with miracles;” viz., the problem is that not everybody gets one. As a teacher of preaching, I again and again have to counsel with students whose sermons ended with a wonderful story of the three-year-old whose leukemia was miraculously healed. “You can tell that story,” I always say to the student, “but do so in a way that shows you know that three rows from the back of the sanctuary there is a couple who prayed just as hard for their little one’s cancer but who had to bury the tyke in the local cemetery even so.”
But here’s the thing with these passages, and it’s a bit easier to see in 2 Timothy 4 than in some places: Paul says God will rescue him from every evil attack but this is said in the context of his already having stated he was being poured out like a drink offering. It is said in the context of his confidence that God would bring him into the kingdom soon, and you can be pretty sure that Paul knew that would happen via his own death. Paul actually expected the day to come soon—and historically we know it did—when one of those evil attacks would be the last one he’d have to endure because he’d be dead when it was over.
Actually and in the wider witness of Scripture, all those seemingly blank-check-promise passages are set in the context of a world where the evil often prosper, where the poor suffer endlessly, and where good people often finish last. The Bible—and Jesus himself—is eminently realistic about all that. Only the very worst of the health-and-wealth crowd manipulate Scripture to promise that it will always turn out sunny for believers (and if things go sour, well then, look into the mirror to see who is the one with the weak faith).
OK, but then how DO we take Paul’s confident words here and all those other texts? If they are not literally true for the forces we face on earth, why write—and now read—such verses at all?
Because the eyes of faith always see the larger picture and the deepest horizon of God’s reality and kingdom. In the longest possible run God would deliver Paul from every evil attack because even the one that ended up being the final such assault got turned, by the alchemy of God’s grace, into the doorway to life eternal in Christ Jesus. God will heal every disease because even the sickness that finally makes us draw our final earthly breath merely ushers us into that place where every tear is dried from every eye and where sickness and sorrow shall be no more.
Cynics and critics would argue that this is too neat by half. Some might point out that what all this means is merely that Christians really cannot be confident of anything and that prayer remains a crap shoot whose outcomes we can but pretend to be hopeful. But all of that would be true only if we had faith merely to turn God into the cosmic ATM who meets our every whim and wish on this earth. If we serve and glorify God because of his larger plans and the cosmic goals he has already as good as achieved through the death and resurrection of Jesus, then confidence and hope remain viable and true.
For now and in our grief and disorientation when terrible things happen, it’s fine to shake our fists in God’s direction and have our share of Psalm 88 days of lament. God can take it. But it’s also true that God is there to hear all that precisely because in Christ he’s been there personally and nothing can separate us from his love—not even our anger at God for not helping or healing us every time as we had hoped and prayed.
Paul is able to end this section in doxology, giving God alone the glory forever and ever because God is the one who deserves it even when the bottom is dropping out on us. There are no easy answers, and foolish is the preacher who pretends she has it all cased. But taken in context, even Paul’s most confident statements here and elsewhere serve mostly as arrows pointing right at the crucified Son of God and his amazingly creative way to turn even death into a defeated enemy for him and for all who follow him. These are not easy truths but they are ultimately glorious ones and the day will come in God’s heavenly kingdom when we will see all of that with startling clarity.
Commenting on the raising of Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:
“[The high point of the incident was not when Jesus raised the girl] but earlier when Jesus told Jairus, ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ If Jairus was able to do that, then he would have survived whatever happened next, even if Jesus walked into his daughter’s room, closed her eyes with his fingertips, and pulled the sheet over her head. Her father’s belief would have become the miracle at that point, his willingness to believe that she was still in God’s good hands even though she slipped out of his . . . I do not expect any of us will stop praying for miracles. I hope not because the world needs all the miracles it can get. Every time you hear about one, remember that you are getting a preview of the kingdom. There is simply no formula for success, which is a real relief for those of us who cannot seem to ring the bell. Maybe we cannot do it because it is not our job. ‘Do not fear; only believe.’ That is our job. The rest is up to God.”
— Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Problem with Miracles” in Bread of Angels (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1997, p. 140).
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