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.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 20, 2019
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 Commentary