Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 23, 2022
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 Commentary
It’s hard to read this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson without getting a lump in one’s throat. After all, it’s not just that it contains what are perhaps among the imprisoned Paul’s last recorded words. It’s also that it suggests that the apostle who has befriended to so many seems about to die virtually all alone.
Acts 20:24 records Paul as earlier telling the Ephesian elders, “I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race … the Lord Jesus has given me.” Now he writes as if he has already crossed the finish line of that race. Paul says that he has “kept the faith” during that “race” (7c). He has, in other words, faithfully guarded and shared with the known world the treasure that is the gospel that God has given him.
The Paul who writes 2 Timothy has also experienced great danger during the hard fight and long race that has been his life in Christ. Almost immediately after his conversion, Jewish religious leaders plotted to kill him. Over time a wide variety of Jews also tried to kill him. Even Paul’s travels to do his mission work were sometimes dangerous.
Now, as he writes 2 Timothy 4, Paul seems to believe he has survived all of that just to have authorities prepare to kill him for his faith. He is, after all, as he writes in verse 6, being sacrificed for his faith. As a result, the apostle adds, comparing his life to a ship, the time has come for his “departure.” He has hoisted the anchor, untied the ropes and is about to sail for another shore.
The Rome from which his life will soon depart is what John Stott, to whose book, Guard the Gospel (InterVarsity Press, 1973) I owe many ideas for this commentary, calls “a cruel and angry city.” Its intensely ambitious emperor Nero let nothing stand in the way of his desires and lavish plans for Rome.
Yet at least initially, Paul’s situation in Rome was tolerable. He probably remained under house arrest for two years. During that time authorities seemed to do little to prevent people from visiting him. However, by the time he writes our text, the apostle’s situation has deteriorated. Nero’s personal guards now probably guard him in what may be one of Rome’s most notorious prisons.
Those who proclaim and those who hear 2 Timothy 4 may be feeling like they too are nearing the end of the journey that has been their life. Others are nearing the end of major chapters in their lives. With the hymn writer, some of us can sing, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come.”
Jesus’ friends and followers across the world are suffering deeply for their faith. It’s not easy to endure such things when friends surround sufferers. Among the most insidious things about many Christians’ persecution is that people hostile to their faith have isolated them from fellow believers. Jesus’ followers must all too often suffer for their faith all alone.
That also seems to be this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul’s plight. He has fought the good fight. The apostle has run the arduous race that God has laid out for him. He has also remained faithful to God in spite of all the danger, toils and snares he’s endured.
Yet while Luke, the apostle’s beloved friend and doctor, remains loyal to him, Paul still feels terribly alone. Some of his companions have left him because they’re doing the Lord’s work. One, however, Demas, whom Paul earlier labeled one of his “fellow workers,” has, according to verse 10, simply “deserted” Paul.
However, according to verse 16, the proverbial last straw has come at what was probably Paul’s preliminary hearing before his actual trial. While Roman law permitted him to call witnesses to testify for him, no one in Rome was willing to defend him. While few deserved more help than Paul did, not even Rome’s Christians showed him any sympathy. He may even underline the pain that caused him by saying both, “No one came to my support” and “Everyone deserted me.”
Since, those who proclaim and hear 2 Timothy 4 may know a bit of what Paul and Jesus felt like, its proclaimers might explore that with our hearers. Maybe in standing up for their faith, some felt as though they stood alone. Perhaps when others mocked or rejected them for following Jesus, not even other Christians came to their aid.
It’s seldom easy for any of us to be so alone. It’s even more difficult to be alone when we’re under some kind of duress. As it was for the apostle Paul, it’s very hard to stay standing when it seems as if no one wants to stand with us. It must be hard to contemplate, as Paul did, dying all alone.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Paul, however, realizes that he isn’t really alone. In John 16:32 Jesus had told his disciples, “A time is coming, and has come, when you will … be scattered. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.” He knew that his heavenly Father would stay with him all the way to the cross.
Paul says something similar in 2 Timothy 4. While his friends have scattered, he rejoices in verse 17 how “the Lord stood at” his “side and gave” him “strength.” When everyone else abandoned him, God graciously stood with the apostle and empowered him to proclaim the gospel in a way that even the Gentiles could hear.
The God who, in Christ, came to earth to be Immanuel, “God with us,” stood with Paul in that Roman courtroom. The Christ, who promised to be with us “always, to the very end of the age,” strengthened him. The God who, in Christ, promises to make his home among us in the new creation, empowered the apostle to proclaim the gospel.
Of course, it’s not the first time God stood with God’s children during a difficult time. When Israel endured the trial that was her entrance into Canaan, it seemed as if no one stood with her. In fact, her enemies constantly surrounded and threatened her. Mighty enemies even filled the land of promise God had vowed to give her.
The Lord, however, promised to stand at Israel’s side and give her the strength she needed. When Moses spoke to the Israelites just before they entered the land of promise, he told them, in Deuteronomy 31:6, “The Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
It may have been relatively easy for Joshua and Israel to believe that promise of God’s presence as long as Moses was still alive. However, when Moses died, Joshua and the Israelites may have also felt as though everyone had deserted them. Joshua, in fact, would have to lead the timid Israelites into the Promised Land largely by himself.
The Lord, however, stood by Joshua’s side through that trial. In Joshua 1:6 God promises Israel’s new leader, “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you or forsake you.” In verse 9 the Lord adds, “Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
This is the God whom preachers proclaim this week. Proclaimers too may feel very alone, as though we’re going through difficult times all by ourselves. We may even feel discouraged because no one seems to come to our support. Every human being may, in fact, desert God’s dearly beloved people.
However, the God who stood at the sides of and strengthened Moses, Joshua and the Apostle Paul stands with and strengthens all who proclaim the best news the world will ever hear. Even if everyone else abandons God’s adopted children, God never leaves or forsakes us. God sticks with God’s dearly beloved people wherever we go.
So even when Jesus’ friends pass through various deep waters, this Lord is with us. Even when everything else around us seems to be flooding, the Lord is with us. Even when different kinds of fires threaten us, the Lord is with us. In fact, nothing in all of creation can separate God’s dearly beloved children from Christ’s love. God’s love stands with us in death and life, and in the present as well as the future.
This ever-present God rescued Paul from some threat he called “the lion’s mouth.” God also empowered him to fully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that even the Gentiles, including his persecutors and prosecutors, could hear. Paul, what’s more, believed that God would stand with him until he safely shepherded him into God’s presence in the new creation.
Those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might explore with our hearers how this same God promises to stand at God’s dearly beloved people’s side and give us strength. How this God graciously accompanies us as we go to the doctor or move into assisted living. This God stands at our side as we go to the unemployment office or watch our lives outlast our finances.
This God gives us strength as we face threats to our personal, familial, communal or even national security. This God stands with God’s people as we share the gospel with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. In fact, this God promises, by God’s Spirit, to stand right by us until we stand with God in the glory of the new heaven and earth.
In an article in the August 1 & 15, 1984 issue of “Context,” Martin E. Marty writes about death and Psalm 23. He quotes Joseph Sittler: “The text does not speak of the valley of death but of the valley of the shadow of death. There is a difference. The valley of death is an experience through which we walk from this life into the life to come. To be sure, God will be with us as we walk through that valley.
“What appears in Psalm 23, however, is not a portrayal of the death experience and God’s promised presence in it. Rather, the psalm suggests that even while we live, the assured future arrival of death casts a shadow over us. It is as if this life tilts forward toward death; we walk in a valley now, the shadow of death covering out paths even before the experience of death comes. And God is with us now, too.”
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