The apostle Paul this morning serves up a classic text that affirms the supremacy of the Bible as the Book among books.
Now nearing the end of earthly life’s race and ready to receive his heavenly crown of righteousness, the one-time persecutor of Christ’s followers shares a moving, heartfelt testimony about the power of God’s written Word.
As if that isn’t enough, Paul in our Scripture lesson tacks on a hodge-podge of warnings and cautions about people to be scorned and people to be praised, about the perils and pitfalls of front-line ministry and Christian living, and about our human tendency to seek out and listen to only those things that we want to hear.
At first blush, Paul seems to be letting loose a random stream of conscious thoughts to a younger protégé, Timothy. But strangely enough, when you zoom out and glance the entire passage, Paul’s tidings sparkle with exquisitely gilded unity. And at the heart of it all, the golden nugget that lends such unity to these otherwise rapid-fire, seemingly random reflections about life and living is the Word of God – the Bible, which, Paul says, wields the power to perfect us and equip us for holy work.
Listen, now, with the help of the Holy Spirit, for the Word of the Lord, and let these ancient words impart faith, life, and hope.
Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra.
What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them.
Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But wicked people and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. (2 Timothy 3:10-4:5)
Though both Paul and Timothy are pastors, the commands for life and living that Paul shares with his apprentice apply far beyond those of us engaged in professional ministry to include every follower of Christ:
Do not follow every whim and desire, but stick with what God has laid before you!
Do not listen for sound bites, but dive deep into the rich, holy Word of truth!
Do not be carried away by lies and myths, but profoundly root yourself in the faith of Christ!
Do not look for a faith leader who makes you feel better, but pay careful attention to the one who reveals regular invitations to transformation that the Holy Spirit of God is constantly and consistently making!
Pretty straight-forward stuff, really.
But here’s the thing: It’s all-but certain that the Scriptures to which Paul refers are what today we’d call the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. The New Testament as we know it today has yet to be written and compiled when Paul pens his letter to Timothy. The only Scripture available in Paul’s day was the Old Testament, which you can scour from Genesis to Malachi and never stumble across the name “Jesus Christ.”
Yet, Paul tells Timothy and us that the better we know those very Old Testament chapters and verses, the wiser we’ll all become for salvation in Jesus Christ.
That makes no sense, because nothing in all those 39 books of the Old Testament mentions Jesus. But Paul says Jesus is there, and you best tee up your soul for the salvation uniquely offered in Christ if you know well and truly take to heart those Old Testament words.
Paul clearly sees what we too often miss today: The Bible is finally a single story, with a single plot, from beginning to end. If you’d challenged Paul that it seems odd to suggest someone could become wise unto salvation in Jesus Christ from a bunch of writings that don’t even mention his name, your biblical dispute probably would have baffled Paul.
“Of course it’s one story,” Paul would push back. The whole of Scripture leads you right to the foot of Jesus’s cross and right to the entrance of his empty tomb. That’s precisely what the whole thing has been about from the get-go. Once you realize what God has been up to since the dawn of time – and even before that, everything falls into place and makes singular, final sense in Christ alone.
That’s the vision I’m hoping we all catch as we move through my new sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us.”
As we make our way through the Bible from start to finish, what I pray we discover is that it’s all one story and finally one message. And that’s why Paul immediately urges Timothy one last time to keep on preaching it and let the chips fall where they may.
The God-breathed words in all of those pages contain what we need for our proclamation of the Gospel in both word and deed that announces the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Those ancient words reveal to us the sovereign God who promises God’s own self will be with us through it all, giving us what we need to encourage us when we want to give up, and setting straight the record not just about what is true and noble, but also about what is right and wrong, what to do and what not to do, even though you might have every supposed right to do it.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who breathed the inspiration for its holy words, the Scriptures of the Bible are all we need. That’s why the pulpit stands as the centerpiece of our sanctuary. The Word of God that’s proclaimed from here is intended to be the focal point of our days, not pushed off to the side and hauled out when it’s convenient or profitable.
In contrast to 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.
Still, it remains as challenging as to contend for the faith in Christ and the story of God’s Word.
Ours is also a world with lots of “itching ears” that hanker for “new and improved” stories over and above the old, traditional ones.
But if God’s Word is Life itself – and it is, and if the whole story climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of the one named Jesus – and it does, then we just have to keep living it – in season, and out of season, and until that time when the Lord himself returns to make all things new. Until then, we are simply asked to stay connected to our roots in faith, and to be faithful to the claim and call that God has laid upon our lives, individually as children of God and corporately as the Church.
The story of God and us is a story of God loving us in a different way – unconditionally, not counting against us the many sins and trespasses that make us hard to love. God nevertheless keeps on loving no matter what. And that same unconditional love is the gift that God calls us to share with others – love that pours the baptismal waters of mercy, compassion, grace, and forgiveness upon the sins, debts, trespasses, and brokenness of the world.
Though it’s a secular song, the lyrics to “A Different Way” by DJ Snake and Lauv unintentionally speak well of God’s unconditional love for us as well as the unconditional love that the Lord calls us to share with friend, neighbor, and stranger:
Could you believe I could be different?
I’ll be the difference; I’ll lift you high.
And I understand your hesitation.
Our reputation, it’s no surprise.
So let me redefine you.
And you can see the tide move, just like tears in the eyes do.
And when you’re feeling alone, oh, I’ll be right here between the sea and silence.
So breathe easy, my dear, you can find sunshine in the rain.
I will come running when you call my name.
Even a broken heart can beat again.
Forget about the one who caused you pain.
I swear I’ll love you in a different way.
How you answer the Lord’s call to love in a different way is between you, God, and the Holy Spirit.
But as for me, in this new year, I want to let the Spirit to breathe more of the Word into the soul of my being. Inspired by a post making its way around social media, I want to hang out with sinners; upset religious people; tell stories that make people think; choose unpopular friends; be kind, loving, and merciful; and – also like Jesus – take naps on boats.
And I’m going to do those things simply because, when the breath of God created the world, God revealed a different way of living and loving. And because God breathed a holy Word, you and I are called to live and love in different ways, too. For indeed, our days are sorely lacking faithful saints who do.
“Forget about the one who caused you pain. I swear I’ll love you in a different way.”
May it be so. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, January 9, 2022. It is the first installment of a new sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by DJ Snake, James D.G. Dunn, Chelsey Harmon, Scott Hoezee, and Lauv inform the message.