October 3, 2010

Passage: Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10, 2 Timothy 1:13-14

Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

The story is told of a new real estate salesperson who asked her boss if she could refund the deposit to an angry customer who had discovered that the lot he purchased was under water.  “What kind of salesperson are you?” scolded the boss. “Get out there and sell him a boat”.

When, in our experience of life, the promises of God appear to have submerged under a watery mess does the minister proclaiming the gospel now sound like someone trying to sell you a boat?  Those explanations of why bad things happen to good people; do they have a ring akin to being sold a boat you never intended to buy nor need?  When life’s broadsides appear to contradict the promises of the gospel does the gospel now seem like a bait and switch scam?

1. Early in September a report was issued by the UN on the war that raged for 10 years in the Congo.  "No report could adequately describe the horrors experienced by civilian populations in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo," Navanethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, says in a foreword to the draft report. “Every individual has at least one story to tell of suffering and loss.”

I find it hard to imagine the devastation of life experienced by these people; such atrocities I have only read about.  Their stories are sickening to contemplate; unthinkable, I’m sure, to experience.  It is something akin to this war that is the backdrop of Jeremiah’s Lamentation; he had lived through the brutal horrors and decimation of Judah and Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians; every individual in Jeremiah’s orb had a story of suffering and loss.

Yet it is in the middle of this book we hear one of the most wonderful words of hope ever penned: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;  they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”

It is not weak faith but strengthened faith that has the ability to lament.  It takes courage to lament, especially if the lament is—like many laments in the Bible are—essentially a complaint to God for God’s own dereliction of duty.  That’s plucky faith.

Elie Wiesel once wrote that for a Jewish person, you can be with God, for God, disappointed with God, or even angry with God but the one thing a true Jew can never be is to be without God.   So long as God is in the picture, lament can happen, and so can praise and thanksgiving and lots of other things but the point is that it is not the person without God who laments but the person who is with God in some way and who knows the promises of God for our lives and for this cosmos generally.

The story is told that in one of the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were housed some of the rabbis and other Jewish leaders present decided one day to put God on trial for unfaithfulness.   The entire trial essentially amounted to a lament for the broken condition of God’s world and now of God’s people.   Arguments were made, witnesses were called, Scripture’s promises were read and put into the dock.   Finally a verdict was pronounced: God was guilty as charged of letting go of his promises.  They were about to begin pondering what kind of a sentence to pass when they had to break off for the day.

It was time, you see, for evening prayers.

2. Whenever I read the second of Paul’s letters to Timothy I hear the words as if the whole text were underlined and in bold print.  There is urgency in Paul’s voice; the tenor is clear and direct.

Paul, you see, is in a very unhappy place.  He is in prison in Rome and his trial before the Emperor Nero is not going well.  “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm”, Paul said of the coppersmith’s testimony against him.  “At my first defence no one came to my support”, Paul added.  He can see that, in human terms, the trial is not going to end well for him. “... the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Timothy is 19 or 20 years of age—in his early twenties at the oldest—when Paul writes this letter to him.  You can tell that Paul is concerned about a couple of things that can easily derail a young person from the faith.  One of them is a rupture in the relationship with a person who has been used of God in a key way to mentor our faith.  For some such rupture have been caused by church dissension or a leader’s moral failure; for Timothy it was to be cut off from Paul who was taken to Rome for trial.

Another thing Paul speaks to is the potential embarrassment of the gospel Timothy feels because Paul is on trial before the Emperor for proclaiming this gospel.  The truth is that the gospel is not a message that will render itself to easy popularization; it has a bite to it that won’t go away; its message that the human problem is rebellion against God gates rebellious hearts. I think of students as university where the gospel is often the subject of ridicule; Paul is astute that for the young believe embarrassment can cause us to shrink from owning our faith.  And it isn’t just the young; faith is not a common topic of conversation welcomed in our work places.

Here is Paul—whose love for Timothy is akin to that of a father for a son—knowing that he will not likely see Timothy again, telling him what really matters; Paul’s life experience includes a share of both the good and no small amount of the bad.  Timothy, here is what you need to hold on to no matter what comes your way:  “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”

Paul is talking about the gospel—the gospel is this “good treasure” that is to be guarded.  He reminded Timothy that it was his mother and grandmother who taught him of Jesus; never underestimate the importance of parents and grandparents talk of Jesus with their children and the powerful witness of your own life in continuing in the routines of worship that guard the gospel in you.

The word translated “standard of sound teaching” was used to speak of an outline sketch such as an architect might make before rendering detailed building plans.  There are a number of such sketches of the gospel in the New Testament; John gives one often memorized by Christians: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  While there is plenty of liberty of thought among Christians it is these basics about Jesus that unite us in worldwide communion.

Paul used the word “guard” to stress with Timothy the importance of our never giving up on Jesus Christ.  Paul also used the image of tending a fire to remind Timothy that without attention our faith can wane.  He told Timothy he was to rekindle the gift of God given to him—likely referring to his ordination vows.  I enjoy a campfire; you know that you need to tend the fire or it will soon diminish—sometimes simply rearranging the wood will stoke the fire to flame again.  We need to do this with the flame of our love for Jesus; the church exists for this very reason that we might stoke this fire of faith in the routines of our life.  Guard the good treasure!

3. In Timothy’s day the Greek language united the people of that world; it was the language of commerce, in some ways akin to the way English functions in the world today (though this is changing).  Greek was also the language of philosophy—Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.  These philosophers had a profound impact on how people viewed life.  In essence they taught that to get in touch with the eternal, that the solution to humanity’s ills, was a function of the understanding, a solution that people could grasp by intellectual skills.  Of course, it was the philosopher who could lead you there.  The emphasis was on making intelligible what was divine.

Christian faith was founded on a Hebrew understanding of what it means to have knowledge of God.  This kind of knowing was the knowing of intimate relationship.  It is interesting to note that the Bible has very little to say of what God is—God is Spirit—but is focussed on who God is—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who spoke to Moses, the God who comes himself in Jesus of Nazareth.  The gospel says the solution to humanity’s ills is encounter with Jesus; to know him and be transformed.  Better still, to be known by him.  Such an encounter is to expose who we really are—our sin—but it is in Him that we will be restored to the relationship that really matters.  “Guard the good treasure”, writes Paul.

4. Three weeks ago I spoke of a small wooded lot that was part of the farm I grew up on; I related how, as a young boy, I had been playing there feeling quite lost; certain I would never find my way out.

I grew up with three brothers; we had lots of energy.  Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon my father would challenge us; we were to give him a head start he would go to this treed lot and hide boasting we would not be able to find him.  Naturally we would brag about how easily we would locate him. (I think he was trying to afford our mother a little respite.)  We didn’t ever find him.  He would let us roar around looking for him—resting in his hiding place, no doubt—and then finally show himself.

As I reflect on that experience it was interesting for me to note that I never felt afraid or lost playing in those same trees while looking for my father.  I knew two things—one a derivative of the other—I knew he was there even though I couldn’t see him and I knew he wouldn’t ever leave us there.

“I will never leave you or forsake you”, promised Jesus.  Friends, “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”