Friday, October 18, 2013

2 Timothy -- St. Paul, the Master Teacher

Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,
       It was during the last years of his ministry that Paul wrote to Timothy. Paul had a lot of experience and wanted to pass on his wisdom about life as a servant of the gospel so that Timothy could carry on with the work that he was about to leave behind. The two letters he wrote to Timothy give us an example of an older Christian training a younger one and also a picture of one Christian writing to a friend. Some of the details are quite down-to-earth. “When you come,” Paul wrote near the end of the second letter, “bring the cloak I left with Carpus..., also the books and above all the parchments.” We’re used to seeing important documents expressed in official language without ordinary feelings or homespun details. If private letters become public, they usually have to do with scandal or tragedy. As a general rule, nobody cares about the prime minister’s winter coat, but for 2000 years readers have known about Paul’s cloak. The public side of our way of life is often cold and rushed and unfeeling, while the genius of the Christian faith is partly our appreciation for down-to-earth, ordinary, homespun things. Our Lord had the common touch. So did Paul. As an apostle, he lived a public life, but he cherished everyday contacts and close friendships. This love for the personal is part of the church’s witness today. The Lord keeps us close to the earth, in touch with basic things and relationships. Perhaps the cold world will get the message. “I am reminded of your sincere faith,” Paul wrote to Timothy, “a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.”  Paul cared about the private life of his student. Public life is built on the private. There shouldn’t be a disconnect between them.
       The letters also bring out Timothy’s humanness. He had many fine qualities: loyalty, a warm nature, stamina, and faith, but he had weaknesses, too. He was timid and fearful at times and no stranger to youthful lusts, possibly reluctant to take on important work. Paul admonished him, and the two letters are filled with instructions. “O Timothy,” Paul wrote, “guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by possessing it, some have missed the mark as regards the faith.” Timothy must have lived a busy life in the world, familiar with many of its twists and turns. Paul needed to caution him about what to stay away from.
       Timothy’s humanness is another hallmark of life in the church that goes along with our Lord’s emphasis on the personal. The Spirit gathers the church from ordinary, frail human nature. Secular society encourages the so-called best and brightest; the Savior calls sinners into his kingdom. He washes us clean in His blood; he declares us to be righteous and whole – just as if we had never sinned; he gradually strengthens us and transforms us. He calls unlikely people to be his servants, folks who are aware of their unworthiness. His love breaks down the greatest barriers of timidity and shyness. He chooses as his servants people whom the world would never pick. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Not in virtue of our works, but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace that he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago.” God has his own way of doing things. His actions – like the manger and the cross – astonish human ways of thinking. We rejoice that he includes us in his kingdom, along with Paul and Timothy.
       Now, as we all know, once he saves us through our faith in Christ’s blood and brings us into his kingdom, he teaches us. We are lifetime learners. Every teacher will tell us that there are different kinds of learning. One kind of learning takes place when we absorb new facts and information. Another kind is the development of skills. Both kinds of learning – facts and skills – are important. Our culture excels in passing knowledge and techniques on to us. But in Timothy’s case, Paul was interested in still another kind of learning –the shaping of his soul. Timothy had had experience working with the church; Paul assumes that he knows the doctrines and how to express them. Now, he puts Christian teaching to work to help the Spirit transform Timothy, slowly, patiently, maybe even invisibly, into a new person, aiming not at externals but things deep inside Timothy’s heart.
       Now, we’ll look at some of the highlights of Second Timothy to watch Paul, the master teacher, at work, bringing the Christian best out of Timothy.
       Another of Paul’s letters reports that Timothy passed through a spell of disappointment when he worked in Corinth. He may have wanted to lie low for a while to give emotional scars a chance to heal. Paul urged him, however, to rekindle or stir up the gift of God within him. “God did not give us a spirit of timidity,” Paul wrote, “but of power and love and self-control.” Discouragement is part of life, no question. Even young folks with fresh minds, unacquainted with life’s severe rough spots, can be cast down in spirits. Paul tells Timothy to lift up his heart.
       We find encouragement ourselves in Paul’s admonition. For one thing, Paul offers the hope that burned-out spirits can be revived. God’s Spirit gives new life to tired souls. The point is to ask him for renewal, to stick with him, to seek his help. The Savior promises through Isaiah to renew the spirits of God’s people so that we soar like eagles. You see, while God likes fresh blood in his kingdom, he also relies on experienced folks who know the gospel and who have received God’s comfort so many times that it’s second nature to offer it to others. Just when we think we can’t take another step, God zooms in and refreshes us. This must be what Timothy felt when he read Paul’s letter – uplifting from the hand of God for continued, even enlarged service. Because he had passed through a dark valley, he knew what others go through. Because God had revived him, he knew that help was available. He knew just what to say to point them to God. What a fruitful servant the renewed Timothy must have been.
       In the second place, Paul advised Timothy not to be ashamed of testifying to our Lord. Paul doesn’t mean that Timothy has actually ever been ashamed of the Savior. He is simply encouraging him never to be so. He gives him the strongest of reasons to speak up for the Lord, for Christ abolished death, he wrote, and brought life and immortality to light. Timothy should concentrate on the main point. He should trust that God will protect until the last day the truth about Christ he has given to Timothy. Then he will never find a reason to be ashamed of the Lord.
       The same is true for every other Christian. The world tempts us; we hear lots of different opinions; human beings are by nature proud and love to do things on our own. But one thing even the proudest person knows he can’t do is abolish death and create everlasting life. Only God can do that, and because of his grace and his love toward us, he put his power to work on our behalf. He shares his immortality with us. He died so that we might live forever. When we keep this in mind, the problem of being ashamed of the Lord doesn’t come up. Even the most reticent of believers, equipped with the truth about Christ and the hope of immortality can be an effective witness for the Lord.
       Paul then encourages Timothy to accept his share of suffering for the gospel like a good sodier, to be strong in the grace that is in Christ. Christian living brings challenges to the flesh. These challenges involve sacrifice and sometimes public disfavor. Paul was in prison when he wrote his second letter to Timothy. Nevertheless, he advised his assistant to persevere.
       The church has a lot of wisdom about suffering. We never enjoy the dark days that come our way, but the Lord brings good out of them. He carries us through. He sees to it that we derive benefits from stormy days. Accepting hardship for the Lord chastens us; it refines our faith. Welcoming adversity for the sake of the gospel allows us to experience a small portion of what our Lord passed through for us.  It weakens our hold on earthly things and encourages us to look for the better life that is coming.
Paul didn’t promise Timothy that his days would flow along smoothly without bumps, but he did invite him to look ahead to receiving a reward from the Savior for his faithful service. A successful athlete who competes according to the rules wins a prize, Paul said. A farmer has the first share of his crops. A good student gets good marks and the hope of advancing to another level. Part of our reward for keeping faith with the Lord comes in the present life – inner strength, increased understanding, the habit of hope and joy in all seasons. But a greater reward is to come. The Lord broke the bonds of death and brought in the hope of everlasting happiness for all believers, a kind of happiness we can’t really understand right now, but that God encourages us to look ahead to. Paul encouraged Timothy to hold onto God’s promise of blessedness in eternity as the younger man prepared to take up where the apostle would leave off. The same applies to us. It’s easy to let the troubles of each day obscure our vision, but this is not what our Lord intends for us. He instructs us to hold onto the big picture – the rewards of faith now and the great reward that is to come.
       Someone summed up all of Paul’s admonitions to Timothy under one theme – endurance, which is one of the great Christian qualities, the ability to persevere in spite of hardships. God creates new people by giving frail humans a surprising capacity to bear up. The point is this – endurance is not our own doing, but a gift from God. For believers, it’s another word for faith. From time to time, we all ask how we can possibly stand such and such a thing. God puts us into situations where we know that on our own we would crumble. He teaches us to rely on him. Without our knowing it, he is shaping our souls along good solid lines so that we will be worthy of the reward on the great day to come. The Lord answers our questions about endurance. Yes, we will be able to bear up, he teaches us. We will survive and endure and give a strong testimony to him. We will be good servants and faithful witnesses, because this is his will for us – the direction in which he leads us. We will thrive in the faith now and sing his praises on the last day. In His name we rejoice. AMEN.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

Psalm 65 -- On Giving Thanks

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
       “Praise waits for you, O God, in Zion.” King David, the psalm writer, describes the position of God’s people before him. Because we are saved, we wait silently for him to come to us. We are ready to offer him praise. We give him thanks. Thanksgiving is part of every Christian’s life. Someone said that our thanks rise up automatically from the spirit of joy that distinguishes God’s people. Our Heavenly Father created us to rejoice in his works and to receive his gifts with humble and hearty thanks. We thank him every day as well as on the special day that comes once a year. It’s not hard to think of reasons to give thanks that we all have in common – physical blessings such as a place to live, enough food to eat, the benefits we receive from living in Canada. We give thanks for loving friends and family and the support of a stable community. We thank God, too, for his word, our faith, and the church. We thank him for his Son, who died for our sins, and for the hope of eternal happiness in heaven. We thank him for the willingness to hear our prayers and for the promise that he will sustain our faith so that we don’t fear that we’ll lose hope tomorrow or fall into despair. His blessings to us will continue and for this we give him thanks.
       A wiser Christian than I said that our thanks are echoes of the praise and thanks that the heavenly choirs place before the throne of heaven. Our thanks come from our close fellowship with the Lord. Thanksgiving completes our enjoyment of God. When he commands us to thank him, the Father invites us to enjoy him.
       Let’s have a look for a moment at Psalm 65, which draws us into an atmosphere of thanksgiving, for we have many of the same reasons for giving thanks as King David. He praises God for the strength that created the mountains and the power that quiets roaring seas and ends turmoil among nations. Storms come, but they are the exception rather than the rule. God calls us away from harmful violence to peace and rest in him; he quiets the ambitions of rulers and nations. We ask him to bring peace where conflict and fighting are taking place. We’re grateful for the Lord’s steadying hand. Without him, the turbulence of the world would be much worse than it is.
       David thanked God for the care he gives to the land and the bounty he brings from the earth. He described the prosperity of his own nation, Israel – an abundance of rain, plentiful harvests, and enough grazing land for livestock. He said that the meadows were covered with flocks and the valleys with grain. Then he tells us that God thinks differently from the way we do.
       Jesus sees the parts of creation that seem speechless to us as shouting and singing for joy. We can find the same picture in Psalm 96, “Let the seas resound...let the fields be jubilant...then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy.” The author of Psalm 148 invites the sun and moon and shining stars to praise God. “Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals, cattle, small creatures and flying birds...let them praise the name of the Lord.”
We could find quite a bit in the Toronto area to include in the list of thankful, rejoicing nature – trees and parklands, rivers, one of the Great Lakes, a wonderful zoo, sun and stars, clouds and rain, the four seasons, and lovely twilights typical of northern places. To the eyes of God, all his creatures praise and thank him and testify to his great power.
       We know from our own experience as well as the news that the world is fractured and full of sin, but God sees all creation as unified under his rule through the restoring work of Christ. The whole world exists because of his gracious willingness to restore and renew. He sees in the unity he created a wonderful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to him. God’s faithful people join all creation in a chorus of thanksgiving. There is joy at the center of the universe, and Jesus invites you and me, all people everywhere, to take part in it. He delights in our praise and worship; the joy of his people pleases him. He is happy with the gratitude that rises up to him even though we may be passing through a time of trouble and testing. Paul once wrote that he was glad and rejoiced even though he might be poured out as a sacrificial offering. The thanksgiving of God’s Christian people that takes place every day soars above trials and tribulations like fragrant smoke that rises above a pile of burning leaves. We rejoice that God has given us the habit of thanks and praise. We praise him for his plentiful supply. We thank him for Christ’s death and resurrection, which brings hope and meaning to every moment of our lives.
The thanksgiving of Christians expresses our faith that God is good and that he brings plenty of good things and that he turns every evil into good in his own way, not just in general but for ourselves, each one of us. The parable in this morning’s gospel, however, gives an example of the opposite of faith and thanksgiving. Some guests invited to a certain king’s wedding were too busy to attend. They were absorbed in their own private affairs. Some even had murder on their minds. They didn’t care that their king had honored them. The parable draws a picture of the selfish world, with people wrapped up in comfort and material gain, even to the point of committing a crime. Anyone who lives only for material things builds a house on quicksand. No one can say when earthly things will be taken away.           Materialism dishonors God. It shrivels souls and cheats neighbors and cancels the blessings of salvation, but God’s justice will prevail. The parable reminds us that the Lord will reverse all wickedness on the last day. Those who repent of their sins and keep the faith and live in thanksgiving will receive an eternal reward. The rest will not, because it will be too late. We are thankful that God sees things differently from worldly minds. Faith toward him and love for our neighbors is what counts with him. He sees deeply into every heart and rejoices when one of his own recognizes his or her need and reaches out in faith to take hold of his promises.
       What a witness to God’s love his people make as we live day by day in faith.  We are not perfect. We always need the forgiveness he provides. At the same time, he uses our lives to make a statement. Material things don’t shape us. Jesus does. He uses us to show that even in a tarnished world it is possible to live for him and to be generous to him even before we are generous to ourselves. He molds us so that materialism doesn’t capture our souls. We don’t fret about nice things we may lack. Though temptations abound, we don’t envy the rich or covet their worldly success. Jesus teaches us how to be content with what we have. He forms us so that we don’t respond to material things with greed for more, but with joy and thanksgiving.
       How easy it is to be caught in a conflict between desire for worldly goods and the repose of spirit that brings thanksgiving. Jesus uses his thankful people to help folks who are still struggling find the trust in God to let go of the world. Without your knowing it, your spirit of praise and rejoicing may give someone close to you just the environment he or she needs to seek God. We testify that Jesus works miracles of contentment and thanksgiving even in today’s world.
       Jesus once met a rich young man who wanted heaven but not at the expense of his good life on earth. His soul was caught in a terrific tug of war. He needed God, but it seemed impossible that he could ever live with him. Impossible for him, that is, but not impossible for Christ. All things are possible with God. His people give a witness to our neighbors that Jesus can solve all human dilemmas – including those of the rich young man – by giving us faith in the value of his life and death and resurrection.
       It’s not that we’re better than others but that we live in the assurance of our Lord’s forgiveness. “Praise is due you, O God in Zion,” David wrote, “you who hear prayer. To you shall all flesh come on account of sins. When our transgressions prevail over us, you do forgive them.”
       Heaven’s pardon washes us clean every day: it renews us. The heavenly Father declares us to be righteous in his sight because of Jesus’ death on the cross. He has adopted us as his sons and daughters. David affirms that the people whom God brings near him are blessed, and we are chiefly blessed because the good Lord has brought us full and abundant lives through the gift of his forgiveness.
So, to conclude, we remember that Thanksgiving as a holiday in North America began among native people, and early Christian settlers adopted their custom. Our thanks delight the Heavenly Father. Giving thanks helps to clear our brains and free us from the vice of tunnel vision. The spirit of thanks lifts us up. It works to strengthen our relationship with the Lord. The more we thank him, the easier it becomes to give thanks. We find, like St. Paul, that we can thank him in every situation. With the assurance that he will hear us, we ask the Lord Jesus to lift us up and keep us his thankful people every after day, now and always. In his Name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Luke 17:1 - 10 On Faith and a Mustard Seed

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
       Jesus’ brief parable of the mustard seed often gets Christian people thinking about faith. The human heart wants to believe. It’s natural for our souls to reach out to take hold of Jesus’ promises. “Increase our faith,” the disciples pleaded, and Jesus was only too willing to oblige them. He never turns anyone away – not one person – who calls out to him.
       There are different aspects of faith. First is knowledge – the facts that come to us in the Bible and that the church teaches – the facts about the life, death, resurrection, and ascension that we’ll say, for example when we recite the apostle’s creed in a few minutes. Then there is agreement that the facts are true – that Jesus is God’s Son, God himself, that he died for our sins, that he will come again to be our judge and take all believers into heaven with him. We can agree with these facts in the same way we agree that the multiplication table is true. But that’s not enough. Jesus said that even the devil has that kind of knowledge. A third aspect of faith – and the most important – is trust in our hearts, conviction in our souls that Jesus is our personal savior, that he intends good for us, now and in eternity, that our sins are washed away in his blood, and that he has claimed us as his own forever. This saving faith is a gift from God. If you find that you believe the word of God when you read it or hear it read to you, then you may trust that God’s Holy Spirit is working faith in your heart. Saving faith is not a rational act of the human mind, or a turn of mind we build up in ourselves. Faith comes from God. We are dependent on him.
       We also say that the size of faith is not what counts. The crucial point is what our faith is directed toward. A small faith in Jesus has more weight and significance than an enormous faith in anything else, such as our own abilities, say, or the goodness of humanity or an unknown God who somehow works things out. Faith in Jesus brings salvation. That’s what matters. He also looks out for our day-to-day lives.  We’ll come back to this point in a moment.
       First, we need to mention that faith doesn’t depend on feelings. We don’t say – my faith must be strong today because I’m feeling joyful or – someone said something good about me today, so I have lots of faith. Our faith clings to God’s Word – the truths and promises of the Bible, not what may be going on inside us on any particular day. Our faith is especially useful and uplifting on those days when we’re not feeling good but rotten. On the days when it feels like heaven and earth will cave in on us, we remember our Lord’s promises to us – that he has hold of us, that he will turn evil into good for us, that nothing can stand between us and him, and that his love for us will last forever. Our baptisms are a sign of his enduring love. We can turn away from Jesus, of course, but our baptisms can’t be erased or washed away. They are forever. God will not forget. He uses our baptisms to strengthen our faith.
We point out as well that the life of faith is never easy. God commands us to hold on by faith to things we cannot see or touch. The letter to Hebrews offers a well-known definition of faith – the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. We don’t see God but we believe in him. At the same time we live in a world of things that we perceive with our senses and that we think about with our logical minds. What’s more, the world is full of pride, envy, hatred, malice, lust, fighting, and wars. Our faith clashes with the conditions of earthly life. We may wonder how God’s will can possibly prevail when there is so much evil in the world. Or we may say that life with God isn’t very exciting and I want a share of the world’s excitement for myself. Or we may be in some difficulty and wonder why God doesn’t get us out of it right away. Conflicts like these make the life of faith difficult and full of challenges. At the same time, the Bible teaches us that if we are dithering, God is faithful. He won’t let go of us. He puts us in choppy seas to chasten us and test us and strengthen our faith.
       Here are two familiar examples from the Old Testament. Job, for one, suffered all kinds of physical and mental torment without losing his faith. “Oh, that my words were written...oh that they were inscribed in a book,” Job said, “for I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God...and my eyes shall behold and not another. My heart faints within me.”
       And you may remember the story of a pagan king in the book of Daniel who threatened to cast three believers into a fiery furnace. The three answered: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King.” Young people of faith, you see, whom God protected even in a furnace and brought our alive.
       We could multiply examples. Believing people hold onto God in the most trying times; their faith shines through, and he delivers them. It sometimes takes a crisis for us to get back into line and to seek the benefits of the sturdy faith that God makes possible for us in Christ.
       Now, faith in Christ is not just for this life. Otherwise, there would be no point in bothering with it. The Christian faith has a final outcome. It brings us to salvation. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John’s gospel also reports that the Savior said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” A verse in Paul sums up the whole matter: “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” We live in a world of trouble, sin, and death. A better life is coming. Jesus rose from the dead to glory. So will we. The only requirement is faith in Christ.
       The Lord can use even a small amount of faith in a believer’s heart to make big things happen that are impossible for humans. Faith in Christ is one of those big things. Most of us can tell stories about miracles close to us. Sinners mend their ways and turn to Jesus. Hatred becomes love. Lazy people bestir themselves to perform good works. Forgiveness breaks down hardness of heart. God works all kinds of big things in the lives of faithful people. As we said at the beginning, it’s not the size of faith that counts but what faith is directed toward. We Christians put our faith in Jesus.
       From God’s point of view, lack of faith in him is a big problem. Unbelief has many causes, and one major one is the notion that we can do everything on our own. Our secular ways teach us to be self-reliant, and this frame of mind spills over into spiritual life. “I’m strong. I stand on my own two feet,” someone might say, “I make my own salvation and God is pleased with me.” Not so. We aren’t perfect; we stumble and fall. We shake our fists at God, which is not an act of faith but rebellion that displeases God. He loves the humble, faithful heart that relies on him for everything. The disciples learned this, so do we. Some one once asked Jesus what it means to do the work of God. He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
       Now, Jesus didn’t discard his disciples if they let him down in favor of a better model. He forgave them, picked them up, dusted them off, and sent them out to serve him again. That’s his way. He doesn’t quit on people. He is persistent, loving, and faithful. He binds up wounds and eases consciences that are troubled by sin. He trusts his people. He believes in you and me.
       In the passage in Luke about the mulberry tree, Jesus draws a picture that we don’t take literally even though we understand its force and emphasis. “The Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be rooted up and be planted in the sea and it would obey you.” Instead of lying uselessly at the bottom of the sea, this tree would grow in the sea and flourish and put forth fruit – not possible even for today’s advanced science. Again, Jesus is pointing out that what’s impossible for human beings is possible for God. Besides that, the tree flourishing in the salty sea stands for something.
       The apostles would soon use their faith to bring the good news that God’s kingdom of mercy and love would be transplanted from ancient Israel into the huge pagan world, a great sea of people if you come from a small country. Christian congregations sprouted up all over the Mediterranean. Faith would flourish where no one ever thought it would. God’s Word has come to midtown Toronto and other faraway places.
       It doesn’t take a mountain mover to spread the gospel, just ordinary faith, such as most of us have, and the willingness to act on God’s behalf. We read the Bible. We say our prayers. We talk to friends about Jesus and the gospel. Nothing dazzling or spectacular is required. Just persistent plugging away in the life of faith.
       This is how the Lord deals with the evil of the world – not by showy methods but by getting his Word planted in individual hearts and building us up in faith. It’s a quiet process. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. Results can be slow in coming, but God’s Word is powerful and sure. It never goes back to him empty.
       We’ll end with a question. How can we possibly stand up when the news of the day can be very depressing? God’s answer is – by faith in Jesus, who heals and lifts and builds a kingdom where you and I can feel safe and know that we are loved. We don’t see the kingdom, except when we come to church, but we take hold of it in trust and if we stop and think about it and don’t mind picture language, we’ll see that we know exactly what Jesus was talking about when he mentions the faith that can move mountains.  In His Name we give praise. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.