Gospel Goals - 2 Timothy 4:9-22
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‘Meet the Revd Jones, superstar. He can preach, counsel, evangelise, administrate, conciliate, communicate-and even sometimes integrate. He can also raise the church budget. He handles Sunday morning better than any quiz master on TV. He is better with words than most political candidates. As a scholar he surpasses most university professors. And no church function would be complete without his wit. Struggling mediocre Christians look on with holy envy. Which one of them would not like to be in the Revd Jones shoes- not to mention his parsonage?’ That is Howard Snider in his book, ‘New Wineskins.’ We have to admit that our expectations of those called to exercise leadership in the church can be idealistic to the point of being unrealistic. This is a burden which is not simply imposed upon young promising ministers by their congregations, but often self-imposed by the ministers themselves. The temptation to be the omnicompetent minister as amusingly portrayed by Snider is a strong one, not least when you arrive at a new church and wish to make a good impression. But the results are always the same- fallout and burnout. There eventually comes the realisation, often too late, that this simply cannot be sustained and so leading to burnout in the ministry and a falling out from the ministry. And given what the apostle Paul has been urging upon young Timothy in the letter we have been looking at over the last few weeks; the high standards he expects with the call to keep pressing on in preaching the Gospel, being urgent when it is convenient and when it isn’t, as well as sorting out a myriad of problems in the local church, we might be tempted to think that Paul is expecting far too much. It may well be alright for Paul to be the ‘Uber-minister’ but what of the rest of us ‘mere mortals’?
But the wonderful thing about the last few paragraphs of this letter is that under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, Paul writes about apparently mundane matters like feeling the cold, being lonely, not having his favourite books to read, being let down by friends and getting ready for death- frail old man that he has now become- that we are almost moved to tears to see how mortal Paul really is. So if you are here this morning and think that ministry is only for ‘superstars’, then this is the passage which should disabuse you of such ideas once and for all.
So let us take a look at three aspects of Paul’s life which show us not only how the Christian life should be lived, but how it should end.
First of all we have the apostle’s humanity. There is a touching pathos in these last words of Paul as well as a simplistic beauty. There is no flourish of Churchillian rhetoric to round of his letter, no blatant self-promotion concerning his ‘legacy’, just a tender, open hearted appeal that if possible some of his basic needs might be met, as well as a sad, almost melancholic reflection on some crushing disappointments and yet a final witness to the Lord’s unfailing presence and support in the midst of loneliness and trial.
Take a look at verse 9, Paul urges Timothy, ‘Do your best to come quickly to me’ and again in verse 21, ‘Do your best to get here before winter’. Do you see how Paul misses Timothy and craves his company? He doesn’t relish the prospect of facing a cold, dark winter all alone. Sure, he knows Timothy has a task to perform -the well being of God’s church-and that takes precedent, but Paul is not a Stoic, he is not a product of the English public school system with its ‘stiff upper lip’, he is an old man who longs to see the smiling face of his spiritual son. Don’t you find that moving? After all, Paul had no children of his own-he wasn’t married as far as we can tell, but that didn’t mean he was entirely fatherless, for through the proclamation of the Gospel he gave birth to umpteen children- and especially his dear Timothy. And we know Paul was like a father in Timothy’s eyes for we were told in chapter 1 and verse 4, how Timothy simply broke down and wept when they were last together, presumably at the thought of never seeing Paul again. It was a special relationship.
Now one of the things I was told early on in my ministry was that it was never wise to form close relationships because you will be tempted to favouritism on the one hand and suffer disappointment on the other. Well, Paul wouldn’t have thought much of that advice. He knew that Gospel work is hard work, sometimes lonely work- but it should never be work done in isolation. Even Jesus had his twelve disciples and an inner ring of three he took with him into Gethsemane on the night of his greatest trial on earth. The fact is friendships in ministry are a precious thing. I can honestly say that one of the great blessings of being here at St Johns is that I belong to a leadership team whereby we feel we are friends; we actually enjoy each other’s company. You can’t keep people at a distance for fear of rejection or disappointment. Christian love, like any love, means we must be vulnerable. Here is C. S. Lewis: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” (The Four Loves). Of course he is right. And just how vulnerable Paul was we shall see in a moment.
But note some of the other tender aspects of Paul’s humanity. He wants Timothy to bring Paul’s cloak with him-v13, together with his books-‘the scrolls and parchments’. It would seem that Paul had been arrested at Troas (now the northern tip of the west coast of Turkey) and it was done in such haste that he didn’t have time to collect his cloak, a heavy woollen garment used by travellers in cold and rainy weather. Think how valuable that would be to Paul as he remains in a dark, damp underground cell in winter. And he just wants something to read- but not just anything. He doesn’t ask for ‘Readers Digest’ but the ‘scrolls’ which he then qualifies more precisely as ‘the parchments’. The fact that Paul uses the plural here suggests that he is talking about something more than the Scriptures themselves- although they would be included. Maybe they were Paul’s own notes on the Bible or even copies of some of the letters he had written that now form part of our Scriptures. You see, Paul, apostle though he is, needs to read the Scriptures, to think on them, to embrace them. This is not just a case of Paul being bored because they have confiscated his X-box! Paul wants to hear God’s voice, to know his pleasure, to feel his comfort and it is to the Scriptures that he turns. This is a tremendous encouragement to us not to give up on reading the Scriptures, but to keep on reading them and learning new things from them right to the end of our lives. Perhaps it’s just me that as I get older and become more aware of my own mortality, but does the concern cross your mind the mind that, say with the possibility of dementia, somehow we might lose our knowledge of Christ and that our trust in him might evaporate with it? Well, you may not have had that worry before this sermon but I have now given it to you to worry about! Two things need to be said. First, it is Christ’s grip on us rather than our hold on him that ultimately matters as Paul states very clearly at the end of Romans 8 that ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God’-including dementia. Secondly, I have noticed that those who have soaked their minds in Scripture over the years never seem to lose it. I can think of a man who in his mid fifties developed a brain tumour. Actually, he was a lay reader and home group leader in the church. As a result he started to do and say some very strange things, that’s how the tumour affected him. But the moment you started to pray with him- out came Scripture. But it only came out because he took the time to ensure that it first went in. And the great apostle knew that-that is why he wants the manuscripts. The apostle’s humanity.
Secondly we have the apostle’s disappointments and they are many.
For example verse 10: “Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.” Demas was once a valued member of Paul’s team, Colossians 4:14. “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas.” He is on a par with Luke no less! So why Had Demas thrown in the towel of Gospel work to go to Thessalonica? Because, we are told, he had fallen’ in love’. It could have been a woman, it could have been a career, but it whatever it was, it was a form of worldliness. Someone or something other than Christ had captured his heart. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing- but it had displaced the best thing- Christ and serving him. Can you even begin to imagine how gut wrenching that was for Paul? It would be like me receiving a letter on Wednesday morning from Scott saying that he had decided to go to London because he had been given a better offer working with Lloyds Bank. Unthinkinkable- I would hope. But then it was probably unthinkable for Paul at one time that Demas should fall out of ministry- but he did. And you know what? I have seen it happen time and time again: I have seen it with young people who had said ‘Yes’, they wanted to be doing Gospel work and started off with enthusiasm- but then the offer of a better job comes along, or a pretty face- and of course ‘after prayer’ they feel God is ‘calling’ them to something else- it is never a worse paid job though- and off they go and those left behind feel the disappointment but carry on regardless. I have seen it with older folk who when they were younger were committed to Christ and his people, but who allowed the once shining flame of their faith to dwindle into a smoldering flicker because other things have just crowded Jesus out. It is heartbreaking. That was Paul’s experience. That is what you see in ministry and Timothy needs to know it and so do we. Why? Two reasons- first so that we don’t allow it to happen to us- watch out for the signs. And secondly when it does happen to others and we see it, we don’t allow it to make us become cynical or bitter or to slow down ourselves. Because when you do see it happening to someone you have worked with and looked up to, it can easily derail you and God does not want that to happen to us. That is why we have the examples preserved for us here. Can you imagine having your name written down as a failure to avoid to be read by millions of people over 2,000 years? That’s what happened to Demas; pray that it won’t happen to us.
But sometimes, you know, in ministry you are left alone which is not necessarily anyone’s fault-but you still feel the loneliness and sense abandonment. Just think about some of these verses: v 11, ‘Luke alone is with me’, 21b “Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers.’ Luke had been Paul’s friend ( Col 4:14), physician (Col 4:14) and biographer- he wrote Acts. Eubulus and co are considered to be faithful enough to be included amongst Paul’s close circle which sends their greetings to Timothy. But then we read something quite breathtaking in verse 16 which makes us wonder how reliable even the best of the best are: “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them!” What does that tell us? Well, it tells us that when Paul was first brought to trial there was no one around. It could have been that some were sick (like Trophimus in v20). It could have been that they were on Gospel business elsewhere. But by saying ‘all deserted me’, does at least imply that the people Paul had hoped to be present chose not to be. Where are your friends when you need them most? The answer: nowhere to be seen.
Let me ask how do you respond when you feel let down by fellow Christians? How do you react when folk aren’t there for you? Let me tell you how many do react: they become bitter. They may or may not express that bitterness verbally on the outside, but it is there nonetheless gnawing away on the inside. You felt it was your right for the minister to be there when you were sick with worry; you expected others in the fellowship to be calling round at your house to sit with you when you had lost your job; you considered it obvious that at least someone close to you said a few words of encouragement when you were feeling crushed by what was happening to you in the home. But no one turned up and you simply can’t let go of those memories. Every time you meet them, the knowledge that when you needed them most they failed you rises to the surface again to sour any meaningful relationship you might otherwise have. Have such disappointments ever happened to you? I can’t recall the number of times it has happened to me. Well, it happened to Paul in bucket loads and the wonderful thing is there is not even a hint of resentment- just forgiveness- ‘may it not be held against them.’ Yes, maybe they should have been there, yes, in an ideal situation Paul should have had those dearest to him offering him moral support if not legal support, but he didn’t and he wasn’t going to allow whatever failure there may have been in his friends to permanently spoil any relationship he did have- what good would that do to the cause of the Gospel? And maybe you are here this morning and the Lord’s work as well as your own spiritual wellbeing is being hampered in you because you refuse to do that which Paul did- you refuse to forgive and move on. If so, now would be a great time to fix that. And if I am the one who wasn’t there for you when you hoped I would be, I would ask you would forgive me too.
Disappointment from friends and opposition from enemies- Paul knew and felt them all… deeply, v14, ‘Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message.’ What harm had he done to Paul? No one knows for sure, but it could be that he was the one who ratted on Paul to the Roman authorities which is why Paul now finds himself in prison, because the word used here in verse 14 weakly translated ‘did’ -me great harm, is a legal term from which we get our word ‘indictment’ – to ‘inform against’. Alexander wanted Paul out of the way and this is how he may have done it. Timothy is warned off him, so it could be that he was a professing Christian, but in reality he opposed the Gospel message. If you can’t get rid of the message, then get rid of the messenger. That is the way the devil works- subversion from within. Believe me this is one of the hardest things to take. That is when you will find bitterness and revenge hovering at the door of your heart, but not for Paul - he was willing to place the whole matter of judgement into God’s hands and leave it there.
And so we come to the apostle’s hope v17, ‘But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’
Let me ask you: can you imagine what thoughts might occupy the mind of a sixteen year old girl the night before she was to place her head on the executioners block? Let me read to you a letter written on such a night by Lady Jane Grey, the nine day Queen of England, and committed follower of Jesus Christ, written to her sister: ‘Be like the good servant, and even at midnight be waking lest, when death comes and steals upon you like a thief in the night, you be, with the evil servant, found sleeping; and lest, for lack of oil, you be found like the five foolish women; and like him that had not on the wedding garment; and then you be cast out from the marriage. Rejoice in Christ, as I do. Follow the steps of your Master Christ, and take up your cross: lay your sins on his back, and always embrace him. And as touching my death, rejoice as I do, good sister, that I shall be delivered of this corruption, and put on incorruption. For I am assured, that I shall, for losing of a mortal life, win an immortal life, the which I pray, God grant you, and send you of his grace to live in his fear, and to die in the true Christian faith, from which (in God’s name), I exhort you, that you never swerve, neither for hope of life, nor fear of death. For if you deny this his truth for to lengthen your life, God will deny you, and yet shorten your days. And if you will cleave to unto him, he will prolong your days, to your comfort and his glory: to which glory God bring me now, and you hereafter, when it pleases him to call you. Fare you well, my good sister, and put your trust in God, who only must help you.’ A sixteen year old girl, whose life ended as it began, confessing Christ and praying for her executioners. She knew exactly that what Paul wrote here was true. When she had no one else to stand beside her, as she groped to find her way to the executioner’s block because she was blindfolded- she had Christ. And the moment the axe severed her head from her body, the Christ she could only see with the eyes of faith, she then saw with new eyes, as she stood before him face to face embraced by his love. That is the Christian hope.
Friend there is going to come a moment for you when you will have to cross over the river of death and your minister, your family member or friend will not be able to be with you as you make that last, momentous journey. But what Paul is saying here is that you need not make that journey alone, there is one who is not only able to accompany you, but willing to do it. But the final journey with Christ cannot take place unless you have begun a present journey with him. Yes, he is aware of your humanity. Yes, he will be aware of your disappointments. But what he offers to you in his divinity is a relationship that will never disappoint and which is full of hope and certainty for the future. All you have to do is surrender everything to him now even as we pray.
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