(The text of the sermon follows the outline of what I preach but may differ in details or wording.)
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
I’m already being poured out like a sacrifice to God, and the time of my death is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. 8 At last the champion’s wreath that is awarded for righteousness is waiting for me. The Lord, who is the righteous judge, is going to give it to me on that day. He’s giving it not only to me but also to all those who have set their heart on waiting for his appearance.
16 No one took my side at my first court hearing. Everyone deserted me. I hope that God doesn’t hold it against them! 17 But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that the entire message would be preached through me and so all the nations could hear it. I was also rescued from the lion’s mouth! 18 The Lord will rescue me from every evil action and will save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and always. Amen.
“Confidence in the Midst of Life”
Difficult times seem to bring out the need to say something. Sometimes our words can be a great comfort to others, and sometimes they can be a thorn that irritates the heart. The latter are often referred to as platitudes – truisms intended to minimize another person’s struggles. You know what they sound like … “This will pass”; “The sun will come out tomorrow” (Annie); “It’s all for the best.” Often these words are spoken by someone who is not experiencing or has not experienced the depth of what you are going through. They are well intentioned but do little to bring peace of mind and heart.
Pauls’ letter to Timothy is coming at a point in Paul’s life when he knows his end is near. Paul has had much to say thus far in the letter, but as it is reaching its end he reveals the deepest urgency of his letter – his impending death. Verse 6 makes it abundantly clear. “I’m already being poured out like a sacrifice to God, and the time of my death is near. He knows the worst. He’s been in prison many times, and this time has been harder than any of the others. He has endured many beatings, and now he is so aware of his isolation. I ask, have you heard the depression of a person about to die in the rest of this letter? No! His words are of encouragement and guidance.
“In the midst of life” Paul is showing his confidence. Paul has been “deserted.” In verse 16 Paul says, “No one took my side at my first court hearing. Everyone deserted me.” He paints a picture of standing alone in this sentence. Paul has been hurt deeply by someone names Alexander, 4:14. He hints at the hurt by warning Timothy to be careful of him “because he opposes our teaching.” Paul is facing his own immanent death. Yet, there is no hint of fear or bitterness. About being deserted, he says, “Everyone deserted me. I hope God does not hold it against them!” Regarding Alexander he lets go of the hurt by saying, “The Lord will pay him back for what he has done.” Paul even closes this section with the amazing doxology, “To Him (the Lord) be the glory forever and always. Amen.” I am reminded of the hymn “A Might Fortress.” It includes the words “The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still.” No matter what happens God will triumph.
So, what do we do when we are faced with difficulties in the midst of life. I would offer us three lessons from Paul.
First, focus on the reliable one – God. Recall God’s faithfulness. This is something we hear from Paul frequently. He always pointed to God’s mighty work in his life, and his relation to that mighty work. Ask yourself, “When is a time when the Lord stood by my side? How does that encourage me today?” When have you felt the “advocate” speaking up for you? When we focus on what God has done and is doing for us and with us our lives will stay the course.
I’ve been cutting a lot of sheet rock over that last 5 years. I have noticed something remarkable as I am drawing the blade of my drywall knife along the line I have drawn. If I look at the result of the cut, looking behind the point of the knife, I tend to wander and the cut veers from the line. If I look ahead to the line yet to be cut, I tend to wander and the cut veers from the line. But if I focus only in the point of the knife, where it is cutting right at that moment, my cut stays true to the line.
In the midst of life, when things get tough, if I keep my focus on God, my rock and my redeemer, my life stays true to the line God has drawn for me. When my life stays true God has the clear opening to shine in the midst of that life. When my focus gets fixated on the problems I am facing, I can effectively block out the efforts of God to bless and redeem the situation.
Second, be aware of our selves – take our spiritual temperature and adjust accordingly. Where am I standing right at this moment in relation to our amazing God. Am I walking close in my relationship with God? Have I stumbled a bit, is there a mistake that is haunting me? Am I coasting with no real effort to stay close to God? One of my favorite “temperature readings” is asking myself, “How have I seen God at work lately.” If I have to think too long, or my mind goes to something more than a month old then I am not living very intentionally. I haven’t been watching for what God is doing. Again, it is not judging ourselves – condemning ourselves - but taking our spiritual temperature. In Romans 12:3 Paul advises us, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Here in his letter to Timothy, Paul is taking stock when he talks about fighting the good fight, keeping the faith. He’s not bragging, merely taking stock. In effect he is saying, “Lord, I feel close to you. We are walking this road together. Thank you for being my constant companion.”
Not so long ago we read in 1 Corinthians 15:8, where Paul is speaking about the appearances of Jesus to the disciples and to others, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he [Christ] appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” Remind yourself that you are of the “redeemed of the Lord.” Remind yourself that God honors a life that is offered to him – with all its imperfections. It is not that we are to be perfect, but we are to be doing our best to follow. In our following God is the faithful one to lift us up. Paul talks about it in reference to “the champions wreath … is waiting for me.” (Verse 8)
Finally, put the outcomes of life fully in God’s hands. We are called to trust that God has our best interests at heart. We are to trust that God has a better view of everything that we do. In a classic old hymn, Day by Day by Linda Sandell, the words go like this:
Day by Day and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here.
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best –
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.
Paul lived that kind of trust. When he spoke of his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12 he reminds us of God’s statement to him: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” Be aware of your weakness, you limited ability to control anything in this life. Then rely on God’s strength to get you through. Do you remember the scene where Paul and Barnabas are in prison? They are chained to the wall. Everything looks bleak. They have been arrested for doing what God has called them to do. So, what do they do during their imprisonment? Do they plot how to escape? Do they bemoan their situation? No, they sing songs to God. Their songs praise God. And what happens? There is an earthquake that shakes the prison, the fly doors open, the chains fall off. Paul and Barnabas are trusting in God for whatever is next, even if they have no idea what that is. Our prison doors open and chains fall off when we remember 2 Timothy 4:18 – “The Lord will rescue me from every evil action and will save me for his heavenly kingdom.” Spiritually we can never be defeated! We could even lose our life to the powers of evil – as Paul is about to do – but he knows who holds the future, and he know who holds his hand.
Our confidence in the midst of life comes from maintaining our focus on the one who truly gives life.