We’re going to return today to Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Remember that Paul thinks of Timothy as his spiritual son in the faith. They have spent a lot of time together travelling throughout Asia and Europe. So, they are quite close as men of faith.
Because they are so close, Paul feels an obligation to teach Timothy how to faithfully live the Christian life. If you recall, last week, Paul encouraged Timothy to live with persistence. In today’s message Paul encourages Timothy to live with assurance. To look at that, we are going to turn to 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. Paul is in an interesting place in his life that he begins to talk about in verses 6 (NIV) where Paul writes:
Paul indicates that he is approaching a departure. But what kind of departure is he talking about. It’s not a departure from prison or from the city where he is currently ministering. He’s talking about departing this world to be with God. He believes that is death is imminent.
As he thinks about that possibility, he reflects on his life as he has lived it in faithful service to God. He sees his life in terms of an athletic event. In 2 Timothy 4:7 (NIV) we read: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Was his life a fight? You bet it was! It was a struggle. Paul had dealt with more hardship than most of us will ever see. As part of the vanguard of the Christian Church, he had been a special target of Satan, the object of much ridicule and suffering. His life had been a fight with many battles against those who would deny Christ.
He had fought the good fight but was it a race? Certainly! It was race in a physical sense because he was always trying to keep one step ahead of those who would persecute him. Any long distance runner knows that every race has its times of joy and its times of sorrow. There are times when you have boundless energy and feel like you can go forever and there are times when you wonder how you are ever going to go one more single solitary step. It was also a spiritual race because there were all kinds of obstacles, twists and turns on the road that could have led him away from Jesus. But he has not wandered away and has stayed the course. He can see that as he is nearing the end of his life.
Paul fought the good fight. Certainly he finished the race. But had he kept the faith? Undoubtedly! Paul, as the first great evangelist of the Christian Church was as faithful as anyone could possibly be. He tirelessly travelled throughout the Roman Empire sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with whoever would listen to him. He founded church congregations, not in big buildings like we have today but small independent house churches where Christ followers met on a regular basis to worship God and break bread together. He did all of this under the constant threat of persecution, suffering and imprisonment. Is it possible to find a more faithful person than Paul? That would be a difficult task.
Then in the next verse, we read about Paul’s hope. Listen to what he writes in 2 Timothy 4:8 (NIV): “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day – and not only me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Do you understand what that means? Do you understand the significance of the crown of righteousness?
The image of the crown was a well known image in the early Church. Sure, it had the general secular meaning of the crowns that were worn by the rulers of the day. Those crowns were signs and symbols of wealth and power. But then there’s the other meaning of the word crown – the spiritual meaning. In James 1:12 (NIV) and Revelation 2:10 (NIV) it is described as a crown of life. In 1 Peter 5:4 (NIV) it is referred to as a crown of glory. From 1 Corinthians 9:25 (NIV) we learn that it is incorruptible and that it will last forever.
The crown that Paul is talking about, of course, is an image of the salvation that is given to all those who put their faith in Jesus Christ. This is the crown of righteousness that Paul is writing about to Timothy. And the amazing thing about this is that Paul writes that he is absolutely sure that he will receive this crown, that he will receive the reward of his faith which is eternal life. He says that, “God will award me on that day…” He doesn’t say, “God might award me,” or, “God may award me,” or, I think that maybe, if God’s in a good mood, that he’ll reward me.” He says, “God will award me.” He is rock solid certain about his relationship with Jesus Christ and the salvation that is his through faith.
That’s a pretty heady declaration for those of us who are perhaps a little more human than Paul appears to be. Most of us would say that we have trouble with that level of certainty, that we harbour doubts and uncertainties, that we aren’t always absolutely, totally sure of everything that has to do with faith.
If that describes you, then welcome to the jungle. Guess what? Most of go through times like that. Most of us will struggle with times of doubt and uncertainty. And do you want to know something interesting? Paul did too. Now you’re thinking, “Pastor Kim, what are you talking about? Paul was one of the pillars of the faith. He was so sure, so certain. He had it all together. What are you talking about when you say that he struggled too?”
The Bible tells us that Paul also went through his faith struggles. He lived through times of doubt just like the rest of us. In fact, Paul referred to those struggles in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8 (NIV) where he writes, “To keep my from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.” But God would not take it away. Paul was tormented and, when he was, I’m sure there were times when he wondered, “Okay, God, what gives here? Why is this so hard? I don’t deserve this.”
Just like the rest of us, Paul went through struggles of faith. He had to deal with times of doubt. That doesn’t mean that he was any less certain that he would receive the crown of his salvation. It means, rather, that he was certain of it despite his doubts.
WHAT’S REALLY IMPORTANT
It’s like hockey fans. Maybe Toronto Maple Leaf fans. Every year, at the beginning of the season, they’re sure that this will be the year when their team will finally win the Stanley Cup. They think about 1967 when the Leafs had people like Davey Keon, Frank Mahovlich and Ron Ellis. Brian Conacher and Eddie Shack were on that team. So was Tim Horton before he started making donuts. Johnny Bower was between the pipes. Those were the good old days. Then came expansion and the subsequent fifty-fife year drought of Lord Stanley’s mug.
But every year, Leaf fans think this will be the year. They look at my Montreal Canadiens who has won ten Cups since 1967. They look at the Detroit Red Wings who have won four Cups in the twelve years. And I’m sure they think, if they can do it so can we. And then the season starts.
This year is exactly the same. The Leafs are playing pretty good hockey. They have a decent record. And fans are once again excited. But the truth is that so are other fans. We all think that our teams look better and that they have a real chance this year. Despite fifty-five years of disappointments, they keep on believing. And I actually have a lot of respect for that. That level of loyalty is impressive.
And please understand I’m not dumping on Leaf fans. I’m saying this to make a point and here it is. Why is it that people will continue to support their favourite sports teams through decades of disappointment but when God lets someone down just once, they often turn from God who they believe has failed them? Why is that?
I often hear people who have given up on God because they don’t believe that God has answered their prayers or because God has let something bad happen to them. Maybe they got sick. Maybe that illness is fatal. Maybe someone they loved died a horrible death. Maybe their child took a wrong turn and got messed up with drugs or gangs or some other crime. Maybe they lost their job or took some other unexpected financial hit. These things may happen over the course a months or weeks or even days. And they give up on God because of their doubts and their disappointments. Why is it that it is so hard to keep believing in God but so easy to keep believing in the Maple Leafs or the Canadiens or the Red Wings?
Believe it or not, I think I know the answer to that question. Here’s what I think. I think it’s because, at the end of the day, hockey and other sports really aren’t all that important. Sure, sports is fun and it can be exciting. But let’s keep this in perspective. Sports is was only a game. It’s entertainment. And the Stanley Cup is only a worldly prize made by human hands.
Faith, however, is something far more significant. It touches the very recesses of our souls at the deepest places. In the end, who really cares who wins the Stanley Cup or the Grey Cup or the World Series? Who really cares? It makes absolutely no difference to anything that’s really important in life. No one lies on their death bed and wonders who the MVP was in the 2021 Stanley Cup final. They probably couldn’t even tell you the teams that played. But they will wonder if they are right with God. They will wonder if they’re going to heaven. They’ll wonder what awaits them on the other side and if God will place an imperishable crown on their heads. That’s the really important stuff.
FOCUSING ON GOD’S ACTIONS
So, here’s the next question. Why is it that Paul could continue to have that unshakable faith when so many of us find our faith floundering? The answer is that it is because Paul focused not on what God didn’t do. He concentrated on what God did do. 2 Timothy 4:16-17 (NIV) says this, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. 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.”
Paul references a previous time when he was imprisoned and obviously in trouble for sharing the Gospel. He says that two things happened. The first thing is that all of his human support evaporated. We don’t know who promised him what but we do know that they didn’t follow through. Not one person stood by him. He says that everyone deserted him. Everyone. Even though that happened, however, he is not going to hold their behaviour against them. No doubt he understands their fear. Who wants to be associated with a guy in prison? It’s a great way of finding yourself there too.
But then Paul says something else. He says that in those times of trouble the Lord stood by him and gave him strength. Everyone else may have deserted him. His friends, his family, his brothers and sisters in the faith may have left him to his own devises. But God never left him. God never deserted him. God was with him there all the time.
Did he always feel God’s presence? Probably not. Remember that he must have had times of doubt. He had to. He was only human. But Paul figures out something very important. He figures out that just because he didn’t feel God’s presence, that doesn’t mean that God was not there. Remember that.
Even if we don’t feel God’s presence that does not mean that God is not there. That’s because God is greater than our feelings. He’s not controlled by our feelings and neither should we be.
Think of it this way; do you know if there is someone sitting in the pew behind you this morning? Maybe you know. Maybe you talked to them before worship began. Maybe they’re the same people who always sit behind you. Or maybe they’re not. Maybe there was someone behind you but they had to leave a few minutes ago and you don’t even know it. Here’s the point, does you’re feeling that there is someone there or not there really have any impact on whether or not someone is actually there? Of course it doesn’t. There is either someone there or there is not. Whether you feel that they are there isn’t the question. Whether you sense their presence has absolutely no bearing on the facts. There is either someone there or there is not. It’s a question of fact, not a question of feeling.
Paul knows that God is there because he experiences God’s presence. When everyone else deserted him, God did not. When everyone else left him, God stayed by his side. He writes that God gave him strength so that he was able to fully proclaim the Gospel message to the Gentiles who held him in prison. And he writes that God delivered him from the lion’s mouth. By the way, he may have meant that literally because it was as Paul neared the end of his life that the Romans started feeding Christians to the lions in the Colosseum as a form of entertainment.
Paul could focus on the thorn in his side. He could focus on the times when God felt absent and seemed to let him down. But he doesn’t do that. He concentrates on the times when God delivered him from the lion’s mouth and gave him the strength and the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. Paul doesn’t concentrate on what God didn’t do. He focused on what God did do.
Do you think that there might be a lesson in there for us? I think so. I know that we all go through struggles. I know that we all go through times of doubt. I know that we all go through times when if feels like God just doesn’t care or God isn’t listening. In those times, it is important to get our minds off of the negative stuff and focus on the positive times when we were absolutely sure of God’s presence because God was so clearly active in our lives that we just can’t deny it. That’s where you need to concentrate. That’s where you find the kind of assurance that Paul has.
The final thing that Paul writes is quite important for all of us to hear and understand. It’s why Paul could live with such assurance during his life. In 2 Timothy 4:18 (NIV) he writes, “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.”
What Paul is saying here is that because God showed himself to be faithful in his life, Paul also knows that God will be faithful when his earthly life is over. He can look back at his life and see where God made a difference. He can see where God acted. He can see when God had rescued him. And he has absolutely no reason to believe that that will change. God will be just as active and just as faithful in the afterlife as God has been in his mortal life. Just as God did not desert him in this life, Paul is certain that God will not desert him in the grave.
The crown of righteousness will be his. That is God’s promise. And it is all possible because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross. He gave himself to die for our sins. He defeated death and rose again for our salvation. He ascended to heaven where he is even now preparing a place for all those who know him as Saviour and seek to put their faith and their hope in him. That is God’s rock solid promise and in that promise we too can have absolute assurance. With God’s help, it is all possible.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Gracious God, hear our prayers and in your love answer. Your glory fills the skies and thunders from within the mountains. Your Word breaks forth, cleansing the earth with healing and delight. How mighty are your works. How generous are the gifts of Creation. How great is your capacity to forgive and make new.
We thank you for what you have made. From the gentle touch of a kittens fur to the gracious might of Victoria falls, your hand has made it all. We thank you that as our Heavenly Father you show us love beyond measure.
We thank you for Jesus, your son, who gave his life on the Cross to save us from our sin and to open the gates of Heaven. By faith in him and his resurrection, we are able to enter eternal life. We honour you for his sacrifice and his holy love for all creatures.
We pray for the people of Ukraine as they continue their struggle against the oppressor. Give them your strength. Give them the strength of the international community. We pray most of all for a just resolution to this conflict and an end to aggression.
Open our ears, O God, so that we may listen with humility to what our sisters and brothers around the world would say. Remind us that we do not have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit. Keep us open to your Word in Christ as it breaks in around us every moment.
We pray for those who are sick. We remember especially Mark, Carol, Ron, Rachel and Hazel. Work your loving ointment into their wounds and bring them ‑ and all of us ‑ your peace.
Like the balm of Gilead, soothe our aching lives and bring us healing. Whatever our infirmities, whatever our fears, whatever our hurts or pain, make us whole. Heal our minds, our bodies, our spirit, our broken relationships. Keep us mindful of your call to us to love all people unselfishly and completely as Jesus loves us. Gracious God, hear our prayers and in your love answer. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
October 23, 2022 / Pentecost 21 / Proper 25
Joel 2:23‑32; Psalm 65; Luke 18:9‑14; 2 Timothy 4: 6‑8, 16‑18
CALL TO WORSHIP
We give you praise and honour, O God;
because you have been faithful to your vows.
The burden of our sin was too great for us;
but you took away our brokenness and guilt.
Blessed are those who come into your presence.
Blessed are those who worship and call upon your holy name.
God of Creation, you visit the earth and nourish it. By your hand the trees bear fruit. The waters of Heaven brim over to provide grain from the fields. The pastures are clothed with herds and flocks. The hillsides and the valleys shout your joy. How great is your compassion! You are faithful to your promises to save and redeem us. We praise you and give you thanks for your presence and your love.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
The Tax Collector came to you in humility for he realized his own sinfulness. We come, also, with a knowledge of our sin. We have turned away. We have not done what you have called us to do. And we have done those things which you have asked us not to do. By our own actions and choices we have separated ourselves from you and from one another. Hear our confessions, O God of Mercy, and once again forgive us.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
If we say that we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and there is not truth in us. Be assured that God hears our confessions and forgives all those who humbly repent. May God be praised forever.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We give our gifts to you who gave your life for us. We offer them at your Table and ask that you make us worthy to receive the gifts that you so generously give to us.
In brokenness we came to find healing from our sin. Let us depart in joy and with the assurance that Christ walks beside us and blesses us beyond our understanding.