Sunday, 23 October 2011

On the gospel and suffering for the gospel

2 Timothy 2:1-7
2 Timothy 2:1-7

A prayer: 'Father God, help us to think about this passage with our mind and heart, and give us, we pray, that which you promise: true understanding. Amen'

Paul, in prison for his faith and facing imminent execution, writes to Timothy, his apprentice.

He gives Timothy this final charge. But it is not just to Timothy. It is to any minister of the gospel. It is to the church.

The Church has been entrusted with a message. It is a message about Jesus Christ (we read it in v8: that the Galilean carpenter was the eternal son of God, that he died and rose again; that he is Saviour and Lord); and it is that in Jesus we preach repentance from sins for forgiveness, new life, justice, hope and peace.

Paul, in these 2 little letters, urges Timothy to guard this message, to preach this message and – here – to pass on this message.

It is an open message: 'What you heard from me in the presence of many witnesses'. Nothing is hidden (cf the gnostics; secret clubs with secret knowledge); and it is plain.
And just like a runner with the baton in a relay race, so Paul has handed the message to Timothy, so Timothy is to entrust the message to the next generation.

This message can be declared in prose, poetry, parable. It can be whispered, spoken, acted, sung, danced, shouted. It doesn't matter. What matters is that it is THE message of Jesus Christ that is passed on.

And Paul warns Timothy that this gospel task involves suffering.

Paul knew all about suffering. He is in prison facing execution.
Why? What awful crime has he committed? Theft, murder; has he incited rebellion against the Roman authorities?
Far from it. Paul is in prison because he persists in proclaiming the message that Jesus is the Christ, God's anointed ruler.

And so, in v9, he talks of suffering for the gospel.

If we look at this sociologically, Paul suffers because he proclaims that Jesus is Lord – and that, of course, is a challenge to anyone or anything else which claims ultimate allegiance of our life – whether a political authority, a person or a custom.
But if we look at this theologically, he suffers because the world is hostile to God, and it wihosted its anyone who comes in the name of God.

So Paul prepares Timothy for the suffering which lies ahead. It is part of being a Christian. 2 Tim 3:12 tells us that if we wish to live a godly life we will be persecuted. It is part of the work of preaching the message of Jesus.

But Paul points out that suffering for something is not unique to the Christian. He reminds Timothy of three people who suffer in different ways
1. The soldier
Prepared to put up with astonishing hardship, to face physical pain for the sake of the war of the commanding officer. The soldier is focussed on his task. He does not get entangled in civilian affairs: it is pointed out that those who are about to go over the trenches do not complain about the taste of the coffee, or the fact that the beds are hard. They want to know whether they can trust their c/o, [whether their weapons will work, whether they know what they've got to do] and whether they will live or die.

Of course we live in the world: there is a time for making the living conditions, the trenches, a bit more attractive or more comfortable. But – taking the example a bit further -we are not to forget that this is a trench. It is not home. As Christian believers we live in enemy occupied territory, and our task is to both suffer like soldiers and to fight for our commanding officer who desires its liberation.
2. The athlete
Elsewhere Paul uses the example of the athlete as the person who disciplines their body, and who perseveres to the end.
Here he talks of the athlete as someone who suffers because he competes according to the rules. In other words Paul is saying here that we will suffer because we seek to live according to divine rules and not human rules.

And that means that we fight with weapons of truth, love and service and self-sacrifice.
So, for example, when we are reviled, we do not revile back. We bless our enemies, and we do good to those who persecute us
The only offensive weapon that we have is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. We do not fight by taking up the sword. We fight by preaching Jesus. We fight by spending time in prayer.

3. The hardworking farmer.
They suffer because they get up early in the morning, work physically hard, and go to bed late at night.
And this is a call to anyone who would be a minister of the gospel: to work hard.

But in using these three examples of people who suffer in order to stiffen Timothy's backbone, Paul is also encouraging him:
The soldier suffers to please his commanding officer. It is relational. How much more should we be prepared to suffer for our Lord and Saviour.

The athlete suffers in order to win the prize. How much more should we suffer to earn the prize, the 'well done good and faithful servant' of our master; the prize of eternal life.

The farmer suffers in order to share in the harvest. How much more should we suffer for the joy of seeing men and women come to know God, of becoming citizens of heaven, of sharing in forgiveness and the holy spirit and of the hope of heaven.

Finally, there is a danger that we try to do all this in our own strength, and so one final thought from the passage.
In verse 1 Paul writes, 'Be strong in the grace that is yours in Christ Jesus'. In other words God has already given you the strength to do this. You're not being asked to grit your teeth and go for it – like going to the dentist. We have one beside us, who has already strengthened us. We turn to him for strength.

Friday, 14 October 2011

on God's love for you

Paul gives thanks to God for the believers in Thessalonika
He encourages them to stand firm
And he prays that they and he might have ‘eternal encouragement’ and be strengthened in every good work and deed.

Because they are loved by God.
He says it twice in a very few verses.
v13 ‘brothers and sisters loved by the Lord’
v16, ‘God our Father, who loved us’.

God is love.
God created a world not because he needed to, but as an expression of his love.
And God created you and he loves you.
He loves you whether you love him or not. Indeed, we are told that the love of God is shown in this: that he loves us long before we loved him.
John 3:16
Romans 5:8
That is very good news, because if God’s love for us was dependent on our love for God, we would be in trouble.

God loves you. You are not the product of blind forces of chance, or of physical regularities, which were catapulted into existence by a mindless big bang. You are not living in a universe which is a slave to the little law of evolution (the survival of the fittest) and the big law of entropy (that one day everything will break down into nothingness). You are part of something that has been deliberately shaped, a creation, by a God who is love.
And because God loves you, you matter. You matter eternally.

Of course at one level that is what we want to hear. We want to hear that we are loved. And there is a danger that the good news of Christianity that we preach is simply a message that says to people: ‘God loves you, so you are OK’

But that is not the love of God.
Because God loves you, ‘he has chosen you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit’.

Because God loves you, he is not prepared to see you or me remain as we are.

We have cut ourselves off from God by living as if we are the centre of the universe.
We thought about this a couple of weeks ago:
We live in me-centred universes. We live as if it is all about me: my comfort, my holiday, my pension, my stuff, my family, my country. And if there is a God, or a force out there, who we say, ‘loves me’, then we think that means he simply exists to make me happier or more fulfilled or more content. And when he doesn’t come up with the goods, we decide – in our self-centred arrogance – that either he does not exist, or he does not love me.

God loves you. And because he loves you, he is not prepared to put up with you or me as we have become. He looks at us as we live me-centred lives, as we try to grab the never-never, as we destroy this planet, as we destroy each other, and as we destroy ourselves. We need to be saved, and because God loves you, he is going to save you.

God loves you. He is the ultimate jealous lover. God could never be OK with the so-called ‘open marriage’. He is not content for us to be like a faithless husband or wife, carrying on an affair with someone else.
Because he loves you, he is not prepared to share you with anyone or anything. He is not prepared to share you with something that will ultimately let you down, because he knows that only he will never let you down; he is not prepared to let us settle for anything less than complete truth, and absolute beauty and perfect love, and he is complete truth, and nothing or nobody is as beautiful as him, and nothing and nobody can love us as he can.

It is a frightening, but an awesome thing, to allow oneself to be brought into the hands of a God who loves you.

And Paul speaks of how he has a glorious destiny for us. ‘That you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love’. Because God loves you, his plan is that you should become like his Son Jesus, and that you should share in his glory.

So God, in his love calls us to him. He calls us by means of the message of the gospel (v14). Gospel simply means good news. And the good news is the message of Jesus Christ: that Jesus was God’s son, that because we were lost in the my-centred world, he came among us and lived a totally God-centred life, even though it meant he would be crucified. He died for us; he rose from the dead and is alive; He is in heaven now, and with us by his Spirit; and one day he will return (the book of Thessalonians is about that). The good news is that through faith and trust in Jesus, our sins are forgiven, we can begin to change and become like him, and by faith and the work of the Holy Spirit, we can stop being me-centred and begin to become God-centred. The good news is that our eternal destiny is glory with him.

The birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s love dance for you; the good news of Jesus is God’s love song for you.
It is the song of a parent for a lost child, calling them back home.
It is the song the father of the prodigal son sang each night as he prayed his son home.
It is the song of the lover for the faithless beloved.

It is the invitation to stop jiggling by ourselves, and to begin to really dance with him.
It is the invitation to share a life with God of utter intimacy and love and overwhelming joy. We catch tiny glimpses of that here and now; we will fully know it then.

The problem is that although God has called, has sung the song to us, we are like little children when they think they are going to be asked to do something they do not want to do (like go to bed). They put their fingers in their ears, and they sing their own song loudly. We block out the message.

But God loves us, and so – and this is for those who have ears to hear: if you hear what I am saying then you are blessed indeed – because he loves us, he removes our fingers from our ears, and we begin to hear. And we realize that the very fact that we are hearing the message is because he loves us: ‘Because God chose you to be saved’.

In other words, when we answer his invitation to dance by joining in that dance; when we answer his song of love with our song of love, we realize that it is actually his Spirit dancing in us; his Spirit singing in us.

God loves you. That is why Paul urges his readers to stand firm in that love – not a ‘there, there, everything’s OK’ paracetamol kind of love; but a fiery jealous life transforming love. A love that was crucified for us, and which asks us to crucify ourselves for him – so that we might share in his glory.

God loves you. Not even time and death can separate you from his love (there are very close similarities between these verses and Romans 8:28-30). This is our hope; this is our eternal encouragement.

So I pray with Paul that we may know the encouragement of the Holy Spirit now, and in the awareness of the overwhelming, life transforming love of God, be strengthened in every good deed and word.