Lectionary Sermon for Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18   The Seeming Loser Who Wins

When we read Paul’s letters to Timothy, we need to remember these verses of Scripture come to us from a man writing from prison.  The man, Paul, is in prison not because he was bad, but because he was faithful to God.  He is in prison for his commitment to Jesus.

Likely, every one of us in the room will end up confined in some way, in a prison.  Not a prison of stone and steel with guards of flesh and blood, but prisons with limitations, frustrations, fear, or loneliness. Prisons of sickness, age, pain, broken relationships, or social limitations.  These prisons can confine us, punish us, and would push us to despair, grief, and even hopelessness.

When we find ourselves in such situations, we can become bitter, angry, and resentful.  As we read the words of the apostle Paul, his lament lets us know he has every reason to be bitter, angry, and resentful.  Sometimes such reasons can also be from the enemy. This can lead us to focus our anger at whoever or whatever we believe has brought us to such a situation.

Who could blame Paul if he was angry with God?  He had been faithful. He had been committed. He had been bold and steadfast and what did it get him? It brought him pain, rejection, betrayal, and now prison.

Yet, the words of this passage are not words of despair. They are not words of defeat, bitterness, or hopelessness. As with all true lament, it speaks of its grief, anger, and pain, and then turns to hope.

Paul is not saying, Oh poor me.  Instead, the words Paul uses are hope, accomplishment, victory, and celebration.   How can Paul do this?  What is the source of Paul’s strength?  It comes from his faith, from his relationship with God. It is not something Paul bought, caught, inherited, or earned. It is a gift that grows as we seek the will of God.

Listen to Paul’s words, “I am being poured out like a sacrifice.” In the Old Testament, a drink offering was said to be a sweetness before the Lord. Paul knows the Lord is not the reason for his suffering. Paul knows God is aware of his suffering. Paul accepts there is power in his suffering.

Paul does not expect God to send angels, earthquakes (though God did once do that for Paul) plagues, or any other supernatural force to free him. He even prays that those who abandoned him be forgiven (verse 16).

Paul knows what this world is and does. Paul embraced his faith in Jesus knowing full well that to do so would bring him this kind of trouble. After all, before Paul encountered Jesus he sought to make Jesus’s followers’ lives miserable.

Now to be fully honest, following Jesus does not mean you will escape problems. Following Jesus does not mean things will go well. It is not a cure for depression. It is not a promise of health and wealth. It is not protection from pain. God never, ever has promised an easy way for those who believe.

In the book of Job, Job, who was called a good and faithful man, a friend of God by God himself faced as many difficulties, and as much pain as any person could ever face in life.  God did not immediately interfere. When Job was in one of the hardest times in his life, he faced a call tempting him to give up on God.  Job’s response, “Will we receive good from God but not also receive bad?” (Job 2:10 CEB)

How can someone do this? The Bible is filled with stories of people who do this. Some people say this proves

God does not exist or God does not care. Not so, in fact, it proves just the opposite. The only reason anyone could face these kinds of challenges is if God is with them. God is enabling them. God is strengthening them. God gives life.

The Bible is very clear; the reality is that this life is not an easy life.  God never promises anything different. Jesus warned us that following God would be like carrying a cross.  But Scripture also said, Be strong! Be fearless! Don’t be afraid and don’t be scared by your enemies, because the LORD your God is the one who marches with you. He won’t let you down, and he won’t abandon you. (Deut. 31:6 CEB)

And, “After all, he has said, I will never leave you or abandon you” with the response being, “This is why we can confidently say, The Lord is my helper, and I won’t be afraid. What can people do to me? (Heb. 13:5-6 CEB) And

Jesus himself says to us, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matt. 28:20 CEB)

You see, those who draw near to God, who seek God, who live for God, know that whatever we go through in life, God goes with us, and faithfulness and commitment are more rewarding than anything this life offers us.

Why, why is this so? Because there will come a day in which the material treasures of this world will not have meaning.  The only real treasure is the relationship we have with our creator and with those who are part of the unity (not uniformity) this relationship creates. Listen again to verse 8.

This does not sound like a man who has failed. This does not sound like a man with little hope. This does not sound like a man who has been abandoned. This is a song of victory. These are the words of a man who understands what comes next and is already being experienced now, a community of love. A reward that is promised to us.

We live in an age in which many people have little time for God. For many people, God is a push “in case of an emergency” button. Too many people only turn to God, only care about God, when they have exhausted their own resources. And then, if God does help, too many people quickly forget and once again put God on the back burner of their lives.

Paul has called out to God. And even though Paul has been abandoned by many, Paul knows God is always there. Paul knows that what he is going through will show others how to be strong in weakness, how to be confident in vulnerability, and how to see beyond circumstances with eyes of trust, faith, and commitment. As Paul states in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, “I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18 CEB)

Paul tells us He and God had a talk and God told him, “My grace is enough for you because power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9 CEB)

God will make us perfect in our weakness if we are open to accepting the relationship Jesus offers us and allow the Spirit of God to lead us toward the perfecting of our faith.

There was a man who asked his wife how many perfect men there are in the world.  The wife replied one less than you do.  No, we will never be perfect, but we can be perfected

The words that Paul writes to Timothy are intended to not only encourage and build the faith of Timothy but for everyone who reads these words. Whatever we face embraced by the faith God grants to those who seek the divine, we will not be overcome. It will be worth it.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9 ESV)

It is easy to grow weary.  It can be easy to give up, especially when our relationship with God is stagnated or merely a religion of rules and rituals. But let us remember, “but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.” (Isa. 40:31 CEB)

What about you? Can you say with Paul, I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith?” (2 Tim. 4:7 CEB) If not, perhaps it is time to rearrange your life’s values, goals, and choices so that you can.

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