Handle With Care – Sermon on 2 Timothy 2:8-15

10/13/2019

Words can be dangerous. We have to handle them with care. Here’s an example: On Tuesday, I had heard that one of our members had been hurt falling off a ladder. When I called to check on him, he assured me he had done no such thing. It’s easy for rumors to spread misinformation like this. Idle chitchat can have major consequences. 

Here’s another one: Last Sunday, I announced my retirement in 2020. By Sunday afternoon, there was a rumor that Bruce and I plan to move to the east coast after I retire. I’m not sure where that one came from. We are not making any plans to move to the east coast! Rumors can get pretty interesting, can’t they? We have to handle our words with care.

And sometimes, when we are dealing with words in the Bible, we run into trouble because it can be tricky translating an idea from one language into another that has no word for that idea. When you add in the problems that come with translating an ancient culture’s language into today’s terms, it gets even worse. Words don’t mean the same thing they did even a hundred years ago, let alone 2000 years ago.

It’s hard to know which interpretation of these ancient words we call scripture is the best interpretation. It’s hard to know who to trust. Next week, we will read that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16) but how do we know if a particular version of that scripture accurately represents what God was breathing then, as it applies to us now?

Words can be dangerous. We have to handle them with care. This is what Paul’s ‘last will and testament’ is talking about in today’s reading from Second Timothy.

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, so that they may also obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.
The saying is sure:
If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.
(2 Timothy 2:8-15)

What does it mean to ‘rightly explain the word of truth?’

The KJV says ‘rightly divide’ – as if the word of truth could somehow be cut up like a pie. But when you think about it, dividing the word is exactly what we do when we read just a few verses at a time, as we do each Sunday.

The creators of the Revised Common Lectionary have done a remarkable job of connecting Old and New Testament readings with the Psalms and the Gospels, but there are some parts of scripture that never get read out loud in churches that follow the lectionary exclusively. Quite often, the parts we don’t read have something to do with conflict, or they have caused controversy in the church at some point in its history.

And there’s the problem of proof-texting – pulling a verse or two out of the original context in order to make them say what we want them to say.

My mom used to do this when door-to-door sales people or evangelists from other religious groups would come to the door. She would quote Matthew, Luke, and John to them. “Judas went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5), “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 – Good Samaritan parable), and “do quickly what you are going to do” (John 13:27). The person standing on the porch would leave pretty quickly.

Great theologians of the past engaged in shouting matches over the meaning of certain passages. Now we have social media, where scholars who claim to be Christ followers attack one another in 320 characters or less. Is this what Paul means by rightly explaining the word of truth?

I somehow doubt it. That sounds more like wrangling over words, and engaging in vain chatter to me. And it is so easy to fall into this trap, especially when we are convinced that we have figured it out, that our prayerful examination of scripture has brought us to the only possible interpretation of God’s word. We know we are right. And that’s exactly when Paul tells us we couldn’t be more wrong.

Not even elevating scripture will rightly explain the word of truth, if it means ignoring the central reason God gives us the Bible in the first place.

The Word of God is not chained.

These few verses respond to the challenges Timothy was facing in Ephesus, where Paul had appointed him to serve as pastor. Reading the text on either side of this passage, we discover that Timothy was dealing with deep division in the church. People were arguing about whether or not Jesus had been human, and whether or not the second coming of Christ had already occurred.

John Frederick writes that the tension Paul is addressing “is that of innovative and incorrect – or in some cases foolish, ignorant, and controversial – teachings that are distracting people’s attention from and disturbing people’s faith in the truth of Jesus’ gospel.”[1] Sounds a lot like what we have happening today, doesn’t it?

What false teachings do we face? What are the inconsequential ideas that cause people to stumble? There are people who won’t come to this church because you have a woman pastor. There are people who won’t come to this church because they don’t like the music. There are people who don’t feel like they would be welcome here because of who they are, or what they’ve done, or even what they wear.

What words, what false teachings get attributed to us? What rumors are we spreading about what we believe? How do our dogmas and ideologies attempt to chain the Word of God, and keep people from hearing that Jesus Christ is the good news?

Some would actually chain the Word of God by placing scripture above all other aspects of faith. Even John Wesley can be accused of this, in a way. The Wesleyan quadrilateral that we teach in Confirmation Class isn’t a square – scripture is the biggest side of this figure, followed by tradition, reason, and experience as means to discern God’s will and God’s voice.

Martin Luther was just as eager to lift up scripture to the primary place of importance, in his doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone. And while we affirm the Bible as the Word of God revealed through the Old and New Testaments, and the only perfect rule for faith, doctrine, and conduct, we can run into trouble when we place more value on scripture than the One it reveals to us.

When we forget why we have the Bible in the first place, we run the risk of making the Bible an idol, and when we do that, we find ourselves once again trying to chain the Word of God. And it will not be chained.

We need to handle it with care.

Not because it is fragile, but because we are.

Not because we might break it, but because we need to be broken.

Scripture has only one purpose: to reveal God to us through Jesus Christ.

That’s why Paul starts this chapter with the words, “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2:1). It’s the same idea that we hear again in verse 8: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a son of David – that is my gospel!”

What is your gospel? What truth matters so much to you, you would be willing to suffer for it? If that truth has any other words in it besides, “Jesus is Lord,” can you really call it good news?

Wrangling over words, even words of scripture, can only cause harm. Nearly a decade ago, Dirk Lange wrote,

“When our remembering Jesus Christ is reduced to concepts, doctrine or ideas, when it is boxed in then, quite simply, Jesus Christ is no longer the center of remembering. Then, our own invented notions are the center.
“Here lies the danger of all doctrine, no matter how important … For doctrine has always the tendency to turn itself into the truth rather than merely pointing towards the truth, who is not an “idea” or a concept but a person, Jesus Christ.” [2]

The good news of salvation can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus is all that matters. Loving Jesus is all that counts.

So at the heart of this testament to Paul’s faith, we find a hymn of the early church. It isn’t a hymn to scripture, or a hymn in praise of words. It’s a hymn to Jesus, and what it means to live with Christ at the center of our lives.

“The saying is sure,” Paul writes, but we can be pretty certain that these next lines were not only said, but sung as a hymn in the early church:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
(2:11-13)

This simple hymn consists of two positive statements, followed by two negative ones, and a final reminder of Christ’s sovereignty. If we die, we will also live. If we endure, we will also reign. But if we deny him, he will deny us. Yet, even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, because he cannot deny himself.

We all need to know which voices to listen to, whose words are true, especially when so many voices seem to be loudly trying to get our attention, so many conflicting ideas claim to be Truth with a capital T. In this final testament to Paul’s faith, we find the one thing we can depend on, the one thing that will never change. Christ will always be faithful, even when we are not.

The key is in the subject of the sentence. When people lift up doctrine or legal stances as the subject, they are merely wrangling with words. Even when those words are lifted straight out of the Bible, they can bring ruin to those who are listening, when they are not handled with care.

But when the subject of the sentence is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, you can depend on that sentence to be true. When the statement is simply, “Jesus is Lord,” nothing else matters. Doctrines may come and go. Interpretations of scripture may change with the times. But this one thing is sure: Jesus is Lord. Jesus Christ is arisen.

Jesus Christ reigns in glory. Jesus Christ overcomes sin, death, and all our wrangling with words, to bring us to this one thing we can depend on, world without end: God’s love for us is so vast, any suffering we endure in this world because of our faith in Christ Jesus will only be made into glory. Because he is the first and the last, the beginning and the end. Jesus is Lord. This is the word of truth. It’s the only word that matters. It’s the only word you need.

[1] John Frederick, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3038

[2] Dirk Lange, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=724

 

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