A Homily on II Timothy 4:1-8, 16-18 for Evensong, Lent IV, 3/6/16
What a challenge! This young man, also young in the faith, is supposed to model saintliness in all of these areas before those who are his seniors. Young persons are not always known for their seasoned and thoughtful speech. Their conduct is more often described as “sowing their wild oats” than as “exemplary.” Their love is thought to be more fickle and transitory than steadfast. Their faith is more rudimentary than solid. Their purity is something that remains to be tested and refined. Even Isaiah said in our reading, “Youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly.”
But Paul tells Timothy that he is to rise to the occasion and be an example to other believers. Now in II Timothy, he raises the bar a bit higher: now Timothy is to be preaching the Word and doing the work of an evangelist, thereby fulfilling his ministry. No more leniency here for being young and uncertain! Timothy is to be preaching the Word all the time, in season and out of season, which is to say that preaching the Word has no seasonal limitations. Timothy is to be reproving, rebuking, exhorting with great patience and instructing. Again, what a challenge! This is broad, sweeping stuff for a young man to digest, much less to put into practice. It sounds much more like work we expect the Holy Spirit to do than to be doing ourselves, especially in our youth.
But wait: remember the words of Teresa of Avila: "Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which He looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which He blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Was this a special commissioning of Timothy to do work to which the rest of us are not called? It is hard to find such distinctions in Scripture. Every one of us is called to evangelism, every one of us is called to be missionaries in our world, each of us is called to set an example of godly living, and each of us is called to preach the Word in season and out of season. Unless we are prepared to take up that challenge, to be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes and body, we never will come to the time of our departure and be able to echo Paul’s amazing words: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”
Let’s step back a moment to look at Paul’s list of assignments for Timothy. It starts out with “reproving.” This may be among the more unwelcome tasks we ever could be asked to assume. I want Dale to be my friend, but I know that if I am too forthcoming with reproving him for even thinking about moving to North Carolina, I could take a chance of losing his friendship forever. How confident can I be that I have a word from the Lord for Dale, and not just a word from myself? I will say this: I want absolutely nothing to do with reproving unless the words I say have been bathed in advance in intercessory prayer, until my reproof is more likely to build Dale up than merely to invoke his wrath. But what if it does end up invoking his wrath? I have to be willing then to let God be God, and to show both to Dale and to me what is His holy will in the matter. But I will have discharged my responsibility to say what I believe God has put on my heart.
Now Paul moves on to intensify things, not to lighten up. He goes from reproof to rebuke! It’s at least one level stronger than reproof. Reproof is no more than an expression of disapproval. Parents need to use reproof with some regularity simply as a way of bringing their children back to center. Rebuke is much stronger and more specific, focusing on particular actions that require sharp censure. We need to be rather sure-footed before we move from saying “I disapprove of your decisions” to saying “I cannot tolerate your actions.”
But moving on to Paul’s next category, exhortation, may presuppose that one already has exercised reproof and/or rebuke. Why would I exhort you to do something if it did not require a change of behavior on your part? Otherwise I am simply “preaching to the choir.” I believe that exhortation is an ever-challenging area for Christian leaders and, perhaps even more, for Christian laypersons. If I tell you how to live your life, I need to feel that you will not come back at me and call me a hopeless hypocrite. I may be no more than “the pot calling the kettle black,” which is not humorous in the spiritual arena. I often say confidently to my chorus members, “I am not asking you to do anything that I have not already done myself.” I even invite choristers to come inspect my conducting scores to see whether I actually have marked them with the same thoroughness with which I am asking them to mark their parts. But this is a mechanical matter that I know I can do with consistency and discipline. What about living the Christian life? Even the apostle Paul had to qualify his exhortations by saying, “Be imitators of me insofar as I am of Christ” (I Cor. 11:1).
There are two more pieces to this matter of exhorting. Because exhorting is essentially the exact opposite of rebuking, that is, strongly encouraging persons to act in a certain way rather than just expressing strong disapproval of the way they already are acting, Paul says we are to do the exhorting with “complete patience and teaching.” These are incredibly important concepts. Too often our exhortation springs from impatience. And far too often it comes only with the sense of strong disapproval, but without a bit of instruction as to how the offending person might have behaved otherwise, or even instruction as to why the behavioral pattern was deemed reprehensible. Instruction requires a lot more work than rebuke.
I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel sorry for Timothy. Yes, trying to walk in Paul’s shoes would have been a frightening challenge. But being able to put oneself in a position to be “reproving, rebuking and exhorting with complete patience and teaching” sounds over-the-top for most of us, most of the time.
But Paul is not quite through here. On top of asking Timothy to do these rather daunting tasks, Paul adds that the time will come, even when we perform all these awesome tasks to the best of our Spirit-led abilities, that we are likely to encounter the people with “itching ears” who, instead of listening to the sound teaching that accompanies godly exhortation will instead gather to themselves teachers of myths that are more palatable, that actually conform to their worldly passions. Does this sound strikingly familiar in our day?
Seriously? This is precisely how it is today! We have mega-churches crowded with persons who come to church to be told how good they are, to be affirmed in the ways that they are living, to be told “I’m okay, you’re okay,” to hear a gospel that Paul would call “another gospel,” which is to say, a non-gospel. It’s a New Age message of self-worth, of self-aggrandizement, of self-actualization, of self-gratification, whatever label fits best. By no means am I suggesting that we should come to church only to be reminded of how far short we fall of the glory of God. But if we are to be Timothies in this world, at least part of our responsibility will be to reprove, rebuke, exhort and teach. It may make us less popular and less populous. But it also may allow us to come to the time of our departure saying with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”
How are we to do these things? How are we to follow Paul’s instructions? How are we to be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes and body? Certainly not in our own strength. I think Paul was a man of incredible strength of character. Maybe Timothy was a trifle less self-confident. Peter had great strength of character, but it got him in trouble at times. What is the formula for success in this realm, in serving Christ and His Church as Paul is encouraging us to do?
Paul gives us the right answer at the very end of our reading: “The Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into His heavenly kingdom. To Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
That’s it: we never go it alone. If we do, we are doomed to certain failure in God’s books, even if we have a following that numbers in the thousands. Proclaiming the message of Christ is never likely to be something that will make us front-runners in popularity contests. But just maybe it will bring to us “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to (us) on that day; to all who have loved His appearing.”
To Him be all honor and glory and praise, both now and forever. Amen.