Sep
9

Fighting the Good Fight in a Culture of Fear

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Text: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

 

[podcast]http://www.zion-umc.org/home/audio/sermon_09042011.mp3[/podcast]

 

Paul’s second letter to Timothy is among the later letters of Paul that we have; many scholars think that 2 Timothy was written shortly before Paul’s death – in some ways, this is a “last will and testament” of the Apostle, written as Paul waits in a Roman prison to hear the final word of his fate.

In such a significant time of life, it’s interesting that Paul doesn’t any time recounting his life accomplishments.  WE don’t hear about the churches he planted, or the sermons he preached; there’s no mention of how many souls were converted – no report card to document his successes.

That’s the kind of behavior that will confound many in our culture today. Ask a football fan how “his” team is doing, and odds are, he will know.  Talk to an athlete about his or her competition, and you’ll hear about performance, records, and how hard they are to beat.

In school, we keep track of grades to determine how successful a student is (or isn’t).  The report cards come home, and it’s a stressful moment for student and parent as the reckoning is performed.

What do grades really say?  Well, they can be the sole ruler you evaluate yourself by… or they can be something that helps you get a clear picture of what you need to do to keep growing in strength and ability.

Perfection in God’s Grace Takes Time

Learning is a process, not an event.  Maybe we didn’t get it right this time… but knowing what went wrong, next time, we’ll do better.

The Apostle Paul models this type of thinking:  Paul’s own self-assessment in Philippians 3:4-6 reveals prior to the Damascus Road, he was a student who had passed his religion exams with flying colors.

After that day, though, Paul would look at that transcript and realize that it was all “rubbish” (vv. 7-8). He would throw his permanent record in the trash and start over by learning to redefine success in a relationship with Christ.

There is no official list of Paul’s accomplishments.  The fact is that Paul probably never really got to see the end result of all his work in those many places and with so many people. He couldn’t have imagined that his letters would someday be published and read by generation after generation of Christians who can trace their spiritual roots all the way back to those faraway places.

During Paul’s lifetime, many of the churches he planted were rocked by conflict and enticed by the bad theology and moral failure of some of their leaders. People whom Paul trusted as coworkers abandoned him at critical moments (2 Timothy 4:9-15).

Looking at it from the perspective of achievement at the time, you’d have to give Paul an “E” for effort, but maybe not much more than that.

The Key to Success: Disciple, Know Thyself!

When Paul evaluates his Kingdom work at the end of his life, he doesn’t spend time on failure, or success.   What mattered to Paul is that he had done his best, and that he had been faithful in the work God had called him to.  Using the illustration of the Greek games, he spoke of having “fought the good fight” and “finished the race” (2 Timothy 4:7).

We as a people often have a hard time with saying that our efforts (or someone else’s) are “good enough.”  So often, if you haven’t come out on the top of the heap, you’re a failure.  As some say, “second place is the first loser.”

In a lot of ways, we live in a culture of fear.  We deeply fear not being good enough.  Our children fear the consequence of not having grades in school that are good enough; we adults often fear the consequence of not having produced good enough results in our work.

What are the fruits of our fears?  We are a frantic people who are beset with all sorts of stress-related illnesses, unethical behavior, and a crisis of self-esteem.

The end result of this fear is that often, we are afraid to try something new because we are simply afraid of failing.

God’s Grace Allows Us the Opportunity to Turn Failure into Success

A successful relationship with Jesus Christ is based on faithfulness to God’s call on your life.  If you are faithful to your job as a disciple, you will be judged faithful.  You’re not responsible for how other people responded to the message.

Every once in a while, someone will try and stick me with, “well, how many people have YOU brought to the Lord, Pastor?” I have to honestly answer them with, “I don’t know.”

I’ll tell you why, by way of a story.  Many years ago, now, there was a young couple in my community who felt the church was important enough that they should be married in the church, and have their children baptized in the church.  The pastor before me at the church had performed their wedding ceremony, and I baptized their first two children.

Beyond those events, though, they didn’t have time for church – too busy with other things.

As I prepared them for the baptism of their second child, I took some time to really engage them on the idea that baptism is your entry into the community of faith – and that, if you’re going to do it right, you really need to be in the community of faith, so your children understand what a special thing their baptism is.

Long story short, they never did start coming to church – under my pastorate.  But, the pastor who followed me was able to seal the deal, and they are now part of that congregation – worshiping, participating, and growing in God’s grace.

So, who was it that “brought these people to the Lord?”

It wasn’t just me, it wasn’t the pastor before me, and it wasn’t the pastor who came after me! Truth be told, it was all three of us!

If the pastor before me hadn’t faithfully reached out to this couple at the time of their marriage; if I had not kept gently bugging them about the importance of not just baptizing your children, but following through on the vows and helping them become part of the congregations; if the pastor who followed ME had not kept inviting them until they did in fact join in the life of the Church … this probably wouldn’t ever have happened.

It took THREE of us to get the job done! If I evaluated this strictly on my own actions and nothing else, I wouldn’t be able to say that I was successful!  But, I believe I can say with confidence that I was faithful, and my faithfulness combined with the faithfulness of other disciples made it a day of joy in the Kingdom.

God’s grace is about helping us learn to be faithful even when the world doesn’t understand anything other than winning and losing, of performance and production.

We will always experience the consequences of our moral failures. That’s a given.

But we should always remember that God’s grade book is written in pencil. Like a good teacher, God comes alongside us, corrects us, reorients our thinking, and helps us see new possibilities.

What the world sees as failures are opportunities God gives us to take a good, honest look at ourselves and find opportunities to grow.

The Bible teaches that “no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”  We needn’t surrender to our culture of fear we run the race of faith.  Simply doing your absolute best without thought of winning or losing in the eyes of the world makes for a powerful witness for Christ.

Always remember that Christ comes to us with life and love, filling us with hope, grace, and renewal.  So go forth now, living with courage the hope that the Gospel has placed within you.  And may the lives you touch grow closer to the Lord.

Amen.

Sources consulted:

“Deferred Success,” Homiletics, October, 2007

NIV KeyWord Study Bible (AMG, 1996)

NIV Bible Commentary, Vol. 2 (Zondervan, 1994)