Lectionary Commentaries for October 6, 2013
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 17:5-10

Lois Malcolm

Luke 17:5-10 consists of two sets of sayings on being a follower of Jesus.

The first deals with faith (verses 5-6) and the second deals with what is expected of disciples (verses 7-10). Although these two sets of sayings may appear disconnected, they actually deal with complementary aspects of being a disciple of Jesus.

The pericope is part of a larger unit of sayings (7:1-10) that concludes the second phase of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem in Luke (13:22-17:10). In the sayings immediately preceding this text, Jesus warns his disciples not to cause others to take offense at the gospel message (7:10; 7:23). He also gives counsel on how to deal with a fellow disciple who sins: that person is to be rebuked, and if repentance follows, this same person is to be forgiven — even if forgiveness is needed again and again (17:3-4).

Given the challenging nature of these sayings, and the rest of what Jesus has to say about following him, it is not surprising that the disciples appeal to Jesus: “Increase our faith!” (17:5). Elsewhere Jesus has described what it means to follow him in exacting terms. To a would-be follower, he cautions that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. To those who want to follow him but first take care of family matters, he says that they need to keep the kingdom of God as their first priority without wavering or looking back (9:57-62) To crowds travelling with him, he emphasizes the cost of following him: none can become a disciple without carrying the cross (14:27), placing family ties as secondary (14:26), and giving up all possessions (14:33).

Jesus does not give his disciples an easy answer to their request for faith. With a twinge of irritation (indicated by the Greek syntax in 17:6) he tells them in so many words that they have all the faith they need. Indeed, if they had faith “the size of a mustard seed” they could command a mulberry tree to be uprooted and moved to the sea. Here Luke links a Q saying about mustard seed faith (see Matthew 17:20) with Mark’s saying about the fig tree and faith in God moving a mountain into the sea (11:20-25).

Throughout Luke, those we least expect to have faith are often held up as exemplars of it. When a woman, a so-called “sinner,” pours ointment and kisses Jesus’ feet — to the consternation of Pharisees — Jesus not only forgives her sins but also says “your faith has saved you.” (7:50) He says the same thing to the following individuals: a blind beggar who wants to see again (18:42); a Samaritan leper who comes back to thank him after he has been healed (17:19); and a woman who touches him in order to be healed of hemorrhages (3:48). Moreover, when a Roman centurion goes to great lengths to have him heal a trusted servant, Jesus exclaims, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (7:9).

Conversely, the disciples often appear to lack faith. When they are in a boat with Jesus and a storm happens, they get so anxious that Jesus has to ask, “Where is your faith?” (8:25). Aware that Peter will betray him, Jesus prays that his faith will not fail him (22:32).

We often distinguish (a) the faith that “moves mountains” from (b) basic trust in God or Christ. Our tendency to distinguish these two types of faith tends to be rooted in the false assumption that the former has to do with manipulating some kind of supernatural power and the latter has to do with submitting to an external authority or set of beliefs or standards of conduct.

Yet Jesus’ very statement “your faith has saved you” to those he helps implies that something else is going with faith. To have faith means having our whole way of perceiving and responding to life transformed by the fecundity of God’s creative justice and power. What seems “impossible” for us is “possible” for God: God can even enable the rich to “let go” of the wealth they hold so dear and distribute the proceeds to the poor (18:27; 1:37).

What Jesus says about “faith” sets the stage for what he says about being God’s “slaves.” Here Jesus points out that a farmer simply expects a slave to “prepare supper … and serve me while I eat and drink” (17:7-9). Of course, stories about masters and slaves are ethically problematic for us as moderns, who no longer accept the institution of slavery. Yet in the ancient world, a “slave” was not only a socioeconomic entity but also one wholly devoted to another.

Thus, Simeon described himself as God’s “slave” when he gave the baby Jesus a blessing (2:29). Likewise, Jesus admonishes us to be watchful “slaves,” who are not only responsible in using what we have been entrusted (12:35-48), but also prudent in generating as much as we can with what we have been given (19:11-27).

Most importantly, the Gospels transform ancient conceptions of relations between masters and slaves. Unlike Gentile rulers who lord it over others, leaders among Jesus’ disciples must serve. As Jesus observes, “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? But I am among you as one who serves” (22:24-30; cf. Matthew 20:24-28; 19:28; Mark 10:41-45).

If having “faith” — even faith the size of a mustard seed — means having one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions wholly transformed by God’s reign in our midst, then it entails being a “slave” of God: one wholly devoted to the fecundity of God’s purposes in the world. Since God’s life is immeasurable, its generosity eludes any of our attempts to manipulate it — either as a power we can control or as a means for justifying or rewarding ourselves. This is why we are “worthless slaves”: those to whom nothing is owed (17:10). We serve in the banquet of God’s kingdom simply because of who we are, or more importantly, because of the One to whom we belong.

First Reading

Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Karl Jacobson

“I resolved to expound this prophet Habakkuk so that he, too, may finally come to light and that his contents may be learned…”

So wrote Martin Luther in his preface to the book of Habakkuk in 15261, and it would be a grand thing if preachers followed Luther’s example and preached this minor prophet this week. The selected readings from Habakkuk 1 and 2 for this week contain not only the first biblical sounding of the central theological declaration of the Reformation, “the righteous live by their faith,” (2:4; see also Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11), but is an important sense these two pieces from Habakkuk form a sort of bracket between which the believer (and the unbeliever alike) live in this world.

Habakkuk 1:1-4 contains, as the heading in the New Revised Standard Version has it, “The Prophet’s Complaint.” In classical complaint language, the prophet asks God “How long?” (1:2), and “Why?” (1:3). Habakkuk is begging for God to listen, to save; to do something about the destruction and violence that he constantly sees. The crux of the prophet’s complaint comes in 1:4:

So the law becomes slack
     and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous — 
     therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Two critical things are addressed here, one that is obscured a bit in translation, while the other may slip by unnoticed. First, the translation issue. I want to offer a more simplistic translation of this verse, in which we stick to using the same English word when translating out of the Hebrew; as a philosophy of translation this makes, sometimes, for awkward English, but in this case may be necessary to see the interconnectedness of the two parts of this one verse. In Hebrew two words are used twice, in 1:4a and 1:4b, mishpat and yatsa. In the NRSV, these two words are translated differently each time. This translation is not wrong; in fact it is quite good. The problem is that the interplay between the cola of the poem is obscured. Thus,

So the law becomes slack
     and judgment (mishpat) never comes forth (yatsa).
The wicked surround the righteous —
     therefore judgment (mishpat) comes forth (yatsa) perverted.

Mishpat really means something more like “judgment,” than it does “justice,” although it should not be assumed that justice and judgment are not intimately connected — one would hope and pray.

Whichever way one would choose to go (judgment or justice) the key is that it is the same word used. Habakkuk laments first that judgment/justice does not come about, and then in classical Hebrew parallelism that judgment/justice does come forth, but it is perverted and twisted, a mockery of justice.

The second critical piece of this verse, then, has to do with how judgment/justice goes forth. Notice that the Law, the Torah, has been misappropriated by the wicked. That “judgment” or “justice” is not merely prevented, it is perverted. Habakkuk’s complaint is that when God does not listen, when God does not save us from our times of trial, it is not simply the lack of the Law that hurts, but that in God’s apparent absence the Law is twisted, applied with perverted force: perhaps brutally, perhaps relentlessly, perhaps gracelessly, perhaps only to others. This is the problem, and a present reality not only for Habakkuk but in any time and place — perhaps our times and places, as well.

Having made his complaint, the prophet then declares that he will stand watch and wait, to see how God “will answer concerning my complaint.” And then, perhaps shockingly, Habakkuk 2:2 says, “Then the Lord answered me….” Habakkuk may have been as shocked as Job when God answered, he may have wondered if it was wise to press so searchingly, so seriously for God’s response. But God answers.

(There is, perhaps, a sermon in just those words, “Then God answered me….” What would that be like, look like, feel like, mean?)

The Lord tells Habakkuk to do something that, if we think about it, may seem strange: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” This may mean that the runner is intended to run around holding the tablets, calling out the vision as she runs. Try reading while running; presumably the writing would have to be pretty large to be readable with all of the jarring ups and downs of even a brisk jog. Or, perhaps, this may mean that Habakkuk is to take out a billboard-like ad and write the vision large enough that anyone passing by may see and read it. Regardless, this is not the usual prophetic message to be spoken in the temple courtyard, or on a street corner, or on the palace steps. This is something different.

God goes on in Habakkuk 2:3 to make a critical promise to the prophet, and the prophet’s people, waiting to hear God’s answer: There is still a vision for the appointed time. The key words here (one word in Hebrew, moed) are “appointed time.” This word in Hebrew is used to designate festival times in Israel’s worship (Leviticus 23:2), a time of birth (Genesis 17:21; 18:14; 21:2), seasonal migration (Jeremiah 8:7), and, yes, the end time (Daniel 8:19). “Appointed time” here means the right time, God’s time, the time in which God’s promise — the vision that still is not only readable for the runner, but in force for God’s people — God’s Word will come to pass. The people are called told to wait for it, and in the meantime to be faithful.

And this is the life of faith, is it not? To live in the between of complaint and struggle on the one hand, and God’s right time on the other. This is where we live as people of faith, active and alive in this world, struggling with injustice against perverted judgments and the slackening of God’s Law, and waiting for God’s promised time, for the promise that God makes, that God has answered us, and will again; that God has saved us through Christ Jesus, and so we are saved. As the prophet closes his book in prayer,

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines…
     yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
     he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
     and makes me tread upon the heights (Habakkuk 3:17a, 18-19).

1 Luther’s Works, 19.150.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6

Walter C. Bouzard

The book of Lamentations articulates the anguish of the Hebrews in the wake of the conquest of Jerusalem and the razing of the city by Babylon.

The first four chapters are composed as acrostic poems while the fifth chapter’s poem – twenty-two verses, but not an acrostic — seemingly points to a grief so unbearable and chaotic that it cannot be controlled either by form or liturgy.

In the opening verses of chapter 1, we hear the personified city of Jerusalem bewailing her plight. The first word, ‘êkah, translated by the NRSV as the interrogative “How,” is a word that serves as a standard opening to a dirge (see Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 48:17; Lamentations 2:1; 4:1, 2). There can be no doubt that this is a funeral song, sung by one who has lost her children (verse 5) and her husband. She has become “like a widow” (verse 1). Poignantly, widows were regarded as being among the most vulnerable of ancient Israel’s population since, without adult sons to provide for them, they were left without the means for subsistence.

Jerusalem has no doubt — and none of our hesitation! — to name the source of her affliction. Yes, “Her foes have become the masters” (verse 5) and have wreaked incalculable pain on her. Jerusalem’s real pain, however, consists of this: “the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions” (verse 5). That same notion that Jerusalem’s grief stemmed from God’s wrath appears throughout the book, [1] albeit the exact nature of those sins is never thoroughly described. [2] It was only later in the history of the Old Testament that the notion of a cosmic power aligned against God (such as the Devil or Satan) emerged.

Like Second Isaiah, with whom the poet of Lamentations seems roughly contemporary, this poet’s LORD forms light and creates darkness; God makes weal and creates woe (Isaiah 45:7). If the LORD of Lamentations “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lamentations 3:33), he nevertheless does “cause grief” (3:32) and “has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions” (1:5). The remarkable point about this assertion is its’ appearance in a poem that summons God both to “look” [3] and to act to alleviate Jerusalem’s pain.

Apostasy is not an option for this poet. Nor is the Greek idea of “atheism” a possibility; Hebrew has no equivalent word for that concept. Exiles — and the personified city who here articulates their grief — know only that the LORD who has afflicted them is the only one who can end their pain. There is no one else to whom they can go, no one else they can blame, and so they utter their anguish in a dirge that aims to evoke the mercy of the LORD.

The grief that characterizes these poems is not the hopeful, courageous faith contained in the declaration of Habakkuk 3:17-18:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.

To the contrary, the book ends questioning why the LORD has forsaken God’s people and leaves open the possibility that divine rejection is permanent (Lamentations 5:20-22).

It is likely true that this text is not immediately applicable in every North American context. Oh, there have been moments in our collective history where our national self-understanding was shaken by violence and war, where some among us were left wondering about God’s agency in the world’s catastrophes. The tragic events of 9/11 serve as one stark example. Other sad candidates are communities devastated by gun violence such as Newtown Connecticut, the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary school slaughter late in 2012, or any of a thousand neighborhoods in our cities where violent gangland murders of school children or of their parents remains an everyday reality.

And there certainly are communities whose lack of means and political power have left them devastated and with a real sense of having been forsaken by God. I think, for example, of the despair of undocumented aliens who, though not always suffering violence, nevertheless do “live(s) now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress” (1:3). Such people, such communities, are given words to bring before God in the poetry of Lamentations.

Even if one is not blessed to be called to proclaim the word in a place where such suffering is palpable, however, there are reasons to give this text a voice. First, the lament of Jerusalem reminds us that such pain is actually experienced by believers — by brothers and sisters — on a daily basis. Beside the pockets of domestic despair, I think of the recent events in Syria (ongoing at the time of this writing) where far too many cities have literally been razed by artillery fire and where tens of thousands have died. How many of the dead are included in the approximately 2.5 million Syrians who are Christian? [4]

The average worshipper will be helpless to alleviate the distress of those believers or their Muslim neighbors. But we can join in their dirges and pray on their behalf. Likewise, the average worshipper will be able to do little immediately to alleviate the ongoing pain and frequent violence suffered by Christians and their neighbors in Palestine. But by hearing their pain and by entering into deep empathy with them, we can join our prayers to theirs. We can implore the LORD on their behalf, offering lamentations for those who cannot hear their own voices in the din of explosions and the over the cries of their anguish.

Who knows? By empathetically weeping with those who hurt far away and with those who suffer in our own contexts, we may come to love them. And if we come authentically to love them, our eyes might even be opened to see that the Lord to whom we cry out together is already there — where he ever is — among the broken and suffering in our world. Jesus is there, wounded, pierced, weeping, but speaking a quite promise of a reign of God that will yet come. Oh, maranatha! (1 Corinthians 16:22).

[1] Besides Lamentations 1:5, see 1:12, 14, 15, 17; 2:1-2, 5-9, 17, 20-22; 3:32-33, 37; 4:11,16.

[2] See, for example, Lamentations 2:14; 4:13, 22; 5:7.

[3] Lamentations 1:9, 11-12; 2:20; 5:1.

[4] On the religious demography of Syria see, conveniently, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_Syria#Christianity


Commentary on Psalm 37:1-9

Walter C. Bouzard

Written as an acrostic poem, approximately every other line in Psalm 37 begins with a successive letter of the twenty-two letter Hebrew alphabet.

This can even be seen in the English translation of the NRSV since the editors chose to divide each “stanza” of the forty total verses by a blank space.[1] It is unclear why the ancient poets sometimes employed the artifice of the acrostic. It may have been a matter of aesthetics, a mnemonic aid, or, perhaps, the intention was to signal that the subject matter of the poem was treated from beginning to end, or from “A to Z.”

The lectionary selection takes us only part way through the first five letters of the acrostic. Nevertheless, the main themes of the larger poem are included in the verses before us.

Like aspects of wisdom literature (which this psalm resembles) there are hortatory elements throughout. The narrator is a venerable elder (verse 25) who, having seen much in life (verses 35-6), urges those who have less experience not to be agitated at the apparent success of the wicked, nor be envious of wrongdoers.[2] The NRSV’s translation “do not fret because the wicked” is a way of rendering the Hebrew root harah, a verb that connotes heat or becoming inflamed with anger. The NJB’s “Do not get heated about the wicked” is more literal. The JPS translation of “vexed” also succeeds in signaling the angry indignation against which the poet cautions. The same verb appears again in verses 7 and 8.

Why should one not fret over the wicked? The psalmist says that expending emotional energy in that way is not worth the effort because the success of the wicked is transient. They will soon enough fade like grass and wither like the green herb. The same rationale is still in effect in verses 7 to 9, as well as in verses 10, 20, and especially in verses 35-36. In verses 7 to 9, however, the psalmist urges calm patience and trust in the LORD because, he avers, the LORD will inevitably act. The wicked will be “cut off.”

The notion that the wicked will be “cut off” or destroyed is a frequent theme in the Scriptures.[3] Proverbs 2:21-22, however, provides a particularly interesting example:

“For the upright will abide in the land,

and the innocent will remain in it;

but the wicked will be cut off from the land,

and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.”

The consequence of patient trust and fidelity is the occupation of the land and the security of a home. The wicked, in contrast, will be dispossessed of the land. Precisely this notion appears in Psalm 37:9 — the wicked will be cut off [from the land] while those who wait on the LORD shall inherit it. Indeed, the idea of land possession appears several times in the psalm.

Verse 3 declares that trust in the LORD and well doing results in occupation of the land. Verse 11 announces that the meek shall inherit the land and the prosperity that attends that legacy. Verse 22 restates the claim of verse 9: “for those blessed by the LORD shall inherit the land, but those cursed by him shall be cut off. “ Verses 29 and 34 return again to the theme. Present appearances notwithstanding, the righteous will enjoy the inheritance of land and, significantly, the security that comes with it (see verses 3, 28b-29).

Rather than rage against the wicked, the psalmist urges action of another sort. Indeed, he directs the listener to act, and to act with series of imperative verbs. Each verb or verb pair is accompanied by its own explicit promise:

Verse 3: Trust in the LORD and do good for that leads to land and security.
Verse 4: Take delight in the LORD for the LORD will give the desires of your heart.
Verse 5: Commit your way and trust the LORD for LORD will act and vindicate (verse 6).
Verses 7 to 9 direct the reader to be still and wait patiently, not fretting over wrongdoers, to refrain from anger, forsake wrath and (again) to not fret because anger, wrath, and vexation lead to evil. The wicked will receive their comeuppance from the LORD and those who wait will enjoy the rewards of land (verses 9, 11) and prosperity (verse 11b).

Multiple problems present themselves in crafting a sermon on this text. For one thing, it would be quite easy for the message of this psalm to be translated into a dangerous quietism that assumes that any who suffer injustice or oppression — or any who witness the same — should wait passively until the sweet by and by when the Lord sets all things in proper order. It doubtless is sage counsel not to be overwhelmed with angry indignation and, instead, to commit oneself to an attitude of trust and delight in God. Any cardiologist will confirm that angry agitation is an unhealthy default mood.

An attitude of quiet trust is surely a better option for daily life. But such an attitude does not equate to quietism. The admonition to “be still” in verse 7 does not mean to remain inert. The verb also appears in contexts where it means to be made motionless in amazement and fear.[4] That such should be the understanding here is confirmed by the charge to “wait patiently” that appears in the same line.

An unusual hithpolel form of the verb hul, the verb here translated “wait patiently” actually connotes an internal writhing. Together the two verbs are set in opposition to the futile anxious vexation of verse 7b. If anyone should fret, it should be in anticipation of the LORD’s action. Perhaps this interpretation undergirds the Septuagint’s rendering of the phrase: “Be subject to the LORD and beseech him” (author’s translation).

A more significant problem in preaching this text is that we live in an age that doesn’t much believe it’s message. For example, North Americans have much cause to be deeply suspicious of a psalm that confidently declares the doom of those heading financial systems that are decidedly tilted to further the gap between the turbo-wealthy and the shrinking middle-class, not to mention the gap between the one percent and the destitute poor.

Politicians of every stripe seem unwilling or unable to precipitate actual change while protesters occupying public parks find themselves arrested and sent packing. Against this, can we believe that the wicked “will soon fade like grass” (verse 2)? Or that, if we but trust, then God will act (verse 5)? Can we be expected to take seriously that the wicked will be cut off (verse 9) or that the “Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that their day is coming” (verse 13)?

Yes. Yes we can believe it. And, indeed this word, this message, may be precisely the word we need to hear. The poet acknowledges that the wicked may have the upper hand now. Evildoers do prosper. And many of them are shamelessly brazen in their schemes to plot against those who trust in the Lord, regarding them as life’s losers. But this psalmist reminds us that God will not be mocked. God’s justice will not be mocked. God’s eye is upon those who hunger and thirst now. And God’s recompense will arrive, sooner or later. The psalm’s last two verses affirm the hope of the whole:

The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD;

he is their refuge in the time of trouble.

The LORD helps them and rescues them;

he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them,

because they take refuge in him.

May we seek refuge where we ought.

[1] Other examples of complete acrostic poetry in the Psalms include Psalms 111, 112, 119. In addition, Psalms 9, 10, and 145 were likely originally complete alphabetical acrostics, but were modified slightly. Chapters 1 to 4 of Lamentations also provide examples of the acrostic type.

[2] The same idea appears, nearly verbatim, in Prov 24:19. See Prov 23:17; 24:1; 3:31; Ps 73:3.

[3] See Isa 29:20; Hos 8:4; Nah 2:1. Elsewhere in this Psalm see verses 22,:28, 34, and:38.

[4] See Exod 15:16; Isa 23:2.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Matt Skinner

Sometimes we’re especially interested in people’s final words. 

We often expect wisdom and special insight from those preparing to die, so our lives might be richer for what we learn from their perspective. Examples from modern literature may come to mind (recent bestsellers such as The Last Lecture, Tuesdays with Morrie, and the novel Gilead), but they have ancient forerunners. Think of testaments, literature in which an about-to-die leader offers reflections on a life lived and advice to family or friends who will live on. Examples include Genesis 49:1-28, 1 Kings 2:1-9, Acts 21:17-38, several extrabiblical writings (such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), and the letter we call Second Timothy.

Overview of Second Timothy

The lectionary devotes this and the next three Sundays to Second Timothy, which presents itself as Paul’s farewell (see 2 Timothy 4:6-8). Like other testamental literature, this letter carries a revered deceased figure’s legacy into considerations of new, emerging circumstances. Specific theological insights or doctrinal battles do not rise to the surface as much as Paul’s reputation as a model of faithful endurance. The letter encourages its addressee, Timothy, who was (when he too was still alive) probably the best known of Paul’s associates, to nurture those same qualities in his ministry. The letter assumes a setting in which Timothy confronts challenges created by rival teachers. It worries about their teachings’ potential to hamper and discredit the church.

The stylistic, theological, and historical evidence convinces me that Second Timothy was written in Paul’s name probably within a decade of the year 100 CE, long after the apostle’s death. (Any reputable commentary or Bible dictionary can review this evidence.) I don’t think sermons on Second Timothy should belabor the authorship question; they can legitimately dwell within the literary fiction the letter stages, as a suffering “Paul” gives his last lecture to his beloved pupil. At the same time, I see little value in keeping the debate over the letter’s authorship entirely hidden from congregations. They can handle learning about it and, moreover, it will help many understand why this book places such value on preserving and passing along a heritage Timothy himself has received. Beyond the sermon, preachers can host educational forums or otherwise direct people to helpful literature, so they know what you know.

An Established Faith (1:3-7)

Following the letter’s salutation, a thanksgiving introduces themes of continuity and succession. The mention of Paul’s “ancestors,” Timothy’s “sincere faith” with roots in his grandmother and mother, and Timothy’s need to “rekindle” God’s gift — these all encourage Timothy to understand his identity and his obligations by considering those who have gone before him (see also 2 Timothy 3:14-15). The letter construes Christian faith and ministry entirely in communal and familial settings, extended through time. This makes Timothy anything but an independent agent peddling new insights. His faith’s roots in the past make it reliable, proven. Timothy’s job, for the sake of the future, involves more preservation than innovation.

Right out of the gate, Second Timothy presents itself as a conservative letter, understanding “conservative” in the most literal sense of the word. It imagines “the faith” as something to be guarded (see 2 Timothy 1:14), lest it become corrupted or diluted. This makes the letter especially attractive to some contemporary Christians, while others get worried. Wise preachers will avoid using a single sermon to adjudicate those battles or to speak about tradition and change in abstract terms. Additional options for a sermon include these:

  • The letter tells Timothy his faith and calling aren’t ancillary to his identity; they are part of who he is. Consider, then, exploring with a congregation how our beliefs and ministry are meaningfully connected to our personal and corporate identities, rooted in particular yet shared heritages.
  • Taken as a whole, Second Timothy expresses great concern about false teachers and rival doctrines (some of these appear, based on 1 Timothy 6:20-21, to have involved ideas taken from gnostic thought). It worries about other teachings possibly leading Christians astray or making them cantankerous, thereby wounding the ministry of the gospel. Consider, then, asking questions about what kinds of perceived threats make you and your congregation determined to secure yourselves against “outside” or “foreign” influences. What influences must really be resisted? What do we resist only because we are scared or think we ourselves are under attack?

Confidence beyond Shame and Suffering (1:8-14)

Next, the letter exhorts Timothy to remain faithful, proceeding with numerous clusters of exhortations through 2:13. The first set of exhortations comes in 1:8-14, which instructs Timothy to emulate Paul in enduring suffering and shame (for the letter describes Paul as incarcerated here and elsewhere). Suffering indicates neither dishonor nor failure when the gospel is involved, because the gospel is all about God’s power to bring life from death (2 Timothy 1:10). That power, enacted in Christ Jesus, reconfigures our perspectives on the anguish and humiliation that supposedly must accompany suffering. Suffering cannot nullify God’s grace, which was “revealed” (phaneroo) or made known in the “appearing” (epiphaneia) of Christ Jesus. This leads Paul to express confidence in Jesus’ (or God’s?) ability to guard what Paul has entrusted to Jesus, meaning, perhaps, Paul’s very own self. Correspondingly, and mirroring that activity, Timothy must faithfully guard the apostolic teaching entrusted to him.

The language about Christ abolishing death (2 Timothy 1:10) strikes many hearers as powerful, good news. A sermon might devote itself to exploring how the defeat of death and the promise of immortality are expressions or consequences of God’s grace.

At the same time, the letter’s celebration of abolished death comes in the service of encouraging Timothy to endure suffering (see 2 Timothy 3:12). It is distressingly easy for caregivers of any kind to use these words to diminish the reality of pain and humiliation people experience, as if the Christian response to suffering is supposed to be, “It will all be better when you’re dead” or, worse, “Man up and stop whining.” We must note that the suffering this letter has in view is quite specific: suffering endured as a result of being persecuted for one’s faith.

Bear in mind, these statements about immortality and the end of death come to us as though from the pen of a man writing a confident testamentary farewell. Paul comes across as one modeling how to die. He does this by giving instructions about how to live confidently and in ways that instill in others confidence in God’s promises. Human history teems with discussions about what it means to die well and what kind of life prepares a person for such a thing. We need real, flesh-and-blood examples of what good living and good dying look like. The memory of Paul offered one for an ancient audience and for us. What others can you think of?