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Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. - 2 Timothy 4:2 (NLT)
The reality of this verse is a little uncomfortable, isn’t it? It begins by simply saying, “preach the word of God,” and then to “be prepared,” and to correct and rebuke and encourage and a short list of daunting tasks we may not be naturally inclined to, so we tend to push it in the back of our minds. Or we redefine it with compelling ideas like, “preach the gospel at all times - and when necessary, use words” (common misquote of St. Francis of Assisi)--which is true and beautiful when it moves us to serve sacrificially and walk by Jesus’s example, but falls short when it gives permission to our comfort zones.
Growing up in the church and steeped in Bible stories, by the time I hit high school, I was sure I had all the right answers. I could have boldly told you what you were supposed to do or not do, believe or not believe; I had no problems reciting the rules. But if someone was to ask me about what faith meant or who Jesus was to me, I would have squirmed.
In a message about bringing the Kingdom to Earth, pastor Alex Rettmann says, “The most compelling thing in the world is to be loved when you don’t deserve it.” Jesus’ ministry was always an outpour of this deeply undeserved but wildly pursuing love. As faithful disciples of Jesus, when we encounter and live within that love, we are not only called to usher other people into it, we can’t help it. If we truly know His goodness, we know how desperately people need it, and we will fight for them to know it.
In order to walk out what Paul is asking of us here, the most compelling truth we have to offer, above all our right answers, is the reality of a love that chose us first. And it is from this posture that we can be challenged to preach and prepare and represent Jesus with our words and our lives.
For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. - 2 Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)
I grew up in Northeast Ohio, and as a dedicated Indians baseball fan, I went to a restaurant in downtown Lexington to watch the 2016 World Series and was surprised to find a UK exhibition game dominating every television. I did get a grumpy waiter to change one of the TVs for me, but I was still perplexed that no one was interested in the World Series (though bandwagon Cubs fans were more dedicated by game 7). I suppose I can’t realistically expect more from a city whose culture and community largely hinges on UK basketball.
We have to have realistic expectations for culture to engage in it well. Paul writes his letter at the end of a life devoted to the Lord but plagued by persecution, clearly aware of but unsurprised by the opposition. As Christ followers still living in a fallen world, we can expect the same. In a podcast called This Cultural Moment, pastors John Mark Comer and Mark Sayers look at our current Post-Christian culture, which Sayers refers to as a society largely seeking “the Kingdom without the King.”
So how do we live out truth in that kind of culture? It’s tempting to take the appealing things Jesus said and make a version of God in our image, who agrees with us, allows us to chase desires, and serves our safety and comfort, as Paul says here. On the other hand, we may fight for our faith by holding truth, but execute it by demanding culture to uphold the same truth.
Neither accurately reflects the bold truth we carry -- one that is not shy or succumbing, but also isn’t angry or forceful. God does not yell His expectations at us, but instead He “woos us with his kindness, he changes our character with the passion of his love” (Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz). Let our lives and our walks do the same.
But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. - 2 Timothy 4:5 (NLT)
I worked as a barista for four years at a total of four different coffee shops, and the best part of each was always talking to customers and learning more about (drinking a lot of) coffee. But taking orders and making lattes was never my only responsibility; I always had to clean dishes or mop floors or restock shelves. And most jobs are the same; the little tasks in between may not be your passion, but they make everything else work.
Life and faith operate similarly. We want the gifts, the dreams, the joy, but we struggle to cope with the tension of growth or the potential for suffering. We cling to the Father’s promise of a plan for our lives -- what we want, how we can secure our safety, making sure we avoid difficulty -- though it’s the surrender of those things and living into the tension that will bring us into the fullness of His promise. I think it’s the clarity of this truth that Paul is pointing to; it’s diligence in the little things, in the suffering or mundane or beauty or ministry, that will ultimately fight for our faith.
Bob Goff said, “the kind of love that God created and demonstrated is a costly one because it involves sacrifice and presence. It's a love that operates more like a sign language than being spoken outright” (Love Does). This is our universal call, our ministry as followers of Jesus, to engage in real and messy Kingdom work and to love the broken and marginalized and forgotten. It’s a love that’s rarely convenient, probably not subservient to our dreams, but it’s beautiful because it’s not about us. In living into these tensions and fighting for others, we can receive the whole picture of who God is, His heart for us and His hope for humanity.
As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. - 2 Timothy 4:6-7 (NLT)
I’ve had the honor of leading a group of high school girls at our Lexington campus this year. It’s deeply life-giving and often hilarious, but some Wednesday nights I get home feeling so unqualified. Their vibrant hearts come with big questions I don’t always know how to answer, or my words don’t come out quite right, or I miss an opportunity to love them like I want to. But thank goodness God doesn’t expect perfection from me -- in ministry or in my love or in my devo-writing -- He delights in my steps as I walk with Him and move for His glory. He works through it all.
There is a beautiful simplicity in Paul’s declaration here, at the end of a devoted life; he doesn’t list his successes or failures or even all that the Lord has done through him, but simply says he fought, he finished, he remained faithful. He poured his life out as an offering. None of these things reflect his qualifications, they reflect his ability to show up and fight. The difficult truth is that we are all broken and all human, but the greater truth is that the Lord is in all our efforts, and the most valuable thing we have to offer is our presence and our surrender.
The language of being “poured out” here immediately reminds me of Mary pouring out the expensive perfume for Jesus; He honors her in this simple boldness, saying, “She did what she could… wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mark 14: 8-9) We are the clearest reflection of the Gospel when we can follow this example of simple boldness, the same example Paul gives -- we fight by showing up and surrendering all we have for the Kingdom.
And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. - 2 Timothy 4:8 (NLT)
We’ve spent the week on this passage of Scripture that’s a bit difficult; talking about fighting for our faith and preaching and suffering. The weightiness of it highlights my inadequacy -- I’m prone to selfishness and easily overwhelmed and a list of other things that make me read this passage like a checklist I can’t complete. And righteousness, like Paul is talking about here? I’ve got nothing.
But here’s the best thing: even here, we read the Lord will give us this crown of righteousness. We can’t earn it. Righteousness is not something we accomplish; it’s a quality He grows in us as we walk in discipleship with Him - both for our benefit and for the glory of His kingdom. There are no qualifications for closeness with the Father, we simply choose to pursue Him as He pursued us. Dallas Willard puts it this way: “But for all his manifest presence in our world, he must be sought. That is part of his plan and for our benefit. If we do seek him, he will certainly find us, and then we, ever more deeply, find him. That is the blessed existence of the disciple of Jesus who continuously ‘grows in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’” (2 Peter 3:18)” (The Great Omission).
I often have a heartcheck and ask myself, am I seeking the Lord for who He is, or for His answers and for what He can offer me? Because He absolutely has answers and blessings and goodness for His children, but He’s most worthy of being pursued simply because He pursued us first, because He’s beautiful in who He is. We fight most for our faith when we seek Him purely; when we get to find Him ever more deeply. It’s in our honest seeking that He grows His character in us, and we are free to carry His glory and look forward to the prize.