Letters For Life - 2 Timothy 2
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Have you ever had a family get together during the holidays that was embarrassing? (Alright, I’m putting you all down on the naughty list for lying). One of the things I’ve found in my ministry is that sometimes church folk put the pastor on a pedestal. And because of that sometimes people are shocked to learn that my family is made up of… people. For example, sometimes people share with me an embarrassing family story and they’ll sort of look at me sheepishly and say, “my family has a few nuts.” And every time it is my joy and pleasure to inform them: “Nuts? The entire world is a big ol’ bowl of disappointing trail mix - not enough chocolate, too many nuts.” Sometimes people are surprised to learn that every family has a little bit of dysfunction. I remember one time, there was a mom talking to me about how hurt she was when her son said, “I hate you” - and I said, “Oh man, I hate it when my kids say that.” And she looked at me like I had sprouted antlers. YOUR kids? But they’re little angels, they would never! Oh, yes they would. My kids don’t like boundaries any more than yours. It was weird how comforted she was to find out that everybody’s family is a little messed up. I remember one year my cousin and my uncle got in a fight at thanksgiving. It was a few years ago, Sara and I were married - but I don’t think we had kids yet. And everybody had finished eating, and there was a moment when my aunt said, “we have a litter of puppies in the basement if anybody wants to go play with the puppies” and then my cousin and my uncle faced off about something - I can’t remember what it was, I think it was politics. And so the choice was get trapped in a room with two people arguing about politics, screaming at each other, or go play with puppies. Sara was the wise one - she bugged out of there to go play with the puppies. But I stayed. Because they were standing next to the dessert table. Curse my love of banana cream pie. Have you ever had a horrible, embarrassing holiday family fight?
And maybe I’m crazy, but it seems like those fights are getting worse and worse. As families, as people - we are forgetting how to disagree with one another and still play nice during the white elephant gift exchange. Like, there will always be things to argue about (of course), but I think people are getting worse at disagreeing. There’s no respect for the “other” side anymore. Every election year I can’t tell you how many people I counsel and comfort because their family won’t talk to them because they’re on the other side of the political aisle. And the stress of the holiday season certainly doesn’t help much - in our immediate families, in our extended families, and as a society we have forgotten how to disagree with love. But this is not a new problem. What’s amazing about our scripture lesson today is that Paul is writing to his buddy Timothy, but you could probably add your name right next to Timothy’s name. My dearest Timothy (and JJ), let me teach how to navigate conflict. And that’s what we’re going to talk about today - so let’s dive in.
So we are going to zoom in on chapter two of 2nd Timothy. If you are a first time guest with us today - welcome, I’m so glad you’re here - let me catch you up on what we’ve been doing. As a church, we have been reading through the ENTIRE bible in a year. We followed the old testament with the history of Israel and all that, then we followed the story of Jesus - his life, death and resurrection. And most recently we’ve been reading through the part in the New Testament that’s all about the early church. We know that Peter and Paul and the rest of the disciples, they’ve spread out all over the middle eastern world telling everyone about Jesus - but a lot of what we’ve been reading lately are letters written to these early churches. There’s this guy named Paul who wrote most of the letters - and the letters we’ve read deal with three main things: Encouragement, Teachings, and Conflict Management (Or sometimes all three mixed together). He’s trying to teach these churches how to live, how to love and how to fight. So we’re checking out the book of Timothy - why is it called Timothy? Because Paul wrote it to his buddy named Timothy. Chapter 2 starts out, [read v.1-2]. Paul has been mentoring Timothy and he’s trying to give him some advice on how to lead his church well.
Now there’s a fun little interpretation trick I want to show you - where there is SMOKE, there’s probably fire. What that means in the scriptures is that if Paul is scolding them for something, it means that someone is doing that thing. Where there is smoke, there’s probably fire. It’s kind of like - have you ever seen a sign and thought - wait, what happened that made them put this sign up? Like this lovely sign that is printed on the glass of a Chinese Buffet! Now why would they have to put that sign up? Because somebody was parking it at the buffet all day. Or this one, left by a cat owner for the rest of the family. You can imagine they put that sign up because kitty probably got stuck. Or one more - this lovely hand-written number put in a store, because apparently people were trying to EAT the decorative apples. Where there is smoke there is fire, where Paul is scolding - probably someone was doing that thing in the church. So keep that in mind and we dive into verse 16. [read v.16-18]. Avoid worthless talk that leads to fighting. Our translation says “cancer” but the greek is “gangrene” - which is like a bacterial infection that causes death to skin cells. Avoid worthless talk. And then he gives examples - he calls people out by name! Can you imagine if that’s how I preached? Avoid worthless talk, don’t gossip - you know, like Joshua does. Oh boy, don’t be like him. Now there’s a cultural element in there - but very clearly where there is smoke, there is fire. And he repeats himself throughout the chapter. Verse 14, [read it]. Verse 23, [read it]. So what we see is that the church Timothy is in charge of is having a problem with their words. Useless arguments, foolish talk and ignorant statements that only start fights. The guidance from Paul - in the church, but also just in our personal lives, is basically watch you mouth. Watch your mouth - now I’m not talking about curse words or whatever. I’m saying watch what kind of speech comes out of your mouth. Are your words encouraging or are your words full of complaints? When you walk out of church on a Sunday morning, what’s on your mind, what’s on your lips? Is it a list of things you didn’t like? Or is it a list of praises you have for the God who loves you? When you walk into a family dinner - is the first thing that occurs to you complaints about the decoration or which foods you don’t like? Or do your lips have words of joy and thanksgiving for time spent with people you love?
Your words have power - Paul knew it, Timothy knew it, I know it, you know it - words are powerful! Your lips have a direct line to your heart, and if you fill our mouth with complaints it won’t be long before that gets down into your heart. But here’s the good news. Just like the way words of complaint can bring your heart down - words of celebration lift your heart up! I tell you a quick story. Did you know that pastors are some of the biggest whiners I have ever met? It’s true! This is not just me pointing fingers, I’m lookin in the mirror with this. Couple of years ago, I was on a Conference committee for the old denomination. And once a month we would meet in Lansing - probably 30-40 pastors in the room. And I noticed something that used to drive me crazy. We’d all gather, and we’d be coming in and taking our coats off - and I was a new pastor at this point. I’d been a pastor for maybe 1 or 2 years. And you come in and you’d always ask, “How’s your church doing?” And the response was always this massive list of complaints. Well, I got in a fight with the choir director and people were complaining about the bulletin again and nobody’s volunteering for my new initiative and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I never heard such a bunch of cotton-headed ninny-muggins! The negative words, the complaints on their lips - it spread like wildfire, like gangrene. Now I’m over here, and I’m this fresh faced brand new pastor, and I’m all excited about my church and I’ll never forget this I literally had a woman, a veteran pastor of 20 years, she turned to me and said, “Oh, you still like ministry - well give it a few years and they’ll wear you down eventually.” Ten years later - I love ministry even more! Don’t give me that nonsense. Your words have power and so you need to be careful to put positive words of gratitude and joy on your lips so that they will lift your heart. And I’m in this group and I decided to perform a little experiment. The next time we met, a month later, I waited for the question. How are things with your church? Aw, well - grumble, grumble. But I decided that I was going to speak first - and I was going to RAVE about my church. OH man! Let me tell you about all the cool stuff God is doing in the church. I’m so excited about this and we’re doing this new project and we’re getting into the community in this way - and I just start going on and on about how wonderful God is and how awesome it is to work on the front lines of what God is doing in the world. And then something happened. The grumpy lady, she walked back her statement. She had been going on about how terrible things were, but after I gushed about how amazing things could be she said, “well, we do have this really cool bible study we just started with some of our senior citizens and it’s been really great to watch people grow and flourish even in their later years.” Turns out she had piles of awesome stories - but her lips were full of complaints, and her heart was dragged down because of it. Words are powerful, so watch your mouth.
The letter continues, [read v.20-21]. It’s like this passage was written for Christmastime. By show of hands, how many of you have a set of dishes or china or silverware that you have not actually used? You know - the “fancy” plates that you’re saving just in case the pope or the king of England or like, I don’t know - Bono? We have one of these in my house. My grandmother, my Oma, is actually a professional china painter. For years and years she would hand paint these priceless pieces of china. And as a wedding present she gave us this gorgeous tea set, each piece hand-painted. And I remember opening it up after the wedding, marveling at it’s beauty, and then packing it right back up in the bubble wrap. Right? My children are not even aware that that set exists! (And we’re going to keep it that way, right?). Christmastime the fancy dishes come out, and then Paul flips that to our lives. We keep ourselves pure, we work hard at purity, we make decisions in our life that will keep us in good spiritual shape - so that God can use us. You can’t teach people how good honesty is if you’re out here lying all the time. You can’t show people the value of honesty and talk about how we shouldn’t steal - if you’re out here stealing! Paul ties it in to sexual purity. [read v.22]. Run away from youthful lusts, and surround yourself with Christians who will help you grow. He says, “enjoy the companionship of those who call on the lord with pure hearts.” That means hang out with Christians! Surround yourself with good influences who will help you grow and live the Christian life! And it’s not about us - so that we can walk around with our nose in the air thinking about how pure we all are. It’s so that God can use us. When you hold onto purity and surround yourself with good influences - God can use you more and more in the world to help others. First Paul wants us to watch our mouth and then he wants us to pursue purity and Godly community.
When I was in college (I went to a Christian college), and I had this one exam - and it was a weird format where we could take the exam anytime we wanted. She said you have an hour and a half, and it’s NOT an open book exam. And one student raised his hand and asked, “Well, wait - how will we be timed? How will you know how much time we take to write and how will you know if we used our books during the exam?” And the professor stopped, and it was amazing because she was so baffled. She stopped, looked around the room and said, “You are Christians. We are people of honesty and integrity. That’s how I know you won’t cheat.” I don’t know about the rest of those students but when I sat down to take that exam in my little study corner - I set up a timer and I put the books away. Because she’s right! We’re Christians - and that should MEAN something with how we live our lives! We are the special occasion silverware - and we pursue purity so that God can use us. We need to be above reproach.
Paul keeps going, [read v.23-26]. A servant of the lord must not quarrel, be kind to everyone, be able to teach and be patient with difficult people. Now I want to walk through this slowly. “A servant of the Lord” - that’s obviously Christians. Don’t quarrel, be kind, be patient and be able to teach. Paul is digging for something. He’s very clearly aiming at something and here’s what it is - there is no version of the Christian life that is a competition. We are not better than other people. Paul is describing a humble, teaching spirit. It is NOT an attitude of judgment, it’s an attitude of encouragement. There is no “us” pointing fingers at “them” - there is us coming alongside other people. We are not perfect people fixing broken people - we are starving people who show other starving people where to find the bread of Life. Basically what he is saying is that our criticism must ALWAYS be constructive, and our correction must always be kind. The first step to disagreeing as Christians is humility and a spirit of encouragement. And I want to zoom in on verse 25 for a second. Listen to it again, [read it]. Gently instruct, but remember that it is God who changes people’s hearts. I think you see this come up a lot in family disagreements. Our children, our grand-children, niece, nephew - whatever - someone in our life whom we love has gone off the rails, walked away from their faith. And we want to convince them of the truth. We want them to come back to the house of God, to the family of God, come back to Jesus and the good news he gives. And we can gently instruct, with a spirit of encouragement, we can humbly teach - but we cannot change hearts. You can try everything (and you SHOULD), but at the end of the day, it’s God’s job to change hearts. You can’t force someone to be a good person, you can’t force someone to accept Jesus - that’s not how it works.
I think some people tried the gentle way, the patient way - and that didn’t immediately work, so now they want to try a more aggressive way. If he won’t listen, I’ll force him to listen. I promise that will not succeed. On the other hand, I think there’s some folks who don’t even try! There’s a whole bunch of people who think that “if I’m going to be kind, then I have to agree with them.” We try to be good, kind Christians - but we forget the teaching spirit! Disagreement does not mean there is a lack of love. Some people will say, “if you love me, then you’ll support me. You’ll agree with me.” But that is a lie! And it is why we are so bad at disagreements in the modern world. We have forgotten that we can disagree with kindness. That we can gently instruct those who oppose us. Christians have a unique position. Christians should be able to look someone in the eyes and say, “I completely disagree with everything you just said, but I love you and I hope you have a great night.” First, watch your mouth. Second, pursue purity and Christian community - so that you can be a useful utensil for God. Third, when we disagree we need a spirit of humility, encouragement and teaching.
Basically, what I want you to see from Paul’s words today is that God CARES about how we live our lives. There’s a reason we aren’t zipped up into heaven the moment we are saved. There’s a reason God set up Christianity as a team sport. This is the place where we learn how to love. This is the place where we learn how to disagree and struggle and say sorry and forgive and learn to love all over again. I’m not going to put a burden of perfection on you this morning - but I DO want to put the burden of PROGRESS. We’re not going to “poof” magically turn into perfect people when we accept Jesus into our heart - BUT at the same time, there should be an expectation that the longer we know Jesus, the longer the Holy Spirit has been working on our heart - the more we should grow! God cares about how we live our lives - so live your life like Jesus. Whether it’s at holiday dinner with family, with a stranger in a coffee shop or in the church of God - there is a way Christians should live their lives, and every day we wake up in service to Jesus, we should be making progress towards perfection.
Back in 2 Corinthians, there’s this great line I wanted to show you. Chapter 2, verse 14 reads, [read v.14-15a]. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance. I have a friend who says it like this - does your life smell like Jesus? Do you understand what I mean when I say that? Like, have you ever come into a family gathering and the smells coming out of the kitchen and you’re just like, “Ah, that smells like home.” Or “Mmmmmm, that smells like Christmas.” So that’s my challenge for you - I want you to smell like Jesus. (Not that I want you to smell like a poor middle eastern man from thousands of years ago - but I want you to smell like kindness. I want you to smell like patient and an encouraging, teaching spirit. I want your life to smell like humility and coming alongside people. Paul gives us practical ways to get it done. First, clean a dirty mouth. Make sure your words are lifting your heart, and not dragging you down. Keep complaints out of your mouth, but use your powerful words to encourage and uplift. Second, clean a dirty mind - pursue purity and Christian community. We want to be useful to God, and so we need to be above reproach. And third and finally, when you disagree, let it be with a spirit of encouragement. Let it be constructive and covered in love. Christians should be people who hold their beliefs strongly, and also love extravagantly. We should be able to look someone in the eyes, not look sideways as if we’re embarrassed, but look them in the eyes and say, “I completely disagree with you, but I love you.” That’s my challenge for you today - get out there and smell like Jesus.
Where there is smoke, there’s usually fire. Paul is writing this letter to his buddy Timothy because the people back then were struggling with how to live out the way of Jesus in their lives. That’s what is so amazing about these scriptures - we still struggle with these things, and so Paul’s advice is still incredibly relevant for us here in our lives today! If you take these teachings about your words, about your community and about your disagreements - you might just do alright at your next holiday gathering. Let’s pray.