I want to take just a minute to let everyone know how thankful I am for having been given the gift of my sabbatical. The 3 months away was a wonderful time for Jennifer and me. I was sent into my sabbatical with much prayer for rest and renewal and I can say unequivocally that those many prayers were answered in full. I am rested, I am renewed, and I also have gained a good deal of clarity about many things. It’s good to be back! Again, thank you for giving me the time away… I don’t think I will ever be able to fully express my gratitude.
Oh, and something else… I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I have come back from my sabbatical during our ‘Carry On’ series… a series in which we are looking back at the first 30 years of Grace Church while at the same time we’re looking to the future… looking forward to ‘Carrying On’ into the next 30 years of Grace. And we are doing this ‘looking back’ and ‘looking forward’ while taking stock of some important lessons found in the 2 New Testament books of 1st and 2nd Timothy. These 2 ‘books,’ as we call them today, were personal letters written by the Apostle Paul to a young man named Timothy, a young man who recently had been appointed the pastor of the fledgling church in Ephesus, a church, by the way, that Paul had planted. Amy and Barry gave us a good deal of contextual background related to Paul’s letters to Timothy in the first two ‘Carry On’ series sermons. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to those two sermons, I strongly recommend that you do. One thing I do want to point out though before we move ahead, is that these two letters from Paul to Timothy, along with the letter Paul wrote to Titus have long been referred to as ‘The Pastoral Epistles’ and it’s easy to see why. Paul, possibly the best known and most respected ‘pastor’ of the early church, wrote these letters to help guide Pastor Timothy and Pastor Titus as they led their respective churches in Ephesus and Crete. But a number of scholars have said that calling these 3 books ‘The Pastoral Epistles’ may not quite catch the full essence of these letters. They say these letters should instead be called ‘The Mentoring Epistles’ and I can see why these scholars would say this. You see, Paul wasn’t simply dispensing dry, practical, pastoral information in these letters… no, most of what he shares with Timothy and Titus comes from the wisdom he’d gained during his many decades laboring as a pastor; plus, his letters were clearly purposed to bolster these two young men as they took on the difficult responsibility of leading the churches in Ephesus and Crete. And sharing wisdom and bolstering younger leader’s confidence is, at least to me, the essence of mentoring. These are the mentoring letters!
And Paul’s mentoring of Timothy and Titus absolutely resonates with me at this moment in the life of our church and in this stage of my ministry here at Grace. To be honest with you, I did do a lot of looking back during my sabbatical time… but I also did a great deal of contemplating the future. While looking back it was clear to me that the early days of Grace, those first years of often flying by the seat of our pants, those days were all about the future… they were all about looking for what exciting things God wanted us to do next! And as Barry pointed out last week, and as hard as it is to believe, those of us in leadership during those heady days 30 years ago were younger then than Grace’s leadership team is today. But we weren’t out on a limb on our own then… we were supported by an older generation of men and women who had been down the planting-a-new-church road before and had they had faith in us. Last week Barry named two specific older couples that stood with us from day one: Howard and Gyneth Luginbill and Ron and Judy Bowman… And there were also others, Gene and Bev Shaffer and Betty VanCampen, to name 3 other older folk, older people let us lead, but they were also continually present in our lives to buffer our excesses with their wisdom and encourage us in the times when we were insecure and uncertain. Now, it’s been a long time since those early days of Grace and the world is now a very different place… but as Barry said last week, there are also a good number of similarities between those early days and today: 30 years ago, we were moving into uncharted waters with new leadership, driven by a mission that we couldn’t escape. And that is so similar to today… we’re again in uncharted waters… there is new leadership… and yet we are still driven by the same unescapable mission. And so, I think it is absolutely appropriate for us to be looking at 1st and 2nd Timothy this month, because while these 2 letters are essentially look-to-the-future messages, they were written by a wise, accomplished man who was hoping to stir his successors into God’s future! And this resonates with me! Now, please don’t think that I am comparing myself to Paul in any way… I’m not even hinting at that, but this is why this resonates with me: Paul’s ministry wasn’t over, not by a long shot, but it was winding down, and Paul was making certain that he, as an older and more seasoned servant of Jesus, challenged these 2 new, younger leaders to, as he says in verse 19 of chapter 1, ‘Cling to their faith in Christ and to keep their conscious’ clean.’ And I understand this completely. I don’t feel that my ministry is yet over, but the time has come for me, as an older, more seasoned pastor to challenge both you, the people of Grace, and in particular, anyone in the new generation of leadership here at Grace, to ‘Cling to your faith in Christ and live and serve in a manner that your consciouses remain clear and clean.’ And the passage we will be looking at today speaks directly to ‘clinging to our faith and keeping our consciouses clean…’ Today’s passage is 1st Timothy 6:17-19. You can find these verses on page ??? in our house Bible. While you are looking up those verses, I want you to know that verses 17-19 are the final 3 verses in a much longer passage that essentially brings an end to Paul’s letter… and this longer passage has a theme, and that theme is: there are great dangers in focusing your life on gaining riches. Now, I want to be clear, Paul never says anywhere in this passage, or anywhere else for that matter, that having wealth or attaining wealth is bad or wrong or even to be avoided. He simply says, well, let’s just read it… look back at verse 5 of chapter 6 and we’ll start there. Now, up to this point Paul has been talking to Timothy about problems that come from false teachers… and at the end of verse 5 he says this, ‘To them,’ (speaking of the false teachers) a show of godliness is just a way to become wealthy!’ That’s a strong statement… but it often true, even now! And then he goes on in verse 6 to say, ‘Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So, if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. But people who long to be rich (which, by the way, in the 1st Century being rich meant not having to work, as in labor, to make ends meet) fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. This strong warning would have been very relevant in the prosperous, cosmopolitan city of Ephesus. There was a great diversity of social status and wealth in Ephesus… just from this letter we learn that there were slaves, peasants, merchants and the very wealthy in Ephesus and we also know that there were slaves, peasants, merchants and the very rich in the church… and there must have been plenty of people, in the church no less, who were ‘craving’ money to the point that they would do anything to get it. If that hadn’t been the case, I don’t think Paul would have brought it up! I love the way the great Greek scholar Alfred Marshall translated the Greek word that gives us ‘craving’ (here in this verse. He translates it as ‘hankering after!’ People were hankering after money to the point that they’d do anything… and Paul says all that this ‘hankering’ leads to is many sorrows. But Paul then turns immediately to telling Timothy what he should ‘crave.’ And here is my translation of verse 11 says ‘Timothy, man of God, you need to run from the evil things; you should be hankering after righteousness, hankering after a godly life, hankering after faith, hankering after love, hankering after perseverance and hankering after gentleness.’ And can I just say, if you are truly hankering after righteousness and godliness and faith and love and such, it will keep your conscious clean!
Oh, and one aside, notice how verse 11 in our house Bible begins, ‘But you, Timothy, are a man of God.’ The raw Greek actually says this, ‘But you, O Man of God.’ Calling someone a ‘Man of God’ wasn’t something people threw around… this was a very revered title… in fact, only a handful of people in the Old Testament were ever given the title ‘Man of God’ and it’s a striking list: Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah and Elisha. Can you imagine how affirming it would have been for Timothy to have Paul, Paul of all people, refer to him as a ‘Man of God.’ To me, this is supportive mentoring at its best. Paul, through this one little phrase, elevates Timothy to a level on par with Moses and David. I’m certain it lifted Timothy’s spirit, plus, I’m sure it also lifted his reputation with those who might have thought he was too young and inexperienced to be the pastor of the Ephesian church. Again, Paul the mentor.
Once Paul finished telling Timothy, “What he should be ‘hankering after,’” he fell into a grand aside… something Paul is known for doing… and this grand aside is a wild one! Watch how the subject changes… starting in Verse 12: Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. And I charge you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate, that you obey this command without wavering. Then no one can find fault with you from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again. For, at just the right time Christ will be revealed from heaven by the blessed and only almighty God, the King of all kings and Lord of all lords. He alone can never die, and he lives in light so brilliant that no human can approach him. No human eye has ever seen him, nor ever will. All honor and power to him forever! Amen. Whew! Did you see how Paul couldn’t help but start preaching about our glorious God and his son, Jesus? And my bet is that Paul, once he’d finished this emotional affirmation of the truth about God and Jesus, he took a deep breath and sat silently for a bit… and after a minute or two of silence, his secretary, the person that was writing down Paul’s words, asked, ‘Are we done here, Paul? The scroll is almost filled. You’ve got a bit more space left, but that was a very solid ending. Shall we wrap this letter up?’ And then I can hear Paul saying, ‘No, I have one more thing to say to Timothy…’ and then Paul says this. Verse 17: Teach (this is too nice… the word means ‘charge’ as in ‘order’) those who are rich in this world not to be proud (high minded… it comes from a word (hyselphroneho) that means to haughtily lift up your eyes like you are looking at a mountain top) and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. (this ‘future’ isn’t in heaven, by the way… this is an earthbound truth… Paul is saying that generosity now leads to experiencing the best life, now!)
I know that this letter was meant to be a personal letter… from one man to another. But my guess is that when Timothy received it, the word got out that Paul had written to Timothy and then some of the leaders of the church in Ephesus asked to read it and then someone said the letter needed to be read aloud to everyone in the church… and then the letter was copied and shared with other churches and eventually it declared to be an authoritative message from God to the entire church… and that message is this: True life now comes from being rich in good works, rich in generosity and rich in being ready to share with any who are in need. I’m thinking that some, if not many, of the Christians in Ephesus had lost sight of the importance of sharing their gifts and their lives with others. Again, if this hadn’t been the case, Paul wouldn’t have charged Timothy so strongly to teach the importance of being generous. Now, again, Paul was not commanding Timothy to teach against being wealthy… but he was commanding Timothy to remind those who are rich about 2 important things: first, avoid being proud and putting your trust in your money. And second, use the opportunities that come from being ‘wealthy’ for doing good and for helping others… in other words, see your good circumstances as an opportunity for being generous.
Now, I know that what Paul says here probably seems obvious: it’s important to be generous… but, like I said earlier, there must have been a good number of Christians in Ephesus who’d either forgotten or were discounting the stories of the outrageously generosity that had characterized the early days of the Church… and can I add that, yes, the early church in Jerusalem, as we read in the Book of Acts, was characterized by outrageous generosity of money, but it was also characterized by outrageous generosity of time and energy and gifts and service. And Paul’s message is one that is still important for us today! I know from my own life, especially now that I am older, that it’s so easy to sit back and let others ‘be rich in good works and generosity.’ It’s so easy to let others build the good foundation for the future! But, just as in Paul’s day, it will still take all of us giving our energies, resources, and time to accomplish all that God has called us to do together here in this moment and in the moments to come.
I want to speak to something directly related to this ‘being ready to share with others’ business… something unrelated to money… that has been a lesson to me for all of my 30 years at Grace. When the entire idea of Grace was first born and Dave Rod was chosen by the leadership of Faith Church to be the senior pastor, that position was unlike any other he had every held. Overnight he went from being a youth pastor to being the senior leader and THE voice of the new, exploding Grace Community Church. I don’t have to tell you how tightly most senior pastors hold on to their pulpits. But from day one, Dave was generous with the ‘wealth’ of influence and stature he’d been given. From day one he opened his pulpit to me at a time when I was simply a landscaper with a heart for teaching God’s word… and Dave’s generosity, his willingness to share his position and his influence with others made my being a pastor a possibility. And here is the lesson I have never forgotten: Nothing that comes to me from the hand of God is mine to hold on to… and generosity like Dave’s in that time led to a good foundation that over his 30 years at Grace brought true life to thousands.
And Grace Church still needs all of us to be this kind of generous in these days of building the foundation for the next 30 years. We are a community that is filled with the rich: rich in time… rich in influence… rich in wisdom and yes, some even rich in money… and everyone’s generosity is needed if we are going to build a good foundation that will make it possible for this church to continue to be a place where people meet Jesus, become disciples, and are then launched into the mission of God.
Last week I came back from my sabbatical and I will admit I had a case of what I’ve been referring to as emotional vertigo. But as it happened, during my first meeting back, the lead team was talking about some of the general difficulties of finding work/life balance and I asked one of the members of the team if they had anyone older in their lives that knew them well and loved them… someone who would help them get things right when their work life and their family life were out of whack And this person, one of your leaders looked at me and quietly said, ‘That would be you.’ And in that moment my vertigo leveled out. I do not know what the length of my tenure here at Grace will ultimately be, but in the meantime, I pledge to you that I will strive to give my energies and my riches, however that may be defined, to Carrying On… to building as good a foundation for the future as I can… with the singular purpose of making Grace a place where all who enter can experience true life. And THIS Timothy’s request is that you join me. Would you, as Paul commanded his Timothy to remind us, would you be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. For by doing this you will be storing up treasure as a good foundation for the future and in doing these things you too will experience true life.