WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT IS NOT
A sermon on 2 Timothy 2: 8-15
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
October 13, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Novelist Dr. Gregory Maguire writes these thoughtful words about the function of memory in our lives: “Memory is a part of the present. It builds us up inside; it knits our bones to our muscles and keeps our hearts pumping. It is memory that reminds our bodies to work, and memory that reminds our spirits to work too: it keeps us who we are.”1 I think that last line is the most significant for our purposes today. Memory keeps us who we are…
Memory is a strange thing, isn’t it? And the longer that I live, the stranger memory seems to appear to me. For example, I can remember things that happened to me 50 years ago with the same kind of vivid clarity that makes it seem like they only happened yesterday. The sights, the sounds, the smells and the emotions that I felt at a particular time and place from my past can all come rushing back to me at a moment’s notice. And those sensations can be just as powerful as when I was experiencing them the first time around. Sometimes I choose to conjure up pleasant memories that I wish to enjoy over and over again. Those bits of nostalgia can be delightful. At other times, memories—some pleasant and some not so pleasant—can come to my mind without any prompting at all and for no particular reason that I can discern. Some of those memories I would just as soon leave me alone…
And then there is the opposite characteristic of memory that sometimes happens—short term memory. Have you ever had the experience of getting up to go into another room to do something, and by the time that you got there, you had forgotten what it was you went there for in the first place? I imagine that most of us have had that experience at one time or another. It used to irritate me when that would happen. But I’ve since gotten over it. Nowadays I just shrug it off, laugh, and figure that, if what I needed to do were really all that important, then it will eventually come back to me and I’ll do it then. And it usually does come back relatively soon…
Scientists who study such things tell us that it is our sense of smell that is the most powerful trigger of memory. When I first read that at first, I was a bit surprised. I thought it might have been something else. But upon further reflection, I think that it is probably true—at least it is true in my case. As an example, I have few memories of my maternal grandmother, Lula Mae Freimuth. Although she lived with us during her last few years, I was only seven or eight years old when she died of cancer. One thing that I remember about her was the bread that she would bake from time to time. She was of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage and one of her specialties was baking a particular kind of yeast bread that was stuffed with many different kinds of fruits and nuts and spices. Whenever I smell bread baking that
1 www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7025.Gregory_Maguire (Accessed October 9, 2019)
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contains similar ingredients, it triggers memories of my grandmother. And when I do, I can almost taste that bread that she would make as it came out of the oven…
Smells can also set off unpleasant memories as well. As most of you know, I spent a couple of years as a journeyman missionary in Japan back in the early ‘80’s. Toward the end of my time there, I came down with a case of food poisoning brought on by eating a bad batch of curried rice. I’ll tell you—I was miserable for three straight days. And for years afterward, wherever I would smell the scent of curry, I would get a queasy feeling down in the pit of my stomach. I could not stand the smell because it involuntarily reminded me of the time when it had made me sick. Eventually, the memory of that incident faded years later. Nowadays I can enjoy eating curry again without feeling ill. But it took awhile because the memory of eating that tainted curried rice was just that powerful…
In the passage from 2 Timothy that is the sermon text, the Apostle Paul calls Timothy to the remembrance of the things that are the essence of the gospel message. He writes in verse 8, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.”
The Greek word translated as “remember” in this verse is the word mnēmoneue. It is a word that is better translated as “keep on remembering.” The word is both a command and a reminder to Timothy that he is to continue to keep the living Christ ever before him. At the heart of this instruction lies the concept that becoming a Christian is not a once and forever, one-and-done experience. Instead, it is the recognition that following Jesus is a continuous process whereby the indwelling Holy Spirit works in us to more perfectly form us into the people that God wants us to be.
For too long in Baptist life, I think that we have adopted a model of following Jesus that majors on the need for a singular conversion experience. And we have done it to the exclusion of most everything else. You all know what I am talking about. As Baptists, we proclaim the gospel with an eye to introducing people to the Risen Christ. And that is what we should do. It is an important part of the task that the church has been given by the Lord himself. And so we present the gospel message and we trust that the Spirit will work in the hearts of those who hear it—those who do not yet know Jesus as Lord and Savior. And when they give an indication that they want to follow Jesus, then we ask them to walk down the church aisle, to shake the preacher’s hand, and to publically profess their faith in Jesus. We ask them to do this with their words and through the ordinance of baptism. And we do this as if this is the goal and the sum total of what it means to be a Christian.
Nothing wrong with any of those things as far as they go. Those are all good things. We should encourage people to openly respond to the gospel message and to become part of a local church community. But the Apostle Paul wants us to know in this passage is that that is NOT all there is to being a follower of Jesus. In the life of faith, conversion is not just the once-in-a-lifetime event that we have portrayed it to be. NO—in very real sense, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be in a state of continuing conversion. That is, we give to the Lord all of who we are as best as we know how. And then as we live the life of faith, the Lord reveals to us areas in our lives where we have yet to be as committed to him as we are in others. And it is a process that we undergo throughout our lives.
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There are also times in the life of the Spirit when our love for Jesus may grow a bit cooler than it once was. It does not matter who you are or what your story is. It does not matter if you are a novice in the faith or if you have walked with the Lord for several decades. If we are being honest with ourselves and with the Lord, we will find that there are times in our lives when we need to rekindle our dedication to God with a renewed passion. We need to live with a fresh determination to be more of who God wants us to become. This is also what I mean when I say that we are all called to be in a state of continuing conversion in the life of the Spirit. The Christian life is not static. There is an ebb-and-flow in the life of the Spirit. Times of joy and times of dryness. Times of spiritual feasting and of spiritual fasting. And so we have the need for a continuing conversion…And the memory of who Jesus is and what he has done for us—and of what we have promised in return—plays a critical role in keeping our minds and hearts focused on him…Remembering Jesus should move us to have grateful hearts full of thanksgiving for what he has done for us. And it should also move us to look to our Lord for guidance in how to live the life that he desires in us…
Scholars tell us that this letter to Timothy was written towards the end of Paul’s life. He had labored long and hard for the Lord, and for his pains, he tells us in verse 9, “I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal.”
[Side bar here: Interestingly, this word for “criminal” that Paul uses in verse 9 is the very same Greek word that is used to describe the two thieves that were crucified on either side of Jesus.2 It gives a new depth of meaning to Paul’s declaration in Galatians 2:20 that “I have been crucified with Christ,” doesn’t it? I wonder if he had that in mind when he wrote these words to Timothy…Hmmmm…I think that there’s probably another sermon lurking in there—but it’s a sermon that will have to wait for another time…]
Paul was languishing in a cold dungeon with an uncertain future, wondering if he would ever feel fresh air on his face again. And yet notice something remarkable—the tone of this letter to Timothy is really upbeat. Paul is not grousing about his conditions, though he had every right to because he was being falsely imprisoned. Nor is he wishing that his situation was different and he was free. Instead he writes, “Yes, I am in chains, but the word of God is not chained. And secure in that knowledge, I can endure…” He doesn’t seem at all to be discouraged by what is happening to him…
Adoniram Judson is a name that is famous among those who study Baptist history. One prominent Virginia Baptist leader of his generation called him “The Father of American Missions.”3 In 1812, Adoniram Judson sailed with his wife to join the mission effort already begun in India by William Carey. But circumstances changed, and instead of going to India, they wound up establishing a pioneer
2 See Luke 23:29. 3 The speaker was Jeremiah Bell Jeter. This info on Adoniram Judson is taken from John Allen Moore, Baptist
Mission Portraits (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1994), 43-108.
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mission station in Rangoon, Burma. It was tough sledding for the Judsons from the very earliest days of the mission.
To begin with, the tropical climate of Burma did not suit either one of them and it took a toll on their health over the years. And neither of them could speak a word of the Burmese language when they arrived. Since there was no one from whom they could learn it, they had to learn it entirely on their own. They also discovered that there was no written form of the Burmese language at that time. It was an entirely oral culture. So Adoniram had to invent a written language for the Burmese in order to translate the New Testament and produce other writings explaining the gospel message in the language of the people. And that’s not all the difficulties that they faced…
Add to that the Burmese government’s general suspicion of the Judsons. They regularly faced unreasonable tax assessments, threats, and other annoyances from the local authorities. And on the horizon, the clouds of war were forming. Great Britain was raising an army in India with the intention of invading Burma and adding it to its colonial empire. Because he was an Anglo foreigner, Adoniram was immediately suspected of being a spy for the British. The accusations were all false, of course. But he was still arrested and tossed into jail a number of times under the harshest of conditions. Much of his time was spent in a notorious place known throughout Burma as “Death Prison.” During those times of incarceration, he was repeatedly tortured and came very close to dying from the diseases that he contracted while he was in there.
Despite their hard work, sacrifices, and diligence, Adoniram and his wife Anne preached and taught in Burma for a full six years before they ever had a single convert. One would think that they would have become discouraged by the apparent fruitlessness of their labors for so long a time. And you would be right. Adoniram’s diary records that, at times, they were very discouraged. But in spite of their apparent lack of success, their confidence in God never wavered. Adoniram wrote these words in his diary in 1822 when the future of the mission was looking grim. He wrote, “Notwithstanding present difficulties and dangers, it is to be remembered that this work is not yours or ours, but the work of God. If God gives light, the religion will spread. Nothing can impede it.”4 And he was right. It seems to me that those words from this courageous 19th Century Baptist hero closely echo the words of the Apostle Paul in verse 9, “I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained…”
In the few minutes that we have remaining, I want to briefly sum up some of what the Apostle Paul teaches us in this passage. I am going to make a statement that I do not think that I have ever heard a preacher say from the pulpit in all my years of going to church. What I want to say, and partially what the Apostle Paul is saying here, is this. Let’s just tell the truth: Being a Christian is hard. Following Jesus is not easy. And nowhere in the Bible does it say otherwise.
4 Ibid., 67. Emphasis mine.
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Consider this…The Apostle Paul and Adoniram Judson were two people who suffered greatly because they followed Jesus. They were both wrongly imprisoned. They were both tortured for their faith. They were both accused of things that they did not do. Neither of them lived a life of comfort and ease. They put their very lives on the line everyday for the sake of the gospel. And only God knows what kind of inner struggles and doubts that they faced during their lives…
Most of us here are not likely to be called upon to make the kinds of sacrifices for Christ as they were. But following Jesus is not easy here in 21st Century Lynchburg either. As Christians, we are called upon to live our lives in different ways than everyone else. We are called upon to not retaliate when we are wronged by others. We are called upon to love everyone. That includes even those who are unlovely, those that we do not like or those that we think are not deserving of our love. We are called to live our lives transparently as though we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven. We are called to live lives of honesty and integrity and kindness in a time where those virtues are not highly valued by those who seek an easier way.
And inside of all of us who call Jesus “Lord,” there is this never-ending battle between the old sinful nature that wants to satisfy its own selfish desires, and the new self that God is creating inside of us through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Though I have been following Jesus for most of my life, that old sinful self is stubborn. It will not die or give up. Sometimes it manages to get the upper hand even in spite of my best intentions. To master our old selves so that we may become more like the person God desires us to be is not easy by any means. Not for anyone. Let no one think otherwise. Following Jesus is hard spiritual work.
I have been following Jesus as best as I have known how for more than five decades. It has not always been an easy journey. Sometimes it has been difficult. Sometimes I have not always been able to clearly see where God was leading. I have gone down a couple of paths that led to dead ends. And I have made plenty of mistakes along the way when my actions did not line up with what Jesus would have me to do.
While there are some things in my life that I would do differently if I had the chance to do them over, one thing that I would not change is my dedication to following Jesus wherever he leads. Through the good times and the bad, through the pains and the doubts, through the times of mountain top experiences and the depths of spiritual valleys, I have found in following Jesus a satisfaction that I do not think that I could have experienced any other way. A presence to walk beside me. A confidence in God’s promises that leads ultimately to life. I would not trade it for anything…
And I wish the same thing for you, my friends. Paul tells us, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” God brought Jesus back to life—and his new life can be mine and yours if we follow in his way. Jesus said, “I come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” That is my prayer for you today…and always.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
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WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT IS NOT