A Chain of Thought

A Chain of Thought

A Chain of Thought               19th Pentecost

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5     Luke 18:1-8

What is your favorite kind of teacher? I’ll give you a couple of choices, and you decide which one you like best:

  • A teacher who makes you uncomfortable, but helps you grow; or
  • A teacher who confirms your current beliefs and makes you feel good.

I could ask the same question about what kinds of things you like to read. Would you prefer:

  • Something that sometimes challenges you, makes you stop and think? Or
  • Something that purely entertains you and does not require any self-examination?

Fortunately, I am prepared to offer you something that has the best of both worlds!

  • Reading material that is BOTH fascinating AND growth-producing;
  • A Teacher whose teaching will RESONATE with the TRUTH you already know AND will s-t-r-e-t-c-h you into the full-sized person that you were meant to be!

Our theme for today is How to Choose Our Teachers. It turns out that this is one of the supreme tasks of our life! Choose the wrong teachers and your life gets derailed. Think about all the things that are vying to be our teachers:

  1. Television and movies want to be our teachers;
  2. People who post on the internet and on our social media want to be our teachers;
  3. The society at large wants to be our teacher;
  4. Your gossiping neighbor or co-worker wants to be your teacher!

Our Scripture from Timothy is an encouragement to choose a particular teacher. Paul is urging us to read and to trust the Scriptures as we grow in our trust of Jesus Christ! And, though it seems like a HUGE claim, we proclaim that this Teacher is none other than God’s own self!

In the final analysis, the choice is up to each of us. WE are the ones to decide whom (or what) will be the voice of authority in our lives! So today I want to explore some of the claims of Jesus (as revealed in Scripture) as the BEST authority to have in one’s life. Let’s take a look.

Inspired by God

In his letter to Timothy, Paul warns him about people who choose “teachers to suit their own desires” because of their “itching ears.” He says they “turn away from truth.” So, his advice is to stick with the sacred writings that Timothy has known from his youth. (I don’t believe Paul thought that his very letters would come to be accepted as “sacred writings” in years to come, but today we apply his words about Scripture to both the Old and New Testaments.) Stick with the sacred writings, because all Scripture is inspired by God.

This means that God’s Holy Spirit engaged with those who wrote the Scriptures, and is instrumental in helping US as we read and listen for God’s word.

Now, of course, there are helpful things to read besides the Bible. God can speak to us in any number of other writings. I like to say, “If it’s the TRUTH, it doesn’t matter who said it!”

But I think it would be helpful to know how writings have been selected to be in the Bible. Historically, writings (like Paul’s letters) were treasured by the faithful of the day. They were widely-spread, and translated into many languages. They were copied (by hand), even though paper and ink were costly commodities, and they were carried personally from city to village to town all over the known world. [This is hard to imagine in our world of e-mails, where words can be sent all over the world and even put into different languages with a stroke on a keyboard.] The fact that people treasured and disseminated these writings is the first test in their becoming “Sacred Scripture.”

The second test is what we would call “the test of TIME.” When these writings have inspired generations of believers, they might be considered for the Bible.

Just imagine that another letter of The Apostle Paul was discovered in some cave, and all the experts agreed that it came from Paul—it was completely genuine. Would it be instantly added to the Bible? NO, it would NOT! It would need to be made available for people to read (in their own language); it would need to show itself to be inspiring and full of God’s truth; and it would need to stand the test of time (around 400 years). So, even if we were to find such a letter, don’t expect your Bibles to be expanded anytime soon!

Useful For…

Paul goes on to say that Scripture is useful for a number of things: teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. What does all that mean? Let’s start with teaching:

  1. More helpful than teachers that just tell us what we want to hear;
  2. Scriptures are the only place in the world to get first-hand, eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus Christ;
  3. Christianity is not founded on a printed book, but on a living person Who is our teacher!

Reproof: I love what the Psalmist has written, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (KJV) You see, we are all struggling with the dark, and Scripture shines light on our path, illuminating when we STRAY from it. (That is “reproof.” There is no judgment or condemnation in reproof!) We all need light for our path.

William Barclay relates a story that illustrates this point: One dark night in a forest in Sicily, a robber held up a book peddler at the point of a revolver. He ordered him to light a bonfire and burn his books! The peddler lit the fire, then he asked if he might be allowed to read a little from each book before he dropped it into the flames. 1. He read the 23rd Psalm from one book; 2. He read the story of the Good Samaritan from another; 3. The Sermon on the Mount; 4. 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of each reading, the robber said, “That’s a good book; we won’t burn that one; give it to me.” In the end, not a single book was burned—the robber went off into the darkness with the books. Years later, he turned up again. This time he was a Christian minister. He had been given light for his path!

Correction: Again, I turn to Barclay for a definition: “The real meaning of this is that all theories, all theologies, all ethics, are to be tested against the Bible. If they contradict the teaching of the Bible, they are to be refused. It is our duty to use our minds and set them adventuring; but the test must ever be agreement with the teaching of Jesus Christ as the Scriptures present it to us.”

Training in Righteousness: Paul says that the Scriptures will help us to be equipped for every good work. It’s not just for our own personal salvation; it leads us to be useful to God in the lives of others!

Who’s Your Teacher?

So, how do we choose good teachers? I think we listen carefully for a voice of authority that we can trust. This voice would, of course, be one that is concerned with our best good. Think about the people in your life who have proven themselves trustworthy; consider the organizations and institutions and movements who ring true.

Compare them with “false teachings”, a “bum steer”:

  • The meaning of life is found in the phrase, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”
  • Grab all the gusto you can—pleasure is KING!
  • Money, Fame, Power are the ultimate goals
  • Is that all there is?!

Now, hear this voice. Jesus says, “Come to me.”

  • All you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest for your souls;
  • If you are thirsty, come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within them.

Conclusion: I want to finish today by urging each of us to Be A STUDENT! Be a student, no matter where we are in our faith journey! It has been said that the Gospel is deep enough for the most mature saints, and it is shallow enough for beginners. Life is designed to be a Journey of Exploration—an ongoing journey. But we will need to choose our teachers wisely—all those things that can point to the truth, or lead us away from it. Let’s choose Jesus as our Teacher.

October 13, 2019

The Word Is Not Chained               18th Pentecost

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7   2 Timothy 2:8-15   Oct. 13, 2019   Luke 17:11-19

Katrina Ann Decker is an inmate whose smile belies her bleak circumstances. Although she is in jail, cut off from her children, she exudes serenity, especially when she talks about the Word of God. “The Bible means a lot to me,” she says. “When I’m sad, when I’m angry, and when I’m depressed, I sit down and read it. It cleanses me. It washes the sadness, the anger, and the depression right out of me. It makes me feel good every day. And at night, it makes me sleep like a baby.”

John Allen Rubio sits with his ankles shackled, leafing through his highlighted Bible. Four years in solitary confinement has given him plenty of time to pore over God’s Word. And, in the process, it has transformed his life. “I have peace in my heart now,” he says, his face radiating with joy when he speaks about the Bible. “I have a better relationship with people, with myself, and with God.” His favorite Bible story is that of the woman at the well. He can relate to this story, because he tried to fill the “broken well” of his life with things that could not sustain or satisfy. “No matter what I did, nothing could fill it,” he says. “When I read the Word, I feel full all the time.”

These examples came from the American Bible Society website, describing their special program to reach out to those who are incarcerated with a gift of Scripture. Even in prison, God’s Word is setting them FREE.

In looking at the texts for today, I saw how their messages illustrate the same power of God’s word, reaching into the world, and doing God’s work. The words of Jeremiah traveled from Judah to the people who had been taken from their homeland all the way to Babylon, bringing comfort and instruction. The passage in Luke shows the healing power of God that is given with a simple word. And the text from 2 Timothy is written from prison by a man who was himself in chains. Literally! But his tone is that of victory. He is willing to suffer this hardship because he sees that God is actively working out God’s purposes despite Paul’s being in prison. He declares that, even though he himself is in chains, “the word of God is not chained.”

Paul’s Frame of Reference

In order to understand what he meant by this, we need to remember a few things about him. Paul had been in training to be a Pharisee, so we know that he was very familiar with the Old Testament. He would have understood Deuteronomy 8:3, “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (This sounds familiar because it is what Jesus told Satan during his temptation in the wilderness.) See how it dovetails with his statement to the Disciples after he had been having a very fruitful conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well: “I have food that you know nothing about!”

Paul would have been familiar with God’s words in Isaiah 55:11, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

And, as he sat in jail, he would have remembered that Joseph was also in prison unjustly—and that God used that situation to introduce him to someone close to Pharaoh! Yes, Paul was intimately acquainted with the history of God’s word accomplishing the purposes of God!

After his conversion, Paul was called to Mission—to go, in person, to some far-flung corners of the known world. Had he been raised in the lap of Jewish culture, it might have been hard for him to travel. But Paul was raised in Tarsus, Turkey, in Gentile culture. His habit was to travel to a new city, go to the Synagogue, share the good news with the Jewish population of that city, and then take it to the Gentiles there. He had plans to go to Spain, but he found himself locked up and unable to continue his missionary travels.

Paul was forced to write instead of going in person—and, as a result, we have many of his wonderful letters, copied and transmitted to more places than he could have possibly traveled in one lifetime!

We also understand that he would have been chained to a series of guards in a rotating shift. Can you imagine being chained to the Apostle Paul for 8 hours at a time?! You would have overheard conversations between him and his visitors, discussions of what God was accomplishing in various places around the territory. You would have been a constant witness to how Paul responded to his difficult situation! It’s not a surprise that Paul writes that many of his guards had come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ!

His words to Timothy are a witness to God’s powerful activity:

  • I am in chains
  • God’s Word is NOT chained (but is accomplishing God’s purposes)
  • I am enduring for the benefit of those who are obtaining the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

Words vs. The Word

I find it interesting that Paul includes a warning to Timothy about the misuse of words: “Avoid wrangling over words.” He says it does no good. Wow! Talk about a poignant remark about our current struggles with words, words, WORDS! One thing is clear: words are powerful. Words carry healing. They can also carry destruction. And our words cannot be “reeled in” any more than an arrow that has been shot. Words are powerful.

But God’s Word is much more mighty. In Genesis, God spoke, and the world was brought into being. Throughout the Scriptures, God speaks, and mighty things happen. Hear these words again from Isaiah 55, “For as the rain and snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Now comes the challenging part of our text from 2 Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” Paul understands that, as a preacher, the FIRST priority is to make certain that the TRUTH is understood. This also applies to any who wish to follow Jesus. We need to know the Word—through personal study and reflection AND by participating in group discussions which yield some surprising insights! And then we need to be ready to “rightly explain” the word. Peter says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” In other words, be ready to articulate your faith to those who are curious. This does NOT mean jamming it down someone’s throat, but to instead share the impact of your faith on your life, share your experience of God’s work in your story. As long as you and I are living a life of hope, it will generate curiosity among those who know us, and we must be ready to answer their questions!

I’ll finish today with a reminder that God’s Word is powerful and life-changing. Despite appearances, God’s Word is NOT chained! It’s on the move, working out the purposes for which God sent it!

Some years ago, there was a representative of the International Bible Society who was trying to get God’s Word into people’s hands. He had small portions of the Bible (much more affordable), and was encouraging people in a remote village to purchase and read them. One man looked at a collection of the Gospels, and saw how thin the paper was. In all honesty, he told the Bible distributor that the pages would be just perfect for rolling cigarettes! Not to be deterred, he responded, “I will give you this book, but only if you promise to read each page before you use it to make a cigarette.” The man agreed, and took the book.

A few months later, he came back and told the man, “I smoked my way through Matthew. And I smoked my way through Mark. Then I smoked my way through Luke. But halfway through John, the Word took hold of me, and I gladly gave my heart to Jesus! Now, I need to buy a whole Bible!”

Friends, remember God’s promise, “My word will not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose!”