GCI Equipper

Being Real

Pastors and leaders are growing too

It had been a rough week and I was not in the best mood. It was one of those weeks full of challenges—personal and work-related— and I felt God wasn’t answering my prayers and giving me what I believed I needed. I started complaining to my wife about going to church and putting on my “church face.” You know the one I’m referring to—looking happy and giving the impression that everything is good, and my life was just wonderful. Further, I had to preach that day, meaning I felt I had to make God look good when I didn’t feel he was being so good to me at the time.

Cheryl first told me I had to go to church because I was the pastor, and then she said, “Rick, just share your struggles with the congregation. They will see that you face the same things they face, and they will love you for it.” It was just one more of those times the Holy Spirit spoke, and it sounded just like Cheryl. “Don’t focus on your frustration with God,” she continued, “focus on your love for the members.” It was good advice. By the time I got to the parking lot I was very much looking forward to being with my church family. I didn’t have to put on a church face, I sincerely greeted and smiled at the many members I had grown to love.

My topic that day was Jesus telling the disciples about his betrayal and upcoming death. They argued with him—this wasn’t the way they saw that things should be. Peter pulled Jesus aside and chastised him. In the middle of my sermon I realized I was Peter. My bad mood came from God not doing things the way I saw they should be done, so I shared that with the audience. I saw nods of affirmation. I was not alone in my frustration and lack of faith. My way made so much sense, but God had a different plan.

It was one of those sermons that resonated far more than I could have ever planned. Sharing my story and being honest about my angst enabled many to personally relate to what I was saying and to better relate to me. Further, it made it OK to be transparent with each other about our struggles and challenges. I heard a lot of stories that week from the members. A connection was made that I hadn’t planned on. I went home in a much better mood and praising God for the breakthroughs.

It is a misnomer for pastors to believe they cannot be honest about their humanity—their joys, their struggles, their passion, their fears. Pastors are not more spiritual than their members; they do not have a special line to God that is not available to members; they are not more important, more special, more inspired, more anything. They are men and women God has called to shepherd others. It’s a special calling, but that doesn’t make pastors special in the sense of better.

In GCI, we encourage our pastors to be real—to be who God created them to be—and not put on a different persona when they preach or come to worship services. The Bible gives us wonderful examples of the humanity of the leaders God chose to build his church. Moses, Abraham, David, Peter and Paul all had serious flaws that God shared in the pages of his story. Today in GCI we have leaders, pastors, national and regional directors, superintendents and a president, all of whom have flaws. We love the people God has chosen because they are transparent, they don’t put on airs, they are relatable because they know their own humanity and they are devoted to Christ and to GCI.

I still have rough weeks; I still get in bad moods from time to time; and I still have the Holy Spirit speaking through my bride and others reminding me to always look to him, to trust him, to rely on him, and to grow in his grace and knowledge of him.

When leaders do this, GCI grows in grace and knowledge, we become more relational, we live in communion, and we become the healthiest expressions of church we can be.

Being real,

Rick Shallenberger

PS In this issue of Equipper, we continue the Hope Venue. Randy Bloom shares two articles about preaching. In his first article he shares the different between teaching and preaching—an important distinction. In his second article, he encourages us to share stories and our passion for Jesus. Bill Hall wrote about using the RCL (Revised Common Lectionary), and lists a number of resources.

Foundation of Inspirational Sermons

The difference between teaching and preaching

By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director

When was the last time you heard an inspirational sermon? When was the last time you preached one? (I used the word, “preach.” You’ll see why later.) These may be difficult questions to ask and answer. I’ve heard some inspirational sermons. I hope I’ve given a few. Knowing if a sermon is inspirational is often a subjective matter. It depends on a number of factors. But when we’ve heard an inspirational sermon, we know it.

We all want to give sermons that are inspirational, but how can we? The source of inspiration is the Holy Spirit. We know this. How can we do our part in participating in the Holy Spirit’s work of inspiring people through the preaching of the Scriptures? I’ll share a few things I’ve learned and experienced.

Earlier I used the word “preach” in reference to sermons. Many years ago, one of my graduate degree mentors told me, “Most pastors don’t know the difference between ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching.’ That’s why so many sermons are flat, and people aren’t being discipled.” I was clueless to what he was talking about, but I dared not let on. Stealthily (I thought), I pried out of him the difference between “preaching” and “teaching.” To sum it up:

    • Preaching is primarily to appeal to the heart
    • Teaching appeals to the mind
    • Preaching is for transformation
    • Teaching is for information

The differences are profound. Do you see them? In GCI, as in most churches in our (US) culture, an emphasis developed over the decades of preparing sermons that were highly rational (this developed out of The Age of Reason), logical and filled with information. Sermons became theological discourses and educational presentations.

Do not misunderstand. Sermons need to be logical. They need to contain (correct) information. But information alone does not transform. Information alone does not normally reach the heart, which is where transformation takes place. Good sermons will include teaching, but sermons that are basically doctrinal, historical or educational lectures will not transform hearts.

The primary objective of preaching is to facilitate the work of the Spirit to transform the hearts and lives of people. We are told that the gospel (not theological books, history books or inspirational Christian books) has the power for salvation (Romans 1:16). This is the gospel of and about Jesus, as revealed in Scripture. With this foundation, we have a better chance of preaching inspirational sermons.

Preach the Word, using the word

We start with a deep realization that we are called, and given the blessed privilege, of ministering the Word of God (Jesus) through the word of God (the Bible.) We do not have the right to preach or teach anything else. We aren’t called to preach from books. We aren’t called to preach our own ideas. Our primary source of sermons should be the Bible. We can use other sources for auxiliary information, illustrations or ideas. But we can’t be confident that our sermons will be inspirational if we rely on non-biblical sources for most of our sermon content.

It is not necessary to have a highly extroverted personality or dramatic flair to preach inspirational sermons. This can help, as I’ll explain in a separate article, but you can give inspirational sermons when they are based on the sound foundation of Jesus, as taught to us through Scripture. But what else can help us?

Preaching the Word through the word should be a humbling experience. So, we need to shed our ego. Preaching is not about us. It’s not trying to get our pet ideas across to people. It’s not about making sure people know how much we know (Lord, save us from the proud!). It’s not about our desire to try to change people. Our work is to preach the Word from the word. The Holy Spirit changes people. We can trust him to do his work with or without us – and we’ve all experienced this. So, please, don’t preach trying to “get people” to do things. Even that guy (or that lady)!

Preach with sincerity

Now a word about our personal presentation. As I mentioned, you don’t have to be an extrovert or have a “dramatic” personality to preach inspirational sermons. However, if we can’t preach with some enthusiasm and passion, it will be challenging to get and keep people’s attention in order to effectively preach (not teach). But enthusiasm and passion can be expressed in various ways. Very early on in my preaching/teaching life I learned that the most important trait a speaker needed was sincerity. People need to know we are sincere about what we are preaching. They need to know we care about God, the Bible and people. They need to know we care about and believe deeply about what we are preaching. When we do, our unique expression of enthusiasm and passion will be evident.

Our enthusiasm and passion come from our life being rooted passionately in Jesus. They flow from our relationship with him and our daily rhythm of time we spend with him and in the Scriptures. When we prepare sermons, we need to first ask him to speak to us – inspire us, teach us and transform us. Then when we stand before people, we are speaking from a wellspring of our life in Christ, a personal encounter with Jesus in the Scriptures and the transformation we have personally experienced.

Let’s humbly prepare messages with a full realization that we are completely reliant on the Spirit to help us participate in his process of transforming people. Let’s pray for inspiration; inspiration to hear his voice on a regular basis as he speaks to us out of Scripture and inspiration to deliver what we hear with love, grace and power.

Preaching With Passion

Grabbing people’s attention with stories and passion

By Randy Bloom, US East Regional Director

Jesus used storytelling in powerful ways. We call many of these stories parables. He illustrated that one of the most effective ways to prepare inspirational sermons is to include stories in them. Jesus’ stories challenged people. At one level, many of his stories are entertaining. Entertaining for the purpose of getting attention, making a point and leading to action—action that was indicative of transformation.

The Age of Reason I referred to in “Foundation of Inspiring Sermons” is over. We are now in what people refer to as the Age of Relationship, and as Paul Williams says (in Church Planting from the Ground Up), people are more interested in hearing the stories of faith than hearing the rules of faith. Stories facilitate and flow from relationships. This is what people want (they always have even if they couldn’t express it). So, include stories in your sermons. Tell stories that are relevant.

Some of the most effective stories to tell are about yourself. People want and need speakers who are authentic, transparent, vulnerable and, well—human. It helps if they know you are sharing the same journey they are on, so be open about your weaknesses (be appropriately open, don’t divulge super-sensitive information). In doing so, you make yourself accessible to people, and it helps God’s word to be more accessible to them. Their hearts and minds will be more open to what God is saying to them through his word and your sermon.

Use illustrations and props to emphasize certain lessons. But use illustrations that are current. Use illustrations from decades ago sparingly. Younger groups won’t follow. The opposite is true as well.

Preach with passion

Some of us are probably more than a bit uncomfortable (maybe scared) of expressing passion, especially in public. In many church cultures—and I include my 50+ year GCI home—people are a bit afraid of expressing passion. We seem to have the mindset that we dare not show too much emotion. We dare not get excited. We dare not express ourselves with too much bodily motion. To me this is sad. I read too many examples in the Bible (there are those stories again) of people being highly expressive with their love for God and the message he has for his people. I hope we can all learn to be more demonstrative of our love for Jesus and his message of hope.

What attracts you to certain preachers? I would guess you are attracted to their passion and how they can make a point using a powerful story. When people are excited to hear how you share the Word, using the word, they are more inclined to invite others to come. Let me quote Paul Williams again, sharing an observation he made from years of experience: “People come to church because a friend invited them or they responded to a great advertising piece. They come back because they identified with the minister and the message.”

This may seem to put a lot of pressure on us, and reality is our friend. But Jesus is our best friend and we can rely on him and the Holy Spirit to help us preach with passion, using stories to help others understand God’s love for them, how he never leaves or forsakes us, how he loves us just as we are, and how his amazing love for us will never leave us the way we were when we first started responding to his call.

May God bless our preaching as we lead our congregations to grow healthier in Christ—and as we seek to develop worship services that are inspiring and give people hope.

PS Some recommended resources include:

    • Passion in the Pulpit, by Jerry Vines
    • Biblical Preaching by Haddon Robinson
    • Biblical Sermons by Haddon Robinson
    • Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller
    • Christ-Centered Preaching by Brian Chapell

Using the RCL

Participating in a three-year plan to preach through the Bible

By Bill Hall, National Director for Canada

I still remember the day 21 years ago when I started in my first pastorate. In my discussions with the outgoing pastor, he mentioned that it would be beneficial to meet with some pastors from other denominations who got together each Wednesday morning at the local coffee shop to discuss the Bible. So, the next Wednesday morning I went to the coffee shop, and gazing around the crowded tables, I saw a group of 5 men and women sitting at a table near the back of the restaurant. I walked up to them, introduced myself as the new pastor in our town, and was welcomed into the group.

I quickly found out the group wasn’t just discussing the Bible, they were analyzing the scriptures from the Revised Common Lectionary for next Sunday.

One my first questions was, “what is the Revised Common Lectionary?” They explained that the RCL were passages of scriptures that were assigned for reading in many churches that followed the themes and seasons of the Christian Liturgical Calendar.

The RCL is based on a three-year cycle. The gospel readings in the first year (Year A) are taken from the Gospel of Matthew, those in the second year (or Year B) from the Gospel of Mark, and in the third year (or Year C) from the Gospel of Luke. Portions of the Gospel of John are read throughout Eastertide, and are also used for other liturgical seasons including Advent, Christmastide, and Lent where appropriate.[1] (The website: http://www.commontexts.org/rcl/ contains exhaustive articles on the origins and use of lectionaries since the fourth century.)

This lectionary study group became my anchor each week as we discussed the significant passages of scripture for the following week. In the process, we would craft a sermon for the next Sunday as a team. We would share the latest book we read on a particular passage, how we had preached the topic in the past, or a new insight we gained from some of the many RCL resources available.

In time we found ourselves writing a common sermon that spoke to our larger community with the nuances of each pastor’s particular denomination added in.

While my lectionary study group disbanded after about four years because group members moved out of the community, I learned many lessons that I apply today in preaching through the RCL.

Allow me to share a few of those lessons:

  1. I always survey the various lectionary resources available (see below) (including those found in the Equipper and “Speaking of Life” https://equipper.gci.org/) before I begin crafting a message. For me this takes the place of my former Lectionary Study Group. Something often jumps out at me from this investigative process and enables me to bring in additional stories or thoughts.
  2. I find it useful to concentrate on one passage of scripture (usually from the Gospel reading) from the four scriptures listed for a Sunday. If the topic lends to it, add one or two other scripture passages that fit with your message. It is preferable to not use all four RCL scriptures in your sermon.
  3. Following the RCL doesn’t mean you can’t do more in-depth studies of a particular book of the Bible from time to time. This is especially true during “Ordinary” time or when the Lectionary is featuring an Old Testament book or an Epistle over a number of weeks.
  4. One should always consider the needs of the congregation when crafting your messages. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you in selection of passages and themes.
  5. Remember all resources have a bias. Often the tradition of a particular writer or resource will come out in their material.
  6. Reflect on the significance and power of reading and preaching of the same verses, on the same day, as others of the greater body of Jesus.

Finally, I have found the RCL to be a good guide through the ebbs and flows of my congregations as we follow the Christian Calendar from the birth of Jesus to his glorious return.


  1. https://www.workingpreacher.org/ Features commentaries, and podcast
  2. https://www.ministrymatters.com/ A number of ministry resources including Lectionary resources
  3. “Looking Into The Lectionary” by Jill Duffield: https://pres-outlook.org/ Weekly Blog
  4. http://www.davidlose.net/ Weekly Blog
  5. http://www.textweek.com/ A compilation of a variety of Lectionary Resources from many sources
  6. http://day1.org/ Radio messages and scripts that follow the Lectionary
  7. https://wordtoworship.com/ Lists lectionary passages with suggested hymns
  8. https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu// Many lectionary resources including PowerPoint slides
  9. https://asermonforeverysunday.com/ Downloadable sermon videos and scripts based on the RCL

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revised_Common_Lectionary

Calling Up vs Calling Out

In GCI, we pursue Christ-centered relationships and seek to serve each other with high support, high challenge—with grace always. Bringing challenge in a healthy way can be difficult. This month we are focusing on the difference between calling up and calling out, in order to be liberating leaders who empower others. Click the link below to view and download the August Church Hack featuring the “Liberator’s Intent” tool.

Bring Them Here to Me

By Jeff Broadnax, US GenMin Coordinator

“Starting a youth/children’s ministry in a congregation like ours feels like trying to feed the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish!”

I have heard this sentiment dozens of times in my role as GenMin Coordinator. We want “Kids Korner” to serve as an encouragement and resource for you in your local churches, but I have to admit we haven’t really addressed the most pressing issue for many of you—how to start a children’s /youth ministry when you have no children or are a small and aging congregation?

Here’s the encouraging news. It really is similar to the feeding of the five thousand.   In John’s account of the story, Jesus, already knowing what he was going to do, asks Philip, “where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Naturally. Philip is at a loss because he knows they don’t have what it would take to feed everyone.

After checking around, the disciples find a small boy who brought five loaves of bread and two fish for his lunch. (There’s a good children’s church lesson: sharing what you have so others can be blessed.) As Matthew describes, Jesus simply says, “bring them here to me.” He blesses, breaks and uses those limited provisions to feed all present with more left over.

Even if you are a small aging congregation with no children or youth, we believe God can and will use you to not only feed any children and youth who come through the doors of your church, but to leave them full if you are willing to prayerfully offer yourself to him for that purpose.

For nine years, I pastored a congregation of just under 30 people with an average age of 60 and on a good day we would have one teen and one or two preteens in attendance. There were times we would have more but that was rare.

Each week two things happened. First, one of our grandmothers would prepare a children’s lesson and take any children aside during the main message for an age- appropriate Bible lesson or activity. Second, almost every other adult would welcome, talk to and provide a small measure of contact with those children at some point in the day. If there were teens or one of our college students attending, those same members would get an update on their lives and make them feel like the family they are.

They fed those in attendance with what they had. So often it’s easier to focus on the five thousand men, plus women and children and be overwhelmed by the size of the task, when perhaps, God is simply asking us to focus on the one family sitting in our small group who is hungry for what Jesus is providing.

Preparing for children’s and youth ministry in our congregations is like feeding the five thousand. Just bring to Jesus what you have. Let him bless, break and give—through you—to those who are seated among you.

Sermon for October 6, 2019

Readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4 • Psalm 37:1-10 • 2 Timothy 1:1-14 • Luke 17:5-10

This week’s theme is to Don’t let circumstances shake your faith. The prophet Habakkuk asked God how long he would be crying for help. The Lord told him there is an appointed time, stay watchful. As Paul instructed young Timothy, he told him to not be afraid or ashamed of suffering, to dry his tears and rekindle the gift of faith God had given him. Luke records the disciples asking for more faith, after Jesus tells them to keep forgiving others. Do more than is required; wait longer than you think you should; put your trust in God and he will give you your heart’s desire. The sermon focuses on Psalm 37.

Do Not Fret

Psalm 37:1-9 (NRSV)

Prior to the sermon, have Psalm 37:1-10 read from the NRSV.

Introduction: Share something you find yourself worrying about. Ask the congregation to share some of their worries. Explain that worry is normal, but when worry becomes consuming, it can cause great distress.

Psalm 37 begins with a clear command, “Do not fret.” Easier said than done. Fretting can be defined as being constantly worried or anxious or being in a state of anxiety or worry. We all find ourselves there from time to time, but staying there is a different matter. After all, there is much we can fret about. We can fret about our past. Just because the past is behind us doesn’t mean we don’t find ways to bring it into the present. Dredging up past mistakes or times others have done us wrong can occupy a lot of mental space needed for other things.

Have you ever nursed an old scar back into a fresh wound? Has a past shortcoming been worked over in your mind enough to convince you there’s no need to try again? The past has a nasty way of accumulating more and more to fret about. Surely, it’s permissible to fret at least a little about the past! But there it stands in our reading today. “Do not fret.”

But wait, there’s more. If we somehow find a way not to fret about our past, we still have the present to deal with. How quickly upon waking up in the morning are you confronted with a barrage of things to worry about in your day? Wouldn’t it be wise to fret a bit over these unavoidable things in our day? Approaching deadlines, difficult conversations and unavoidable appointments may convince you that a little fretting is called for. We don’t want to be naïve after all…right? But there it is again written unflinchingly in this passage: “Do not fret.”

Ok, fine! I can see how fretting over the past wastes time and fretting over the present can be a hindrance. But what about the future? Now, surely that’s an area we should have free reign to fret over. We can’t predict what will happen tomorrow and so much could go wrong. The possibilities to fret are endless. And I have found that when I think about the future, I become one of the most creative people alive. I can imagine all kinds of scenarios that any sane person would have no need of fretting over. So, surely, we are free to fret over the future…right? No again! This passage doesn’t put any exceptions on the command “Do not fret.” And, just for extra measure, the command “Do no fret” is repeated, not twice, but three times in a span of only eight verses. One to cover our past, present and future. So, it seems we must deal with it. But how?

This Psalm provides its own help. For starters, just because the Psalm begins with the command doesn’t mean it stands there alone. It is based on something, a reality that brings the command forth. Notice how it begins:

Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers, for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb. (Psalm 37:1 NRSV)

The Psalm begins by acknowledging the temptation we may have to fret over “the wicked” and even to be “envious of wrongdoers.” When we look around our world, we don’t have to look very long before we see many injustices, wrongs and just flat-out evils. In many cases, it even appears that this is the path to success and a lavish lifestyle. The old saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them” may start sounding like wise counsel.

The Psalmist tells us why we shouldn’t fret or be envious of wrongdoers. It won’t last. We are given a vivid illustration that our lawns this time of year can verify—“they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” That’s not a lot of staying power. Grass may look good when it’s green, but we know what happens come fall. The green grass “fades” and “withers.” These two descriptions the Psalmist uses pulls on something we all long for—permanence. Does anyone really want to be part of something that you know won’t last? Don’t you want to at least contribute to something lasting? Is this not why death is such a devastating enemy? Death stands in the way of our desire for permanence. That is what we can look forward to if we hitch our wagons to wickedness and wrongdoing. Nothing lasting will come of it.

Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday. (Psalm 37:3-6 NRSV) 

The Psalm gives us something we can do in place of fretting. “Trust in the Lord and do good.” Now we are coming to see how we can stop fretting. It’s by knowing the one who is faithful, the one in whom we can put our trust. That makes sense, right? We typically only fret about things that we don’t trust will turn out for our good or for the good of others. I think it’s safe to say that most people never go to bed fretting over whether the sun will rise in the morning. We don’t really give much thought to it—we just know that after we go to sleep, at the appointed time, the sun will rise. Every. Single. Time. This is what we can see the Psalmist trying to say in this passage. He wants us to know that the Lord is faithful. Everything else may let us down. Things in our past, things in our present and things in our future. But the Lord has been faithful to us in our past, he is being faithful to us right now in our present, and we have his Word that he will be faithful in the future. The gospel we celebrate today is that God’s own Son, Jesus, is the faithfulness of the Father given to us in our past, present and future. No matter how dark the night, this Son will always rise, bringing us into his light.

So, this command about not fretting is not arbitrary but rather it springs from the promise of God’s faithfulness. God tells us to not fret because he has taken it upon himself to do away with all wrongdoing and wickedness, setting things right in his own time and way. As children who live in and trust in the Lord, we can exchange fretting with doing good. The evil we see around us and even the wrongdoing we may have had to endure will not last. It’s the good life of the “promised land” that we have been brought into through Jesus Christ. We could go as far to say that Jesus is the “promised land” that the Father has brought us into. It’s in him that we “live” and “enjoy security.” There’s our provision for permanence that we so long for.

Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices. Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret—it leads only to evil. For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land. (Psalm 37:7-10 NRSV)

Some of the verses in this Psalm may sound transactional in tone. But reading them in light of God’s kept promise in Jesus we understand them as descriptions of reality rather than prescriptions for potentiality. In other words, it’s not our “taking delight in the Lord” that obligates the Father to “give you the desires of your heart.” But when we take delight in the Lord, we find that he is truly the one our heart desires. C.S. Lewis captured the same thought with the Westminster Catechism in mind. Listen to how he explains this connection between command and reality:

The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him. – C.S. Lewis

So, instead of seeing our “doing” as an obedience that conditions God to act, we do good as an act of faith in the goodness of God. We are created to be lovers of God and lovers of one another. This is the delightful life we are given to participate in. This is the “good” we can do in place of fretting over all the wrongs we see.

As we “commit our way to the Lord” we do so trusting that he is the God who acts, setting everything right. Evil, wrongdoing and all wickedness, in others, in ourselves and in all creation, will not have the final word. These are the things that will “fade like the grass.” So again, we are reminded not to fret. When we fret we forget. We forget that God is just and righteous, setting things right according to his character and heart. We forget that evil doesn’t triumph in the end. Out of such forgetfulness, we are led to fret. When we fret, we run the risk of acting out of anger and vengefulness. We will end up doing the wrong we were fretting over in the first place. If we take it on ourselves to fight evil with evil, we have lost our footing on the sure foundation of Jesus; we took a walk out on a limb that is sure to be “cut off.”

So, whatever wrong or evil you have been assaulted with, don’t fret! Jesus is your “vindication” and “justice,” and your resurrection to an inheritance where all is set right—permanently. When you find worry or anxiety rising this week, pull out this Psalm and read it again, reminding yourself that God is in control, that Jesus can be trusted, that in the big picture, there really is nothing to be worried about.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life and the sermon

  • Share a time when anxiety or fear caused you to either make a rush decision, or a wrong decision.
  • What do you find that you fret about the most? The past, present or future, and why?
  • Why do you think God would command us not to fret or worry?
  • How does fretting over our circumstances affect how we view God?
  • The command “Do not fret” in Psalm 37 is an example of a command that is built on a promise. Discuss why this is important. Can you think of other commands that are grounded on the reality of who God is? Does this make keeping God’s commands make more sense or easier?
  • Do you find it easier to stop something when you have something else to replace it with? Discuss this dynamic as seen in Psalm 37.
  • Share an aspect of God’s character or promise that helps lay our fret or worry aside.

Sermon for October 13, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 • Psalm 66:1-11 • 2 Timothy 2:8-15 • Luke 17:11-19

This week’s theme is: Even in exile, God is with you. The prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites to build houses, plant gardens, and raise families while in exile. God sent them there for a reason and had not forsaken them. In Psalm 66, the Psalmist reminds us it is God who allows us to be tested, tried and burdened, and he is with us through it all. Paul reminds Timothy that even Jesus suffered hardship, yet “the word of God is not chained.” Don’t be ashamed of the circumstances you are in—make the best of them, knowing God is with you. The sermon focuses on the story of the ten lepers who lived in exile because of their affliction, and how Jesus showed up.

Exile ≠ Outsider

Luke 17:11-19 (NRSV)

Introduction: Have Luke 17:11-19 read at the beginning of the sermon and ask the question, have you ever felt like you were somewhere you didn’t belong?

Our sermon today is titled: “Exile ≠ Outsider.” This may sound like a contradiction of terms, but it actually explains one of the many tensions we hold together as the people of God. We are citizens of both the kingdom of God and the world; our home is heaven and we live here on earth; we are at home, and we are in exile.

People often feel like outsiders—whether they are in enemy territory, or they are treated like an enemy or undesirable. This story from Luke 17 focuses on those who were undesirable, and confronts us with three questions. I know sermons usually are broken into points, but questions can mix it up for us and make us do a double-take on the truth that’s coming through. The three questions are:

    1. Jesus where?
    2. Jesus who?
    3. Jesus with whom?

Jesus where?

In Indianapolis, it’s 38th street. In Washington, D.C., it’s 16th Street. In Detroit, it’s nicknamed “8 Mile.” It seems every city, large and small, has a thin dividing line between the rich and the poor, the good neighborhoods and the bad, the safe streets and the mean streets. Sometimes these boundaries occurred naturally, many times they’re the result of old grudges and racial or ethnic divides—old hate and fear. These “in-between” places aren’t always the safest places to be. Sometimes one block or just one step in the wrong direction could get you in trouble—depending, of course, on who you are.

Luke includes an interesting geographical detail as he frames this episode in Jesus’ ministry. (A short aside here. Something important to keep in mind as you read the Gospels is that the writers never wasted ink. Details are there to help you unlock the story.)

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. (Luke 17:11 NRSV)

Samaria and Galilee. This would be one of those “8 Mile” divides. 8 Mile is a street that marks the northern boundary of the City of Detroit. It marks a divide between the struggling neighborhoods of Detroit and the more affluent suburbs to the north; it marks a boundary between the traditionally white and black parts of the area. People from either side, for much of history, have stopped at 8 Mile rather than go into the “wrong” neighborhood. What might be only a few hundred feet is a vast fault line between cultures and economic lines.

The important visual detail here appears on the map of Samaria and Galilee. One glance will tell you there is no “region” between them. The two regions border each other directly. The “region” would be something like 8 Mile, some thin ribbon of divide between these two hostile cultures.

Samaritans were considered to be half-breeds by the Israelite people. They had mixed different beliefs into the Jewish faith and introduced new narratives into the Jewish story. They had different traditions and looked different than their Israelite counterparts.

Jesus walked through Samaria on several occasions, talking with the residents and telling stories where they were the heroes.

Let’s continue:

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” (Luke 17:12-13 NRSV)

Jesus also spent time with another group of alienated people—lepers. Leprosy was a general term for a variety of skin diseases thought to be contagious. Lepers were thought to be cursed by God for some sin or attitude—in other words, it was the person’s fault as a result of their moral/spiritual choices. Yet often through the pages of the Gospels, we find Jesus healing, touching, and restoring those with leprosy.

So the first question: Jesus where? Jesus is among the exiles. He walks among those on the fringe and knows who they are. If you want to find Jesus, you look among the exiles. Look in those in-between, limbo spaces where most of us are uncomfortable.

Our brains, especially our Western brains, are unstoppable categorizers. We want to categorize everything, file it as “all the way this” or “all the way that.” And here Jesus is in the middle of those spaces, outside the comfortable spaces. He is where the outcasts live. He goes to those who don’t fit into a society category anymore. Their only category is “those rejected.”

This is part of what it means to be at Home in Exile. Jesus is always hanging around with the exiles—those who society doesn’t have a place for and who don’t fit in. If you want to get in touch with Jesus, then serve those who can’t pay you back, befriend those who society sees as unimportant.

Jesus who?

When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. (Luke 17:14 NRSV)

This is an odd moment in the exchange here. Like we’ve discussed, leprosy was a term for several kinds of skin disorders, from cellulitis to eczema, to what we know as leprosy in our day. If lepers went into the village to get food or other supplies, they had to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people they were coming. People pulled their kids away and shut the door.

The Law made provisions for those who were healed of leprosy. Eventually, the eczema or other inflammation might go away. The priests in the temple were also the community lawyers and the community health officials. The priest looked you over and made sure you no longer had an infection on your skin, and then reintroduced you into the community if you were well.

It seems strange to us here that Jesus, who is starting a new movement and trying to gather followers, would send these guys back to the priests. Why would he do that? So the community will know that they are healed and may be accepted. If they are allowed to re-enter society, these lepers can get jobs, get married, buy property—they can be part of society again.

So the healing that Jesus brings is not only of their physical condition, but of their social and relational condition as well. One of the main themes here is restoration.

But there is another point to be made:

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. (Luke 17:15 NRSV)

It’s interesting that nine of the lepers are happy to run back home. They are going back to the way things were. By that evening, they’re having a barbecue with their family, kicking back in their favorite chair, and done with all that exile stuff.

Isn’t that the truth of us sometimes? We pray and beg for some kind of healing in our lives, some kind of provision that we need, and when we get it, we think Jesus who? Gratitude isn’t our first impulse when God gives us blessings. It’s almost counter-intuitive to turn around and acknowledge that we didn’t get this blessing on our own and that we don’t have ownership over it.

Too often, the kids that God gives us become idols—we obsess over them and forget the world. Or the health that God gives us is taken for granted—we disregard stewarding our bodies and minds and just go back to the “way things were.” Or the marriage that God rescues becomes something we ignore—we go back to old habits of bitterness and hiding secrets from each other.

Jesus who? We forget the blessings God gave us are from him alone—that we didn’t earn them and we, in the end, don’t own them. That’s a sad and beautiful part of this story. Jesus knew that the nine lepers, 90% statistically, of the people he healed fully understand what he did for them. But he healed them anyway. He made that first move here.

Someone asked Martin Luther, the great theologian of the 16th century, what the true nature of worship is. He said, “It is the tenth leper returning.” The response shown by the one is what pleases God the most. It is stopping to say: I didn’t do it on my own, I don’t run the show here.

He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. (Luke 17:16 NRSV)

This is the nature of worship. It’s not like Jesus is going to take the blessing back— those other guys remained healed. Technically, this guy didn’t have to thank Jesus, and yet he did.

Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (Luke 17:17-18 NRSV)

That’s how exiled this community was. The Israelites and the Samaritans were hanging out together. They were brought together by mutual desperation, despite their prejudice against each other. And it is in this person, this exile, that Jesus finds a worshipper.

…except this foreigner? Jesus is asking a rhetorical question here. “Aren’t you guys supposed to be the chosen people of God, and yet none of you stopped to give God praise and thanks for your healing?” Isn’t it interesting that the heretic, the half-breed, the outlier was the only one with a proper response?

When God intervenes in our lives, may we have a better response than 90% of the people in this story!

Jesus with whom?

One of the great misnomers many can come to believe is that God turns his back when we sin. Another is that sickness, disease, or being in exile is a sign that God is not pleased with us and whatever we are going through is either the result of our sins, or his punishment. How contrary is this to Scripture that tells us God never leaves us nor forsakes us, that we can never be snatched out of his hands, that his love is far wider and deeper than we can ever imagine.

The truth is, God is with us in the midst of our exile. When we are feeling abandoned, our feelings are not being honest with us. Feelings are just that—feelings. They don’t always tell us the truth because they are not often based on truth. You see this in children who suddenly look up and don’t see mom or dad and believe they are alone. Their feeling turns into fear and they may cry out. But they aren’t alone. The parent may be just out of sight. We sometimes fear God has rejected us when we are feeling especially alone, separated from others, exiled because of what we do or believe. Jesus is there, right in the midst of our pain, or loneliness, or feelings of abandonment.

As we mentioned in the beginning of this sermon, we are citizens of both the kingdom of God and the world; our home is heaven and we live here on earth; we are at home, and we are in exile. And God is with us. This is the wonderful message of hope. “I know you are in exile, I know you’re in a place where you feel powerless and disoriented, but trust me to take care of you where you are. I am with you.”

The answer to “Jesus with whom?” is clear. Jesus is among us as we live as his people in exile, as we make our home in exile. We can make two mistakes here. On one side, we just take up the life of the world around us—dropping our biblical morals and worldview when they might get in our way. On the other side, we can be what some have called, “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” We can avoid non-Christians and put a layer of judgment and alienation between us and them. Did we see Jesus doing this? Not at all. He was always among the broken, even the morally broken. The only people he seemed to separate himself from were the religious people, the “clean” people, who were more focused on law and ritual than they were on people.

We are called to make our home in exile. Being a Christian doesn’t mean you are suddenly cured of your spiritual homesickness, but that you can make sense of this homesickness. You know that the world doesn’t feel like home because it IS NOT home! We were never made to find our complete fulfillment here. That is only found in Christ, and fully found only at the end of all things. So while we are here, Jesus is with us, and we get those glimpses of home in our fellowship with him and each other.

Jesus with whom? Jesus with us, his exiled people who are making a home as they wait for their final home.

The story of the ten lepers, and the blessing of Jeremiah on the exiles, brings us three questions today.

Jesus where? —Jesus is among the exiles, on the fringe. He is comfortable hanging out on the wrong side of the tracks with those society thinks of as unclean and broken. If you want to meet him, go meet them.

Jesus who? —Too often our answer is to run off, like the nine lepers, rather than stopping to thank God and recognize his gifts in the world. May we have a grateful, observant heart to realize that everything is from his hand and that everything—including ourselves—belongs to him.

Jesus with whom? —Jesus is with us as we make our home as exiles in this world, when we engage the world with love and respect and meet people where they are. Also when we forgive the world, and each other in it, for not fulfilling us completely. That’s God’s job.

May the Spirit bring you the right question as you move about as his people in exile this week.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • We live in a world focused on convenience. What are some of the dangers of convenience?
  • So many items of convenience take away from connection and relationship. What conveniences in your life actually deter connections?
  • What conveniences get in the way of developing a personal relationship with God?
  • How has instant gratification shaped our expectations of answered prayer?

From the sermon

  • Have you ever been somewhere that had a clear, but maybe very thin dividing line? (Berlin wall, DMZ in Korea, etc.). What was that place like?
  • In the sermon, we talked about how Jesus is drawn to the fringe— with the leper colony between two feuding people groups. Why do you think he is drawn there? What does that tell us about him?
  • The nine lepers ran off without a word of gratitude, but only the non-Jewish person the “foreigner” returned to thank Jesus. Why do you think he was the one who returned? Why is it easy to forget gratitude when we are blessed by God? How do we keep thankful?
  • Have you ever met Jesus on the “fringe”? Have you ever served or befriended people on the outside and found Christ’s presence there?
  • We also discussed Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7. Here God tells the people to put down roots even in exile—to root where they are planted. As God’s people in exile, is this hard to do? As citizens of heaven and residents of earth, how do we live out this dual identity?
  • Is there a fringe that God is calling you to in your own life? Is there some “undesirable” people or person that he wants you to serve and meet him with?

Quote to ponder:

“Whenever I meet someone in need, it’s really Jesus in his most distressing disguise.” ~Mother Theresa

Sermon for October 20, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Psalm 119:97-104 • 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 • Luke 18:1-8

This week’s theme is I am your God; you are my beloved. The prophet Jeremiah reminded the Israelites that God was there when they were plucked up and broken, and he is there to help them rebuild and plant. There is a new covenant. The Psalmist writes, “O how I love your law…” as God promises to never turn away. Paul reminds Timothy that all Scripture is inspired for us and teaches us that we belong to God. The sermon looks at the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 and reminds us God is not like the unjust judge—he is the Father who loves us.

How Much Prayer Does God Want?

Luke 18:1-8 (NRSV)

Introduction: Read (or have someone read) Luke 18:1-8. Ask the question, what do you believe this parable is about? Is the parable about how we pray? Is it telling us to pray harder? Pray longer? Get more and more people to join us in prayer? Or is it reminding us who we pray to?

Luke 18:1-8 is one of the few parables where we are told up front what it’s about. We don’t have to figure it out. In the case of this parable known as “The Persistent Widow,” Jesus told it to show that we “should always pray and not give up.” But why would he want to tell us this?

How we answer that question depends on how we view God. If we see God as some judge who is more interested in his law than us, then we may see prayer as the weight we need to add up enough to tip the scales in our favor. And if this is the case, it’s easy to believe the lie that if we pray hard enough or long enough and get enough other people to join us, then God will be forced to bless us. But that is not how the parable is set up. In fact, Jesus has crafted a story of contrast to make an argument of who God really is—a God who cares for us and who can be counted on. Because of who God is, Jesus can tell us to not lose heart in praying.

The story of contrast Jesus uses creates the argument that if it is true for the lesser then it is truer for the greater. In this case the lesser is a “judge.” We are given a not-too-flattering picture of this particular judge. He “neither feared God nor cared about men.” In short, he was only concerned about himself. We see this self-centered judge in full color as he refuses the pleas for justice from the widow. One of the primary duties of a judge in Israel would be to see that the helpless would not get taken advantage of by an “adversary.” This judge doesn’t seem to care about the widow or about doing his job. But the widow wears him down with her constant pleas. In the end the judge grants her request, not out of concern for her, but out of self-preservation. He didn’t want to be bothered any longer and he feared risking his reputation.

Jesus uses this to argue that if the widow was granted justice by such a wicked judge, then how much more will a loving God hear our prayers and come to our aid. His parable does not invoke the need to pray harder to win God over but rather to see who God is for the purpose of placing our faith in him. This faith gets expressed as we participate in prayer with God.

Here are some of the contrasts presented in the parable that can help build our trust in the Father so we can “pray and not give up.”

The widow was “praying” to a judge; we pray to our heavenly Father.

Have you ever noticed how children will search out a particular parent to present their request to? Somewhere down the line they learned who was the softer target. Maybe you have done this in more sophisticated ways as an adult. We seek out the people we think are more inclined to give us a favorable hearing or answer.

In the parable, the judge is not a soft or favorable target. But the widow doesn’t have other options. We may think we can go to other “favorable” targets to get justice or help for our needs other than God. When we do, we may be casting ourselves on the mercy of a “judge” who cares nothing for us. Much in this world lets us down. But when we know that God is our Father—a loving Father who is completely for us—we can come to see that he is the one we can trust with all our concerns. There is never part of God that is turned away from us or against us. He is a Father unlike all others. We see who this Father is in his Son, Jesus. Jesus has revealed to us in his life, death and resurrection that the Father has already judged us as the children he will love for all eternity. If there is something out of place in your life, there is no doubt that the Father is the One you want to talk to about it.

The judge cared only for himself; the Father cares for the whole world.

You probably know the empty feeling when someone agrees with you or grants a request only because it served their own purposes in some way. Ever had someone do you a “favor” only to obligate you to do them one in return? This lets us know that the person isn’t acting out of their care or concern for us; we call this self-serving. The judge in the parable may grant the widow’s request out of his selfishness, but the Father acts only out of his love for us. We can trust his answer to us is always grounded in his love for us. If the answer is no, it’s for our good. If it’s yes, we can receive and enjoy it in full assurance. We can also pray to the Father knowing that he will not abandon his love for others in his answer to us. This is vital to remember; God’s answer to prayer always takes in account his love for ALL his children. God doesn’t play favorites. We don’t always know how our request will affect another person. Just because we pray something that we think is good for us doesn’t mean that answered prayer would be good for another. We come to trust the Father’s purifying work in our prayers, aligning our prayers with his good will for all.

The judge is “bothered” by the pleas of the widow; the Father welcomes and wants to hear our prayers.

Have you ever been granted a request only because the person didn’t want to deal with you anymore? How does that feel? If we believe God is like this then we are more concerned for the gift and we miss the giver. The Father wants us to bring everything to him in prayer because he wants to be with us in everything. He is not bothered by our prayers in the least bit. Have you felt your prayer was maybe too selfish or petty? Maybe you feel like your prayers are too scattered and incoherent. Are you afraid this would annoy the Father to the point that he shoos you away? It doesn’t happen.

The Father is not worn out like the judge in Jesus’ parable. The Father wants to hear everything on our hearts. Not because he doesn’t already know, but because praying opens us to receive more fully all he has to give us. We share with others only to the extent that we trust them. Prayer in this way warms the Father’s heart as his children come to him in trust. In this trust, the child can then receive what the Father is giving. And the greatest gift we open ourselves to receive through prayer is the gift of communion with the Father.

The judge can be influenced by outside forces such as “nagging”; the Father is true to who he is as a God of love.

Nothing changes God’s mind about us. That can be such a relief from a burden we may not even know we carry. Our thoughts and opinions about one another are easily swayed, are they not? One moment someone is our best friend, the next minute we treat him or her like a sworn enemy. The way we treat others can be swayed by something as simple as bad traffic or a headache. When outside circumstances disrupt our lives, those circumstances can also disrupt our relationships.

The Father is not swayed in this way. He is true to himself. We never need to fear that there is some higher power or cosmic force that has strings attached to the Father’s actions toward us. He is love and he will always respond out of love. The stars do not have to align for the Father’s favor to shine upon you. In Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels, we see all kinds of powers and influences align to thwart his mission to the Father for the sake of the world. He was not swayed or delayed. Jesus reveals to us that the Father’s character and heart toward us will never be deterred. You can come to this Father knowing that he does not have other issues to attend to.

The judge “said to himself” in determining how he would proceed with the widow; the Father never talks to himself; Father, Son and Spirit share all things in communion.

All the plans and purposes the Father has for us flow out of his Triune nature of loving relationship. He is not disconnected from our lives lived out in relationship with others. He created us for this purpose. When we approach the Father in prayer we are not praying alone to a lonely God. This can be a scary thing, like going down a dark alley alone to meet a stranger you don’t know. We pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus takes us to his Father. Jesus is the one who prays. When we pray, we are receiving his prayers, participating in his conversation with the Father. Jesus takes our prayers and purifies and presents them to the Father. So, we are not trying to work up a prayer that will be good enough to turn the Father’s ears toward us. Prayer is a manifestation of the Father’s heart already turned toward us in Jesus Christ. The Father is calling us to himself in prayer. Here is an excerpt from C.S. Lewis, who paints a great picture of this dynamic:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God—that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying—the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on—the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that the whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his prayers. The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life—what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself”—C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book IV, Chapter 2, pg. 143.

As we come to pray, we can come knowing the Father is not talking to himself and we are interrupting; he is speaking to us and drawing us into communion.

These five points of contrast in the parable makes a strong argument for placing our faith in the Father and coming to him with our prayers. As we come to see who God is for us, we will be moved to continually turn to him, and not give up. So, Jesus seems to be telling us through this story that God is the one we can trust for justice. The Father is the one who is faithful to us and can be trusted. No matter what injustices or challenges we face or see in our world, we can bring them to the Father, trusting him to answer. We can badger the “judges” in our world and maybe force a few decisions to go in our favor. Or we can come before our heavenly Father, who favors us completely, not turning from us in our time of need.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From “Speaking of Life” and the sermon:

  • Have you ever given up on prayer? Share how you worked past this and started talking with God again.
  • Discuss ways we approach prayer as if we need to pray more or harder to get God to respond. Have you encountered this approach before? Have you ever felt that this was what God wanted with prayer?
  • Discuss how our view of who God is affects how we pray.
  • Discuss how prayer changes when we see ourselves praying to a “judge” like the one in the parable, instead of praying to the Father the way he really is.
  • Have you ever thought that your prayers were unacceptable to God? What are things that make us think our prayers are not “good enough”?
  • What did you think of C.S. Lewis’ picture of the “ordinary simple Christian” praying? Discuss the difference in praying to a Triune God rather than a solitary “lonely” God.

Sermon for October 27, 2019

Readings: Joel 2:23-32 • Psalm 65:1-14 • 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 • Luke 18:9-14

This week’s theme is Focus not on what we’ve done or gone through; focus on who has gone through it with us. The prophet Joel reminds us to rejoice in who God is. He’s the one who blesses us even in the midst of trials. He is the one who pours his Spirit on all flesh. The Psalmist talks of the God of salvation who waters the earth, silences the seas and blesses us abundantly. In Luke we read about the difference between the Pharisee who focuses on himself, and the tax collector who focuses on God and his mercy. The sermon focuses on Paul saying goodbye to Timothy and putting the focus where it belongs. To God be the glory forever and ever.

Paul’s Goodbye

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 (NRSV)

Introduction: Read, or have someone read, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. Share a meaningful time you’ve had to say goodbye—sending the kids off to college, leaving home for the first time, etc. The more colorful, detailed, and humorous the better, of course.

Saying goodbye is one of few universal experiences in life—from the kid going to school to the soldier going to war to the father walking his daughter down the aisle. The oldest rituals discovered involve saying farewell, and with all our communication technology today, parting ways still hurts.

If you’ve ever had the honor of being at someone’s bedside when they’ve gone to be with the Lord, you know every word is important. Any chaplain or doctor worth their salt will tell you that “saying goodbye” is a vital part of the process. Often someone who is about to die will, in some sense, wait for permission from those who love them. Even if it seems like they can’t hear you or see you anymore, even if they haven’t responded for days, that person will often wait until you say goodbye. Those moments are intimate, there’s nothing flashy or dramatic about those moments, but they are drenched with meaning.

Today we will look at Paul’s goodbye to Timothy.

This is the last writing we have from Paul, and it shows up in a mysterious way. It has all the poignancy of a final scene in a movie, one where the main character we’ve grown to love appears one last time and we can’t quite tell what’s going on. But it’s meaningful, even if we don’t know exactly what’s going on around the frame of the picture.

Different from most of Paul’s writing, the circumstances are a little unclear. We know that Paul is imprisoned, again, but we don’t know where. Is he under house arrest? Is he in the depths of a Roman prison somewhere? Or is he still under the same arrest he was when he wrote other letters? We don’t know exactly, and in a sense, we don’t need to know.

Paul has said all he needed to say. He’s run the race, kept the course, finished the battle. He’s delivered his message, and he’s living now in the peace and freedom of a faithful servant at rest. This passage is a reflection on the art of finishing well, of crossing the finish line tired, but with the work complete.

Paul’s last words to his “son in the faith” are intimate words between two friends: bring my coat, bring my books, send my love to our friends.

I want to share three points from this passage that Paul’s goodbye gives us:

    • Identity
    • Purpose
    • Doxology

First, we can see Paul’s identity at work. Let’s look at the passage and some of its context. First, verse 6:

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. (2 Timothy 4:6 NRSV)

This is a strong image. In the Jewish community, when the sacrifices were finished, the last act was to pour a drink offering of wine over the carcasses of the animals. This is the “drink offering”—a dramatic picture of wine poured out and dripping down into the earth.

No doubt Paul’s own execution isn’t far from his mind. As a Roman citizen, he wouldn’t have been thrown to the animals or crucified—he would have been beheaded. It was a “privilege” of citizenship—to have a quick and honorable death. The pouring blood was probably on Paul’s mind—the last of him will be poured out, the work, at least his part of the work is done, and the last thing he has to give is himself.

The amazing other part of his discussion of identity comes toward the end of the chapter, toward the end of our reading today.

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was delivered from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. (2 Timothy 4:17-18 NRSV)

I love that Paul writes this just toward the end of the letter: “The Lord delivered me from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack.” It doesn’t seem like it! It looks to me like Paul is right there between the lion’s teeth!

Paul is speaking here out of his identity in Christ. His identity, which transcends his circumstances, is in the royal courts of Christ and not in a dingy prison cell that reeks of death. He can talk in the same breath about his departure from this life (at the edge of a Roman sword) and of his deliverance.

His identity in Christ also transcends his loneliness, which is another strong theme here. Prisoners in that day had to depend heavily on the kindness of friends and family – there was no food provided for prisoners and no other supplies. We can assume Paul has enough food through some source to survive, just barely, but we see a profound moment of weakness where he asks Timothy for his coat (verse 13). He survived shipwrecks, snake bites, riots, stoning, kidnapping and other near misses, but now he is quite simply chilly.

We see his loneliness in verse 16:

At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me.

There was also no legal system for criminals in that day, especially someone of the lower middle class, like Paul most likely was. He’s on trial, awaiting execution, he doesn’t have a team of defense attorneys at hand. There are no court-appointed lawyers.

He was utterly, completely alone. Prison can be one of the loneliest places in the world. Even if you are surrounded by other people, everybody’s just trying to survive. In the kind of desperate situation Paul was in, there’s no one looking out for you. Except…

But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.

The Lord stood by me and gave me strength. Paul was not alone, because he’s never alone. His identity transcends space and time, and the company of Christ transcends his dim surroundings. There’s nowhere he can go that Christ isn’t there first, and where Christ won’t keep him company.

Isn’t that a promise? Isn’t that an amazing thing we see here in Paul’s goodbye? There’s nowhere you can go outside the companionship of Christ. Even to prison, where you can hear your executioners laughing drunkenly outside your window—even there the Lord stands by you and gives you strength. How do we live our lives differently if we know Jesus is standing there with us always?

Second, Paul’s goodbye tells us about his purpose. One of the Paul’s characteristic flourishes appears in the beginning of our reading for today:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7-8 NRSV)

Typical of Paul, this is a metaphor salad: four metaphors in just a handful of words. He hearkens back to some of the metaphors he developed earlier in the letter. He talked about his work, not Timothy’s work, being like an athlete in training, a farmer at his work, and a soldier following orders. He collapses these metaphors in this statement: I’ve finished what was set out for me to do. I’ve run the race, I’ve carried out my orders.

Completion is essential for Paul, and one of Paul’s themes: “He who begun a good work in you will bring it to completion.” The picture, at least Paul’s part of it, is complete.

There’s a touching scene in the movie “Meet Joe Black” where Anthony Hopkins’ character is giving his birthday speech. The character knows his death is coming very soon. In his parting birthday toast he says, “I’m going to break precedent and tell you my one candle wish: that you would have a life as lucky as mine, where you can wake up one morning and say, ‘I don’t want anything more.’”

I don’t want anything more. Here is the beauty of Paul’s goodbye when it comes to purpose—he can look around at menacing guards and bars on the windows and say, “I don’t want anything more.” I’ve obeyed Christ and I know Christ, and that’s enough.

Finally, we notice Paul’s doxology—his liturgical praise to God.

To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:18 NRSV)

It’s like Paul is saying, don’t worry about me. Don’t focus on my circumstances, focus on the One I focus on. To God be the glory forever and ever.

There are no greater last words to leave to a disciple, a child, a spouse, a student, a friend. I’ve done what God has called me to do. I am ready for my reward. Let’s not focus on my demise; let’s focus on his goodness. To him belongs all the glory. Amen and amen.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From ”Speaking of Life:”

  • How many “them” and “us” divisions do you face on a given day? Describe some of them.
  • Describe a time you related to the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.
  • Describe a time you related to the tax collector.
  • How do we, as followers of Jesus, combat the “us-vs-them” mentality we see all around us?

From the sermon:

  • We’ve all had to say big goodbyes at one time or another. Do you have one that sticks out in your mind as more poignant or funny than the rest?
  • In our sermon, we talked about Paul’s bravery and peace because his identity in Christ transcended his circumstances. What does it mean to have our identity in Christ? What does that mean not only for crisis, but for everyday life?
  • We talked about how Paul had completed his purpose—“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (v. 7). Has God ever made your purpose—your fight, your race—this clear to you? How do you feel that you keep the faith in your own journey? Remember, our unique purpose comes from God in all shapes and sizes.
  • How do you think Paul felt? He tells us in a short space that all his friends have abandoned him, that he’s cold and needs his coat, and that he’s lonely and longs for Timothy’s company. Why would a spiritual giant like Paul show vulnerability? Does that minister to you?
  • How do we finish well? Not just our lives, but seasons of life—jobs, locations, even relationships? How do we learn from Paul and finish the race in a Christlike way?

Quote to ponder: “Beginning well is a momentary thing; finishing well is a lifelong thing.” ~Ravi Zacharias