Date: October 13, 2019
Festival: Proper 23, 18th Sunday after Pentecost (LWML Sunday)
Text: 2 Timothy 2:1-13
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Exegetical Statement: In this section of the epistle, St. Paul addresses the young pastor Timothy as his spiritual father. Just as Timothy is teachable, so he also must be able to teach in order to entrust faithful men with the Gospel. Paul then exhorts Timothy to anticipate suffering in the ministry, urging him to endure the suffering that is to come as a soldier in the military endures suffering; and like an athlete to obey God honourably; and like a hard-working farmer not to neglect himself from the first shares of the Gospel. In all of this, Paul encourages Timothy to remember Jesus Christ risen from the dead, which is the foundation of the Gospel he received from Paul, and for which Paul is imprisoned like a common criminal. Yet while Paul remains bound in chains, the Gospel is not bound. Paul’s joy in the Gospel is profoundly expressed in the concise song he sings: if we have died with Christ, we will also live with Him; if we endure (like a good soldier), we will reign with Him; if we deny Him, He will deny us; yet if we are faithless, He remains faithful.
Focus Statement: God is faithful even when you are faithless.
Function Statement: That my hearers will trust in God’s faithfulness as they do the ministry of the Gospel in their given vocations.
Sermon Hymn: LSB #809 Great Is Thy Faithfulness
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Soldiers, athletes, and farmers. What does these three have in common? In reality, nothing. Yet Paul uses these three kinds of people as a comparison to the work of the ministry in order to encourage the young pastor, Timothy. Yet perhaps before we explore these comparisons, we should first look at the relationship between Paul and Timothy.
Paul begins this section with, “My child.” That is, Paul considers Timothy his spiritual son much as he considered the slave Onesimus to his spiritual son [Philemon 8-10]. Paul, then, is Timothy’s spiritual father. This is why Catholics call their priests “Father,” for their priests are indeed their spiritual fathers, which is why Luther desired to retain the title in order for Christians to have this comfort.
Luther, too, had a spiritual father. The term we often use for this is “father-confessor.” Father Johann von Staupitz was Martin Luther’s father-confessor. Luther would confess his sins to him many hours every day while he was still an Augustinian monk before he discovered the Gospel, or rather before the Gospel discovered him.
I had formed a similar relationship with my pastor back home in Michigan. And now, Pastor Mat and I are forming a spiritual father-son relationship. Like Paul was to Timothy, as a vicar, Pastor Mat is my supervisor and teacher in ministry. The relationship between Pastor Mat and I is one where he is becoming my father-confessor. I have privately confessed my sins to him and he has absolved me. He is my pastor, my spiritual father—my father-confessor, much as he is yours.
The Three Comparisons
It is with this deep care a father has for his son with which Paul addresses Timothy. They are co-workers in the ministry of the Gospel, and the nature of their relationship is one where Paul is Timothy’s spiritual father. So, Paul speaks to Timothy as if he were his own son.
If you are involved in ministry in some way—whether through LWML [Lutheran Women’s Missionary League], participation on a board, catechising your children and grandchildren—we all know there are many joys in ministry. We all know the joy we have when we share the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we see the soul of the person completely light up in front of us.
Yet we also know ministry is not always smooth sailing. As ministers of the Gospel—as Christians—it is our lot to endure various sufferings for the sake of the Gospel. With great love for his spiritual son, St. Paul exhorts Timothy to anticipate these troubles that are to come in ministry by encouraging him with three comparisons.
First, he says, “Share in suffering as a good soldiers of Christ Jesus” [vv. 3-4]. My fellow veterans and I can immediately relate to this verse. As soon as a man or woman enlists in the military, even before we begin active service, we leave all our former civilian matters behind us. We no longer have to concern ourselves with food and clothing since the quartermaster supplies these for us. We are no longer concerned with civilian life overall but only with pleasing our commanding officer.
The soldier endures all kinds of suffering—the hatred of the enemy, even hatred from some civilians they protect, and death. Paul exhorts Timothy to endure these things like the soldier endures. Like Timothy, you and I must endure the hatred of the enemy, the Devil; even the hatred of the rest of the world (sometimes even our own brothers and sisters in Christ), and enduring death, both the death of our loved ones and our own inevitable death.
Second, Paul says, “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” [v. 5]. In the Greco-Roman world in which this letter was written, even if a man won a game or sport he competed in, he would not be crowned unless he complied with all the rules. In the national athletic games of the Greeks at this time, the prize the athletes received also had very little material value. Their reward consisted merely of a wreath, but the honour attached to that prize was so enormous that the winner would be the subject of copious amounts of hymns throughout the Greco-Roman world, much as the honour that goes along with the St. Louis Blues winning the Stanley Cup.
This prize in Greek culture, however, was only given on one condition—that the athlete in the game obeyed all the rules. If the St. Louis Blues had done anything illegal in hockey, they would not have been awarded the Stanley Cup. In the same way, then, Timothy—and all of us ministers of the Gospel—are bound by the rules God has laid down in His Word.
Lastly, Paul said, “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops” [v. 6]. Here, Paul is saying the farmer who labours in his toil should be the first partaker of the fruits of his labour. For us today, this is a difficult saying. Many farmers today raise cattle and crops in order to sell in the marketplace. So, the people who buy from them get the first share of the crops.
Greco-Roman farming was primarily subsistence farming. The people farmed in order to live. They couldn’t depend largely on grocery stores (because they didn’t exist) or other farmers to get their food (because Romans were not very generous people). So, Paul says, those who raise their own crops should be the first to enjoy the first shares before anyone else does. In the same way, Timothy—and all of us—should have the first share of the Gospel.
Just as the beef and crops the farmers raise for others is also for themselves, so those who labour in the Gospel ought to receive the Gospel for themselves as well. It might seem like poor business practice for farmers to keep the first shares in our day, but they don’t keep the best of everything. Farmers are also in need of food, and how can they live if they don’t at least have some of the best shares? They’ll get sick and die if they eat only the sick, weak, and diseased crops and cattle.
In the same way, ministers of the Gospel are also in need of the Gospel. How can we minister and live in Christ if we ourselves do not receive the Gospel? Brothers and sisters, the Gospel is for you, too.
In summary, Paul urges Timothy to endure suffering as a soldier endures suffering, to honourably obey God’s Word as an athlete obeys the rules of the games, and to receive the first shares of the ministry of the Gospel as farmers receive the first shares of their crops. This is for us too.
Let’s consider the ministerial work of our lovely ladies with LWML. What sort of work do they do? All kinds! LWML supports us poor seminarians at Concordia Seminary in various ways. For example, just a few months ago, LWML donated a $100,000 grant to seminary students who would be enrolled in the Centre for Hispanic Studies or the Ethnic Immigration Institute of Theology. They also regularly provide for delicious meals for seminarians and various gifts throughout the year.
Some of the ministry work LWML does here at St. Paul is the mite boxes to donate to certain national missions. They also provide for our Alaska Mission Team, to the VanderHyde family doing ministry in Sri Lanka, providing catechisms for our children, and various other things to help make the Gospel accessible to those who need it but don’t have the resources available to receive it themselves. In these and various ways, these women participate in the ministry of the Gospel.
Now, what about everybody else here? Not everyone is in LWML, not everyone is a seminarian, teacher, vicar, or pastor. Not everyone is a formal minister of some kind. Yet everyone here ministers in some way—as a parent, grandparent, even as a friend, sibling, student, employee, and other vocations.
All of us here are Christians who have received the Gospel. Therefore, all of us here are in the business of the Gospel—a business like no other that reconciles us to one another and reconciles us to God our Father through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
God’s Faithfulness Despite Our Faithlessness
Yet are we always faithful in our ministry? Do we ever stop sinning? Something Pastor Mat repeats here often, which is the reality of who we all are, is that he is going to hurt you sometimes. So am I! So are you. None of us here want to hurt each other, but we are all sinners; we are bound to hurt one another. The Church, after all, is run by sinners. St. Augustine once said, “The Church is not a hotel for saints; it is a hospital for sinners.”
And we are all sinners. We come to Church because we know we are all sinners, not because we’re perfect. If we were perfect, we would never need the Gospel. We come here to receive the Word and the Sacraments for the forgiveness of all our sins, as well as to learn about who God is for you in Christ Jesus, which is why we have sermons.
Because we are sinners, as Paul warns Timothy, ministry is going to be hard at times. Being a Christian is not easy. I’m sure our lovely ladies of the LWML can recall struggles, fears, and failures in their ministry endeavours, whatever they might be. Yet let’s consider their theme for this year: Faith Like a Mustard Seed.
The theme comes from Luke 17:6, which is the immediate context of our gospel reading for today, which Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Wow! That is some incredibly powerful faith!
What’s especially interesting is that Jesus compares faith to the size of a mustard seed. Do you know how big a mustard seed is? They can be anywhere between 1-2 millimeters. That’s extremely small! Yet this microscopic seed is capable of growing into an abnormally large tree. Something so small can grow into something mighty and powerful.
Just prior to this, the disciples had recognised their own sin and asked Jesus to increase their faith to do the things He tells them because they know they are poor soldiers, athletes, and farmers of Christ. Yet Jesus does not give them more faith. Instead, He tells them even faith as small as a mustard seed is powerful enough to move a large tree into the sea with merely a word.
To help us understand this, think of faith as the key to opening the door that brings God into our lives. God gives us that key. Does it matter if you have a bigger key ring? No, it does not; all you need is that one small key for the door to salvation to be opened. We think that the greater the problem or the greater the illness or the greater our sin, the more faith we need. No, the size of faith is not the dilemma. The reason why faith as small as a mustard seed as tremendous strength is because it is Jesus who causes the growth and Jesus who is the actor of our faith.
So, yes, as sinners, we might struggle or fail in our ministry of the Gospel. We might fall into faithlessness every now and then. After all, we are poor soldiers of Christ and complain in our suffering instead of enduring. We are poor athletes and disobey God’s Word and become faithless. We are poor farmers and doubt our forgiveness in Christ.
But, Paul tells Timothy, we might be faithless, but even in our faithlessness, God remains faithful, because He cannot deny Himself. That is, God has made you a promise—He has promised you in your Baptism that you shall rise from death into eternal life, and because He has made this promise to you, He cannot deny Himself; He cannot ignore His promise.
Is there anything God cannot do?
Yes. He cannot break a promise.
Please allow me to tell you a brief story about God’s faithfulness. Several years ago, I was struggling with assurance of my salvation. There were certain sins I had committed where my faithlessness in these ways had caused me to doubt my salvation in Christ. I was a poor soldier, a dishonourable athlete, and a poor farmer.
Sure, I went to church every week, I went to Bible studies, I still believed in Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, and I repented of these sins literally every day. Yet the Devil was a persistent little bugger and I doubted my salvation—in truth, I doubted God’s faithfulness. I believed my sins were too great for God to forgive.
Even though my faithlessness caused me to doubt God’s faithfulness, God showed me His faithfulness anyway! And how did He do this? He brought me to His Word and what He says about me rather than what my feelings say. There are three specific passages He brought me to.
The first was Proverbs 28:13, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” In this Word, God says, “You are not hiding your sins from Me. You have confessed them. Therefore, receive My mercy.”
The second Word He brought me to was one we confess here every Sunday, 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. [But] if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness!” And the third is actually what I’m preaching on right now, 2 Timothy 2:13, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”
Sure, I might’ve been faithless, but I repented. Sure, I was faithless, but God was faithful to forgive me in spite of my faithlessness! God showed me His promise, and my doubts subsided.
If this is true for Vicar Ricky, then this is most certainly true for you, too. How have you been faithless in ministry, in work, at home, in life? Have you repented? Well, we all repented in Confession and Absolution at the beginning of this service, so yes! You have repented! Therefore, yes! You are absolutely forgiven for any faithlessness you have committed! God is faithful to His promise. You have confessed—and you will all confess against shortly at the Lord’s Supper—and God is faithful to forgive you all your sins.
Why? We don’t read the Psalms during our liturgy here, but the selected Psalm for today is Psalm 111, and verse 9 says, “He sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever. Holy and awesome is His name!” God the father sent redemption in Jesus Christ, and it is for His sake that God remains faithful to His promise for you even in spite of your faithlessness.
Hence the words of verse 1 of today’s sermon hymn, “Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father; / There is no shadow of turning with Thee. / Thou changest not: Thy compassions, they fail not; / As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.”
May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.