Sermon for the Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: 2 Timothy 2:1-13
Sermon Theme: “Be Strengthened in Grace As You Share in Suffering”
(Sources: Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 26, Part 4, Series C; Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Brokhoff, Series C, Preaching Workbook; The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers; Online Sermon Illustrations; “Nero Persecutes the Christians,” eyewitnesstohistory.com; original ideas; Online The Fiscal Times, March 22, 2015; Life-Application Study Bible footnotes; Lutheran Cyclopedia; “Charles Spurgeon: Preaching through Adversity” by John Piper)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Once when Bob Hope, the famous comedian, received a major award, he responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either.” Neither suffering nor grace is deserved, but we have both. Well, — in some cases, you do deserve the suffering, if, for example, you rob a bank and you suffer in prison as a consequence of your evil action.
Someone once asked famous Christian writer, C. S. Lewis, “But why do the righteous suffer?’
“Why not?” Lewis replied, “they’re the only ones who can take it.”
No one could write about the righteous endurance of suffering better than the Apostle Paul could. In his second letter to Timothy, Paul tells his young co-worker Timothy, and us, four things: ONE, In this life, all people suffer, and while Christians may suffer, they also endure; TWO, thus, as Christians, we have a need to be strengthened; THREE, we are strengthened by God’s grace, His favor that is in Christ Jesus; and FOUR, we are strengthened so that we may speak the saving Word to our neighbor, that is to all people.
No human being can live in this worldly life without eventually suffering. As in the case of Paul in our text, it may be innocent suffering, — Paul was shackled in prison like a criminal because he preached the Gospel. It wasn’t because he BELIEVED the Gospel, it was because he PREACHED it. Paul fully expected to spend the rest of his life in prison or to be executed.
This was the second time Paul was in prison, and it was during the vicious, vicious persecutions of the Emperor Nero. During his first imprisonment, around 60 A.D., Paul had been merely under house arrest, but this time, around 66 A.D., he was shackled in a prison cell. To grasp the impact of what Paul is saying to Timothy, we must consider how inhuman this persecution was. Under Nero, not only were they imprisoned in rat-infested dungeons, but also Christians were covered with the skins of wild animals and thrown into an arena filled with hungry dogs to attack them. Under Nero, Christians were nailed to stakes and crosses. Some had hooks driven through their throats and were hung from trees. Some were doused with oil, ignited and used as human torches to light up Nero’s gardens.
Sounds like ISIS today, doesn’t it. In the last two years, ISIS has beheaded Christians, deliberately using dull knives; using machine guns, they have slaughtered children in front of crowds in a stadium; they have thrown gay men to their deaths from the tops of buildings; they kidnap and sell Christian women to be used as sex slaves. Not so different from the cruelties of Nero, is it?
In Paul’s day and in our day, often when Christians suffer because they stand for and preach the Gospel, it is quite natural for all of us Christians to question God’s justice and God’s grace. What does a Christian do? Does he hide, run, deny Christ as a safety measure?
Throughout history, Christians have faced this challenge. At the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., when the Nicene Creed was developed, of the 318 Christian delegates attending the Council, at least three hundred of them had lost an eye, or lost a hand, or limped due to leg injuries, because they had been tortured for preaching their Christian faith.
They, like the Apostle Paul in our text, saw their suffering as a means to bring the Gospel to others so that salvation could come to as many people as possible. Timothy had a strong faith and was a great missionary, yet he was young, and in those extraordinary times, he would need hope and strength from somewhere just to endure. Timothy and the other pastors had a need to be strengthened, because if the pastors couldn’t endure, how could the people?
Paul told Timothy and us that we are strengthened in God’s grace, His favor, that is in Christ Jesus. The grace of our Lord is not a sort of medicine dispensed by Christ into us. Grace is not a thing in us, it is the gracious attitude our loving God toward us, because Jesus obeyed the Law in our stead and suffered and died in our place on the cross. Knowing that is what gives us strength.
Through faith, Christ is in us, and that complicates our life even more. We have to love our enemies; we have to live with people we would rather ignore; our beliefs make us unpopular with the world; and we have to live by a moral code. Not only is it possible that we might have to endure suffering for Christ’s sake, but also and always we have to strive for holiness. It’s not easy to be a Christian, is it? Justification is easy, but sanctification is not, — another reason to be strengthened.
The main reason to be strengthened, however, is so that we may speak the saving Word to our neighbor, that is, to all people.
When you read the history of Christianity, you cannot help but be amazed by the endurance under adversity exhibited by great Christian leaders, and Paul was certainly one of those. Along with the persecutions of Nero, Paul had the usual vicissitudes of life that all of us have, and he had this terrible “thorn in the flesh” that God did not take away from him.
The Body of Christ is made up of all believers, including those, like Paul, who have gone before us and suffered as witnesses of our faith. The famous 19th Century pastor, Charles Spurgeon, is an amazing case in point. Rev. Spurgeon suffered from debilitating gout, depression, rheumatism, and Bright’s disease (inflammation of the kidneys). Because of his rheumatism, he said his joints felt like a Cobra was constantly biting him. He was forsaken by some of his friends and slandered by both friends and enemies.
Like Paul, he was able to keep on persevering under great adversity, though it was not the kind of adversity caused by Nero or ISIS. And that’s true of most of us, — ISIS is not in our community, breathing down our necks, but old age, dementia, rheumatism, gout, and other debilitating diseases are. We can readily identify with Charles Spurgeon.
The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers says this about Rev. Spurgeon: “On a wall in his bedroom, Charles Spurgeon had a plaque with Isaiah 48:10 written on it: ‘I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” It is no mean thing to be chosen of God. God’s choice makes chosen men choice men. We are chosen, not in the palace, but in the furnace. In the furnace, beauty is marred, fashion is destroyed, strength is melted, glory is consumed, yet here eternal love reveals its secrets, and declares its choice.”
Like Paul, Spurgeon was strengthened to endure, “for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus.” That they too might hear and believe that Word of God, which “is not bound” (verse 9), but remains “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), and which will not return to the Lord empty according to Isaiah55:11. “Therefore,” says Paul in our text, “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”
To be sure, Jesus is faithful. He will stay by our side even when we have endured so much that we seem to have no faith left. We may be faithless at times, but Jesus is faithful to the promise to be with us “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Refusing Christ’s help will break our communication with God, but He will never turn His back on us even though we may turn our backs on Him.
Paul closes our text with a hymn that no doubt the early church sang in their services, and that Timothy knew very well:
“If we have died with Him, we will also live with Him;
If we endure, we will also reign with Him;
If we deny Him, He also will deny us;
If we are faithless, He remains faithful – for He cannot deny Himself.” Amen.