Yesterday’s message …
- Coined a new song: “Insulting Grace.” Trademark efforts to come;
- Offered reflections on Muddy Methodist Theology from a generation or so ago;
- Encouraged listeners to be out of step with current culture as long as they are in touch with timeless grace;
- Landed at this bottom line: Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless?
There’s some pressure to keep up with the times, isn’t there? It’s why I don’t wear bell bottoms or leisure suits or, even if I could, don’t part my hair in the middle and sports some mutton chop sideburns and a Fu Manchu mustache or play tennis in really short shorts or add to my 8 track tape collection. I just don’t. Have to keep up with the times.
You know this. It’s why a lot of you don’t rock the mullet you wore in 1992, why others of you (the female kind) don’t have Glamour Shots Big Hair or why for your last job interview you DIDN’T wear MC Hammer’s parachute pants. All those things had their time, but that time is gone – THANK GOD! – and you’ve got to keep up with them.
But you know this truism applies to more areas. There’s a reason we wash our hands, conduct surgery in sterile environments, don’t treat blood disorders with leeches, why women now vote and why bi-racial marriages are no longer against the law. The church led in some of those, was pulled in others, but the bottom line is that times change and so we keep up with changes, both as individuals and as congregations.
And so the great tendency and temptation for churches and preachers is to do the same thing, especially in terms of what we teach and preach as “Christian.” As “the Gospel.” And not necessarily with this in mind but with this effect: when the library gets too offensive, edit it. When it seems too ancient, modernize it. When it becomes out of step, make it up to date. Here’s the thinking, consciously or not: if we make sure that the library & the Xn teaching emerging from it keeps up with the times, that makes sure that ppl will keep coming back and keep listening.
That sense is certainly behind almost everything that Paul writes to his son in the faith, Timothy. Now, by way of review: this series is called Famous Last Words because this letter really is, as far as we can tell, the last recorded words of pastor, preacher, author Paul. And he has begun the letter by calling Timothy his “dear son” even though Paul never had children – we saw last week that Paul’s greatest achievement was not something he did but someone he raised. And in these final words, Paul passes on all kids of wisdom and instruction to help Timothy pastor well in Ephesus, the same city that received what we know in the NT as the letter to the Ephesians (library stuff is all inter-related and so cool!). And the specter hovering over ALL OF IT (as we’ll not only today but next week) is this: the message you speak is coming under attack. Not only will you as messenger be assaulted but your message will be attacked. Less from without than from within. Because the times were tough & the church both needed to keep up with them and resist keeping up with them.
In the era in which Paul and Timothy lived there were two great values, closely related: VICTORY and HONOR. DEFEAT and SHAME were to be avoided at all costs. In an honor and shame culture (like Japan & the Middle East even today), suffering shame and enduring defeat was the worst fate you could conceive of. Unlike Americans, they didn’t love COMEBACK STORIES … you were never supposed to lose or suffer shame in the first place! Well, this put Timothy in a terrible dilemma: he follows a CRUCIFIED (defeated!) Messiah and is under the tutelage of an IMPRISONED mentor. Loss and shame all over the place. This is why Paul has to begin with these words in 1:8a:
So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.
Keep up with the times and you downplay the nature of the Savior – the DEFEATED, CRUCIFIED Messiah – but don’t do it. Just don’t.
The next sentence is more of the same:
Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God.
Our culture tells you to abandon me; but nope, we’ve got a dif way.
And then come to verses, absolutely stunning in scope and impact:
9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
Oh my gosh. Note what it says: GRACE never began. Before time began, grace – God giving of himself, God doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves – was there. Grace never not was. The mind who was before matter is the mind who became matter and he is the embodiment of grace. The OPPOSITE of a fad, of a trend, of current. Always, ever, grace. Mind. Blown. You began. I began. The USA began. Google began. Grace never did. Always was, is, and will be.
But before I go on, did you know that grace is so … OFFENSIVE? Insulting? We have robbed it of its power by saying it, passing it, singing it, but before it was ever AMAZING, grace was first INSULTING. (Not a catchy tune, “Insulting Grace”). How so? Grace says You can’t. God can. You won’t. God will. You’re not. God is. You are a such a mess you need a Messiah. God alone needs to do what you could never do for yourself. For a pride-filled human race that is the ultimate insult.
In Paul’s world AND EVEN IN OURS that is so out of touch. So not with the times. We’re an “I’m cool!” world. And “I’ve got this” culture. Like the one group with this slogan: To each what he deserves. (AV) Whose slogan is that? The Nazi Party. Oh … that’s what happens when you keep up with the times; when you’re insulted by your need for grace.
Then look at 1:11-12:
11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
Offensive, insulting, but liberating. Life missioning for Paul! And then down to 1:13-14:
13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
Gosh, that “pattern of sound teaching” is like a repeating structure, not something you really pick and choose from. And in calling it a pattern, it’s almost like a pilot whose got a flight plan and decides “Oh, no I like mine better! Let’s just go with it!” Would you get on that plane? Or a surgeon who on the cusp of operating on your spine says, “I’m feeling spontaneous today! Let’s wing it!” Would you submit to that? Of course not! Paul says the truth, the Gospel, the good news works just like that. Not to be edited or diluted. To be treasured and passed on … INTACT. And look at 1:14 closely: just as you guard that kind of truth, he is guarding you. Empowering you and empowering to hold on to this old, old faith forever.
So here it is. Here’s the folly of keeping up with the times when it comes to what we teach about the things of the God whose character and grace were somehow working before time even began! Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless? Yes! This explains almost everything about this church which ON THE SURFACE looks so modern and yet beneath it is tenaciously, passionately, obnoxiously committed to adoring what is old and ancient and unchanging. The Gospel is the opposite of your iPhone: newer is not better and younger is not smarter. REFRAIN and I can’t wait to show you what I mean.
About 20 years ago or so I read a piece by a leader in the UMC. A big time leader, lots of authority over lots of people. Anyway, this leader described going to an interfaith Thanksgiving service where there were clergy from Xn denoms, Unitarian Universalist, Muslims, Buddhists, and more. The epitome of those “Coexist” Bumper stickers (AV) in living color. And in describing it all the UMC leader said, “We all worship the same God.” Which sounds so nice, so get along-y, so keeping up with the times, and yet when you peel it back makes no sense whatsoever. Think about it: When the UU pastor prayed, he for all practical purposes said, “To whom it may concern.” When a Xn prays, it’s to the resurrected Lord, reigning King, and returning Savior, Jesus. Which is true?
Buddhists believe that people are endlessly reincarnated after death; Xns believe it’s appointed once for man to die and then to face judgment. Which is right? Islam believes in merit-based salvation – you earn it – and Xns believe in the insult of grace – that only by Jesus doing for you what you couldn’t do for yourself do you make it to heaven. Which is right? I don’t bring those differences up to be mean, but to be clear! Nothing is more cruel than muddled thinking and few things are more loving than clarity! I don’t want to be like that UMC leader. I don’t want to dilute the Gospel. I want to declare it … because it’s not ours to begin with. Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless?
Or it’s almost like: do you believe that Texas has a capital (someone in audience)? I do too! Hey, it’s like we believe the same thing! We’re keeping up with the times! Except you believe it’s Fort Worth and I know it’s Austin. We don’t believe the same thing at all. I don’t wanna keep up with the times if that means I have to dilute the timeless. The result of that is like saltwater … it LOOKS TASTY but IS DEADLY. Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless?
My gosh, when it comes to the things of God, if I ever say, “I’ve got a newer, better Gospel” it’s time for you to get a newer, better pastor. It’s also why be so suspicious of people who talk about “their truth.” I’m so glad you learned to speak your truth. No, when it comes to the Gospel, when it comes to divinity, when it comes to eternity, there’s not your truth and my truth. There’s truth. And the truths we’re talking about – INCARNATION, INSTRUCTION, CRUCIFIXION, RESURRECTION, COMPLETION – are not ours! When Paul tells Timothy to guard what’s been “entrusted” – in the ancient world, holding on to someone else’s property in the absence, as a trust, that was a sacred act. A divine responsibility. All we do is hold it, treasure it, love that the insult of grace leads to the inheritance of glory and then pass it on to future generations. This is why we’re not Gospel editors but bible lifters around here! And light bulbs in your heads just went on all around! Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless?
Listen: when you’re kept by the timeless, you’ll be out of step. We’ll be out of step. Because we believe IN Jesus we believe THAT when he defined marriage as between man and woman we’re not free to redefine it. We say it with deep appreciation and loving clarity. When he called gender good, very good, we don’t have the freedom to reconfigure it. When Scripture says that there is no longer Greek or Jew, slave or free, male or female but we are one in Christ Jesus, we believe that. It’s why when asked “are you a white church or a black church or a Latino church or an Asian church” we get to answer, “we’re a Jesus church.” We say that with deep appreciation and loving clarity. We may be out of step with current culture but in touch with timeless grace. I don’t want to be vulnerable to the latest fads and current trends. With smart phone, maybe. With Gospel, never. Why keep up with the times when you can be kept by the timeless?
So … if you’re already a Xn, but realized your mind and your understanding of the Gospel have been diluted by keeping up with the times, are you ready to get deeply in touch with who is timeless? Are you ready to be kept by him? Willing to live out of step?
And if you’re not a Xn or are a lapsed one, are you willing to connect fresh and new with what is ancient and true? To stop thinking you can do it on your own and celebrate that you can’t? To receive the relentless grace that NEVER BEGAN and because it never began is working right now, pulling you away from your own efforts and into his arms? Would you like to give your life to him … now ? Would you say yes to the Jesus who said yes to you before time ever began?