Monday, February 20, 2012

Make Your Choice

Message at FBC Sunnyside, WA, Feb 19, 2012

Make Your Choice
2 Timothy 2:20-21

2 Timothy is the last letter Paul wrote.  Most likely he wrote it just a few months before his death by beheading.  That makes this letter special.  In it, he writes with a passion and urgency to his associate Timothy about really important things.  Impending death focuses the mind.  Perhaps you’ve experienced a time when you believed your time on earth was coming to an end, or when the end was clearing coming for someone you love; if you have, you know what I’m talking about.

I have some “famous last words” of some famous people that might interest you.  Some are funny:

How were the receipts today at Madison Square Garden?  P. T. Barnum, d. 1891

I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.
Humphrey Bogart, d. January 14, 1957

Die, my dear?  Why, that’s the last thing I’ll do!  Groucho Marx, d. August 19, 1977. 

Some are defiant:

Go on, get out—last words are for fools who haven't said enough.  To his housekeeper, who urged him to tell her his last words so she could write them down for posterity. Karl Marx, d. 1883

Don't you dare ask God to help me.  To her housekeeper, who had begun to pray aloud.
Joan Crawford, d. May 10, 1977

Some are touching:
I die hard but am not afraid to go.  George Washington, US President, d. December 14, 1799

Lord, help my poor soul.  Edgar Allan Poe, writer, d. October 7, 1849

And some are full of faith:
Let us cross over the river and sit in the shade of the trees.  General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, d. 1863

I am in the land of the dying, and I am soon going to the land of the living.  John Newton. d., December 21, 1807. 

The letter we call 2 Timothy is an extended “famous last words” from Paul.  But his letter is far from morbid; much of the letter is composed of a series of challenges to Timothy in which Paul urges him to examine his life and answer this question: what kind of person am I really?  Am I walking intently, following Jesus with my whole heart, soul, mind and strength?  What he says again and again to Timothy—and to us—is, “Make your choice.”  Is it—living for Jesus and the kingdom of God, or is it, living for self with Jesus just along for the ride?

I could illustrate this from several passages in 2 Timothy, but my heart is drawn today to chapter 2.  There, in vs. 1-7, Paul urges Timothy to serve the Lord like a focused soldier, a competing athlete, and a hard-working farmer—all images of hard work.  He urges him to stick to the important things, and not to get side-tracked into foolish chatter.  And he warns him not to follow two people who’d really gone completely off the rails in teaching, two men named Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were teaching something strange: that “the resurrection had already taken place.” These two theological knuckleheads were destroying the faith of some people.   

They were poisoning the well of people’s faith, and Paul does not mince words about them—their teaching says Paul was godless gangrene.

Right after he mentions these two, he says this:

19 Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”   

Now, remember the context.  He’s implying that unlike Hymenaeus and Philetus, God knows that Paul and Timothy and those who hold to the apostles’ teaching, those are the ones whom the Lord has his hand on.  He’s also implying that Hymenaeus and Philetus are people who are mired in wickedness.

The words, “The Lord knows those who are His” is a paraphrase from the book of Numbers.  And it means this: You can rest in the firm, sure hand of God.  God has you, and He is responsible for your salvation and your eternal well-being.  And that’s good news, all the time. 

But then Paul cites a balancing saying.  It’s interesting how all throughout 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—letters we traditionally call the “pastoral epistles”—Paul cites many sayings that may well have been part of an early confession of faith or a list of instructional statements—what might be called a catechism today.  The first saying—about the Lord knowing who’s His—assures us that God differentiates between His faithful servants and those who are unfaithful. The second saying calls on those who choose to identify themselves with the Lord to live holy lives: “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”   

The first saying comforts me; the second challenges me.  It says, if you confess the Lord’s name, the name of Jesus, there is a kind of life that goes with that confession—a life that turns away from wickedness and all sorts of sin, and that embraces God’s good instead.
Let me tell you this: the most precious gift you can give the Lord is a holy life.  The most precious gift you can give your church is a holy life.  The most precious gift you can give your spouse is a holy life.  The most precious gift you can give your family is a holy life.  It is not your wits, education, money or even your service. It is a lifestyle that chooses God over all other choices.  It is also the hardest gift to give the Lord.

Paul then offers a central illustration to drive home this all-important point, in vs. 20-21:

 20In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble. 21If a man cleanses himself from the latter, he will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.  

In a sense, this illustration expands on the second saying: Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.  I want to take some time with this.  Paul says “in a large house”—that would be a wealthy house.  Ever attended a dinner and found that it was much fancier than you’d expected?  A few times a year, we break out “the good stuff”: the silver in the little chest that my wife keeps on top of the hutch, the special plates in the special cupboard.  Do you do the same?  There’s the everyday stuff and then there’s “the good stuff.”  Not everybody has “the good stuff”, but if you have the good stuff you always have the ordinary plates and silver and so forth.

In a Greek or Roman great house, the two types of plates would be silver and gold on the one hand (way above my pay grade!), or wood or clay on the other.  Paul describes the two as some are for noble purposes and some for ignoble.  A noble purpose would be to celebrate a birthday or Thanksgiving; an “ignoble” purpose would be to take out the trash.  You would never pile turkey bones on your grandmother’s fine china to haul out to the trash. 

Now, here’s where the analogy breaks down a little bit.  Dishes are dishes and they can’t change who or what they are.  But, we aren’t dishes; like Paul just said, we have a call to “turn away from wickedness.”  We have a choice to make.  And Paul says, listen Timothy, listen up people of God, you need to make a choice: are you the vessel of honor, are you the “good stuff” or are you more like the trash can?  “If a man (literally, someone) cleanses himself from the latter (literally, “these things”, the dishonorable, trashy things of life), he/she will be an instrument for noble purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.”  

Do you want to be that kind of instrument in God’s hands?  Do you want the best that God can do with your life?  Or are you tempted to settle, to compromise, to be an also-ran in the godly, Christward life?

I have a pastor friend in the next town over from where we live in California, and he asked me to do a consultation with him.  One of the first questions I asked him was: Does your church have a mission statement?  He laughed and told me quote a story.

“Well, yes we do.  Several years ago I suggested we make the statement, ‘We exist to make fully committed disciples of Christ.’  And the board replied, ‘Well, maybe that’s too much; let’s just make it ‘We exist to make disciples of Christ.’  I asked, ‘Well, how about “committed” disciples of Christ?’ And they said, ‘That’s still asking too much.”

What amazed me was that the church was consciously choosing to be a church of wood and clay vessels.  I mean, it happens all the time, but to do it officially, intentionally?  Amazing. 

Not the end of the story, though.  That pastor then smiled and said, “But now those folks are off the board.  This year we’re changing it to back to ‘fully committed disciples of Christ.’”  Amen to that!

Just barely ‘disciples’?  Folks, don’t settle for that.  That’s settling for being a clay plate when God is calling you to gold. 

By the way, have you ever heard this thing that some Christians are just believers, and some are real disciples?  It’s nonsense.  All believers are called disciples in Scripture.  It’s just that some disciples are faithful, and some are unfaithful.  You don’t get to check a box that says, “Just a believer.”  “Just a believer” is another name for “faithless disciple.”

Now Paul says that we are to clean ourselves if we want to be that kind of disciple.  Cleanse yourself?  Maybe that’s a little bit of a surprise.  Paul says that anyone following Christ needs to cleanse himself to be counted as a “noble dish” in the house of God.

Now, let’s be real clear.  Jesus is the one who cleanses us from sin.  On the cross, He paid the price of our salvation.  Paul here is NOT talking about some idea that we have to clean ourselves up from our sin, the sin the separates us from God. 

What he IS talking about is that each of us has a responsibility to pursue godliness, war against sin in our lives, and to get rid of the junk that separates us from God’s best for our lives.

You see, making us right with Himself is God’s business alone—we call that justification.  Working that out in our lives—well God is still the prime mover, but we are called to cooperate with Him.  That’s called sanctification. 

So what we’re talking about here is discipleship, sanctification, and full commitment.  Yes, I know that that’s hard to achieve.  But frankly, most of us don’t even try; we are like those leaders in that church who didn’t want the words “fully committed” in their mission statement.

I use all kinds of analogies to make this clear; they all mean pretty much the same thing.  One is the bar code Christian.  The idea is that that when you come to Jesus, you get a Heaven-Bound Barcode so that when you die, God can run you over the scanner and there’s a BOOP sound—yep, you can go to heaven!  (Even if you live like hell!)

Is that all that God wants to do in your life?  Make it so you can go to heaven?  Or does He want more?

Or maybe there’s the Vampire Christian.  You got the blood all right, but you’re still a crazy, darkness-loving bat.

Or maybe there’s a Jesus in the Sidecar Christian.  It’s nice to have him along for the ride, but you still have the handlebars—you’re in charge!

No, Jesus is uncompromising.  The Lord that saves completely would have us change completely too.    We are not intended to be plates of clay and wood; we are intended for gold and silver.

Here’s the rub: it’s your choice.  You can be an all-in kind of Jesus follower, or you can be an also ran.  Heaven, yes; the applause of heaven; no. 

Do you want to be the kind of person that God can trust His glory with?    

It’s going to take more than a choice.  A choice is a beginning, not an end.  It is a choice to be a person of prayer, fellowship, and service; most especially to be a person who hears, heeds, and hides the word of God in his heart; a person who seeks God daily, a person who listens when God sends someone to shape their lives. 

Do you need a new start, a reboot, today?  There might be something big and obvious in your life that you’ve been harboring that you know is wrong.  It might be more subtle: a bad attitude, an old hurt that you’ve never forgiven, a bad habit that you can’t get past, at least on your own.

Maybe you want someone to pray with you, and I’d be honored to do that.  Maybe you simply want to deal with that, you and Jesus, and that’s OK; just remember that Jesus uses the people around you too.

Silver and gold or clay and wood?  That’s the choice.  Be a person with whom God can trust His glory.

Let’s pray.


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