August 19, 2012

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC



II Timothy 3:14 – 4:5


This is silly season.  And it’s going to get worse.  We’re about two-and-a-half months from the presidential election.  There’s the story about the politician who was speaking at a rally.  He said, “These are my principles.  I stand on my principles.”  He didn’t get the reaction from the crowd he was expecting.  So he added, “And if you don’t like them, I have a few other principles you might like better.”

In the negative ads I know we all love, one common charge is that your opponent is a “flip-flopper”.  Both candidates have used that one against the other.  Frequently.  The way I see it, if you talk as much as those two talk, how can you help but contradict yourself now and then?

I used to worry about contradicting myself in sermons, but not any more.  Not since I lost my memory.  It doesn’t seen to bother me anymore.  And even if it did, I found this great come-back.  The presidential candidates should use it.  Whenever someone asks how what you are saying now squares with what you were saying before, all you have to say is, “For every opinion there is a season.  There is a time when it makes sense of things, there is a time when it seems irrelevant, there is a time when it seems hopelessly out of date, and there is a time when it speaks with astonishing novelty.”

I wasn’t preaching when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I was on 9-11.  Both of these were instances when preaching plans had to be thrown out the window.  You had to address the catastrophe that was all anyone could think about.  And yet there were some preachers, who had such a great sermon already prepared and ready to preach that they went ahead and preached it anyway.  No editing, no changes, no mention of what had just happened.  There was nothing wrong with these sermons, they were just preached at the wrong time.  Because something had happened that changed everything.

Have you ever wanted to say something to someone, something difficult but it needed to be said.  You had to build up your courage to say what you didn’t want to say and they didn’t want to hear, but you were ready.  And then they speak first about something that just happened in their life.  A lost job, a troubled marriage, a child who is rebelling, a health situation.  And you realize that you can’t say what you were about to say.  Not because what you were going to say isn’t true.  It’s just the wrong time to say it.

And have you said something to somebody else, maybe a short written note, maybe an e-mail or a text message, just a little thing, but that person tells you that what you said meant the whole world to them?  At another time it might have been forgotten, but it came at the right time, and they will always remember it.

For every opinion there is a season.  There is a time when it makes sense of things, there is a time when it seems irrelevant, there is a time when it seems hopelessly out of date, and there is a time when it speaks with astonishing novelty.

Now let’s look at today’s scripture.  Frankly, this is a passage that stands in contrast to what most of the rest of the New Testament says.  In the rest of the New Testament, faith is defined as following Jesus.  Therefore, faith is an adventure.  The adventure of a lifetime.  It’s full of risk-taking and courage and sacrifice and advancing toward the goal of a Christ-like life.

It’s in the Gospels over and over again.  Jesus says that if you have faith in me you will take up your cross and follow me.  And Paul reinforces this.  He says to put on God’s armor, because following Jesus is like going to battle.  And of course Hebrews says it so well.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.  Faith is running with perseverance your race in life, looking to Jesus.

There’s some consistency here.  And then we come to Second Timothy where we are told that faith is holding on to the doctrines of the Church.  Holding on tight.  Not going anywhere.  Not doing anything.  Just preserving the sacred tradition.

If you’ve been listening at all to my preaching, you know that contradicts pretty much everything I’ve been telling you.  I’ve always held that faith is not so much a matter of believing a lot of things as it is a matter of doing the important things.  Faith doesn’t mean sitting around in the church.  It means going out into the world and daring to follow Jesus wherever he leads.  And now here in Second Timothy we have Paul, or whoever wrote this, saying that all that is necessary for salvation is to guard and believe in the doctrines.

One reason I have a problem with that kind of thinking is because there are so many people who believe all the right things but they are so mean and narrow and arrogant that they don’t at all resemble Jesus.  After all, it was Jesus who said that it’s not what you say with your lips, it’s whether you do “the will of the Father” that matters.  What matters is loving your neighbor, not  knowing the Bible  backwards and forwards.

But here’s the thing.  Even those parts of the Bible that seem inconsistent with other parts of the Bible are there for a reason.  If we just read and follow the parts we agree with, we are missing out on a lot of what God has inspired.  And so let’s approach this with the assumption that for every scripture there is a season. There is a time when it makes sense of things, there is a time when it seems irrelevant, there is a time when it seems hopelessly out of date, and there is a time when it speaks with astonishing novelty.

Here’s what it says:

. . . continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.


Are there times when that needs to be heard?  Absolutely!  Holding on to what we have learned means we belong to a tradition.  There are things we believe that make us different from other people.  There are ways we live that are different from the way other people choose to live.  Sometimes we need to say “no” when the rest of the world is saying “yes”.  Sometimes we need to say “yes” when the rest of the world is saying “no”.  Because we stand for something.  There’s a tradition handed down to us that defines who we are, and we have a responsibility to learn it and protect it and pass it on to those who come after us.

Then it says “knowing from whom you have learned it”.  Not only is there a Christian tradition, there is a Christian community.  We are part of that community.  There are times when faith is a brave and solitary adventure, but there are other times when faith is coming home to what you believe and being supported by others in this faith community.

There’s a little detail in this passage that I love.  Paul says to Timothy, “Remember from whom you have learned the faith.”  Then we go back to Second Timothy chapter 1 and we learn who Paul is talking about.  They are named.  Lois and Eunice.  They are Timothy’s mother and grandmother.  They raised Timothy in the Christian faith.  We know that not only from this letter but also from Acts where they are mentioned as leaders of the little church at Lystra.  That’s where Paul first met Timothy and was impressed enough that he invited him to join the missionary team and travel with him.

Lois and Eunice remind me of a story I heard about the Church inRussia.  This was back in the days of theSoviet Union.  Someone visited churches there and concluded that they were all dead.  He said all you could find in these churches were old women.  As recent events have shown, he was wrong.  He was not only sexist and faithless, he was wrong.  It would be like going to Lystra two thousand years ago, visiting the church there, and concluding that the church was dead because there are only old women there, one of them named Lois and another named Eunice, both of whom taught Timothy the faith, whom Paul chose to travel with him and become a hero of the faith!

Sometimes faith means venturing into the unknown.  Sometimes faith means coming back to what you know.   Sometimes faith means taking risks.  Sometimes it means remembering your roots and those who taught you the faith.

Harvey Cox is now 83 years old.  He’s been a prominent voice for liberal Christianity for a long time.  It surprised me to learn that he was raised Baptist and is ordained in theAmericanBaptistChurch.  When he went to college he became self-conscious of his background, especially the church he grew up in.  He regarded it as quite backwards.  He really was embarrassed by it.

His dad was not a churchgoer.  He was raised in church but drifted away as an adult.  He was a house painter.  It was a pretty hard life.  The highlight of his week was playing poker on Saturday night.  Then his business failed.  He was at an age when going through bankruptcy and starting over didn’t make sense.  So he just retired.

He retired and no one was more surprised than his son when he started going back to church.  When he went back home, he would go to church with his dad.  He would see the sadness and searching in his eyes.  His dad had lost everything, and now he had come back to where to knew there were answers.  He had come back also to be part of a community.  He came back to the tradition and to join those who held on to it.

When he would visit church with his dad, Harvey Cox was just as critical of that little church as he had ever been.  In fact, every time he visited he got mad.  What the preacher said made him mad.  What the preacher didn’t say made him mad.  He was also critical of the choir.  And the hymns.  And the theology was terrible.  The whole service lacked the sophistication needed for it to be taken seriously.  But he couldn’t deny that his father was getting something.  His father was finding what he was looking for.  He had to admit that.  He didn’t understand it, but it was happening.  His father was a changed man.

This is what Harvey Cox wrote:

I have to admit now that no minister, no matter how ill-prepared, how pedantic, how boring, how rambling, how completely he might obscure the Gospel, when the Biblical message is read, miraculously, something gets through.


There are some seasons when you’ve got to go out in faith.  You’ve got to do something for Jesus.  There are other seasons when you need to come home, remember what you have learned, and from whom you have learned it.

For every point of view there is a season. There is a time when it makes sense of things, there is a time when it seems irrelevant, there is a time when it seems hopelessly out of date, and there is a time when it speaks with astonishing novelty.

The Eskimos who live on the tundra west of Hudson Bay way up inCanadabuild towers.  They travel across a flat wasteland, an enormous expanse of land with no rise in elevation at all.  It’s a winter desert.  What I understand they do is build a tower out of stones as tall as a man and then walk until they can no longer see that tower and then build another one.  That way if they should get lost in their journey they will be able to find their way back home.

That’s what tradition does.  A tradition is not there to keep us from taking a risk.  A tradition is not there to keep us from going forward  on a faith adventure.  A tradition is there to keep us from getting lost.  So remember what you have learned, and from whom you have learned it.


Dear God, help us to hear this and apply it to our lives.  We are at different places in our faith journey.  Some of us have been holding on and we need to venture forth.  And others of us have ventured forth and now we need the comfort and consolation of coming back home, so we can be strengthened and encouraged to venture forth again.  And wherever we are on this journey of faith, we thank you for this faith community where we are both nurtured and challenged in our walk with Jesus.  In his name we pray,  Amen.