NOVEMBER 18th, 2018 PASTOR DON PIEPER
MAIL FROM JAIL 2 Timothy 1:1-11;2:1-2,8-10
“FAMOUS LAST WORDS ”
Astrid's family sat around her bed as her life slipped away, leaning in close to catch every word she might utter. At one point, just a couple of hours before she died she gestured for me to come closer. “Don, God is with you,” she said. “Serve him boldly..., and don't forget to floss.” Those were her last words. That was nearly thirty years ago and I still remember every word like it was spoken yesterday. It inspired me. I strive to live up to them, to serve Christ boldly, although I still struggle with flossing.
The phrase, “famous last words”, is more than a cliché. When men and women of influence are about to die, we lean in, hoping to hear some final word of insight or wisdom or tenderness. When people of acclaim utter such words, they are repeated and shared, and they become famous last words.
I'm reading a book on Leonardo Da Vinci, who famously said as he died: “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” President John Quincy Adams, said, as he lay dying, “This is the last of earth. I am content.” Soccer star George Best, dying of liver cancer, wrote a note he sent to the papers, that said, “Don't die like I did!” Mozart famously said, “I feel something that is not of this earth.” And Steve Jobs merely said, “Oh Wow; Oh Wow; Oh Wow!”
So much attention has been given to these famous last words that some filmmakers have had some fun with it. My favorite of these spoofs on the theme dates back to my teenage years, when a film about King Arthur and his knights hit the big screen...
[DVD clip from the film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail; 1:15:30 – 1:16:35]
Okay, it obviously doesn't work quite like that! But often, there truly is something profoundly significant about a person's last words. That is certainly true of this final letter from the apostle Paul. Written around 67 AD, some 2-4 years after his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes one final time to instruct and to encourage his spiritual son and protege. He writes, he explains, while “suffering here in prison..., having been chained like a criminal.” (2 Timothy 1:12,16; 2;9)
The evidence suggests that Paul has been imprisoned a second time, that his first imprisonment under house arrest in Rome led to his being arraigned, released and returning to the mission field and that somewhere in that fourth mission trip, that apparently included visiting places like Macedonia, Crete, possibly Spain and certainly Ephesus, to which he again now writes, Paul was arrested again.
In his prior letter to Timothy he wrote of visiting Ephesus again but that has abruptly changed. As he puts it: “My life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near... I have finished the race.” (2 Timothy 4:6-7) Nothing subtle about that. Paul has apparently received the death sentence from Rome's serving emperor, Nero, and so he takes quill to papyrus, and writes his beloved spiritual son one final time. The letter he writes is by far the most personal of all his letters, filled with longing and fatherly love for his protege, and for the church he serves.
But more than that, even, these are Paul's final words of wisdom, affection and instruction. It apparently not only powerfully spoke to Timothy, who must've read and re-read it, but to the whole church because here we have in our hands, his famous last words.
Paul's introduction expresses his tender love for Timothy, who he again refers to as his “dear son”, (1:2), adding, “I thank God for you” and “I long to see you again.” (2 Timothy 1:3-4)
He then reminds Timothy of the qualities necessary for a faithful minister of Christ, the vitality of using one's gifts with boldness, the need to keep to the truth of the gospel, the call to equip the next generation, the challenge to be disciplined and willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, the necessity of confronting apostasy, that is false teaching, and a reliance on the power of God's Word as he boldly proclaims the Good News of salvation in Christ with courage and conviction.
Paul's famous last words are timeless. They are meant not only for Timothy, or for pastors that follow, but for the priesthood of all believers, as his final words clearly convey: “May the Lord be with your spirit and may his grace be with all of you!” (2 Timothy 4:22) It's meant for all of us/you!
Paul's final moments draw nigh and we, with Timothy, lean in take in his famous last words. First, we glimpse Paul's vulnerability. As he writes repeatedly and in earnest: “Timothy, I long to see you again... Please come as soon as you can!” (2 Timothy 1:4;4:9)
I take from this a subtle insight. None of us, even the apostle Paul, want to die alone. Actor-comedian, John Belushi's last words point to the same: “Just don't leave me alone!” (John Belushi) Freddie Mercury, in his last interview, likewise said, “You can have everything in the world and still be the loneliest man, and that is the most bitter type of loneliness.” (Freddie Mercury)
Inadvertently, in his last dying request to have Timothy and Mark visit him, Paul spoke to a common human need as our lives come to an end – that we are loved and we are not alone. That's one reason Paul wrote this final letter – to urge Timothy to visit him. Another main reason was to further encourage Timothy to keep his coal in the fire. “Fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you.” (2 Timothy 1:6)
I read of boy with downs syndrome who was hired by a local grocery store. It wasn't long before some customers complained that he was too slow, too clumsy or whatever but the management stuck with him. One day a lady came in in tears. She told the manager that someone had slipped a piece of paper in her bag with a Bible verse on it, a quote from Paul as it turns out. She spoke of how hard life had been and how she'd been ready to throw in the towel, thinking that God had made a mis-take, when she read that note, “You are God's masterpiece. He created you anew in Christ Jesus, so you could do the good things he planned for you long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Turns out, this “awkward” boy had been making scores of these little slips of paper and putting them in people's grocery bags as they went through checkout. Pretty soon people began choosing his line and waiting in line, even when other checkers were open, in order to be blessed by his gift.
We've been so blessed by another tender heart in our midst for years. Barbara Crow, in a similar spirit of humility, has worked behind the scenes loving on those God sent her way. She has fanned her flame by singing in the choir, serving on council, heading up our pastoral care ministry and a host of other expressions of tenderhearted care for this body of Christ. How we will miss you/her...!
A third insight in Paul's famous last words is his challenge to Timothy, and us, to “be ready to suffer...for the sake of the Good News. Endure suffering, then, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” (2 Timothy 1:8; 2:3)
Paul assures us that we can do so “with the strength God provides.” (1:8) This challenge echoes that of Jesus himself, who urges his followers to, “pick up your cross and follow me!”
This doesn't mean we seek to suffer but rather that we're willing to do whatever God asks of us in order to share his good news with a cynical and unbelieving world, even if that means being mocked, laughed at, rejected, or worse. We're able to do so as we keep our eyes on the prize and he assures us that those who suffer will receive an amazing reward: 'If we endure hardship, we will reign with him.' (2:12) And I saw the souls of those who'd suffered for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaim-ing the Word of God. They all came to life again and reigned with Christ for a thousand years!” (Revelation 20:4)
Paul goes on to urge Timothy to confront false teaching as it crops up and to counter it by teach-ing and preaching the truth of the good news. Paul specifically warns Timothy, that “in the last days, there will be very difficult times. Some teachers will oppose the truth – theirs is a counterfeit faith. Evil people and imposters will flourish. They will deceive others and will themselves be deceived.”
(2 Timothy 3:1,8,13)
From Paul's perspective, the time in between Jesus' first coming and his second coming are 'the last days', which of course, includes now as well as then. Paul's coaching for such times is two-fold: one make sure you keep your faith fixed on Christ and the truth of his gospel message and two, counter the work of the enemy by leading others into the truth. As Jesus said, “I am the truth!” (John 14:6)
So Paul boldly declares: “I have been chained like a criminal, but the word of God cannot be chained!” (2:9) God's word is powerful, in other words. It has the power to turn lives around, to give us God's perspective on things, to transform us from creatures of the night to children of light. Among Paul's most memorable statements, in these his last famous words, are these: “the holy scriptures...give you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. For all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives... God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work!” (2 Timothy 3:15-17)
That's so rich and true and powerful its worth putting that 'famous last word' to memory! These inspired words of Scripture may be ancient, but they are not archaic. There be power in dem words!
“Tell the world for me!” (p. 157) / “God, send someone!” (p. 175)
Finally, Paul urges Timothy to pass on what he has learned, to train and equip the next genera-tion to teach and equip the next generation. “You have heard these things from me..., now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” (2 Tim 2:2)
We do that not only collectively as the Body of Christ, but also individually – passing on what we've learned to others – particularly those who come to faith around and through us.
The idea of passing on what we have learned to the next generation is conveyed in the closing scene to a sci-fi movie called, The Book of Eli. It’s an unnecessarily violent movie but it does have an interesting premise – of a man who is led by God to protect the last copy of the Bible. Having memorized it, he dictates it and in his passing, his protege takes up the cause...
[DVD clip from the film, The Book of Eli; 1:45:30 – 1:48:30]
There has never been anyone like Paul – transformed by the grace of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, suffered for the sake of the gospel, and yet joyfully proclaimed Christ crucified and risen with undying courage and unshakeable conviction. And then, before dying, he passed it on...!
Here in 2 Timothy we lean in to hear his famous last words – words that call each of us to stand courageously for the truth, fortified by the power of these inspired ancient words of scripture as we seek to be led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. And so, with great joy, we too joyfully pass it on!