Monday, June 11, 2018

the flax seedhead and three metaphors to help us stand strong in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1-13)

I’ve taken to going for a walk along the newly formed Onehunga beach in the Taumanu reserve on my days off, with my camera. I’m amazed at the wonderful wildlife along the shore of the Manukau at this time of the year. Herons, pied stilts, kingfisher, shags, gulls, oyster catchers, wax eyes up in the bush on the cliff and sparrows patrolling the carparks for crumbs… and of course the majestic royal spoonbills (kotuku Ngutupapa) which just seem to glow in the late afternoon sun.

Well, when I went for my walk this week,  it was a stormy day and the bitterly cold wind was blowing in from the south west, right up the harbour from the Manukau heads.  The rain managed to stay away till I got to the furthest point of my walk then it typically decided to pour down. On this grey day the only bird of note was a shag so busy doing a classical shag pose at the end of the stone breakwater that it missed an incoming wave.

My attention was drawn to the flax bushes  they have planted All along the walkway. Because there is something evocative about the flax seed heads sticking up against the stormy sky. In the wind they perform this wild bobbing and weaving dance, they bend and seem bowed down, only to spring back up again in a lull, you can usually tell the predominant wind direction by the way they lean, but they don’t break. They stand tall and do what they were designed to do, attract birds to their flowers so they will be pollenated and then send their seeds out to reproduce more flax bushes. They manage to do it amidst adverse conditions and the storms of life.

That picture of the seed heads kept coming to mind as I was reflecting on the passage we had read out to us today from 2 Timothy. Paul is writing to Timothy to encourage him to keep persevering in the mission he has been given. Both in Ephesus but also as Paul faces possible death to take over Paul’s ministry as well. Like the seed head Timothy is to stand strong, kia kaha in Jesus Christ and be about reproducing the ministry of Paul and Timothy in other people, he is to pass on the gospel he has received from Paul to people, who are reliable and able to teach others.

It’s not an easy task, Paul, in chains like a criminal in Rome, calls Timothy to join him in his suffering for the sake of the gospel and the elect, the people who will respond to the gospel and be saved.. Like the seed head to withstand the wintery blast of rejection, opposition and persecution for the sake of seeing Christ’s work and God’s kingdom being spread and growing. The same challenge for maturity and ministry that we are presented with in our world today. To reproduce our faith in others, those around us and the next generation. Paul’s message to Kia kaha stand strong in Jesus Christ speaks to Timothy and to us today.

Paul had written to Timothy concerned that his enthusiasm for the gospel task was waning, It wasn’t that he was loosing his faith in Christ. The faith that he had received from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice was unshakable, but in the ongoing task of battling the false teaching in Ephesus, and with Paul’s own imprisonment, he was what we called burned out, emotionally and physically exhausted. He was bent down in the wind. Paul had called him to fan into flame again the gift of God that was within him. He reminds Timothy of the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in his and  what Jesus Christ had done for us, in saving us, calling us to a Holy Life and destroying death itself. What was to be fanned into flame again was that awareness of God’s great love shown in Jesus Christ and the sending of his Holy Spirit. Even in this passage when Paul tells Timothy to stand tall it is in the strength of Jesus Christ. Christ’s call on us as his people to be witnesses and to go to all the nations baptising them and teaching all that Christ has commanded us is doable because Jesus said “lo I am with you till the end of the age.”

But in this passage the second part of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, Paul tells Timothy about what he needs to do to fan that flame to life again. He does it not simply by giving Timothy a to do list, or a set of instructions where if we put Tab A into Slot B we will find ourselves revitalised and full of energy again, it doesn’t work that way. And if you’ve ever wrestled like I have with warehouse flat pack furniture or so I’m told the even more perplexing Ikea kit sets you’ll know it isn’t that easy. Rather Paul gives Timothy three metaphors to reflect on and allow God to give him wisdom from. Like the seedhead on my weekly walk the three illustrations are from real life. The Soldier, the Athlete and the hardworking farmer.

Firstly, the soldier. Paul tells Timothy to be a good soldier of Christ Jesus.  It is not a war like illustration here, it fits well with what Paul had told Timothy in his first letter that he was to Guard the deposit of faith he had been given. Ephesus was an important city and had changed hands in different conflicts during its history and its gates and walls would have been guarded. In the Old Testament, the picture of people waiting on the Lord and trusting him  is often portrayed with the image of the Watchman on the city walls waiting for the dawn.

It is not a metaphor about fighting, rather Paul brings the application of duty. A soldier does not get entangled in civilian affairs rather his focus is to please his commanding officer. The word entangled may come from the cloak that a soldier would wear to keep him warm, but that he would remove when he went into battle or on duty, as it would be easy for his sword to get entangled in it when he had to draw it. But here Paul is warning Timothy about getting caught up in civilian affairs. A soldier needs to be single minded and focused in his call to duty. I watched the movie ’13 hours: the secret soldiers of Benghazi’ about a group of military contractors who were defending a covert CIA base in Bengazi, when the consulate there was attacked, and the ambassador killed in 2012. As the battle they fought to defend their base winds down one of the soldiers says that his time as a contractor is up,  his wife had rung him that day and let them know they were expecting another baby, and he had decided that not matter the fact that it would cause him financial hardship he was going back to be with his wife and children for good. In a good way his heart was no longer in his work. But here Paul is saying that it is not good for a serving soldier to have such divided loyalties.

Now on one level some commentators have suggested that Timothy was following Paul’s example of working to support himself in ministry and was finding the other work taking over, Do you find that insidious encroachment of work on other important things in your life?  or it may be a reflection by Paul of Timothy finding himself distracted by other things. Its not that the issues of this world family and making ends meet and the enjoyment of life are wrong or bad, Paul is warning Timothy of the danger of becoming entangled with them. The focus should be on pleasing his commanding officer. In this case it should be in Pleasing Jesus Christ.

We can find ourselves caught up with the things of this world and allow them to take the place of obeying Jesus as our main focus in life. Fanning into flame the gift of God within us again calls us to the ongoing process of evaluating where our priorities lie, what entangles us and holds us back from that devotion to Christ as our captain.

The athlete. I wonder if one of the things that Paul and Timothy liked doing was going to the games, as Paul often use the image of an athlete with Timothy. In the first century like our own century sports were popular and important, and so Paul uses this illustration of an athlete, who only wins the crown by keeping the rules. In our time the ide of competing according to the rules brings up thoughts of drug cheating or match fixing and people being disqualified and having their medals stripped from them when it is found out they have broken the rules. Even this week we heard that Hussain bolt had been stripped of the Beijing 4 x100m gold medal because a team mate had tested positive to drugs.  Drugs were not the problem in Paul’s time. The rules for competing in the ancient games meant that you had to commit yourself to rigorous training for a ten-month period before the games. Training that affected all you did, that took up all your time and meant you had a certain diet and did certain things. You were not going to win the crown the champions wreath if you didn’t train and you would also bring down the quality of the games.

Again this is a metaphor and Paul does not prescribe a training regime for Timothy rather allows him to reflect on the need for good spiritual practises and routines and disciplines to be fit for the race and to run it in a way that we will win. At Glendowie last week we welcomed six new members to the church, one of the promises that church members make is “to make a diligent use of the means of grace. By praying daily, reading your bible, worshipping regularly and being a faithful member of the Body of Christ?” the number one enemy of spiritual vitality is tiredness, and what it can do is to stop us from keeping those good spiritual disciplines and practises  that keep us connected to God’s grace, this leads to spiritual fatigue but Paul reminds Timothy the way out of that and to stand strong is through keeping those disciplines. If we were to mix metaphors here with that of the soldier the motto of the SAS and other special forces units is train hard and fight easy.

The third Metaphor is the hard working farmer. It is the picture of a farmer working to plant, nurture weed and feed water and care for his crops and see them grow and ripen and then go and harvest them before they go to seed or rot. Paul says that the farmer should be the first to receive a share from his crops. Again some scholars have said this refers to Timothy being able to receive payment for his ministry. But the emphasis is on the hard-working farmer, it ties in with Paul had been saying about passing on the gospel to people who are reliable and will pass it on to others.

 It is the diligent work of planting seeds, helping them grow. Over the past few months as we’ve been leading into thy kingdom come and committing ourselves to praying for five family members and friends to come to know Christ I’ve shared with you a little of that journey in my own life, its hard work. In other seasons it is seeing those seeds grow. It involves weeding, which is what Timothy was doing by countering the false teachers. I had a summer job in one of the industrial scale plant nurseries out in west Auckland and I was a member of a full time weeding gang. It was back breaking work, bent over working your way down rows of saplings dragging a bag full of weeds behind you in the heat of the day. But it had to be done, for those trees to get to the stage they could be sold and would produce a harvest. It is hard back breaking work and you don't often see the results, in fact what usually happened is you'd get round the whole place and have to start all over again.   Then there is the harvest seeing peoples live change and be transformed by Christ and watching them grow in Christ. Which is a great reward, one of the things that keeps me going in ministry is seeing people I’ve invested time and energy in take on Christian leadership. Paul tells timothy Yes the work is hard but the reward is well worth it when we see the harvest. In the book of Corinthians Paul uses the same metaphor to talk of what he and Apollos had done at Corinth one had planted one had watered they’d been faithful in the hard work God had called them to do, and God made the crop to grow.

These metaphors are quite open ended and as Paul says to Timothy it is God who grants us insight as we explore and reflect on them. I invite you to do that. 

Paul finishes his exhortation to Timothy by giving his own life as an example of what he has talked about. His faithfulness to the gospel and his suffering so that others may know the love and transforming presence of Christ. Then in a very kiwi way he finishes the whole thing off with a song, a waiata. Scholars have seen his faithful saying here as a Hymn. One that concentrates on the faithfulness of God to us. Facing the storms and trials of life the call to be faithful, and remember God calls us to be faithful weather it is successful is in God’s hands. But if die with him we will live in him, if we endure we will reign with him, unlike the race all those who finish will be rewarded with the crown of life. There is the solemn warning that if we disown him he will disown us, even if we wrestle with being faithful, Gods very character is that he is faithful.

Like the flax seed head we may find ourselves bobbing and weaving in the wind, we may find ourselves bent down and our faith falling flat, but God’s very nature is to be faithful. The metaphor of the soldier and the athlete and the hard working farmer shed light on what that means for us, but in the end we stand strong and kia kaha and are able to be faithful for the gospel because of the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit.

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