Today we are going to read from a letter addressed to the apostle Paul's young helper, Timothy. It is a letter postmarked from prison. Paul writes this letter near the end of his life. In fact, today's text is quite possibly the last paragraph of the last letter the Apostle ever wrote.
Listen now for God's Word to you as it comes to us from Second Timothy, chapter four, beginning with the sixth verse.
6As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
9Do your best to come to me soon, 10for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. 11Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. 12I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. 13When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. 14Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. 15You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.
19 Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. 20Erastus remained in Corinth; Trophimus I left ill in Miletus. 21Do your best to come before winter. Eubulus sends greetings to you, as do Pudens and Linus and Claudia and all the brothers and sisters.
22 The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.
This is the Word of God; for you, the People of God.
Over the years my relationship to the Bible has changed. At first, it was simply one of many storybooks. It was a white hardcover volume held by Sunday School teachers who would turn it around so that we could see the pictures. The stories they read always seemed to be about children like young Samuel, brave Esther or David with his slingshot--children who did amazing things for God.
Later, I began to see the Bible with a sort of distant reverence. It was the worn, black leather-bound tome that my Grandmother would read every day. Sometimes, I would peer over her shoulder. What I saw on those thin, thin pages often made little sense to me. She certainly wasn't reading children's stories. So, like so many of my friends, I began to treat the Bible as a mysterious artifact. It was inscrutable. It was holy. And that meant... You didn't want to drop it, or spill anything on its pages, or do anything bad in its presence.
When I was in the sixth grade, our small Presbyterian church gave me a Bible of my own. It was red. I kept it in my room in the very center of my bookshelf. I was glad to have it. Not to read. Not much. I viewed it like a talisman. What evil could come to someone who slept with a Bible nearby?
Later, I would carry that same Bible to college. I was a religion major. A surprising number of religion majors, including me, had never read the Bible. Not all of it. Or even most of it. What I found there was sometimes dull, often confusing, and occasionally shocking. As I came to know the contents of the Good Book better, I decided that my faith could exist without it. It was too raw, too historically biased, and too doggone embarrassing. In its place, I began to read theologians. They had modern sensibilities. They moved beyond the unfiltered messiness of the Bible to identify broad themes in scripture--salvation, sin, forgiveness. They unpacked these themes in a neat systematic way.
It wasn't until seminary that I began to read the Bible again. This time I read it alongside professors who saw the same rawness that had turned me off, but who loved it for that very fact. They weren't afraid of its historical trappings. On the contrary, they appreciated it all the more because it wasn't generic. It was muddy, unfiltered faith--first order faith--faith that walked in fresh from the fields before anyone had rinsed it down with a hose or cleaned it up. It was then that I fell back in love with the Bible and with texts like the one before us today.
What we have before us today is a letter. It's not fancy theology honed over time; it is a communiqué scratched out on hard-to-come-by parchment. It's a letter written by a guy sitting in a jail cell, a letter addressed to his friend, his protégée, his young assistant in ministry, Timothy.
It's a letter that fell into the hands of the early church and was preserved by them. The fact that they deemed this letter worth saving is something of a surprise. Listening to it, you may have been thinking: Second Timothy could use a good editor--a rewrite or two. It contains boring bits, trivial requests and snarky asides. I bet Paul would be astonished, and more than a little self-conscious, to discover that we took this letter--a letter composed during a dark time in his life--and stitched it into our holy book.
What did the early church see in Second Timothy?
The portion we have before us today is sober. It starts with a little self-pity--a little woe-is-me. "I have been poured out like a glass of wine spilled on the altar." Who can blame the guy, though? Paul is alone, in a Roman prison cell. He senses that the end is near. "There is nothing left for me to do. I am finished. The time of my departure is come."
Then, stepping back from the abyss, Paul's words rise with a sense of accomplishment. He compares himself to an Olympic athlete: a boxer... a marathon runner. "I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. I can picture the laurel wreaths we award our runners, and I know God will be waiting at the end of the race with a crown of righteousness for me."
It is a confident image--a hopeful image. Although as the Apostle pens these strong words, a chill wind blows through his cell. He has confidence in God, but he is also cold, lonely and afraid. So the letter pivots from heavenly thoughts to earthly cries. He pleads with Timothy: "Do your best to come to me soon."
And then, Paul begins to list all the people who have abandoned him: Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens is playing video games somewhere in Galatia, Titus is hanging out with his drinking buddies in Dalmatia. All of a sudden, our holy text reads like a letter from a depressed grandpa who is trying to guilt you into visiting him over the holidays.
It is certainly not poetry, and just in case you had any doubts, Paul starts listing all the things he wants Timothy to bring with him. Pick up my cloak, the weather's turning cold. Don't forget my books, and parchment--especially that parchment so I can keep writing letters--keep connecting to the outside world. Oh, and speaking of the outside world, don't forget to stay away from Alexander the coppersmith. He did me great harm.
Nowadays, parents and teachers tell children not to post things that they will later regret on Facebook. The Internet, we intone with serious voices, is forever. Someone should have mentioned to Paul that parchment can be forever too. He inks a few disparaging remarks about Alexander the coppersmith in a letter, and we enshrine them for all time in Holy Scripture. Does that seem strange to you? How is "Bring my cloak from Troas" "The Word of God"?
It is a good question. Today's text is messy. Paul vacillates between confidence and insecurity--between sounding prayerful and sounding petty. As a young person, contradictions like this undercut my appreciation for the Bible. But now, I suppose the reverse is true. The pops and squeaks in the floorboards of this text make it both more real and more relevant to my faith.
I listen to the strange names Paul lists in this text, and I don't feel distance, but kinship. Here is a man who values his friends, and who misses them keenly. He longs for their companionship. His final words to Timothy will break your heart, "Do your best to come before winter."
Is it any wonder that the early church preserved this letter? How can anyone who has ever felt tired and discouraged not nod at these words? Here is Paul the Apostle--a man who trusts deeply in God--facing soul-crushing adversity. Does he rise above it with supernatural poise? No, he does what any normal person would do; he cries out for his friends...
Come before winter. Come before the icy winds blow the last leaves from the trees. Come before they tire of holding me in this cell and put my head on a block. Come so that I may see you one last time, look in your eyes, laugh with you at old times. Come before it is all over. Come now or never. Come before winter.
Of course, those early Christians kept Paul's letter, copied it, and passed it to their friends. Come before winter. It is a cry for help--sacred, human and true.
You can hear the same yearning in our hymns...
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Come before winter. You feel the tug of those words. Don't you?
The church I serve in New York City operates a twelve-bed, 365-day-a-year homeless shelter. Although when the weather turns cold, it is not big enough. So our Outreach Committee works in all kinds of creative ways to find warm beds and services for those who need them.
Come before winter. Bring my cloak. These are the words of people in need.
I recently walked into Mt. Sinai Hospital to visit two of my parishioners. She was in ICU battling a terrible infection. He had spent the last twenty-four hours in sleepless distress. "How are you doing?" I asked. "The waiting," he said, "is brutal." "Of course, I am blessed. I am not alone," he said, gesturing to his mother in law and a friend who was sitting there with him.
Come before winter. Come today and not tomorrow. Come when called by those in need. Do not be like Demas in love with the world. Do not delay.
As people of faith, my friends, we wait for God. And as people of faith, we cannot forget... those who wait for us.
Let us pray. Holy God, attentive Lord, who hears our whispered prayers, give us ears to hear those who cry out and hearts eager to respond. In the name of the one who comes for us all, even Jesus Christ. Amen.
©Scott Black Johnston