Sunday, September 19, 2010

For Everyone

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Timothy 2:1-7
For a moment this morning, I want you to do a little thought experiment. Imagine that you live in a country ruled by a brutal dictator. Thousands are jailed or killed each year because of his paranoid whims. He has a special hatred for Christians. While this ruler long ago gave up on requiring Jews to pray to him each day, allowing them to pray for him to their God, no such special dispensation has been given to Christians. The dictator is offended (and truth be known, threatened) by this small, but growing fellowship of believers who insist that a Judean carpenter named Jesus, Who died and rose from the dead, is Lord and King of all, not the dictator. As a Christian yourself, you live in fear each day of the secret police coming to take you and your family to imprisonment and public execution because of your allegiance to Jesus.

In the midst of all this, your pastor receives a letter from an older pastor who you and your fellow Christians know, love, and respect. This pastor has risked life and limb many times just to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, that all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus have a new life that begins here and will continue in eternity with God. You certainly trust Jesus in ways and at depths you could never trust the dictator. But more than that, you even trust Jesus more than you trust your own family members, your own friends, your own common sense, or the prevailing opinions of those around you. You know that such trust—or, at least the desire for such trust that you lay at the feet of God every day—is what being a follower of Jesus is all about. Each day, you turn to the Lord again for strength to believe in Jesus.

But when your pastor shares the content of the letter he just received from this respected evangelist, you and the members of your congregation are stunned! In it he says that as Christians, you should pray for the dictator. He says that you should do so because it’s God’s wish that everyone should be saved and that the dictator has a part to play in moving your homeland toward that goal. There is dead silence as those words sink in—words exhorting you to pray for the monster who persecutes you, to pray for the one who denies the truth of the Gospel message that has changed your life, to pray for the one whose thugs make every knock on the door a living terror.

Except for the fact that in the first century Roman world, the dictator was called emperor, all of the elements of this little thought experiment precisely describe the circumstances in which our second Bible lesson for today was written. There is some dispute among scholars as to whether the book of First Timothy was actually written by the apostle Paul to the young pastor, Timothy. This isn’t a terrible thought since, in the ancient world, there were no copyright laws and it was considered perfectly acceptable for people who represented the thought world of respected teachers to write in their names. But I accept that this letter really was from the apostle Paul, written in about 64AD. It’s one of several books in the New Testament, collectively called the Pastoral Epistles, which we’ll be looking at over the next several weeks.

Please pull out the Celebrate insert and read along silently with me as I read aloud the first four stunning verses:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 
If you have a pencil or a pen, you might want to circle the words “everyone,” in the places it appears in those four verses. We are to pray for everyone, including leaders who may be hostile to Christians and our message about Jesus. And we are to do so because it’s God’s desire that everyone be saved from sin and death.

At least two ideas in these verses need to be unpacked this morning.

The first is this. Governments, however imperfect and however unjust they may sometimes be, exist to enforce God’s Law, the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments. This is so because not everybody voluntarily submits to the Lordship of Jesus or commits themselves to lives of daily repentance and renewal in His Name. Not all people live with the Holy Spirit guiding them each day, prompting them to repent for wrong or to choose the right. And even Christians forget or forego calling on God to help them live rightly.

Whether knowingly or not, every time a government acts justly, it does so in conformity with God's Law, that sense of right and wrong God has written on all hearts.

Every time a government acts unjustly, it nonetheless seeks to justify its actions on the bases of what we all know is right and wrong.

And every time someone opposes an action of a government, she or he does so by appealing to what everyone knows to be right or wrong.

Of course, as I’ve said, not all people in our world have surrendered their wills to Jesus as Lord. They don’t want to agree with God about what’s right and wrong. (Truth be known, none of us wants to agree with God about what's right and wrong all of the time!)

Some might want to steal in order to feed a drug habit, or extort in order to get rich at the expense of others, or drive their cars while under the influence of alcohol, or play trumpets in their front yards at 3:00 in the morning as neighbors are trying to sleep, or cheat on the college entrance exam. God gives the Law, governments, and designated authorities so that all who refuse to submit to His will by faith in Christ will still be curbed and so that—and this is key--so that a peaceable order in which it will be easier for you and me to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be established in our nations and our neighborhoods.

We pray for leaders, even dictators, so that, as Paul puts it in our lesson, “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life.”

In the late-1940s, Frank Laubach, a Methodist missionary, wrote a fantastic book called Prayer, The Mightiest Force in the World. Laubach thought that the most important thing Christians could do, apart from sharing the good news of Jesus with others, was to pray for world leaders. When we pray for leaders, Laubach said, God’s Spirit flows through our prayers and speaks directly to leaders, whether they believe in God or not.

Laubach writes, “We can do far more for the world with prayer than if we could [tell the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, or the President of Russia] what to do—far more!” “If they listened to our suggestions,” he says, “we would probably be more or less wrong. But what God tells them, when they listen to Him, must be right. It is infinitely better for world leaders to listen to God than for them to listen to us.”

We are to pray for leaders—of governments, of organizations, of towns, counties, and townships, and of churches—so that peace and stability can displace violence and uncertainty and make it easier for we Christians, who have been commissioned to make disciples of all nations--even this nation--to share the Good News of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ!

This brings us to the second idea we need to unpack, this one found in verse 4. It says that the God revealed in Jesus “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The truth, of course, is what Jesus referred to in a conversation one day with Thomas: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” It’s the truth Jesus told that old teacher of the law, Nicodemus, that while those who refuse to believe in Him condemn themselves, He came not to condemn, but to save, to bring new, everlasting life to all who trust in Him. God’s desire is that all will be saved.

Does that mean that everyone will be saved? Please underline the word, desires, in verse 4. The word in the Greek, in which this letter and all the books of the New Testament were first written, is thelei. It means want, will, wish, or desire.

God wants or desires all to be saved. That’s why Jesus went to the cross. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” Jesus also told Nicodemus.

God’s desire, His wish, is that all will turn from sin and trust in Christ, even if their faith is the size of a mustard seed, as Jesus puts it. But this doesn’t mean that God saves anyone against their wills, their desires, their wants, or their wishes.

Jesus says in Matthew 10:32: “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

The older son in last week’s Gospel lesson, the parable of the Prodigal Son, chose to spurn the father’s invitation to come to the party, to join the celebration. He stands for all who refuse to surrender to Christ because they choose to rely on themselves, their own work ethic, their own chosen gods, or anything else but Christ.

Such people can even be found in our churches: They equate church membership with being a Christian, but never surrender a bit of their wills to Christ, never seek God’s wisdom for their decision making, never establish their priorities at God’s direction. In her book, The Hiding Place, Corrie ten-Boom recounts what her father said when the ten-Booms got word that their pastor had led the Nazi armies then occupying their homeland of the Netherlands to Jews who had been hiding. The ten-Booms, like many of their Christian friends were hiding their Jewish neighbors so that they could escape the Nazis. Why, Corrie asked her father, would their pastor have done such a horrible thing? How could any Christian church-goer? His answer was simple: "Just because the mouse is in the cookie jar, it doesn't mean that it's a cookie."

Warming the same church pew for decades doesn't necessarily make us Christians. It doesn't mean that we are saved from sin and death. Salvation is a matter, not of membership in a religious club, but of faith--trust--in Jesus Christ.

Jesus says that those who acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior are saved from sin and death. God wants all people to be saved, but God never forces faith in Christ or salvation on anyone.

That’s why Paul urges Christians to pray for leaders—and for everyone. We pray for a peaceable world in which people are ready to hear the Good News which Jesus has commissioned Christians to tell others: the Good News, the truth, that their sins can be covered over and they can live with God forever by turning from sin and trusting their lives to Jesus Christ.

So, the message of this week’s sermon is simple. It comes from Saint Paul and the pages of God’s Word: pray for everyone and tell everyone about Jesus. This is the job of every Christian no matter what their profession.

May God bless us as we do our jobs each day.

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