By Paul Koch –
Today we heard some of St. Paul’s closing remarks to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18. We usually don’t spend much time pondering these final sentences of Paul’s letters. After all, the main arguments for the letter have already been made. This part of the letter is like the end of a lecture. For that matter, it’s like most sermons you’ve heard where you already have a good idea of how it is all going to go, so you begin to shift your focus to something else: to the next part of the service, or where you going to go for lunch this afternoon, or when you’re going to find time to go shopping. But, maybe you don’t know that the ending is usually the hardest part to write, and it is usually the most difficult part of any speech or letter. Because you want it to leave an impression, you want it to be that final thing that you leave with your reader or hearer. If they remember anything at all, you will want to put it at the end.
In this regard we actually learn a lot from the closing remarks of Paul. Reading along, we hear him call for endurance in the words of encouragement to Timothy. He speaks openly and honestly about his own suffering and trials saying, “I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.” Paul speaks of his own life as an apostle of the Lord as a sacrificial offering of the Temple. But he declares, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” What great words of boldness in the face of hardship. If Timothy is to learn from the example of his mentor, if he is to press on without giving up, then Paul’s words sound like a rallying cry for the faithful. Fight the fight. Finish the race for “there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness.”
Looking back over his work as a missionary and apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul can testify that the Lord strengthened him and delivered him time and again to do the work he was called to do. And when Paul tells Timothy about this, he has a great line where he says, “So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.” I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. I like that line, and when I first read it I began to wonder just what he meant. What did Paul have in mind when he spoke about the lion’s mouth? He could have been talking about a literal lion’s mouth, the type of lion that had consumed Christians in the gladiator arenas as part of the spectacle. But Paul was a Roman citizen and probably was never under such a threat. Perhaps the lion is any and all opposition to the Gospel message. Or it could be the work of Satan or the spirit of the Antichrist or a mixture of all of these.
Now I suppose it is easy for us to pick out some of the things that might make up the lion’s mouth that was trying to devour Paul. We know the stories of his persecution, stonings and imprisonments. But I wonder if we recognize the lion’s mouth in our lives. Do you know it when you see it? And, can you always see it for what it is? There is of course the spirit of opposition to the faith that is a never ceasing reality in your lives. Whenever you engage in this culture you find that the faith is pushed increasingly to the sideline. Talk about church or the things of the faith, about salvation and hope and assurance are best left for the home, or even hospital bed, but not around the water cooler. In fact, there is an increasing fear that through the mechanisms of politically correct speech and limitations of our rights it will one day be illegal to preach the truth in this country. That the truth, not my truth or your truth, or the truth that makes you feel good; but the revealed Word of God, that truth, will be deemed too offensive to tolerate.
And yet, the belief that we are safe from the lion’s mouth because we are inside the church is an illusion. Sure, it’s better among the household of the faithful. Sure, there is a spirit of hope and confidence and the Word of God is cherished here. But the devouring work of the lion comes into our fellowship no matter how well we try and keep it out, for the lion lurks within your hearts. Now the lion from within is different to be sure than the lion outside the walls of the church. There is a great line in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Frodo Baggins says that the “Enemy…would seem fairer and feel fouler.” And there is something to that. The enemy, the lion’s mouth within the church will often seem fair, seem even beautiful but it will always feel foul.
The lion’s mouth, then, may be the divisions that always seem to spring up within a congregation. The pointing of fingers and blame, the gossip and slander, the cliques and sub groups have a way to always tear at the body of Christ. And in the wake of their work those who really need the help, those who are hurting or weak or timid will often get trampled underfoot. The lion’s mouth may be your distrust of the Word and promises of God. It may be your desire to have your own glory to get recognition and make a name for yourself. But the truth is, to a greater or lesser degree, in each and every one of you that lion’s mouth is there ready to take bites out of one another while dressed as the saints of God.
I saw a video the other day about a disabled man who loved to work on cars. He refinanced his home and built this massive addition to his garage including having a lift to make it easier for him to service almost any type of vehicle. He would have friends come over, and they would turn wrenches and have a good time helping each other out. This guy would even lend a hand to his neighbors when they had a mower break or needed some help changing the oil. But then, two ladies who lived across from him got sick and tired of all the cars coming and going from his house that they filed complaints with the city to have his garage shut down. Now here the thing, this guy worked hard to keep the noise down and self-imposed a noise curfew so that his neighbors wouldn’t be too upset. But they wouldn’t give up. These gals were mad, and if you listen to them in the video, they claim they are only mad that no one is enforcing the law. It’s the law. It doesn’t matter that he isn’t hurting anyone, the law must be respected.
Now I watched this whole video because I used to and work on motorcycles at a guy’s house just like this when we lived in Georgia. But as the video ended, I began to wonder what in the world would drive someone to fight so hard for the law like that? How do you get to the point that your neighbor doesn’t matter but only the law? This got me thinking about the church, about the fellowship of God’s children, about the divisions that creep up, about wounds that don’t soon heal. Time and again the lion’s mouth within is the law when it is chosen above the brother or sister sitting next to us. It looks fair but feels foul.
But there is hope. There is rescue, for you have a Savior. Your Lord snatches you out of the lion’s mouth. Like St. Paul, He doesn’t abandon you to its terrors and destruction. He rescues you from every evil deed and brings you safely into His heavenly kingdom. That is, your Lord died bearing your sins and rose from the dead to give you life. So when this world ridicules you and tries to shame your confession, you stand before them with assurance and without fear. For your salvation is sure. Your confidence flows from the blood of Christ. And that same Christ who gave himself for you, gave himself for your brother and sister as well. Those who sit around you, those who come weary and beaten down, are not there to be consumed by your inner lion. Rather Christ puts his Word, his gifts, into your mouths and hands. You can become the preacher: the one who doesn’t demand obedience to the law but freely gives hope and life and assurance.
Just as Paul sends Timothy off to do the work set before him, so he sends you. The final words are not to be forgotten or skipped over, for they tell of the ongoing proclamation of a Lord who never ceases to rescue his people from the lion’s mouth. So instead of being consumed, we are fed. Instead of wounding, we are healed. Instead of being left in uncertainty and fear, you are told yet again that you are loved and forgiven.