Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Count On It

2 Tim 2:11-13; Jer. 29:4-7; Ps 66:12[1]

It’s hard to know what you can count on these days. You might expect that from a cynic like me. But when you look around, so much of what we have counted on seems to have fallen by the wayside. Here’s one for you—“stay in school and you’ll get a better job.” Well, that works up to a certain extent. But it’s a little disconcerting when the guy asking you if you want fries with your burger is wearing a button that says, “Ask me about my Ph. D.” How about, “all for one and one for all”? No, I wouldn’t count on that either. Seems it’s more “every man for himself” these days. What about “until death do us part”? Nope—I don’t think you can count on that either in this day and time.

Here’s one that we should all agree you can count on: “I will never fail you nor forsake you.” If you can’t count on God, who can you count on? I think the answer is that it depends on what your “counting on.” If you’re “counting on” God to make your dreams come true, you may find yourself disappointed. In fact, I think it’s all but certain you will find yourself disappointed.

So where does that leave us in relation to God? It belongs to the heart of the Bible’s witness that God is faithful—that God keeps all promises. I think our lesson from 2 Timothy affirms that faith: “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” I think that means we can count on God to continue to love us, to help us, to always be there for us as a supporting presence—even in the worst of times, even if we are at times “faithless” (2 Tim. 2:13).[2]

Now, many in the history of the church have understood this “promise” more in terms of a warning than an assurance: they think it means that if we fall short or lose heart or in some way undermine the faith, God will remain true to himself by punishing us accordingly![3] After all, it does say, “if we deny him, he will deny us”! But whatever “denying” and being “denied” means in this context, it has to take into account the fact that Peter specifically “denied” Jesus three times, and yet he was not “denied” but restored! [4] Even that kind of “denial” didn’t consign him to eternal condemnation. Perhaps that’s the point—even if we go to the extent of denying Christ the way Peter did, God’s faithfulness provides a way back for us.[5] Even in that extreme case, we can count on God to remain committed to us.[6]

And yet, we all face times when it seems God has in fact turned his back on us, has in fact denied us, has in fact broken faith with us. I would say that the letter of Jeremiah to the exiles in Babylon was written in one of those times. Some of the Jewish exiles probably gave up hope altogether. Some were so desperate for fulfill all their presumptions that they deluded themselves with false hopes. As it turns out, there were “so-called” prophets who were stirring up the exiles with the idea that “any day now we will be on our way home.” But Jeremiah says, “Build homes, get married, have children. See that your children build homes, get married and have children.”[7] Jeremiah believed that they would be in exile a lot longer than they wanted to be.

But he also pointed them to the hope that, in the midst of the mundane routines of life in foreign exile, they could find God’s peace. Despite all their disappointed hopes and dreams, they might just find themselves having the experience recounted by the Psalmist. After going through fire and water, just when they may have thought their life was over, God brought them to a “spacious place”—a place where, much to their own surprise and contrary to their expectations they could find peace.[8] It wasn’t where they thought they would live out their lives, but it was a place where they could thrive.

It may sound harsh to say it, but we cannot count on God to make all our dreams come true, or to live up to all our presumptions about what our life is supposed to look like. I think one of the lessons that so often eludes Christians in our day and age is that there is a vast difference between faith and presumption. Presumption makes our loving creator and redeemer into a “God-in-the-box” who gives us everything we want. Faith entrusts oneself to Gods loving care because of a conviction that God is trustworthy. Even when we find ourselves in a place we didn’t want to be, if we can let go our expectations and accept the grace to thrive in surprising places, we may discover that we can count on God never to forsake us, to see us through whatever comes our way, to bring us to the “spacious place” where we can thrive. [9]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/10/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 109; cf. also William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 517-18, 520.

[3] See, notably, John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 219.

[4] This is a difficult phrase, and it doesn’t seem to fit the rest of 2 Tim. 2:11-13, which encourages Timothy and others to endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel. Hanna Roose, “Sharing in Christ's Rule: Tracing a Debate in Earliest Christianity,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 27.2 (2004): 143-146, makes a convincing argument that “denying” relates to the promise of eternal reward for martyrdom.

[5] I think our understanding of this passage also has to take into consideration the fact that God has responded to “the apostasy of the creature” with grace, not condemnation. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:506-512

[6] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:844, where he refers to the tradition rooted in Judaism that “God remained faithful to the chosen people, even when they proved faithless time and time again.” In that light, it makes sense to conclude with him that “denying” is a deliberate and determined action, not simply a failure of nerve.

[7] William L. Holladay, Jeremiah 2, 138 and G. L. Keown, P. J. Scalise, and T. G. Smithers, Jeremiah 26-52, 80, see in this the promise of God’s grace in exile.

[8] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 38, where he suggests that it is precisely this work of liberation that constitutes the “great deeds” with which the “whole earth is filled” according to Ps. 66.

[9] Cf. Patrick Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:795: where he says that the Lord’s peace (shalom) often “will not fit what we expect or want.”

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