Ecclesiastes 9:7-10; 2 Timothy 2:8-15
October 9, 2022
- Being freed to serve; being freed to endure
You may or may not remember those television commercials for Tombstone Pizza. They would have people lined up in these ridiculous scenarios who are about to be executed, and someone would ask them what they want on their tombstone. The sad and sorry people about to be executed would admit that on their tombstone they would want peperoni and sausage or some other combination of different pizza toppings. Of course, that befuddled the executioner and the whole act is derailed. While I do enjoy pizza toppings with the best of them, if I had to pick something for my headstone, I would pick something more profound. For years I have thought that if I should have a headstone, I’d like to have on it the quote from Matthew 25: 21, “Well done, good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.”
You might be thinking to yourself, “Hold on there, Pastor Pete. That sounds a little presumptuous. How can you assume that God might feel that way about you at the end?” That is exactly correct, and that is great question that I hope to come back to. I cannot presume to know what Jesus might say if and when I show up on his doorstep. “Oh, it’s you!” would be an interesting response.
Regardless, I feel confident that the goal of every follower of Jesus should be something like the “well done, good and faithful servant” sentiment. I expect that all of us are interested in being received with that kind of welcome. That is certainly the situation in which Paul is writing to Timothy. If you will remember, Paul is nearing the end of his earthly walk. He knows his days are numbered, but before he is done, he wants to make sure Timothy is on the right path and solid footing. The issue is service. He needs Timothy all set to continuing serving in the work of Jesus the best way that he can. Timothy needs encouragement and a clear idea of his goal – the goal of all of us. We need to be servants who can present ourselves as approved. Jesus gave us this same challenge with the parable of the talents. The servant who invested and grew what his master gave was considered right and was given more to steward. He chose to work freely with what his master gave him.
Of course, all service is not the same. All service is not as good or worthwhile or effective. Paul is struggling with this, and he is in chains over his service. Timothy is struggling with this and needs to rekindle his ember of faith as we heard last week. If we add our own names to that list, what would we say? What is holding us back from being the good and faithful servant that we might want to be?
Paul had every reason or excuse to slow down or quit or complain, but you do not hear those sentiments at all. He is almost excited to be imprisoned for the sake of the gospel. Back in Philippi, Paul and Silas were singing hymns through the night as they were locked up in the innermost part of the jail. In the Book of Acts, everyone and their brother seems to try to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem his last time. There were murmurings, feelings, rumors that Paul might be the target of “the powers” and that he would be arrested. Paul gave no heed but journeyed on full speed ahead. And, yes, he was arrested and ended up where we have him today – imprisoned and about to be executed.
But he is more free than he has ever been. This makes no sense. Somehow, his choice to follow Jesus even into the lions’ den liberates him no matter what happens. His willingness to march to his doom if it gives the followers of Jesus an example in service is worth the price of his very life. No one can chain the gospel, and that is where his true service is bound.
This is like when Jesus was on the cross. He had the complete power and ability and authority to step down, but he endured the cross and its humiliation and shame because he wanted to. He meant to. He chose to. That is what made the Lamb of God worthy in God’s sight.
We see glimpses of this in the service of this world. Try to imagine the best service you have ever received. For me, some of the best service that I have ever received is on a cruise at dinner. If you want anything to eat, you will get it. You want more, no problem. Want to try something else, done. We never lacked for anything and felt very cared for. I don’t know how you could NOT get what you want sitting on a cruise around the dinner table. The act of service that I remember the most, however, was when I was a patient at Johnston-Willis Hospital back in the early 90’s (1990s, not when I was in my early 90’s). I was there for a week and pretty miserable. That is when I came to realize that hospitals are lousy places for getting sleep. And the food was not great, but every evening, a particular nurse would poke her beaming head into the room and ask me, “Did you get enough to eat, dear? Would you like another dinner?” Do not expect anything like that in these days, I ended up with a drawer full of food next to my bed after a few days. I did not even know what to do with it. I guess she was thinking food would cure me. Their service was a choice to be kind and gracious and generous.
Service really matters when it comes to health care. I have been grateful to see good examples of health care service lately. This last week that was the situation at the UVA Medical Center with David Smith’s surgery. Everyone was so good and so helpful, and the Smiths have been impressed through their process with everyone with whom they had to work.
I know you have had times when you were less impressed with your medical service. Sometimes, I hear about those times. I occasionally also hear about the good times. What is the real difference when you get down to it? People going out of their way to do their best to help you. That is service. Even in tough situations when there might not be many options, if that other person is invested in helping you and choosing to give you their best, it means a tremendous amount.
Our choosing to serve Jesus looks different than a really good waiter, though, or even a really good doctor or nurse. The service we are trying to share is one that lasts a lifetime, but it is still about our choice. We cannot choose whether Jesus died on the cross or rose from the dead. We cannot choose whether the reigns in heaven or will return one day to complete the renovation of creation. We cannot choose whether he even chooses us or gives us of his Holy Spirit. All of those things are done. Jesus has bound himself to us and to our past, present, and future. He is our Lord and Savior yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This means that we are already in the heart of God and ready to work. We are ready to give God our very best.
You may have had a similar experience to one employee who had the most humiliating call with her boss. At the end of the call, by routine, she concluded without thinking with, “Alright, I love you, see you later!”. While this was entirely appropriate for family members, the boss was a little taken aback by this. Once she realized her misspeak, she panicked and blurted out, “Oh my goodness! I didn’t mean that. I absolutely don’t love you… No, I mean, I like working for you, but I know you’re married, and I’m married, and I’m not flirting, so please don’t report me to HR for harassment…” As she was trying to figure out a way to dig herself out of that hole and that conversation, the boss helped her by hanging up.
Her best did not work out as she had hoped. She flubbed her service to her boss. Hopefully, she was able to recover from that. I expect she was.
We may be sitting there right now worrying whether we are approved or not. Maybe we won’t be good enough to be judged that good and faithful servant. Maybe we won’t invest what God has given to us but instead bury it out of fear.
Ecclesiastes is one response to that. I love the book of Ecclesiastes. It is different from any other book in the Bible and is filled with very down-to-earth wisdom, so plainly honest that it is hard to hear. Regarding our service, though, Ecclesiastes makes it clear that we should go ahead and lead our lives as people who are already approved by God. Not be miserable with worry or dread. Don’t live as a pitiable people and let the burdens of this life strip you of your joy. Choose to serve God with what you have. It is already settled in God’s heart your place in it. Live this life to the fullness of God’s joy because this is our one shot to do it.
The issue is not whether we are approved or not. It is what we are going to do with that gift. The issue is what we are going to do with the God-given talents, resources, time, and spirit that we have. Jesus has already done the hard part and won us approval in the sight of God. If we are in Christ, we are in the same approval that Jesus enjoys. That is how our lives are connected. Then, because we are so connected, we are also freed to serve Jesus because we want to, because we choose to serve the other, because we desire to know greater love in this love. To cut ourselves off from love is to deny our very reason for existence; it is to deny our God who is love; it is to deny the Christ our Lord who died for us out of love.
You and I are blessedly approved, and the choice boils down to us. How are we going to live these lives? What are we going to do with our God-given gifts? Are we going to embrace this life and be those good and faithful servants? Are we going to live into the blessings of Jesus for us all?
Friends, you are approved. I am approved. Let us be good and faithful servants together. To God be the glory. Amen.