Famous last words
Pentecost 18 Jeremiah 29:1-4 Psalm 66 1-11, 2 Timothy 2 8-15 Luke 17:11-19
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
This week some much loved members of our community of faith have reached the end of their earthly life and died. As we remember them we call to mind their lives and their faith journey. “Famous last words” is more than a cliché. When notable men and women of influence are about to die the world waits to hear their final words of insight and wisdom. Then those quotes are repeated worldwide. This is also true with a dying loved one. During the last days, gathered at his or her side, family members sometimes hear words of blessing, encouragement and advice knowing that this will be the final message.
One of the most knowledgeable, influential and beloved men of history is the apostle Paul and we have his famous last words. Paul was facing death. He was not dying of a disease, or of old age, with loved ones gathered nearby. He was very much alive, but his condition was terminal. Convicted as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, Paul was in prison, with a visitor or two, and we know Luke was with him. He also had with him some Biblical manuscripts and his writing materials.
Paul was in prison because of the gospel he preached. The truth about Jesus is no more popular to-day than in Paul’s time but it still reaches receptive hearts. When Paul said that Jesus was God, he angered the Jews who had condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but many Jewish people became followers of Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:24) Paul angered the Romans who worshiped the emperor as god and even some in the Emperor Caesar’s household turned to Jesus (Philippians 4:22). When Paul said Jesus was human, he angered the Greeks who thought divinity was soiled if it had any contact with humanity, but still many Greeks accepted the faith (Acts 11:20,21) The truth that Jesus is one person with two united natures has never been easy to understand, but it is being believed by people every day. Paul has clearly explained the truth that Jesus is fully human, descended from the family line of King David and fully God, raised to life from death and has reconciled us to God through his death and resurrection, through the faith, love and trust between himself and the Father
Knowing he would soon be executed Paul wrote his final thoughts to Timothy, who was like a son to him. In this last letter Paul reveals his heart and his priorities – sound doctrine, steadfast faith, confident endurance and enduring love. Paul was a man of deep faith, undying love, constant hope, tenacious conviction and profound insight. And he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to give us God’s message. He passed on the leadership reminding Timothy of what was truly important and encouraging him in the faith. Timothy was especially encouraged to keep focused on Christ and to be ready to endure hardship.
All the bible passages read today are encouraging us to lift up our spirits in times of hardship, and to delight in the richness of God’s bounty. Even if our individual lives are not enduring hardship, there are many around us who bear hardship. We have the recent stories of the terrible loss people have experienced due to fire and drought. We know of many who live with personal hardship of illness of body and mind, loneliness and financial hardship, domestic violence and estranged relationships.
Jeremiah wrote to the people of Jerusalem who were prisoners taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar and the passage read today is part of this letter of encouragement to them. He instructed them to move ahead with their lives and to pray for the pagan nation that enslaved them. Life cannot grind to a halt during troubled times. In a distressing situation, can we pick up our courage, adjust to the situation and keep moving? We may even find it difficult to pray, and to pray for those in authority if they are doing what is contrary to our understanding of God’s way but that is when our prayers are most needed. When we find ourselves in times of trouble, or even sudden change, can we move ahead, and pray diligently, doing whatever we can rather than giving up because of fear and uncertainty?
Even today’s psalm reminds us that God answers prayer and that individually and as a body of believers it is good to praise and worship God because he never abandons us and when we look back at circumstances, good and bad, we often see what God has been doing providing for the needs of those who trust him. In the words of the Psalm, the Children of Israel were reminded in song of the famous story about God’s rescue by the parting of the Red Sea. They were saved then, and God continues to care for his people today.
In Paul’s letter he quotes from another song reminding Timothy, and all Christians, that God is faithful to his Children and although we may suffer great hardships here, God promises that someday we will live eternally with him in Christ’s kingdom. It also means that we will share in the administration of that kingdom. This truth comforted Paul as he went through suffering and death.
We are reminded again that Jesus is faithful and will remain with us even though we may have suffered so much that we may seem to have no faith left.
Luke tells us another encouraging tale in the story of the ten lepers. People who had leprosy were required to try to stay away from other people and to announce their presence if they wanted to come near. Sometimes leprosy went into remission. If a leper thought his leprosy had gone away, he or she were supposed to show themselves to a priest who could declare them clean. (Leviticus 14) Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priest before they were healed – and they went. They responded in faith, and Jesus healed them on the way. The story tells us that Jesus healed all the ten lepers, but only one returned to thank him. The lesson here is that it is possible to receive God’s great gifts with an ungrateful spirit – nine of the ten did. However, the thankful man learned that his faith had played a role in his healing and from this we learn that grateful Christians grow in understanding God’s grace. God does not demand that we be thankful, but when we respond to God and rejoice in the richness of his bounty, our responsiveness is used to teach us more about God. In this story we find that not only was the man a leper, he was a Samaritan – people despised by the Jews as idolatrous mixed-race people Luke is telling us that God’s grace is for everyone. We might ask ourselves, “Is our faith such that we respond to what we understand God is saying to us, before we see evidence that it will work?” In times of hardship and despite the opposition of many people today can we continue to proclaim the message of Christ and the richness of his grace? Some will listen and believe. Amen.