Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Will the real me please step forward

Good morning everyone.

After all my years of studying, writing about and preaching the Word of God, one of the things that continues to encourage me is Paul's openness. I have discovered something about the openness I have so often longed for in my own life: it is a risky thing. All my life, since the beginning of my teen years, I have kept myself to myself. I was teased a lot as a young teen and learned the best way to protect myself was not to reveal myself. So I learned how to have a public face and keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. It managed to get me through my teen years but has not been the greatest asset as an adult or a pastor. Yet, it is because I am a pastor that I still find it hard to be myself. There are certain expectations to be met, the public face.

It is because this continues to be a struggle for me that I find many of Paul's letters to be like fresh air. We need to recognize that Paul was still on pilgrimage himself. He did not become perfect the day he met Jesus so we can see his growing maturity through his letters. This morning's passage in 1 Thessalonians 3 is an example of this. Paul was regretting that he had been torn away from the people who had accepted Jesus. He had an authentic love for them but he also had a real concern for the survival of the fledgling community that he did not have time to finish planting. As any good planter or father he wanted to be assured that they were doing well, so he sent young Timothy back to check on them. Why Timothy? Timothy had not yet come into his own. He was the young man who would cook the meals, wash the clothes and look after all the practical stuff. It was Paul and Silas who were the public faces and would be too well known to go back. This was the beginning of Timothy's public face ministry.

The part that stands out for me from this small passage is this:

For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. v. 5

Remember what he had written earlier:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy. (1 Thessalonians 2:19-20)

This was important to Paul, not just because he loved these people and wanted to see them in glory, but because he did not want to come to Jesus as a failure. Paul had been given a commission, to bring the gospel to the Gentiles and he did not want to fail in it. He did not want to discover that his efforts had been useless. I think Paul is expressing the fear that most people in their middle ages feel, that their life has not amounted to much. Most people want to feel that their life had some meaning but that can be hard to see depending on your perspective and expectations. Now add to that the commission we have all been given, to make disciples. How have you been doing with that?

The problem here is when we fail to realize or trust the power of God's Word. I am not saying Paul did not have that realization or trust. Earlier he had written:

 You know, brothers, that our visit to you was not a failure. (1 Thessalonians 2:1)

However, this momentary lapse is the openness to which I am referring. Paul wants to know that his time and effort was not useless. You know that feeling. You just spent four hours with someone showing them God's wonderful plan in the Word. You showed all the right passages, you said all the right words, you prayed the right prayers but you walk away without a commitment from that person. They want to think about it some more. Did you fail? Hardly. God's Word is much more powerful than that. The power of it is described in Isaiah:

As the rain and the snow
       come down from heaven,
       and do not return to it
       without watering the earth
       and making it bud and flourish,
       so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,

 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
       It will not return to me empty,
       but will accomplish what I desire
       and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:10-11)

Whether we plant the seed or water it, it is still God who is responsible for making it grow. In a later letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote this very thing:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

If you have been faithful to your calling and have done what you you were instructed to do then you need not fear uselessness. We are not responsible for the harvest, only our part in it. We need to trust God for the harvest and we need to trust that he is using our efforts, as small as they may seem to us. His Word does not return void of purpose. It always achieves the purpose for which it was sent.

I gain much encouragement from seeing Paul write this because I have learned a lesson from his open weakness. I guess that is what I am resisting with God. I remain closed because I am afraid of making mistakes or of revealing where I am in the maturity of my walk. I fail to realize that God uses everything for the benefit of others; even my mistakes. Of course, being open enough for others to see your mistakes means a risk of being hurt and misunderstood. I hate being hurt. I hate having my heart crushed. I hate not being a source of wisdom and encouragement. Yet at the same time, God needs to use the real us, not the public face us. Sometimes life gets messy but it is in the messes of life we often see the greatest work of grace. I am still learning.

No comments: