For the past two weeks, we have been talking about how to find peace in a world that is insane with sin. We’ve talked about the importance of reorienting our thinking on God through prayer and of engaging more intentionally and consistently with the Scriptures to give us the path we need to be following. In this last part, we are going to talk about one more essential thing that is all about putting these first two into practice. When we want to find a path through the messiness of the world around us, here’s what we should be doing.
Keep Calm and…Fulfill Your Ministry
As smart as the good folks in Hollywood are when it comes to producing entertainment, they really never know when a particular film is going to be a smashing success and when it will totally flop. For instance, there was a movie last year called Babylon that featured the A-list talent of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie along with a budget of north of $100 million. It was perhaps the single biggest box office bomb of the last several years. A few years ago, though, Disney struck absolute gold with its smash hit, Frozen. A fun story combined with tremendous music made it the single most successful Disney animated film ever…right up until Frozen 2 came out, which beat it by almost $200 million. By most accounts and in spite of the box office numbers, Frozen 2 wasn’t ever quite as good as the original (sequels almost never are), but there was one song that really caught my attention.
As Princess Anna is trying to figure out what to do when she gets separated from all of her friends while they are in the mysterious land of the north, she sings a song. Because, of course she does. The title of the song gives away its message: “The Next Right Thing.” She decides that the best way to make it through the chaos she is facing is to simply do the next right thing. Stay on your mission. Take that one step. When she has done that, she’ll work on the next one after that. The song actually fits with a meme that was popular a few years ago. It appeared on t-shirts all over the place and could be customized to just about any preference. It said, “Keep calm and _________ on.” The idea was that instead of getting all worked up about whatever was happening around you, keep doing the thing you knew best how to do. Whether that was nursing or firefighting or teaching or running or knitting or horseback riding or whatever else you want to use to fill in that blank doesn’t matter. Doing whatever your thing is, staying on your mission, is better than losing your mind about circumstances that are beyond your control. Well, while that song and meme don’t perhaps hit the nail for this morning exactly on the head, they do point us in an important direction.
This morning we are wrapping up our series, Peace in a World Gone Mad. For the last three weeks we have been talking about how to find peace when the world around us is in chaos. And, just so we’re clear, the world around us is in chaos. If you don’t believe me, just look around for a bit. There is chaos everywhere we look. And it just seems to be getting worse. In the midst of all of this, it is far too easy to get pulled down into the churning waves and drown. As followers of Jesus, though, we have a way forward through the mess to life on the other side of it. How we experience this incredible relief is what we’ve been talking about.
We started in Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers. He called them to reorient their thinking on God and turn more fully to prayer. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. This will bring us into contact with the peace that surpasses all understanding. Last week, then, we talked about the important role the Scriptures play in this. With a look at Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we were reminded that the Scriptures are an anchor in a world adrift in sin. They help to frame out a perspective on the world around us that gives us both understanding and hope.
Well, the things we have talked about so far as ways to deal with the chaos of the world are good and important. They are necessary and even sufficient unto themselves to keep us from getting sucked under the waves when the culture around us is particularly stormy. They are also remarkably simple. I mean, for all the words we used to describe them, they boil down to this: pray and engage with the Scriptures more. There are a whole lot of issues in our lives that can be made better by praying more and engaging with the Scriptures more. But the Scriptures don’t just leave us with a couple of options like this for getting through this life with our faith intact. They give us abundantly more than we need. In light of that, Paul has one more thing for us today. And this one may be the most important of all. This is the thing that finds us putting into practice what we gain from the last two, without which we won’t actually gain any of the benefits from them at all. We are going to find all of this back in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, just after where we stopped last week. If you have a copy of the Scriptures, find your way to 2 Timothy 4 with me and let’s see how this unfolds.
I don’t want to start right at the beginning here. In each of the last couple of weeks we have seen Paul remind us of just how broken the world is and how broken it’s going to get before anything really gets any better. One thing the Scriptures do really well that the sacred writings of no other religious movement really tackles as effectively is that they are honest about the state of the world. They are honest about how followers of Jesus are going to experience that brokenness as well. The various guys who were inspired by God’s Spirit to write down messages He has miraculously preserved down through history for us to still be learning from today never once sugarcoated what things will be like in this world for those folks who have committed themselves to God’s kingdom. Instead, they offer hope to get us through it. In this case, Paul leaves Timothy—and us—with one more warning about how bad things are going to get before Jesus returns.
Look at this with me starting in v. 3: “ For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.” Wow, does that sound true of our world today! That’s what social media is in a nutshell. People who don’t want to listen to what’s true can go there and find “teachers” willing to tell them what they want to hear all day long. People will buy into just about anything if it gives them license to keep living however they please instead of how God has commanded.
We know all of that though, so what’s the point. Well, look at how Paul begins v. 5: “But as for you…” That’s the second time he’s used that phrase. In a day long before pictures, graphics, or bold or italicized typefaces, when an author repeated himself in short succession like this, it was a signal to sit up and pay attention. In this case, both times Paul uses this phrase comes after a description of the world’s messiness. I think his point is this: Yes, the world is going to be a mess. That’s what sin does. It’s going to be hard and confusing and chaotic and frightening and there’s nothing you or I can do to change that very much beyond our personal spheres of influence. None of that, though, changes what our job is as a follower of Jesus.
There’s a scene right near the end of John’s Gospel that helps us see this isn’t just Paul going rogue. He’s right in line with Jesus. On the morning Jesus had breakfast with the disciples on the beach and after He had pulled Peter aside to ask him about feeding His sheep and such, Peter asked Jesus about John’s role on this side of the resurrection. Listen to this from John 21:20: “So Peter turned around and saw the disciple Jesus loved following them, the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and asked, ‘Lord, who is the one that’s going to betray you?’ When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about him?’ ‘If I want him to remain until I come,’ Jesus answered, ‘What is that to you? As for you, follow me.’” Peter was getting distracted by something going on in the world around him and Jesus’ response was simple: Don’t worry about that and follow Me. Whatever else might be going on in our lives, our job is to follow Jesus.
Let’s look at how Paul drives home that point in the rest of this passage. Come back with me to v. 1. Getting ready for his big finish now, Paul says this to Timothy: “I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of his appearing and his kingdom…” Pause here for just a second. Paul’s point here is simply that what he’s about to say is really important. This next thing is getting right to the core of our call as followers of Jesus.
And what is it? “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.” Now, let’s be honest for a second: those first three words may have convinced a lot of folks to tune out. Preach the word? That’s what preachers are supposed to do…and I’m no preacher. This must not apply to me. Not so fast. Yes, preaching is something that preachers do. And, yes, Paul was writing to a pastor who no doubt preached regularly. But look at what else he says here. He tells him to be ready in season and out of season. What’s that mean? Well, another translation option sheds a little more light. This could also be phrased, “be persistent whether it’s convenient or not.” Okay, but persistent at what? Hold that question for just a second and we’ll come back to it.
Look at what else Paul says here. He tells Timothy to rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. Now, where have we heard those words before? Oh, that’s right. They were at the end of chapter 3 that we looked at last week. Paul there told Timothy that the Scriptures are given by God to, among other things, rebuke, correct, and teach. Paul’s point here is that our whole lives should reflect the Scriptures to the people around us. You’ve perhaps heard before the admonition that “you may be the only Bible some people read.” That’s badly cliched, bumper sticker theology, but it’s also true. If you are a follower of Jesus, but you aren’t consistently reflecting the Scriptures through your life, you aren’t doing it right.
Next, Paul gives Timothy the warning we already talked about that tough times are coming. We should hear this warning in light of his command to be persistent whether it’s convenient or not. The warning reminds us that it often won’t be convenient to be persistent in reflecting the Scriptures through our lives and into the lives of the people around us. We’re to do it anyway.
He finally lands in v. 5 with his closing instructions. Listen to this: “But as for you, exercise self-control in everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist…” Okay, those are all good things, but where does this land? Is there more than just a lightning round of instructions here? Look at the last three words: “…fulfill your ministry.” This is where the whole passage here has been pointing. Do the ministry God has called you to do. Give that your first and greatest attention and effort and energy. There isn’t anything in your life more important than that. And when the world around you turns to chaos, keeping your attention here will prevent that chaos from reaching you and wreaking havoc in your heart and mind like it otherwise will. When your world is a mess, do your ministry.
Have you ever experienced before how getting focused on a project can keep you from dwelling on something that really shouldn’t be bothering you as much as it is? Yeah, this sounds a little like this is about nothing more than distracting us from the bad stuff by filling our focus with good stuff. That doesn’t make the bad stuff go away? If we don’t deal with it, then it’s still going to be there when we run out of good stuff to focus on.
I hear you, but let’s think about this for just a second. How much of the bad stuff that threatens to drown us in anxiety and despair on a daily basis can we really “deal with”? If we’re being honest, not very much of it. Most of it is stuff happening in other places in the world we’re not going to travel and it involves people we’ll never meet. Yes, we can and should pray over it, but even that shouldn’t occupy the biggest part of our attention. Instead, we will do better focusing our attention on the things we can control and the issues we can deal with. Well, the vast majority of those are probably going to be covered by the ministry God’s already given us to do. As it turns out, directing our attention to fulfilling our ministry isn’t just about distracting ourselves at all. It is about turning fear into focusing on the places where we can actually make a meaningful difference in the world. It is about turning our attention away from ourselves and giving it to making a positive, Gospel difference in the lives of the people God has placed within our sphere of influence. It is about directing our energies toward the things that are eternal in nature and will therefore long outlive the troubles that would seem to demand our time in the here and now. When your world is a mess, do your ministry.
But listen: this isn’t just something for believers. There’s wisdom here whether you are a follower of Jesus or not. If you don’t care two cents about Jesus and don’t have the time of day for Christianity, it is nonetheless true that if you direct all your attention to the problems going on around you, you are far more likely than not to be made miserable by that. The more you focus on yourself and your issues, the more miserable you’ll be. A ton of self-help books proclaim that you need to do just the opposite. Focus on yourself. Get your issues addressed. Then you can start to help others. Well, it may be that you need to get some counseling to help process through a particularly thorny issue from your past. That’s a good and wise thing. But beyond that, that’s all terrible advice. The best way to make yourself better is to focus on serving others selflessly and making their lives better. You don’t need the Gospel for that. And, because you’re not following Jesus, you don’t have to do it. But you’ll stay miserable until you do. When your world is a mess, do your ministry…even if you don’t want to call it your “ministry.”
For the followers of Jesus in the room, though, this isn’t just good advice, it’s essential work. Fulfilling your ministry is an imperative. And how do you do this? You start by figuring out the work God has called you to do. And how do you do this? By prayerfully considering what areas of the church’s overall ministry most get you excited. In what areas do you love to serve? Where do you excel the most? Where are you the most gifted—both naturally and spiritually? If you’re still not sure, talk to other folks in the community who know you including me. It’s literally my job to help you figure this out. Nate too. From there, start trying out some different things and see if you can find a fit. Even if you get the wrong thing the first time, your sincere efforts will never be wasted. At the end of the day, though, if the extent of your involvement in this community is showing up at this time and filling a seat, you’re not going to find the relief and hope you are seeking. You won’t find the community you’re seeking. You need to be serving. You need to be fulfilling your ministry. And the messier your life feels, the more important this is. When your world is a mess, do your ministry.
All of us live messy lives from time to time. Sometimes we go through seasons where it feels like the mess isn’t ever going to end. On top of all of that is the chaos of the world in general. There are wars and rumors of wars everywhere we look. Nations are oppressing nations. People are being exploited and abused. Individuals are struggling to find hope and meaning. This is all the result of sin’s being in the world. What the Gospel offers us is a way through all of this mess without losing ourselves along the way. It starts with reorienting our thinking on God through the discipline of prayer. From there we engage more intentionally with the Scriptures. Finally, we take what we have learned from those first two things and give our attention more fully to fulfilling the ministry God has called us to do. None of this means the world isn’t still going to be crazy. But it will tap us into the source of strength we need to bear it with hope. If your world is a mess, follow this path to the life that is truly life.