Preached on Monday June 15, 2015
It is a tremendous blessing to be asked to preach today Hunter. I want to say that I am so impressed with who you are. I wish that in some way I could take credit for the work your are going to do in ministry, but you have zealously pursued Christ and have become the man you are completely independent of any influence of mine. I am so excited about what God is going to do in your ministry that I do not feel worthy to preach to you today. But I do have some concerns and they’re not just about the length of your shorts.
As we were getting ready to process into Jason Hamshaw’s ordination service, Jason looked a little nervous. So, I tried to encourage him and I told him “Jason, just read the words in the book and it’s really hard to screw this up.” Then I thought for a moment and added to that., “everything after today, though, is very easy to screw up.” Now in today’s reading, Paul gives us a number of requirements for those entering into ordained ministry and as I’ve reflected on these I’ve added to that thought. “Ministry is really easy to screw up, but it can be hard to get kicked out of.” I mean, you really have to blow it to get kicked out of ministry even if you are totally screwing it up.
Paul’s words here not only tell us the parameters of who can be called into ministry, but they remind us of the deep burden of responsibility that ministry is. In fact, I would have to say that ministry has constituted the deepest trial of my whole life. This may sound weird or wrong, but I can remember as my dad was dying in the hospital thinking to myself “This is hard, but it’s not as hard as being in ministry.” That might sound weird, so to help us understand the difficulty of ministry, I turn to John Chrysostom.
John had been appointed to be ordained as a priest and his friend Basil had been elected to serve as bishop. In those days when someone was elected to serve as bishop they often fled and hid rather than take on such a solemn office (if you want to know why someone would run away from being elected bishop, just ask Bishop Lawrence). Well, John had fled and Basil had followed to talk him into being ordained. John responded to Basil’s pleas with what amounted to six books. At the end of those books John articulated the burden of ministry by describing the scene of a battle:
Imagine an army composed of infantry, cavalry, and marines. Lest the muster of its triremes blot out the sea, while the regiments of its infantry and cavalry smother the broad plains and the very heights of the mountains. Let the bronze of its armor flash back at the sun, and the glitter of the helmets and shields mirror the rays that stream down. Let the clash of spears and the neighing of horses reach the very sky, and let neither sea nor land be visible, but everywhere bronze and steel. Against all this let the enemy be arrayed, a wild and barbarous horde, and let the hour of conflict be at hand.
Suppose someone suddenly seizes a raw lad, brought up in the fields, knowing nothing except the use of the shepherd’s pipe and crook. He invests him in brazen mail, leads him round the whole camp, and shows him companies and captains, archers, slingers, officers, generals, infantry, cavalry, spearmen, ships and their captains, the soldiers crowded on the ships, and the multitude of engines of war ready on board. He also points out the enemy’s full array, their menacing faces, their strange type of weapons and their vast numbers, and the ravines, sheer cliffs and mountain tracks. Again he points out on the enemy’s side horses flying by magic, infantry borne through the air, and witchcraft of every power and form. He describes all the disasters of war too: the cloud of spears, the showers of arrows, the great mist and darkness, the pitch-black night caused by the multitude of missiles blotting out of the sun’s rays by their sheer density, the dust blinding the eyes no less than this darkness, the torrents of blood, the groans of those who fall, the battle-cries of those who stand, the heaps of the slain, chariot wheels bathed in blood, horses and riders thrown headlong by the multitude of dead bodies, the ground a scene of general confusion, blood, and bows and arrows, hoofs of horses and heads of men lying together, a human arm and a chariot wheel, a helmet and a transfixed chest, swords spattered with human brains and the broken head of an arrow with an eye transfixed upon it.
Let him describe too all the perils of the fleet: some ships ablaze in mid-sea and sinking with their armed crews, the roar of the waves, the cries of the sailors, the shouts of the soldiers, the foam of the waves mixed with blood and dashing over into all the ships, the corpses on the decks, some sinking, some floating, some washed ashore, and others washed about by the waves and obstructing the passage of the ships. And when he has been carefully instructed in all the tragedies of war, let him go on to describe the horrors of captivity and slavery which is worse than any kind of death. And when he has said all, let him give the lad the order to mount his horse at once and take command of all that armament. Do you think that raw youth will be adequate for that command? Do you not think he will faint at the first glance?
Now that scene may sound gruesome and disturbing, but as Chrysostom goes on to point out the carnage of physical war is nothing compared to the carnage of the spiritual war. He says,
If it were possible to strip off this body or even to keep it, and see clearly and fearlessly with the naked eye the whole of the devil’s battle array and the warfare he wages against us, you would not see torrents of blood, nor dead bodies, but so many fallen souls, and such disastrous wounds that the whole of that description of warfare which I have now described to you would be mere child’s play and sport rather than war. So many are smitten every day, and the wounds in the two cases do not bring about the same death. The difference between the two corresponds with the difference between soul from the body. When the soul receives a blow and falls it does not lie as a lifeless body, but the ravaging of an evil conscience immediately torments it, and after its release from this world, it is delivered over to eternal punishment and the hour of judgement. And if anyone feels no pain at the devil’s blows, his danger is increased by his lack of sensation. For the man who does not smart at the first blow will readily receive a second, and after that a third. Whenever the evil one finds a soul supine and indifferent to his previous attacks, he never stops striking until that man breathes his last.
That’s a little of what I mean when I talk about the burden of ministry. But we can add to the burden described by Chrysostom what I’ve already said. It’s easy to screw up but hard to get kicked out. In the last couple of years we’ve seen some celebrity pastors forced to step down from their ministries. The report that has come out in some of these is that the pastor ‘committed no disqualifying sins.’ By this we mean that he didn’t fall into financial or sexual indiscretion. However, Paul here writes these words to the young pastor Timothy on how to identify elders and deacons, and it says little about those big indiscretions. Because these requirements seem so simple and sensible, it is all too easy to ignore them. They seem like such small and simple things. Be dignified. Don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth. Don’t let alcohol control you. Don’t be greedy. They become more profound though when we look at them not as an unrelated list of requirements, but to notice the chief requirement among them that ties them all together. “They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”
In my yard these thorny vines grow up. They grow straight up from the ground and they are about as big as my thumb. I spent a lot of time cutting them down, but they just kept growing back. I was talking about this one day to a friend of mine who told me you have to dig them out by the root. So I did and what I found was amazing. Above the ground all you could see was one soft green tendril shooting up towards the sun, but underneath the ground were gigantic tubers some of which took up several square feet. These things might seem small. Too much drink. A little problem with my temper. A little pride. Letting my family fall into disarray while I attend to the affairs of the church. All of these, however, betray a much deeper root. They each show ways in which I am not “holding the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”
That is the point Paul is making to Timothy. He wants him to make sure that the ordained leaders in the church “hold the mystery of the gospel with a clear conscience.” Now a few points need to be made here first about what it means to “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” First off, and I hardly need to tell you this Hunter, the root word of ‘mystery’ is not ‘mist.’ By ‘mystery’ Paul is not referring to private revelations or a spiritual and ethereal truth that cannot be known or understood. He is not saying that the faith is so complex that we cannot say with certainty anything about it. Many today have adopted this understanding, and I must say that it has hurt the church. At its best it has been used to justify fuzzy thinking. “Some say this, and some say that, but I say it’s a mystery.” At its worst, however, this idea has been used to introduce innovations that rob the good news of its power.
Rather, the Greek word ‘mysterion’ refers to something that was hidden that has now been revealed. It is a thing that was not known previously, but has now been clearly disclosed. It has much more to do with the ending of a mystery novel than the refusal to think clearly about God that so many have today. The question of the Old Testament from Genesis on was “How will the serpent’s work be undone?” The mystery of the gospel is how Christ has done that. That Jesus was the seed of Eve who undid the work of the serpent. Certainly God is greater than our intellects can fully grasp, but the mystery of the faith is simple and clear. Christ died for sinners.
This is the mystery we are to hold with a clear conscience. And Paul is not saying “be sure to be good enough so that your conscience will not bother you.” Rather, he is saying that it is precisely when we fail to hold this mystery, in other words when we forget Christ’s atoning death that has cleansed our consciences, that our consciences become unclear. In fact, when we fail to hold this mystery in our hearts while we continue to proclaim it with our lips we become guilty of an even deeper sin. We lie about the Gospel.
So you see Paul isn’t merely writing a checklist of qualifications that reveal men with the right character for ministry, nor did he write them for pastors to inspect themselves with them [although that is a good and helpful practice]. Rather, Paul wrote them to identify those who trust Christ enough to enter into the fray of pastoral ministry. He is giving Timothy these qualifications so that he can identify men who “hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.” So he can identify people who aren’t lying about the gospel.
You see, those who are double-tongued prove that they fear man more than they trust God. They change their words to please others and speak out of both sides of their mouths because they don’t rest in the compete acceptance that they have in the finished work of Christ.
Those who turn to the controlling influence of wine prove that they have not found a real refuge in Christ and are seeking it instead in a bottle.
Those who are dishonest for greedy gain prove that they are either unsure of the riches of God’s grace “with which He has lavished us in the beloved” or count them cheap compared to the pleasures of the world.
Any of my brothers in ministry in this room can attest to the subtle allure of these temptations in ministry. All too often, the reality of long and erratic hours, thankless labor, budget crunches, suffering saints, proud sinners, and the burden of the ongoing presence of our own sin can appear more real than the reality of the gospel. Self-pity, pride, anger, and lust creep in when we forget that we belong to a God who loves us infinitely more than any lover ever loved his beloved and more than any father ever loved a child. We worship a God who chose us, not because of any good work in ourselves, but because of the abundance of His great mercy. A God who forgave us not simply by ignoring our sin, but by facing it head on on the cross and suffering in our place. It is not without cause that Paul will later tell Timothy:
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.
(2 Timothy 2:8-10 ESV)
Because in the midst of ministry it is all too easy to forget Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.
And yet, dejection and despair don’t fit you very well, Hunter. You might vacation there on occasion, but you won’t be buying a summer home any time soon. This does not mean, however, that you will not be tempted to lie about the gospel. Let me simply warn you, Hunter, do not lie about the gospel.
You are a competent person. You see problems as opportunities and not as obstacles. You naturally inspire people to follow you. And if you rely on these things while you proclaim the free and sovereign grace of Jesus Christ, you will be lying and your people will know it, and they will be tempted not to trust the gospel because of it. What I mean is this. If while you tell people that Christ provides rest for the weary soul while you are driven by the world’s standards of success and the subtle idols of your own heart, they will see a discrepancy between your words and your life and they will sense that you are lying about the gospel and you will tempt them not to rest in Christ, but in your own idols. And if you do this, you will be guilty of a grievous sin against the Good Shepherd’s sheep. So let me tell you again, Hunter, do not lie about the gospel.
Don’t stand in front of the congregation and unpack the wondrous mystery that Christ cares for the broken hearted and then lie about your own broken heart and cover it up like a thing to be ashamed of. Don’t tell people that it’s ok to be broken while you lie and cover up your own brokenness. Don’t tell people it’s ok not to be perfect and then try to cover your flaws, justifying yourself and presenting yourself to be better than you actually are. Don’t talk of the powerful work of Christ in less than perfect families while you hide and scorn the imperfections of your own family. Let me speak very directly about this. Hunter, you must embrace the gospel for your family and refuse to force them to fit into anyone’s expectations of what they (or you) think a ministry family should look like. If you believe that Christ died for sinners and that “the good work he began in [them] He will bring to completion at the day of Christ Jesus,” then you must give your family the freedom to be who they are in Christ, especially while they are struggling.
Don’t tell people its ok not to be perfect and then try to cover your own flaws, justifying your failures and blaming others and presenting yourself to be better than you actually are. Don’t tell people of the upside down values of the Kingdom of God where a bruised reed isn’t broken and a smouldering wick isn’t snuffed out while you forget the least of these. I think of Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch Reformed Christian who was imprisoned for hiding Jews and helping them escape from the Nazis during WWII. In the concentration camp, a Nazi doctor asks her to describe the ministry she has to the ‘feeble minded’ in the city. She tells him about how she gathers them together weekly to read scripture and to pray. The doctor looks at her with contempt and confusion and says “Wouldn’t your time be better spent with normal people? Couldn’t one normal person do more good than hundreds of your retarded people?” Corrie Ten Boom replies and says “But I serve a God. And in His sight we don’t know who is more valuable. But he has written us a book and told us that light has come into the darkness and darkness has not overcome it. So I must trust Him no matter what.”
Hunter, don’t fall into games of politics and manipulation to achieve your own ends and fail to lay down your own kingdom and pray instead for Christ’s kingdom to come. Be wary, Hunter, of pretending that you are anyone’s savior in any way. You will never, in any way, at any time, be able to be a savior for anyone. The people in your church do not need you. They need Christ. As you point them to Christ, however, make sure that you do not fail to look at Him yourself.
When I was a freshman at The Citadel, I can remember what would happen as we were standing at attention in formation and a plane flew over the barracks. You don’t understand how natural it is to look up in the air when other people are looking up in the air until you are not allowed to do it! I do not ever remember a single upperclassmen telling me to look up in the air. I wanted to look because they were looking. Hunter, be absolutely committed to gazing at Christ with such intensity that your congregation cannot help but to look at Him with you.
This was actually Chrysostom’s point. Remember that battle scene he told us about earlier? When Chrysostom had laid out why he couldn’t be ordained, he actually brought his friend, Basil, to despair. He closes his book on the priesthod with this encouragement: “At this he wept even more and rose to go. Then having embraced him and kissed his head, I led him out urging him to bear his lot bravely. “For I trust in Christ,” I said, “who has called you and set you over His own sheep, that you will gain such assurance from this ministry that when I stand in peril on the last Day, you will receive me into your everlasting habitation.” Hunter, I do not trust you. Not one bit. But I do trust Christ. And if you cling to Him, then He will see you through every adversity this ministry will place before you.