We have a pivotal turning point in our first reading. It is the beginning of the story of Abraham. It is the point in Genesis where the creation story ends and the history of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity all start. It is the birthplace of so much – a place where a scholar could do their life’s work. But today we’ll pass it by. Our Gospel reading is a high point of Matthew’s revelation of the divinity of Christ, just after Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. It is a mountain-top experience in every sense. But today we’ll pass it by. I love the 33rd Psalm, but today we’ll pass it by. For what? For two sentences from a short letter to Timothy, which we only read once every three years, and often ignore.
So, are you thinking, “Did they nick her brain during the eye surgery?” Or hopefully, “Who was Timothy, why did St. Paul send him a letter, what’s it got to do with Lent?”
All good questions! Timothy was a young man, the product of a mixed marriage. His grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, were Christians. His father, who goes unnamed, apparently was not. Timothy was steeped in the Good News since birth. He traveled for some 15 years as Paul’s traveling companion throughout Asia and Greece, the entire distance of Paul’s 2nd and 3rd missionary journeys, as well as special trips to Jerusalem. He was with Paul in Rome when Paul was first in prison. Then he had been “ordained” by Paul and left in charge of the church in the Greek city of Ephesus. In short, Timothy, like Paul, had given his life, his time, his money, his efforts, and even his safety to spread the Good News of the Risen Christ – as Paul’s helper.
Paul suggests that Timothy was sometimes dismissed as just a young kid who didn’t know much (Paul writes him, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness”); and that Timothy was a little overwhelmed sometimes ( Paul tells him to “use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments”). I will never forget the first time I really studied the journeys of Paul and Timothy, as described in the Book of Acts and Paul’s Epistles. Without exaggeration, I can tell you it was truly amazing, thrilling, scary, and at times I cried. You might decide to study it yourself. I can help.
Well, let’s take a look at those two sentences we have today. I have to tell you that Paul would have failed any English class writing assignment I’ve ever encountered. His sentences stretch to the moon and back, and frankly, that’s one of the reasons you seldom hear homilies from the 2nd readings. What your missal has as two sentences really is one big train-wreck of a sentence. I made 10 complex-enough sentences out of it in attempt to make it understandable.
First sentence –Paul is saying to Timothy: “Don’t despair in the hard times and don’t give up. Continue to share with me, to join me in the suffering we have done for the sake of spreading the gospel. We do it all through the power of God.” Paul continues with second sentence, “Remember, it is God who has saved us. God called us to proclaim the gospel. God called us with a Holy Calling. It was not because we did such great works, but it was according to God’s own purpose, God’s plan for the world. God lavishly gave us the grace to do it…grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus since before the beginning of time. God’s grace now is personified in Jesus, who destroyed death. Jesus brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel.” Two amazing sentences.
Scholars pretty much agree that this letter was the product of time Paul spent waiting in prison, waiting to be put to death in Rome. The end of his letter tells us Paul knows his end is very near. This is a death-row letter, looking back at his life as the big picture, the final summary. And his life had been interwoven with Timothy for many important years. And with the oppression of Christianity probably near its height, Paul is wondering what will happen to those Christian communities he established and nurtured and prayed for. Will anything he worked for, literally would give his life for, survive? It is a letter that could have wilted into self-pity and despair, except for the faith behind it. Paul tells Timothy “God has not given us a spirit of being timid, but of power and love and discipline.” He writes, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that Christ is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him.” Finally, Paul advises, “Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you…be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
This is beginning to sound like Lent, ah? When you give your all and it all seems to be going down the drain. When you are discouraged, and your friends and family are no where to be found. When you have to decide to speak up or shut up. When you are certain of your values, and feel alone. When you look into the future and you see the end.
Paul wrote, “Know the strength to bear the hardship comes from God.” God didn’t choose us because we could win our battles single-handedly, but we were called to do what was right and true and just, to be holy and part of God’s kingdom. Christ Jesus has already won the battle – abolished death, opened the way to eternity, shined the light to show the way home. Guard the truth in your soul, like Abraham and King David and Paul and Timothy, and our Lord Jesus. Lent is a time to settle firmly into the unshakeable rock of faith.