Powers and Principalities
Sun, Oct 27, 2019

All Who have Longed

Duration:22 mins 11 secs

Our Second Reading for today comes from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, chapter 4, verses 6-8. In many ways, Second Timothy reads like a last will and testament in which Paul passes on wisdom and advice to his favored disciple and seeks to encourage Timothy and other Christian leaders in the midst of their suffering for the gospel. As he draws near to the end, of both the letter and apparently his own life, Paul reflects on his life and ministry and on his hope for the future. Let us hear this Word of God.

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations on all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The fence was made of wood and chicken wire. When I was six years old, it was taller than my head. Yet, because of the wire I could easily see through to the other side. On occasion, when I was feeling brave, I would even climb up to stand on the fence’s first wooden cross piece and rest my chin on the top of the fence, just staring.

For beyond the fence was a field that led to an old school. The school had long been abandoned and yet the field once used as a playground remained. Someone still mowed the grass, keeping it short enough so that almost every afternoon they could gather.

I knew “them” only as “the big kids,” the teenagers who lived in our neighborhood, who came to the field behind our house to play baseball. Most of them were boys, but there were a few girls who also came to play. They used the old school building as a backstop, so there was no need for a catcher behind home plate. The field itself was not tremendously large, so at least once or twice a week the tennis ball they used would come flying across the field to land in our garden or even in our swimming pool.

I would stand and watch them for hours. Oh, how I loved baseball and I could think of nothing in the entire world I would rather do than be able to play with “the big kids.” They saw me standing there by the fence, but didn’t give me a second glance. So, there I stood, day after day, longing to be out there with them, wishing I could be part of life beyond the fence.

I think we each carry with us a memory like that, of being on the outside looking in; of being too small, too young, or too something to participate in whatever our heart desires. Consciously or unconsciously we carry those longings with us. I have mentioned to you before the words of the fourth century theologian Augustine of Hippo: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” As you might imagine, Augustine was not talking about “big kids” playing baseball. He was not even talking about a spouse or a child. For Augustine, all of our longings will be unfulfilled; our hearts will never know the rest and satisfaction they seek, until we rest in God, until we are completely in God’s presence. That is the deepest desire of the human heart – to know God, to cross the fence and stand in the presence of the Lord.

But despite the fact that we are all searching for God, it is hard to express that kind of deep longing. Preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor, once wrote that if you ask adults in the church what they want in Christian education, almost universally they will ask for more Bible Study. When pastors and Christian educators then offer more Bible study, crowds will come once or twice, but often attendance drops off to a handful. After several experiences like this, Taylor says she realized that people were asking for Bible Study when what they really wanted was an encounter with God. They thought God must be in the Bible, so if they studied the Bible, they would find God. Yet, they stopped coming to Bible Study because after a few weeks they knew more about some passages of scripture, but they did not feel like they had been in the presence of God. It was a longing they did not know how to express. Taylor says that when she and her church began to intentionally design Christian education programs to address the longing for God, there were never enough chairs.

Because that longing seeks to be filled. It compels us to act. What we hope for begins to change how we live in the present. Think of it this way - if a young woman decides that she wants to be a doctor, she cannot simply go to the hospital and begin practicing medicine. No, achieving that goal requires particular actions in the present. There are certain things which must be done for no matter how strongly she longs to be a doctor; she will not be admitted to medical school unless she has taken the required college classes and entrance exams. Once admitted there, her longing to be a doctor means she must study and pass her new classes, she must practice procedures, do internships and residencies, and study and learn. Ultimately, if along the way she has completed all the necessary steps, then she might reach her goal, she might achieve what she longs for, she might become a doctor. But long before she ever reaches the end, every step on the way is profoundly shaped and influenced by that for which she hopes. Yes, without hope, the present becomes merely a series of random events with no purpose, meaning, or direction.

In fancy church language, talking about that for which we hope is called “eschatology.” Sometimes that word gets applied to only talking about how and when the world will end, but really it is more broadly the question: “For what do we hope?” I’m not sure if you caught it on the first reading, but in our text for today Paul shares a little of his hope for the future: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” For what does Paul hope – a crown of righteousness? Unfortunately, that does not easily translate into modern American culture. The image of a “crown” is more like a “gold medal;” it is what an athlete would receive if he or she has “fought the good fight” or “finished a race.” Paul hopes for a crown of “righteousness,” that he will receive the gift of true and complete reconciliation with God, for apart from Christ, “no one is righteous, not even one.” And Paul recognizes that this is not a prize or a reward that he alone will receive. No, his hope is that this crown of righteousness will be a gift for all who have longed for Christ’s appearing.

It is that longing for Christ, that eschatological hope for the day of the Lord’s appearing, that has motivated Paul throughout his life to fight the good fight, to finish the race, and to keep the faith. In the same way our longing for God should motivate our lives today. We must not be resigned to the fact that the way things are is the way they must always be. The past is not always determinative of the future. No, we live and work as the church because we long for Christ who is coming to transform our sinful and corrupt world. With that hope our lives today can begin to participate in God’s reconciliation of the world. As attorney and criminal justice advocate Bryon Stevenson recently shared with a group of college students: “Hope is your superpower. Don’t let anybody or anything make you hopeless. Hope is the enemy of injustice. Hope is what will get you to stand up when people tell you to sit down.”

Yes, my friends, to live with hope is to experiment now with how things might be, to try out in our life together how God would have things be, so that when the end comes we too might declare that that we have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. That is why we baptize babies like Charles and celebrate a ministry with preschool children and their families. Our hope for the future, our longing for God, means that we invest our time, our resources, our very selves in children and youth here and now.

Yes, one day our longing will be fulfilled; our hope will be realized in Christ’s appearing. As I remember, it was on one of the days the tennis ball came sailing across the fence and into our garden. I ran and picked up the ball and threw it with all my might to the “big kid” who had come to retrieve it. The ball went right to him. He looked at the ball and looked at me. He saw I had my glove in my hand. I always had my glove.

“You want to play?” He didn’t have to ask me twice. Over the fence I went.

They put me in deep, deep, deep right field. I was still by the fence, but I’d made it to the other side, I was in the game, in the presence of the “big kids.” It wasn’t long before they actually hit one my way – a line drive that I caught on one bounce and threw back to the pitcher. He looked at me and smiled, obviously surprised. I can’t tell you how great that felt. Well, maybe I can … it’s almost as good as I feel each week when Christ appears as we worship God together.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: