“The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.”
Paul writes this in our reading from 2 Timothy for this morning. “The Lord will rescue me.” And I was struck by this sentence because—I mean, what does it really mean? Taken literally, it means that God will stop all bad things from happening to Paul. If that’s true, is that something God promises to all of us, as well?
But, of course, it takes only the briefest review of Paul’s life to know it’s not true at all; God has never stopped bad things from happening to Paul. In Paul’s own words: “I have … been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea…” (2 Corinthians 11) Paul keeps going for an entire paragraph, but I’ll stop there.
Or you could argue that Paul was indeed rescued—after all, he survived everything he recounted and was able to write about it later. The shipwreck and the bandits and whatever else didn’t kill him. I think this is often the framing we settle on: “I didn’t die from the car wreck, so God saved me!” But what about those who don’t survive accidents? Who don’t survive cancer? Who have a chronic illness or injury rather than getting better? In this framework, God…. didn’t save these people? doesn’t care about them?
I refuse to subscribe to such a framework. A God who has abandoned those who died, or those who are permanently affected by life, or chronically ill, is not the God I know. That’s not the God I worship, who cares so deeply for everyone.
And Paul would have disagreed with this framing too, I think. First, I think he would never have said that he made it through any of those dangers unscathed. Alive, sure, but floggings leave scars and, if nothing else, I suspect his list of terrible experiences wouldn’t have been quite so long if he truly was over it all and unaffected. And second, 2 Timothy itself argues against such a reading of Paul. 2 Timothy is a letter to, you know, Timothy, one that Paul wrote in a Roman prison. Paul is in the middle of a trial and he is pretty sure this trial is going to end with him being executed. 2 Timothy is in many ways Paul’s will, or at least his final reflections on his life. He knows he’ll probably die soon. And yet Paul does not see this as a failure on God’s part. He still trusts that God’s justice will prevail eventually and he will receive a crown of righteousness, and he has found that “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength” (v. 17) throughout the trial and all of Paul’s attempts to testify to God’s truth. God did not abandon Paul. And Paul did not mean that because we follow God, only good things will happen to us.
When I picked this passage to preach on. I was just intrigued by this one line about being saved, and all the things it says and doesn’t say, all the ways we can read and misread it. And all the ways we believe, whether we realize it or not, that when something bad has happened to us, perhaps God has abandoned us? Perhaps the something bad means that we’ve done something bad in turn, and this is some sort of punishment? Perhaps God is mad at us, perhaps God is abandoning us? We wonder if it’s our fault. Or we wonder if God is here. We think that if God were here, all this bad stuff would never have happened in the first place. And I wanted to know if this verse was actually saying that.
I admit, I had forgotten all of that context for 2 Timothy, about death and dying. I in fact very much did not want to talk about death right before our congregational meeting today, where we will start to make some decisions about our future. And I didn’t want to talk about death today because this is not the death of our congregation. I wanted to go into this meeting with a rousing sermon about God’s power and presence in the midst of difficulty. Which is still true, but I think the Holy Spirit was laughing when I picked this passage, because—yes, God is still powerful, and yes, God is with us and always will be. And also, yes, no matter what happens at this meeting today and the meetings we will have in the future, making decisions like this leads to some form of death. The death of our life in this particular, beloved building, or the death of our current understanding of who we are as Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Bower Hill, or the death of our dreams for a particular future.
And I think the real gift of this entire passage is Paul’s insistence that death is not a bad thing. It can be difficult, and painful, but it is not bad. Death comes for us all, eventually. And yet because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we can know that death is not the end. We can know that God is a God of resurrection and new life, not dead ends and death. Death is not the end.
I read a book this week about a boy who lived in a world with knights and dragons. (A picture book, because ever since I started working at the library I see them all the time and love reading them.) He dreamed of becoming a knight and fighting those dragons, but his mother refused to give him a sword to play with. instead she gave him a sunflower, and he went to the top of the dragon fighting hill and fought imaginary dragons with it, swooshing and whooshing the sunflower around like a fabulous sword.
Which was all well and good until an actual dragon saw him on the dragon fighting hill, fighting his imaginary dragons, and swoops down. The boy only has a sunflower sword, and so he swings it because what else is he going to do? And there is this moment when that happens: “Could it be? Thought the dragon. Has this little knight climbed to the top of Dragon Hill to offer me a flower?” Because the dragon sees the boy’s swing of his sunflower sword as the boy offering him the sunflower. And, when the dragon takes the sunflower, “Could it be, thought the little knight. A dragon might not be so fearsome after all? Then the little knight and the dragon looked at each other, and both began to smile.” And the boy and the dragon become friends and play all sorts of games together.
I wonder. I wonder what unexpected ways God will come alongside us. I wonder what odd ways God will defeat death among us. I wonder what it would look like to befriend this time of questioning and discernment, which, yes, feels like a dragon—what it has to offer us, and if it is a fearsome dragon bent on destruction or a flower-loving friend.