Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

God has a purpose for us.  He wants us to do many things, but the most significant is to play a role in his desire to fill heaven.  To do that, we turn to 2 Timothy 2:1-13, where Paul tells us as God’s messengers, “keep the main thing the main thing.”  July 8, 2018.

Some of you may recall a by-gone era, checking the mailbox every day.  You dashed down the hallway to the front door or raced your brother down the driveway to pull open the lid and peer inside to discover not just ads for the hardware store, house painting, lawn service, pizza shops, and vacuum repair, not just bills or flyers for political candidates, but real live letters.  The best ones were from that certain someone with her special cursive flair, a drip of her perfume, and a heart symbol next to her signature.

We are drawn into a letter today with the second Scripture reading.  Two friends, separated by miles and miles of sea and land. One is a mentor of the other.  He is in prison in Rome, not for any crime, but for standing up for what is right and true, and I’m not talking about social justice under the laws of the state but eternal justice from on high.  He is writing to his friend who is eight hundred miles to the east in Ephesus and has a million things piled on his desk. Duties and responsibilities weigh on his shoulders, regular pastoral duties, plus he is the newly appointed seminary professor to teach others.

The letter arrives.  The postal mark is from Rome.  What does the mentor write? He is going to die.  He pens some of his last thoughts. Do you think his letter will be filled with trivia?  Do you think he’ll pack it with pious platitudes that sound like plaques for sale at a vacationers’ gift shop?  Do you think he’ll offer an organ recital of his latest surgeries? No! He’s not going to toss a single word away in an offhand comment.  He’s going to get to the brass tacks, the bottom line, the big stuff, the most important issues for his friend to take to heart and hold there for a lifetime.

What did the mentor write, and what does this have to do with us?  Well, we are still in the business of communicating, connecting, sharing, and speaking good news to the world.  Why else do we exist? Some might say, “I am here on earth to connect with God to grow in faith, and to end up in heaven.”  True! But if that’s all, why doesn’t God beam us up right now? Why wait? Why are we still here? The answer? He has a purpose for us.  He wants us to do many things, but the most significant is to play a role in his desire to fill heaven. To do that, we turn to what mentor Paul wrote to Pastor/Professor Timothy as he tells him and us, “keep the main thing the main thing.”

In What You Do

Whatever Timothy was going to be doing, and he had lots of stuff to do. Paul’s main concern was that Timothy remain in the circle, in the sphere, of the grace of God, so evident in what Jesus has done for sinners, and that with all of the information Timothy was to pass along to the next generation of spiritual leaders, he kept the main thing the main thing.

How could Timothy pull it off, considering all he had to do?  The mentor used imagery. “Dear, Timothy, like a soldier who keeps his hands out of civilian affairs because he has to concentrate on his military duties, who does not get caught up in making deals in the marketplace, who is not distracted, who is focused and single-minded, focus all that you do on who Jesus is and what he did.  That is the main thing, and you will want to keep the main thing the main thing.  No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.  And, Timothy, like a track runner staying in his lane, don’t make your own path and cut across the track.  Stick with the truth, with sound doctrine. There are those who will question it, who will let their imagination or their reason get in the way, but the main thing is the main thing and pierces through the fog of uncertainty.  Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.  And, Timothy, like the farmer who puts in his time and does not see the results right away but tills the soil, plants the seed, waits for the rain and sunshine, pulls the weeds, and finally enjoys the harvest, you will find joy in the people who come to faith, who trust as you do that Jesus is their Savior, because the main thing is still the main thing.  The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops.”

When we think about the role God has given us in his plan to get more people in heaven, we can easily get distracted and think we have to solve all the ills of society.  We care about fairness and justice but it is only the justice of God satisfied by Jesus that opens heaven’s doors. We can get off track and let our brains get in the way, wondering why God does what he does.  We can get discouraged because we don’t see results on our time table. That’s why we want to keep the main thing the main thing in everything we do, and the Lord will give [us] insight into all this.

In What You Say

You are seated at the numbered wedding reception table that matches your place-card.  The DJ has a little Sinatra, Michael Buble, and Tony Bennett in the background, but you are hesitant about a conversation because you are afraid some salad greens are stuck in your teeth, and because you’re concentrating on cutting the chicken marsala so you don’t flick a piece onto your lap.  The table seats ten, so you can’t hear anyone except the person to your left and right, and you can only wave at the person across the table and smile politely when she apparently tells a funny story about her niece, the bride, even though you didn’t hear a word. The cake is served, and you even got the hoped-for corner piece with extra frosting which means you have to tell the person next to you that you’ll start your diet tomorrow.  The speeches have mercifully finished. You watch the dad-daughter and mother-son dance, and finally the DJ invites the crowd to the dance floor, but the music blasts so loud that the water glass is wiggling, and the dessert fork rattles on the table. So, you excuse yourself and make your way to the outdoor patio for a little peace. A stranger strikes up a conversation. What do you talk about? Not much. Maybe who you are, why you’re there, and what you do for a living, and, of course, the chuckle when you learn that there are two people you both know because of the seven-degrees-of-separation-to-be-connected-with-everyone rule.  But my guess is that the conversation would change if a bomb went off nearby, and the two of you had to huddle under an outdoor table for the next five hours. If that were the case, you’d probably be talking about deeper things, things that count, things that matter most to you, things that last, and most likely the main thing.

If we did not have the main thing, the main message of the Bible, about Jesus rescuing sinners from eternal doom, that would be the plight for all of us, which is far worse then hiding under a table on a patio after a bomb explodes, worried about your earthly life.  Without the main message of the Bible none of us would have eternal life. None of us would be held in the arms of our God like a father cradling his baby. We would be separated from him and his love and left in a void, in the emptiness of abandonment, like children torn from their parents and left all alone.  But the main thing, the main message of the Bible, says that will not happen to us. The mentor found that to be worth dying for because he knew that neither death nor life … nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

That’s what the mentor wanted Timothy to share with others, “Dear, Timothy, surely you want people to have food and clothes and shelter.  You want to eradicate racial bias and violence in the streets, but more than anything you want them in heaven, and that only happens by keeping the main thing the main thing in what you say.  Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.  This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal.  But God’s word is not chained. Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.”

In our academically juiced society, it’s easy to get off on side-bar questions about the age of the earth or philosophical arguments about why God allows misery or whether God exists.  All of those are important and have answers. But finally, the bottom line is heaven and getting people there. That’s why in all we say, we want to keep the main thing the main thing.  Humans are sinful and cannot live up to God’s demands and because of that are rightly, fairly, justly condemned under God’s holy gaze.  But he himself planned a way out. He sent a Savior whose perfect life is now counted as ours and whose innocent death pays for our failures.  That’s the message that saves us and others. That’s the content, the gist, the heart of what we say when we keep the main thing the main thing.

In What You Sing

“Dear Timothy, I am in chains.  I am in prison. The executioner is down the hall and ready to haul me out.  So, you might wonder how I can stand the thought of death approaching, how I pass the time without going nuts.  I will tell you my secret. I sing, and when I sing, I’m not running through the Top Forty in Rome. Some of those songs are fun and real toe-tappers, but their lyrics are all about love or break-ups or the dog dying.  No! I sing about big stuff, the most important stuff because, even when I sing, I want to keep the main thing the main thing, as I did fifteen years ago in Philippi when our singing (and you were there) led a jailer to ask how he could have eternal life?  In fact, I’ll include one of my favorite hymns in this letter: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.  If we disown him, he will also disown us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

You may have a favorite style of music or a favorite band.  Perhaps you got to see and hear the group during Summerfest.  Maybe the headliner is coming to the new Bucks arena this fall.  Maybe you stick to what Pandora or Spotify can bring you from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, or eighties or from the concert halls of classical music.  Whatever your taste in musical style, what is the content of our song when we want to express our thanks to God for pulling us out of our own personal hell, for calming our conscience, quivering in guilt, for giving us the certainty of knowing we’re wrapped in his love even though we don’t deserve it?  Wouldn’t we want the main thing to be the main thing?

Why do we pay attention to what we do and say and sing?  Because in the end, we are free to do and say and sing whatever we want, as long as it is not sinful, but when it comes to our role as God’s messengers, we want others to join us in heaven.  You then, [my friends], be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus and keep the main thing the main thing.    Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on July 8, 2018