II Timothy 4:6-8, 16-1
Many of us enjoy a good puzzle. Something that requires us to use our ingenuity or patient effort to solve or to put something together. There are crossword puzzles that test our vocabulary or build it, word puzzles that push us to think beyond the obvious to find the answer, and there are jigsaw puzzles which use the pieces you were given this morning to build a colorful, usually beautiful, scene.
There are also perplexing situations in our lives which “puzzle” us, questions for which there are no clear answers; understandings we have that others don’t seem to share; things that confuse, mystify, or baffle us; people who we can’t figure out. Those circumstances of puzzlement can frustrate, bewilder, or confound us, occupying our thoughts and actions until we feel satisfied we have solved them, or at least attributed a plausible reason why we can’t.
The passages read this morning create puzzles for some of us seeking to follow Jesus. We may find ourselves thinking of what it means to pour out ourselves as a libation, to fight the good fight, to recognize in what ways we have finished the race, to keep the faith.
Recognizing his race was finished was relatively obvious to Paul. He knew he would soon be executed for his work sharing the news of Jesus Christ and the grace extended to all. His government didn’t want that message told, seeing it as undermining their power and calling for a new world order. The religious leaders of the day didn’t want that message told for the same reason. Recognizing his earthly life would soon end, Paul reflects on what has transpired, what will be, and what those who continue to share the message need to know, most immediately Timothy.
His words convey he is confident he did his best, that he forgives those who didn’t support him when he was arrested, that God’s power is his strength during long periods of imprisonment and the long journeys and days bringing the good news to the Gentiles.
He trusts God is faithful to receive him into the heavenly kingdom, basing it on his experiences of God’s faithfulness throughout his ministry. Timothy knew of the difficult times Paul had faced, of his standing alone before Nero’s hostile court with no other believers appearing to support him. Timothy knew of the times Paul experienced God with him as he took the message of Christ to the Gentiles, how the chains had fallen off Paul in prison opening an opportunity to minister even there. Timothy knew because of witness accounts and because Paul was faithful to teach Timothy of God’s faithfulness, to share the faith stories of his life which witnessed to God’s love and power.
“I am already being poured out as a libation,” Paul writes to Timothy. A libation was the drink offering, an offering of wine poured over the sacrifice being cooked/burnt on the altar. The wine has two effects, one theological and one physical. The theological effect is a generous and joyous offering, an outpouring, to God. The physical effect is that the wine hits the flame and “poof” bigger flame, lots of smoke, and the aroma spreads everywhere. There is no element of “giving up”, of resigning oneself in the drink offering, but it is a joyous abandon. A willingness to give everything to God so that the experience can be shared by others.
This image would have been a piece of the puzzle for Timothy, a statement which brought with it a clearer image of the whole picture, not just the pieces available in the moment. Paul tells Timothy he is “giving over” himself fully to God, even more so, as the end of his physical ministry nears. We know his ministry didn’t end with his death. We continue to hear and study the words he wrote. They are part of the picture followers continue to build in this puzzle we might name “God’s story.”
His statements give Timothy and others, called to leadership in the church throughout the ages, the encouragement to live in the same way. To give it your all, to pour out your best, to offer all that you are to God with joyous abandon, and in doing so the fragrance of the gospel will spread everywhere, even when it may mean you “depart.” Not necessarily “end of earthly life” depart, but the letting go of a leadership position so someone else can build on the foundation you provided, or opening yourself to worshiping in a new way so that it can connect with that visitor in the back row, or letting go of some of your understandings to see something new in God’s word and direction for those following Jesus.
Paul teaches us that our lives are not about us. Too many times we insist on having our own way and it leads to anything but to that which God has called us. We are called to be poured out for others, and only in doing so will be find the peace Paul conveys in this letter to Timothy.
From the time Paul encountered the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus, to the time he faced his upcoming death, Paul’s life included a series of circumstances in which he let go of his own plans, his own desires, his own hopes to serve God and to pour out himself so that others might know the grace God extended to them through Jesus Christ. His puzzle pieces helping to form the big picture that he saw dimly as he shared the gospel with others, and which he now sees clearly.
The parable about the Pharisee and the Tax collector may seem clear cut and not an example of a puzzle at all. We may believe the take away from this story is that the Pharisee is a self-righteous hypocrite and the humble tax collector is the better person. But the minute we lift labels “self-righteous,” “hypocrite,” “humble” and “better” we are being more like the Pharisee than the tax collector.
Pharisees and Tax Collectors were not high on the “most respected” list of their day. It was the Pharisees who preserved faith in God even under the crushing force of Roman military domination and they preserved it by maintaining clarity about the way the goodness of God out to shape all of faithful life.” They were also seen as money lovers, adulterers, and hypocrites, and were criticized by Jesus, usually in light of how their focus on rules kept them from seeing things from a God perspective.
Tax collectors were not innocent, they were hated by the people, an instrument of economic oppression by the Roman Empire, and often they took more from the people than they were authorized to take. As Jesus shared this parable his audience likely had strong feelings about both the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and the meaning of the story may have proven more of a puzzle than a clear directive on who was better.
In all probability, the Pharisee has an accurate assessment of his actions. He has set himself apart from others by his faithful adherence to the law. He is, by the standards both Luke and Jesus seem to employ, righteous. The Pharisee speaks the truth, he misses from where his righteousness comes, placing it entirely in his own actions and being. He looks for the Lord to confirm his self-assessment, and doesn’t come in a spirit of gratitude.
The tax collector comes to the Lord in prayer, fully acknowledging that he has no means by which to claim righteousness, he is entirely at the mercy of God. The parable tells us it was the tax collector who left this place of prayer justified.
We may be able to identify with the Pharisee’s statements when we consider that we do the work of the church, provide the financial support necessary to support religious institutions, seek to devote our lives to pleasing God. We may have even say something like “There but for the grace of God go I” in evaluating the situation or decisions of someone else.
We may also find ourselves in the tax collector, fully aware of our own weakness, failures, and sins, acknowledging our total dependence on God.
Either way, or a bit of both, we know that it is God alone who knows our heart, who determines to justify the ungodly. We are not called to evaluate the actions or heart of another. We are called to stand before God aware only of our need for God’s mercy.
We don’t know the rest of the story for the characters in this parable. The Pharisee may have come to know the risen Christ as did the Apostle Paul, and responded in humility to all Jesus had done to fulfill God’s plan for salvation. The tax collector may have left justified, and fallen back into the patterns of taking more from others than he should, needing to turn to God again in humility.
CS Lewis said that “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you’re looking down, you can’t see something that’s above you.” God’s view comes from above us. Jesus tells us over and over that God sees things differently than we do.
This parable invites us to conduct our lives on the hope that God is merciful to us, and by extension to everyone else. When we decide that love and mercy are what really counts, we have the opportunity, with God’s power, to extend mercy abundantly in a way that includes and offers healing to the whole world.
David Kinnaman’s books unchristian and You Lost me, as well as Barna’s studies on the “Dones,” and “Nones” and a number of books on why people are leaving the church, or not seeking out a faith community, indicate that the number one concern raised by younger non-Christians about Christians was that Christians were overly judgmental.
Many feel they are good people, volunteering and giving to charity, helping their neighbors out in times of crisis. They do not see what attending worship on Sunday morning or participating in a faith community has to offer.
This parable may offer us a glimpse at how we can live out our faith in such a way that those who don’t understand how Jesus changes things will begin to see those changes in us and be drawn to be a part of this faith journey we share.
We need to really believe Jesus matters. Not just read about it, not just follow all the appropriate practices, not just speak it, but express it with our entire being. We need to be as passionate about sharing the amazing things God is doing in our lives as we are about the newest restaurant or technological gadgets.
If we cannot articulate why Jesus , if we focus on our righteousness and not on God’s mercy to us, sinners in a broken and hurting world, others have no way to experience the God we know to be faithful, the God who knows the full picture, with all the puzzle pieces in place.
Our pieces are not perfectly square, they are different colors, different configurations, and different parts of the whole. They are nothing if not connected to one another. Unlike the puzzle from which these pieces come, in God’s puzzle there is a place for everyone. God determines how they fit together.
Paul was faithful to teach Timothy of God’s faithfulness, to share the faith stories of his life which witnessed to God’s love and power. We are called to be poured out for God and others, trusting God will provide the strength and the resources necessary whenever we humble ourselves in gratitude and ask for help and direction.
Connected to God and one another in love and humility, others will see a difference and be drawn to the One we serve. Maybe not in the pew next Sunday morning, but in ways that fit the puzzle of God’s plan.
We don’t give up on others because the way seems difficult, things we try don’t seem to work, or we can’t make sense of this one piece of the puzzle we hold. We follow Paul’s example of giving over our lives to God and trusting God to do the rest.
 1 Corinthians 13:12
 Richard Swanson quote in Reflection by Kate Matthews – Weekly Seeds