Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lessons from a Gospel Veteran: Sermon for the Sunday Before Veterans Day

Close your eyes and picture it. The eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month, ninety-seven years ago. Men and women of every nation were weary and exhausted – and relieved. Less than six hours earlier, eight minutes changed the course of history – eight minutes of men in a train car signing their autographs to seal the end of four years of wasted blood and broken dreams. And now the paper's points would be a reality. Soldiers could let the sun beat down on their unhelmeted heads; they could drop their rifles in the mud, unafraid. The fighting was done. Mothers, wives, sons, daughters had hope to see their long-imprisoned loved ones again. Out of the valley our forefathers climbed, and over that final crest sloped the straight path to sweet peace. President Wilson lauded the heroism of those bold men who strove for “peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” The war that ate all the earth was put to rest. Looking back on that day, Congress approved its anniversary as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.” And, standing tall and going home that day, bearing the burdens of war's horrors but at last freed to go rebuild the world they'd left behind, went veterans of that well-fought fight.

Now, pan to a still older scene. In or beneath the dirty streets of Rome sits a cramped cell where rests a weary veteran of a different sort. It wasn't his first time bound in chains. Four years ago, he'd been in chains in this same city, forced to plead his case to the king. Though no one came to his defense, he escaped the lion's mouth. He made an expedition to Gaul, maybe reached Spain, until word reached him that his life's legacy was put in jeopardy by traitorous men. Exhausted from his labors, he went back – Crete, Macedonia, Nicopolis, Miletus, Troas – and finally set his face like flint and marched on Rome again. Dark days had come. The king had lost his mind, given way to savagery. And so this veteran was arrested again, thrown in a cell, and condemned at last.

Here he sits, awaiting the day scheduled for his head to roll through the streets – the time for his departure is near (2 Timothy 4:6). Here he sits, shackled by chains, under a guard's contemptuous eyes. But Paul doesn't despise the guard. He, too, is a soldier. He calls his colleagues Epaphroditus and Archippus his “fellow-soldiers” (Philippians 2:25; Philemon 1:2). He didn't enlist at his own expense; he was bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20; 9:7). Pressing forward, he fights with divine armor under the kingdom of God's banners against spiritual forces (Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Corinthians 10:3-4). He's a soldier. And he's a battle-tested veteran: he's already “fought the good fight,” and he's waiting for the laurel-crown of righteousness to be placed on his head, the ancient Purple Heart and Medal of Valor all in one (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

He doesn't fight with sword and shield in hand; he's fought a divine fight by fearlessly preaching the gospel. He's taught about the grace of God that saved us “not because of anything we had done,” a grace “given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9). But that grace rolled onto the scene in history when God sent down a Deliverer to rescue us from our sins, from all our dead works. And that Deliverer, that Savior, Jesus Christ, won an awesome victory: he “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). That's the good news. And putting that good news into practice, fighting the good fight to implement Christ's victory, is how this veteran has spent the last thirty years since defecting from the enemy forces.

Christ made him a general, and now look at him. He sits in his cell, “chained like a criminal,” loudly dictating notes to a secretary who'll piece together a rough draft of what Paul's saying. One conviction motivates them: “The word of God is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:9). And over the course of weeks, as the clock ticks down, Paul will correct it until it's done: one last letter from the great gospel general to his dearest young captain and the troops under his supervision. Five-star General Paul knows that Captain Timothy has already “proved himself” by consistently serving the cause of Jesus Christ instead of his own interests: “As a son with a father, he has served with me in the work of the gospel” (Philippians 2:22). Now the time is short, and in one last letter, General Paul wants to remind Captain Timothy what it means to “be a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3). But this letter was saved, copied, preserved, handed down through time, because all the troops need to hear what it has to say. So what are the traits of a good good-news soldier?

First, a good soldier is focused on a steadfast mindset. He retains healthy words. Two of the greatest challenges facing our military today are licentiousness and despair. On the one hand, some soldiers may easily imbibe an atmosphere of frat-boy-style partying while off-duty so as to vent the stresses of their lives. It's no wonder that harassment and assault rates are so high, higher even than among civilian populations. And on the other hand, the leading cause of death among actively serving American soldiers today isn't being killed in combat. It's when despair and trauma lead soldiers to take their own lives. Those are the biggest threats our servicemen and servicewomen are facing. And what could take the sting out of both? Healthy words. Healthy words mean healthy attitudes. Healthy words cut through the fog of a licentious culture. Healthy words give comfort and hope to those who've seen what no man or woman was ever made to see. Healthy words are the answer – or, as General Paul calls them, “sound teaching” (2 Timothy 1:13).

The same is true for a soldier of God's kingdom. A soldier of God's kingdom needs to retain all these “healthy words,” the teaching passed down from the apostles, with all the comfort and all the challenge they bring. They are the standard, the measuring rod, that keeps us committed to the cause and on-point with the mission. They bring faith, hope, and love to life (1 Corinthians 13:13). That's our mission, because it's God's mission. He isn't here to serve our agendas. His kingdom come, his will be done, on earth just as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10) – and his will is that we live in glorious love and lead the world in worshipping him, 'til the glory of the LORD covers the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). That's God's vision for a healthy world, the world the healthy words of the gospel set forth. And all the devil's schemes from the gates of hell aren't going to withstand us as we march on in the Spirit's power!

Second, a good soldier is strong and bold. When I think of the military ideal, I don't think about a bunch of men cowering at home under their desks. I don't think about men marching toward a yawning foe. No, a good soldier is strong – that's what all the training is for, to build up the muscles and discipline needed for the job, whatever that may be. And just so, a good-news soldier is “strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1). A good-news soldier's strength isn't mustered up from within his internal reserves. Those run dry. But the grace of God, his benevolent, shining grin and hands open with many a gift – that never runs dry. And you'll find that kind of grace every time you go to Jesus Christ. He'll supply you with what you need. We can face any kind of situation – being “well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want” – through Christ who gives us strength (Philippians 4:13).

And a good-news soldier is bold. “The righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1)! General Paul himself says, “We are very bold” (2 Corinthians 3:12). But like our strength, that doesn't come from ourselves, from our natural personality. Not all of us are outgoing, not all of us are social butterflies – I know I'm neither of those things. But whenever the Acts of the Apostles describes Paul as “speaking boldly,” it's something that the Holy Spirit does in and through him (Acts 4:31; 28:31). And that same Spirit wants to work boldness in us. God didn't give us a Spirit of cowardice, a Spirit of fear, a Spirit of being timid. “Be courageous, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13)! No, “God did not give us a Spirit of cowardice, but rather a Spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). We have power not to hate, but to love; not to wreck, but to build up; not to dominate, but to serve; power to strip away sin with the Spirit's sword (which is the word of God [Ephesians 6:17]) and to set the captives free for healthy life. And we have power to live with self-control.

That's another key trait of a good soldier: self-control, self-discipline, sober-mindedness. That laser-like focus is what the military's all about. More than physical strength, that's what all the training is for: to achieve that kind of discipline and order. A good soldier doesn't live like he's drunk: “a warrior wakes from the stupor of wine” (Psalm 78:65). A good soldier isn't scatterbrained or distracted when he's on duty. A good soldier is all-in for the mission. A good soldier is fully committed: everything he does is fixated on what will lead to that goal of victory. That mission and its objectives are the final measure, and he knows it. We're on duty as good-news soldiers. Are we willing to recognize the kingdom's mission and objectives as the final measure? Are we committed to making our every action serve it? That's what we're enlisted to do. We need to be sober-minded and self-controlled. We need soldierly discipline for Christian living. We need to be perpetually equipped with the full armor and armaments of God, “so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes” (Ephesians 6:10), ready in season or out of season (2 Timothy 2:2), “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (Ephesians 6:13). And we need to be forever “alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people” (Ephesians 6:18).

Third, a good soldier doesn't shrink back from enduring hardship for the sake of the mission. That's what General Paul tells his captain: “Keep your head in all situations, and endure hardship” (2 Timothy 4:5). He says to Timothy, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3). The life of a soldier isn't easy. Plenty of you know that from experience. A soldier doesn't live in the lap of luxury. A soldier doesn't dine on caviar and well-aged cheese. A soldier is down there in the dirt, doing hard labor, sometimes facing bullets or explosions. A soldier suffers, and a soldier doesn't turn back. A good soldier doesn't do what Paul said his former fellow-soldiers did: “All who are in Asia have turned away from me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes” (2 Timothy 1:15). Those soldiers went AWOL – absent without leave. A good soldier doesn't go AWOL. A good soldier toughs it out, endures hardship without complaining about it – not inviting pointless suffering into his life, but facing whatever difficulties the mission calls for and going through them anyway. That's what a good-news soldier does, a good soldier of Jesus Christ: We take our shares in suffering for the sake of the mission we're on. Maybe that means bearing with it when a fallen world steals our loved ones. Maybe that means giving when it hurts to give. Maybe that means going without something we want dearly but which would risk corrupting us and leading us astray. Whatever it is, a good soldier endures hardship. “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” a soldier of Christ (Luke 14:27). But “if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:12).

Fourth, a good soldier lives a soldier's lifestyle, apart from civilian affairs. A soldier's lifestyle isn't like anyone else's. Civilians don't live with the discipline of a soldier. And soldiers don't meddle in all the frivolities and luxuries of civilian life. Soldiers have to focus, even at the expense of the many agendas and causes a civilian can serve. Just so, General Paul tells good-news soldiers to abstain from civilian affairs – literally, the practices of this life. Too often, we live like civilians, as if we're no different. We ignore our rations of Word and Sacrament and go out to eat at this culture's banquets. We campaign for this or that – things that have nothing to do with our mission, and what's worse, we throw our military clout behind it. We bicker, we get tied down. We weren't made for that. We weren't called to that.

Don't let this world's way of practicing life entangle you. God didn't just save us. He also “called us with a holy calling” (2 Timothy 1:9). A holy calling, a holy life, means a life that's different, a life that's set apart for a mission. We aren't aimless. We aren't drifting through life. We aren't just existing from day to day. It can feel like that sometimes, can't it? That there's no overriding purpose to what we're doing? I've felt that way, when I've been furthest from God. God has a purpose for you. He has a mission for you. Never doubt it. He has a mission for all of us together. And that mission isn't meddling in civilian affairs. It's a holy calling, a separate path, “for God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). Live as a good soldier.

And fifth, a good soldier is devoted to serving in these ways to please his Commanding Officer. “The soldier's aim is to please the commanding officer” (2 Timothy 2:4). Just who is our true CO? Am I the CO? Thank God, no! Is the President of the United States our CO, as believers? Same answer. Is our CO Billy Graham or Rick Warren? No. What about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln? No. They didn't enlist us in this, and they aren't the ones we have to please. Jesus Christ is our Commanding Officer. And make no mistake, he's the best Soldier there is. He's “the LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). “The LORD is a man of war” (Exodus 15:3). “The LORD your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves” (Zephaniah 3:17). And Revelation gives us a picture of Jesus as the One Faithful and True who “judges with justice and wages war” (Revelation 19:11). He is our Commanding Officer, riding into life's battles for us and with us – so “don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows” (Luke 12:7). Just trust your CO and do as he's told you.

The take-away is that we need to please our Commanding Officer. We need to be the “troops willing on his day of battle,” all “arrayed in holy splendor” to serve our Lord and King (Psalm 110:3). We, too, just like General Paul and Captain Timothy before us, are called to “fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience” (1 Timothy 1:18-19). We, too, are called to “fight the good fight of the faith” and to “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12). Because there's a war going on. And the devil has already taken so many people “captive to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). Anger and hostility won't set them free. Neither will resentment. They can only come to their senses if they're “gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). But in that gentle instruction is how we wage war on the devil: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Some of you are both kind of veterans – a soldier of Jesus Christ, and also a soldier of your nation in a time of need. For those of you who've served well in the armed forces, thank you. You know that not everyone out there shows the proper respect for what you've done. Not even in the church. Thanks to some modern theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, John Howard Yoder, and others, “Christian pacifism” movements are on the rise, movements that condemn all military service as evil. In seminary, I personally saw some fellow students sneer at signs thanking veterans. While Yoder and the rest have some merits to their criticisms of American attitudes about war, in reading the Bible I can't accept their extremes.

Paul himself, that great gospel veteran, made clear that the military can serve a valid and God-ordained purpose in this fallen world: “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Even the traditional Anabaptists didn't deny that the military was good; they just thought it was a kind of lesser good off-limits to Christians. And even among the early church leaders who weren't comfortable serving in the pagan Roman army, they all shared the burden of praying for that same army. They knew that not all military force is violent, even if so much even of our own is these days.

But if God trusts us to wield the sword of the word of God, surely he trusts us to hold weaker swords justly and rightly, if we can. One modern theologian wrote that “the aim of a just war is that the unjust enemy will turn from their wicked ways, make amends, and rejoin the community of peace and justice.” That doesn't sound so foreign to the gospel to me. So if that's what was in your heart, if that's what you sincerely sought to do, if you were following St. Augustine's advice to “be a peacemaker even in war” as a soldier, then veterans, don't be discouraged when anyone disparages the honorable service you gave.

And yet our greater fight is fought with otherworldly weapons, and in the kingdom of God's cause we don't wage war as the world does. Paul himself said that: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). They're higher weapons for a greater fight – a struggle “not against flesh and blood” but “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” and within our own hearts (Ephesians 6:12). And (dare I say it) Jesus enlists us as troops in a force even nobler than any army, any navy, any air force that this world has ever seen. “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). God's Word says that there's something even better, even nobler, even more dignified than a soldier in great victory – and that's a patient person with discipline, a person who “waits upon the LORD” (Psalm 37:9), on “the Mighty Warrior who saves us” (Zephaniah 3:17). And that LORD is Jesus Christ, the only God who so perfectly offers perfect “peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”

Even better than being a veteran soldier is being a person who patiently trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation and is called to a holy calling. Better than a veteran of this world's wars is a veteran of the kingdom's war on the devil. And a soldier of Jesus needs to live with discipline as a disciple. And here's how discipleship gets passed on: “What you have heard from me and from many witnesses, entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others well” (2 Timothy 2:2). That's it, that's what it takes. Avoiding “profane chatter,” we explain the word of truth in the right way (2 Timothy 2:14-15), and we teach others how to be shaped like the kingdom, how to live the life of a kingdom soldier, while we do that very same thing ourselves, trusting in our Commanding Officer every step of the way. That's what it takes. So “proclaim the message. Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. Convince, rebuke, and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. … Always be sober. Endure suffering. Do the work of an evangelist. Carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:2, 5). Those aren't my words; they're Paul's. Imitate this veteran gospel general as he imitates our Heavenly Commander-in-Chief (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:16). Be “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3), of the one who enlisted us before the foundation of the world. Long for Christ's final Victory Day at his glorious appearing, and so earn the Medal of Honor waiting in heaven for you (2 Timothy 4:8). Onward, Christian soldiers!

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