Trinity 19. Evensong.
My youngest son, Charlie, has a number of posters on his bedroom wall, but his favourite is his Lego Mini Figures poster. On it there are about 50 different Lego figures, including a lion tamer; a nuclear physicist; a rock guitarist; a cowboy; a spaceman and a surf-boarder.
All the different figures are clearly identifiable from their clothes, their outfits and their props. Each one has a particular set of skills and qualities that you would identify with their particular job or activity.
As children, I’m sure many of us here had people who we looked up to, perhaps even people we considered to be heroes in our lives, role models who inspired us either through their personality or through the work that they did.
Some people have pictures of previous prime ministers on their study walls, others perhaps of famous sports men and women whose courage and dedication is a source of inspiration to them.
There is something about the qualities of a particular role that captures our imaginations and inspires us to improve our own game; to measure ourselves against how we see someone we respect and admire.
For example, we can look at a picture of a volunteer doctor working with Ebola victims out in Sierra Leone and identify qualities such as courage; selflessness; compassion and professionalism.
It might challenge us to think about ourselves and our own qualities, to measure how far short we might be falling in displaying the same sort of qualities in our own lives.
Well, when Paul was writing his second letter to Timothy, he used the exact same method in order to encourage and inspire him.
In order to help Timothy, as a leader of the church, to rise to the challenge of being the best Christian leader he could possibly be; in order to illustrate the qualities that he would need to face the challenges of leading a community in the way of Jesus Christ, Paul identifies three different role models for him:
- The soldier;
- the athlete;
- and the labouring farmer.
Paul takes each one in turn and draws out the particular qualities that he sees in each of the roles that he identifies. They are the first century equivalent, perhaps, of our Olympic Gold Medallists; our volunteer doctors, or the injured troops who took part in the recent Invictus Games.
So Paul begins with the image of the soldier in the midst of a campaign. This would have been a very familiar image to the Greeks and Romans of the day, and Paul applies it to all Christians, but especially to Thomas and other Christian leaders, drawing out the particular qualities of a soldier that he believes should be seen in the Christian life.
Paul reminds his readers that a soldier doesn’t get entangled in everyday affairs; a soldier’s work must be focussed and concentrated, unimpeded by life’s trivialities.
That’s not to say that, as Christians, we should live in a different world, disconnected from those around us, but instead that whatever we do, however we live, we should do so first and foremost as Christians, witnessing to our faith every single day, not just on Sundays.
He then moves on from the image of the soldier to the image of an athlete.
Again, he is using a very clear and striking image in order to draw out the particular qualities that should be mirrored in the Christian life. Just as the athlete must be dedicated to their chosen sport and must have great self-discipline and self-denial; so too the Christian life requires dedication, self-discipline and self-denial.
When you think about the life of the professional sports person, the relentless practise, exercise, focus and dedication: it’s not for the feint-hearted.
I remember when Rebecca Adlington won Gold at the Beijing Olympics she was interviewed afterwards about her training regime. She explained that when she was at school she would be woken up at 5, driven to a training session before school, another one after school and she did her homework in the car. She would train for four hours a day, six days a week, and all on top of keeping up her school commitments.
It is that same level of dedication and commitment that Paul is applying here to the Christian way of life.
There must have been times when Rebecca just wanted to stay in bed, or just wanted to go and see her friends; when the easy way must have been so appealing.
And it’s the same with us as Christians, when it seems that it would be much easier to take the easy option, when doing the right thing is to do the hard thing.
Then we come to the third role model that Paul applies to the Christian life: that of the labouring farmer.
Again, another image that would have been instantly recognised and understood by his readers. So I wonder what qualities Paul sees in the labouring farmer that he might be applying to the Christian life?
Well other than the obvious quality of hard graft, farmers know perhaps better than most the importance of waiting.
In the farming world there is no such thing as quick results. Just as farmers must sow the seed and allow it to germinate, to take root, to show the first signs of new life before flourishing into full grain; so too we must carefully and patiently sow the seed of our Christian faith into the hearts and minds of our hearers.
We too must allow those seeds to take their time to produce any fruit.
We should not be disheartened or despondent if our attempts to grow God’s kingdom here on earth, here in the town of Uckfield appear not to bear fruit initially.
In our modern day, instant on-demand lives, our expectations for rapid results can leave us wondering whether what we’re doing is having any affect at all.
Take our work with children for example: our weekly worship in the schools, our newly-started Junior Youth Club, the Junior Church initiative beginning in the New Year.
All these are fertile fields where the seed of God’s Word is being planted and tended, but like the farmer’s crops, we must be patient and allow those seeds to become established, to ensure the conditions are right for healthy growth, and, in time, to watch as the signs of new life begin to break through the cracks in the earth.
So in three or four brief sentences, Paul uses the image of the three role models: the soldier, the athlete and the labouring farmer, to tease out what it means to live a life dedicated to Jesus Christ.
There is little in the way of comfort on offer and no hint of an easy ride. Paul is being quite stark about what such a life entails. But one thing binds all three of these images together:
- For the soldier it is the thought of the final victory in battle;
- For the athlete, the glory of being crowned as the winner;
- For the farmer, the hope of the bounty of the harvest.
Each must accept the self-discipline and the hard work required in order to achieve the end goal. It is the reward of that end goal, that vision of the ultimate reward that justifies all the hard work, and provides the incentive needed to carry on, to persevere, to run the race.
Although Paul’s letter is addressed primarily to Timothy and the leaders of the Church at the time, there is much in it that we, as Christian soldiers, as labourers in God’s fields, as those running the race to receive the crown or the medal, can and should be challenged by, and encouraged by.
But amidst all the talk of self-discipline, self-denial and hard labour, we mustn’t forget what this is all for; we mustn’t lose sight of that which drives us, that which motivates us to keep going when at times it would be much easier to take a different route;
that of the glory and joy of a full and fruitful relationship with God, through the love, the hope and the privilege of serving his Son, Jesus Christ.