Epitome of Endurance
By the Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 18, 2020
Reading: 2 Timothy 2:1-13
It was doomed, short and tragic. It went down in history as one of the marriages that people mourned its end. It was the marriage of Rembrandt van Rijn and Saskia van Uylenburgh. It was without doubt, one of the most passionate and memorable marriages in history. They married when Saskia was twenty-eight, and it ended with her death at the age of thirty-six. During that time, Rembrandt depicted her in a gorgeous painting that showed her sweetness. In 1635, a year after they had got married, Rembrandt created this magnificent piece, clearly celebrating the love and the sweetness in Saskia.
Saskia died of tuberculosis, leaving behind an infant son, and in Rembrandt, a broken heart. So heartbroken was Rembrandt, that for an entire year afterwards, he couldn’t paint with oils, it was too painful for him. When he returned to painting, his canvasses were with dark blues and blacks, and no real light to them. They were sombre. Even though he began a relationship with the nurse who took care of Saskia, it was not the same. Rembrandt was heartbroken. Then something changed, and this remarkable painter created the very famous painting called The Night Watch; it depicted musketeers, in bright lights and wonderful colours, and they stand out from the canvas, and grab you, like much of Rembrandt’s work.
The great Van Gogh said of him that he would give up ten years of his life to be able to spend time staring at the painting of the Jewish bride by Rembrandt. Rembrandt never needed to ever use any words his paintings were so striking. But underneath all of that, in his incredible grief, and what turned out to be a sad life, where he died as a pauper in Westerkerk, and was buried in a common grave, just like Mozart, Rembrandt nevertheless painted some of the greatest paintings in human history.
It is fascinating that eighteen times, he depicted one scene from the Bible: The story of Jesus after his resurrection, greeting the disciples on the Emmaus Road. There was something singular about the resurrection that must have changed Rembrandt’s life. And while it doesn’t appear that he ever aligned himself with any church or any particular congregation, there is no doubt that after the loss of Saskia, his life changed and he emerged from the darkness, and the resurrection narratives of the New Testament transformed him. In this incredible life, there was love, there was suffering, and there was endurance.
When I go back and I read today’s passage from the Book of 2 Timothy, I see those very same themes emerging. Again, being rooted and grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul is talking about love, about suffering, and about endurance. Paul was writing to a young Timothy, probably from prison in Rome. Some have suggested that maybe this was written by another hand after Paul, because it depicts a development of church life that seems advanced for the time. But I still think it was Paul’s wisdom that were conveyed to young Timothy. He speaks to him boldly, knowing that Timothy was in Ephesus and that the Christian community was suffering for their faith, just as Paul was because of his convictions, sitting in a prison in Rome.
I think sometimes in our rather flaccid religiosity, particularly what I call soft-sided Christianity in this century and preceding it, we don’t grasp fully the extent of the suffering that the earliest believers endured for their convictions, and that deep down they were grasping, holding onto something that sustained them through the most difficult times in their lives.
Paul, in writing to young Timothy, is asking him to do the same. He’s asking him to endure, he’s asking him to hold on to the faith and not let go. Paul also knew that the succession of the word of the gospel was in the hands of the young that would go forward. He treated the young with respect, affection, and honesty. Such is this passage to Timothy. He knew that Timothy would face difficult times ahead, and he knew that successive Christians, particularly in the plight of the Roman Empire, were going to suffer for their faith. He wanted to send a message of endurance and hope.
When I read in a fascinating article by the University of California, Davis Health Psychology Department recently, something really popped out at me. I don’t know why, but I thought of Rembrandt and of Paul writing to young Timothy. This article suggests that what we are fighting in our era, is a fatigue that is hitting humanity hard. In it, the argument is made – and I want to quote this. It says – and this was written only a month ago:
“We’re tired of being cooped up, tired of being careful, tired of being scared. Our collective fatigue is making us careless and is one of the reasons why our numbers are rising again. However, facing this fatigue is important for our personal health and for beating the virus that has shaken us.
Life so completely has been hit, and many people understand this, and it adds to their exhaustion and stress. This is a real challenge, there are no easy solutions, but we have to find a path through this, or else it will cost us in mental and psychological distress.”
Now, we know that to be true, but this is an analysis from an academic group who have been looking at the impact of the fatigue. When you have fatigue, it’s like a long-term runner, and I defer to Rev. Lori here, for she is the athlete on our staff who does long-distance running. The moment that you have the greatest fatigue, is the moment you draw on your greatest sense of endurance. There’s no point letting that fatigue so debilitate you that you cannot run the race anymore, and you need to find ways to keep going.
As I look at our passage today – not that the passage should only be read for the sake of trying to give us a positive word in a difficult time; it’s much richer than that. Nevertheless, within it there is some profound truth. One of those profound truths is that there is strength in grace.
Paul writes to young Timothy and he says, “My child, be strong in the grace that is in Jesus Christ.” Paul saw that the entire grace of God, all the gracious aspects of God, were in Jesus Christ, and because of this, those who seek to follow Christ need to get their strength from Christ Himself. Timothy, if he is to continue the work of Paul, if successive Christians who were to continue in the work of the gospel, they need that strength.
For Paul, that strength, as we see near the end of this text, and this grace, was rooted in nothing other than the resurrection of Jesus. He saw what Rembrandt saw, and what we need to see: the resurrection is the ultimate victory of God over death. The power of God transforms and transcends any single moment, including our moment of dying. It is so powerful that it becomes the motivation for our strength and our endurance.
I was deeply proud and privileged last week to be given a copy of the service that was held in honour of the former Prime Minister, John Turner. I'm grateful to the person who gave it to me because I liked John. There is a prayer in here, and there is one stanza in it, and you can hear Paul’s words to Timothy in this incredible preface:
“In Him – in Christ – the blessed resurrection has dawned, that those saddened of the certainty of dying, might be consoled by the promise of the immortality to come.”
In the presence of suffering, in the presence of death, the power of the resurrection, and the message of hope. For Paul, this was the great love of his life, this was his radical message, that Jesus and the grace that we see in him, gives us strength through his resurrection from the dead and the lens through which we look at everything, is seen through the resurrection.
He also suggests that there is, amidst suffering, endurance. Now, let us be clear; Paul is not advocating suffering as a virtue. He’s not saying suffering is a good thing, he doesn’t long to suffer, and he certainly doesn’t long for others to suffer. He looks at suffering and tries to find something redemptive in it because suffering is a human reality.
I think it’s fair to say that our society is not only fatigued, but in shock at the level of things that we simply cannot do anymore, and we don’t have anymore. We are in this sort of deer-in-headlights, shock that has captivated our society. Indeed, there are many things that cause suffering. Sometimes things that we do, that we bring on ourselves, that we suffer because of our own ignominious behaviour, or choices that we’ve made. Sometimes we suffer because of the violence and the sinfulness of others, who want us to suffer. Sometimes we suffer biologically, just simply because we are mortals, and maybe this virus is a reminder just how mortal we all are. Or maybe we suffer sometimes, which Paul was getting at, for doing good, standing for the right thing, the truth, for God.
Regardless of the nature of the suffering, or its foundation, Paul says twice to young Timothy, “I want you to endure in the midst of suffering.” Kako patheo in Greek. “Endure through it, and this is how you are to endure through it” – and he uses three incredible metaphors – if you are like these three things, then you will endure. He says, “I want you to be like a soldier.”
I must admit, if I were to choose a metaphor right now in our society, I'm not sure I would use the term of soldier, I think I would probably use the metaphor of an intensive care unit nurse, who is caring for people in the most incredibly difficult situations. I was talking to one such person in the lobby of my building. She was talking about how challenging it is – and we’ve all heard this, we’ve seen it on TV – the gowns, the masks, the gloves, the shields, to continually change these things throughout the day, coming home absolutely exhausted.
She said to me, “Andrew, I'm an avid reader, and I haven't read a book in four months, simply because I don’t have the attention span because of what I'm having to do.” I don’t think you can understand it unless you’re in it. I certainly can’t, but I can appreciate it. If I were Paul, writing to Timothy right now, I’d probably use the metaphor of an ICU nurse. He doesn’t though, he uses the term of the soldier. Of course, the soldiers were plentiful, they were ubiquitous. After all, he’s in a jail in Rome, he knows who the soldiers are.
While there are those who think that this reference to soldiers is somehow a militaristic glorification of it, I really don’t think there is any room for that kind of pedantic literalism that wants to expunge references to soldiers, just because we get a little squeamish about military things. I’ve read that in a number of commentaries, and I think it’s just silly. He knew what those soldiers were doing: They were following orders. Regardless of what those orders were, they couldn’t just go off and do whatever they wanted to do, they had to do what they were being ordered to do. There was, for them, a higher power of authority that was calling them and leading them. What Paul is getting at, is as Christians, we have a higher calling. We have a greater power than ourselves. It’s not just a case of doing what we want to do. We are like soldiers, we are under orders, we are being called to suffer for the elect, to suffer for others, to give of ourselves.
I was searching through my library a couple of weeks ago, when I was thinking about this sermon, and I stumbled across a book I haven't read for a number of years. It’s actually by a friend of mine, Kurt Grant, who is married to a United Church minister. It’s entitled, Shiny Side Up. Kurt served in the reserves in Bosnia during the Bosnian conflict, and his life was horrendous during that time. He came back and it’s well-known, with PTSD. The trauma of what he saw was so great that he decided to write a book about it, and how you can recover from it. Shiny Side Up is a positive view of a dark moment. It shows endurance, it shows courage, and it shows faith. That is what brought him through the tragedy. So, when I think of soldiers, I don’t just think of victory and I don’t think of militarism, I think of sacrifice. That’s what Paul was getting at, the sacrifice that soldiers make. That’s exactly what Timothy was being called to do, to endure.
The second image was that of a farmer, and there’s a connection, believe it or not, between one and the other. Many of the people who served in the military were given farmland after they were discharged as a thank-you to them. And for the rest of their days, they farmed to maintain their income. But the farmer, as we all know, endures both hard times and good times, times of famine and times of plenty. A farmer might get the first crop but endures through difficult times.
I was thinking back as I was doing this to when as a boy. I used to spend time on the family farm in the Borders in Scotland and we would always get awoken – and I think I’ve mentioned this to you before – by my great-aunt, who was a really tough character, at five in the morning, feed us porridge and say, “Now you get out onto those hills, and don’t come back until all the sheep are in.” I’ve never in my life been so hard, so tough, so strong, as when I lived on that farm with my cousins. And boy, did I become soft after I got off the farm and came back home again. This farming life was tough. I remember going to the top of the hills at, like, 5:30 in the morning, and the only company I had was a Labrador called Dougal (we were talking about Dougal this week at home). He was my only companion out in the cold on the hills, except of course, the sheep. It was tough, man, it was tough. I thought, Paul is right; farmers suffer for their crops, and their animals. They suffer for what they get, but they endure, they don’t give up.
There’s a beautiful book, and I do commend it to you, entitled Darkness Is My Only Companion by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. It is about her own personal struggle as a Christian with depression, and darkness is, in a sense, her only companion. It’s a remarkable and an inspiring book. At the beginning of it, she has a prayer that was written by an H.R.L. Sheppard:
“Give us grace, oh Father, not to pass by suffering or joy without eyes to see. Give us understanding and sympathy, and guard us from selfishness, that we may enter into the joys and sufferings of others. Use us to gladden and strengthen those who are weak and suffering, that by our lives, we may help others who believe and serve You and project Your light, which is the light of life.”
Kathryn is saying in this prayer that sharing with the sufferings of others is a form of endurance. It’s what our world and our society need now.
“Like an athlete,” says Paul, “running the race, finishing that which has been started, we continue to press on, we continue to go to the line, we persist, we endure.” Throughout it all, we believe, because that is what Rembrandt found, and allowed him to paint with light. We need that light now as we seek to endure. Amen.