based on 2Timothy 3:14-4:5
by Rev. Thomas N. Hall
A notable professor at Boston University at the turn of the century had
made astounding breakthroughs in science. One of his students was a deaf woman named Mabel
Hubbard who later became his wife of forty-five years. As the professor lay dying, Mabel
whispered to him, "Alex, don't leave me." Unable to speak, the professor traced
with his fingers the deaf sign for "No." With that final message, Alexander
Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, died.
Last words. Those words which close life can sometimes be as important as what we
say during our life. At twenty-eight years old, the Russian novelist, Dostoevsky was
arrested as a conspirator and sentenced to death. Though the execution was stayed in the
last second, I want you to hear his last words, what was going through his head with only
a minute to live. He later wrote to his brother:
We were told to kiss the Cross, then our swords were broken over our heads. Then
three of us were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth . . . no more than a
minute was left to live. I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during the last minute
you, you alone, were in my mind~ only then I realized how I love you, dear brother mine!
Ten years later in 1859, at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, a handful of white
abolitionists and runaway slaves follow their leader in a mid-night raid against the
federal armory. The group had hoped to inspire a movement to free all slaves. But the
attack was brutally put down and John Brown was convicted of murder and insurrection.
Though his request to spend his remaining night with his wife was denied, here are his
My dearly Beloved Wife, Sons: & Daughters, Everyone. As I now begin what is
probably the last letter I shall ever write to any of you . . . I am waiting the hour of
my public murder with great composure of mind, & cheerfulness: feeling the strongest
assurance that in no other possible way could I be used to so much advance the cause of
God; & of humanity; & that nothing that either l or all my family have sacrificed
or suffered: will be lost . . . So my dear shattered and broken family be of good cheer;
& believe & trust in God; "with all your heart & with all your
soul;" for "God doeth All things well."
Words uttered in the shadow of an executioner's axe are sober words. Not the kind
of words flippantly tossed around by guests on David Letterman or dribbled from stand-up
comics. Last words are urgent sighs. Sober. Focused.
We hold in our hands this morning someone's sacred last words. Paul the
missionary. Paul, who always rises to the occasion, Paul the circuit rider is about to
become Paul the executed. In a matter of hours Paul will die. Life will end.
I wonder what his last thoughts are as he sits in a pig-sty of a cell? He
remembers better days when he heard hymns and praises; now he hears only the screams of
terror from fellow prisoners as they are beaten or flogged by guards with too much time on
He himself has been kicked and beaten; he knows his end is near. "The time of
my departure has come," he writes to Timothy. The executioners will soon unlatch his
cell door and lead him to the village square.
So our lesson contains some of those last words, Pauls last thoughts. And
they are absolutely astounding. In a letter addressed to his protégé Timothy, Paul
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the
dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the
Kaeruxon ton logon, literally, "preach the word." That's what Paul wants
to leave as a sacred trust with his spiritual heir-apparent. "Timothy," Paul
urges, "preach the Word." And that's what Paul would say to us today. Preach the
But we want to assure Paul that we do faithfully give voice to Scripture. Every
Sunday morning at 10:00. So do the other churches in our area. Some groups stick those
words right over the door of their churches. It reads, "Full Gospel Chapel," or
"Word of Faith Fellowship." Their title says, "we do preach the word--and
all of it too." Others stick Paul's urgent words in their mottoes: "All the
Gospel," or place them on their bulletin board to advertise to all passersby that
"we preach the uncompromising Word of God." We recite Paul's words when we
ordain our ministers. "Preach the word," we tell them. Those three words become
the criteria that we use to evaluate our ministers. We might say to another member,
"she really preaches the word." So we want to reply to Paul's impressive
imperative by saying, "Paul, of course we preach the word. Thats what preachers
But what message are we proclaiming every morning at 10:00? What message should we
be proclaiming? What would Paul hear if he could come back to check up on his churches?
I've set up an itinerary for Paul. First stop is in at a church in one of our largest
cities. He enters huge opening doors, walks past the bookstore and cafeteria. He enters
the elevator that takes him to the main auditorium. A thousand others are seated
theatre-like in a ornate sanctuary. The minister is taking the congregation through
breathing exercises to relax and release all the tension that they've come with. Today's
sermon is about prayer. Strange, though. The preacher never opens the Bible, but does tell
some interesting, inspiring stories. As Paul leaves the service, he notices a huge table
with hundreds of cassette tapes on it. A title catches his eye: "Change Your Scars
Into Stars." Paul shouts to kaeruxon ton logon, and leaves.
We now join Paul in a service already in progress. The atmosphere is warm and
friendly. Just in time to hear the sermon text. Three principles of the Apostle Paul.
"This should be interesting," Paul thinks. "First, Paul was
persecuted," the minister intones. "Secondly, Paul was patient. And third, Paul
Our guest squirms in the pew like a worm in biology class. "Actually, I
wasnt patient, I kicked Barnabas out of the team. What do they think I am-a
saint?" As Paul leaves in the middle the second point, we catch Paul mumbling those
strange syllables to kaeruxon ton logon.
We now enter a large auditorium filled almost to capacity. Someone notices
Pauls toga, and and welcomes him to their service. The apostle is puzzled however,
with the pencil given him. Doesn't really have the urge to write another epistle, but he
does notice people scribbling words on paper. Paul soon realizes that everyone is taking
notes from the preacher's sermon. Christian Ed or something, Paul mutters.
"Shhhh" someone whispers. We're learning about what the Greek language says
about the three types of love in the Bible.
"Oh . . ." says the apostle. Paul begins scribbling too. I want you to
see his words, kaeruxon ton logon
What might Paul say to us here our church and to our congregation and to our
minister/s? I wonder-in light of some of his last words of advice to Timothy-if maybe he
might want to say that preaching the word is more than reciting a lot of Bible verses to
prove our point or giving a verse by verse lecture on what the Bible says. Nor is
preaching the word simply spiritual band aids over social problems.
"Preaching," says Barbara Brown Taylor, "is a conversation between
a preacher and a congregation at a particular time in their lives together, informed by
their common worship and reading of scripture."
Recently I shared an intensive 20-hour seminar on the subject of preaching with a
classroom full of ministers. While I was preparing for this marathon, I began to realize
that most of the information that shape preaching comes from homiletic texts.
But what about persons who have to listen to their sermons week after week? What
about them? So I interviewed congregants from churches to help preachers listen to their
listeners. One person in a congregation, for instance, said, "Though I am an
educator, I don't come to church to get lectured; I want a sermon to be something that I
can take home with me and apply to my life." "Another person from another
congregation gave this advice: "preachers should imagine themselves sitting in the
pew and having to listen to their own sermons." Yet another member insisted that
"preaching needs to be connected to my life."
Others were less polite. To the question, "What advice would you give to
aspiring preachers?" one student wrote "Don't run off with the organist."
Okay. Right. "Dont ramble." "Dont speak in preacher-ese and
other foreign languages."
Paul's imperative to "preach the word" is something we preachers wrestle
with each week as we prepare our sermons. I'm not sure exactly what Paul's phrase might
sound or look like 2,000 years after it was uttered. But I do know that preaching the word
has something to do with telling the old, old story about Jesus in a way that intersects
our lives. The Good News is a story that gives meaning to our individual stories. We
reflect the story of God every time we stand behind a pulpit and open Scripture. How well,
how accurately are we telling the story?
In the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, a simple story nurtures hope and belief in a
variety of characters at crisis moments in their lives. Izzy, the main character, first
hears the story from her brother as they walk along the railroad tracks shortly before he
is tragically killed by an oncoming train:
See that piece of land over there? A long time ago it used to be a lake. Then one
day must been 30 ducks landed in the pond. Well that night the temperature dropped so fast
that all the ducks got their feet frozen to ice on the lake. Know what happened? They just
up and flew away to Georgia. And that's where the lake is to this day.
Years later, Izzy passes the story on to another person facing crisis, this time
to an alcoholic who, without the bottle, shakes so violently that he is unable to keep
food on his fork before it reaches his mouth. Finally the story it shared again to a best
friend who is about to die. The dying friend has heard the story times, but asks Izzy to
tell it to her again. This time the story becomes her story--and gives her the courage to
face death calmly.
Isn't that something of what Paul was charging Timothy to do-to be a
"traditioners," to pass the faith-shaping story of Jesus on to each person he
encounters? To entrust the message of the gospel to faithful witnesses? If it is, then
Paul's imperative to preachers to "proclaim the message" is God's call for the
whole church to proclaim the word.
You see, every time to tell or live out that Story, you also proclaim it. The
pulpit is only one place where the word is proclaimed. When a church school teacher
gathers a group of children to teach them the stories of Jesus, the gospel is proclaimed.
When a congregation opens its fellowship hall on winter nights as a shelter or provides
hospitality to outsiders, it bears witness to the word. When in the name of Christ,
members of the congregation bring words of , comfort and encouragement to the sick, when
they pray for those in distress, and welcome the stranger, they announce the good news of
We have all been entrusted with a ministry which doesn't belong to any of us, but
to Christ. So Paul's charge to preach the word is an imperative to everyone of us. So go
out-all you preachers of God-and preach. Use words if necessary. Amen.