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Preach the Word
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 final words:


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 their hands.

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, Paul’s last thoughts. And they are absolutely astounding. In a letter addressed to his protégé Timothy, Paul writes:


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 message;


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 Word.

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. That’s what preachers do."

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 was prayerful."

Our guest squirms in the pew like a worm in biology class. "Actually, I wasn’t 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 Paul’s 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. "Don’t ramble." "Don’t 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 the kingdom.

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.