Sermon: Unmasking the Extraordinary You, Pt. 4: Power Masks
Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:1-7
Date: March 26, 2017
Human beings have always believed that there is power in the masks we wear. Think about how many of our greatest villains down through the ages have worn masks (show picture no. 1) and likewise many of our greatest superheroes have donned masks. They run the gamut from the familiar mask of batman (show picture no.2) to cover over his true identity to the elaborate mask that Superman puts on to disguise himself as mild mannered reporter Clark Kent. (show picture no. 3) Some have used masks to cover over the darkness in their souls. This is a rendering of three members of the KKK (show picture no. 4) from the 1870’s, before the adoption of the more familiar hoods. And some masks became symbols for good like the one that the lone ranger wore. (show picture no. 5) Remember what people would say after they had been saved by the Lone Ranger? Who was that masked man? But no matter what the mask, humanity has seemingly always believed that there is some mystical power of transformation that comes when we wear masks. That masks have the power to alter our identity. That was their purpose when they were used by the hypocrites, the actors, of the first century. They would put on a mask and their identity would then reflect the character they were trying to play. And then they would change masks and identities. So one actor could play many roles in a production. And then masks can turn the powerless into the powerful. Consider this. (show film clip) Of course Jim Carrey was playing it for laughs, but as is often the case with comedy there is a darker truth behind it. We are sometimes emboldened when we are under the mask, and so say and do things that we would never say and do without masks to hide behind. Masks can make us anonymous, sometimes even invisible in this world. Well, I think that Paul knew all of that as he wrote from prison to his young protégé Timothy. And so He offers three bits of counsel about shedding the worldly masks of the hypocrites, or the actors. The first is that we must embrace the sincere faith that we are born with. It is a faith that has been passed from generation to generation. “I look on you with joy, Timothy, when I think of the sincere faith that is already in you because of your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice.” Embrace your faithful heritage Timothy. It’s the faith you were born with. In other words Timothy, you were created in God’s image and were born with that image already in you. And so are we. Now I know that there are many in our world who would like to debate that fact, or who are living their lives as a direct contradiction to that, but scripture makes it clear, almost from the opening words in Genesis, that each one of us was created in God’s image, and no matter how many worldly masks we may put on, we can not completely hide that basic fact of our identity as human beings. We were created in the image of God. Born with it and in it. And so Paul says to Timothy, through sincere faith, faith that transcends the sin and hypocrisy of the world, embrace your spiritual heritage. Embrace the faith that is already in you and replace the worldly masks that seek to deny that heritage. So, let me ask you, who are your spiritual ancestors? Who are those who have passed on the faith to you? It could be your parents, or grandparents. You may have to go back even farther than that. Or maybe it’s a mentor like Paul, who has called out God’s image within you. Who are your mentors in the faith who have revealed to you the image of God that is within you? I believe that we all need people like Paul in our lives, and that as we mature in our faith we need to be mentors to new Christians like Timothy. Our spiritual family tree may not always be the same as our biological family tree. In fact, Paul would say that it’s really a two pronged process. Look what he says here. “I look with joy on your sincere faith that came to you from your grandmother and mother, AND from me through the laying on of my hands.” Now this Idea of “laying on hands” has been a common practice in the church.
When we commission and send out these missionaries to Nicaragua we will gather around them, lay hands on them and pray. When I was ordained, Bishop Paul Duffey and several elders in the church laid hands on me and Bishop Duffey said: “take authority to teach and preach the word.” Through the act of laying on of hands, these elders in the church (a couple who had served as mentors to me to help me get to that point) were doing two things I think. First they were enabling the Holy Spirit to flow through them to me. Take the authority that is in us through the laying on of hands upon yourself. But Paul also has in mind drawing out the Spirit that was already in Timothy through the laying on of hands.
Because you see, the practice of laying on of hands really started out as a practice associated with healing. The healer would lay hands on the afflicted to draw the impurities out of their body that were making them sick. And so in Christian practice it really became a two way flow. The Holy Spirit flowing from the mentor (the metaphor of the mentor pouring their life into their mentee) but also very much an element of drawing out the image of God that is already within them. So, first Timothy, to put on the masks of the spirit, to reflect the image of God, you’ve got to embrace the sincere faith that has been poured into you by God through your grandmother and mother and is also drawn out of you through the laying on of my hands.
And then the second thing that Paul tells Timothy is that we must “fan the flame” of the Spirit until it burns bright for all to see. Last week we talked about how this was a reference to the charcoal fires that the Jewish women cooked over and the task of keeping those embers going all the time so that when it came time to cook, you could fan them so that they would flame up into a fire that was hot enough to cook over. So what Paul is saying to Timothy is that the sincere faith that is already within you must be fanned before it can burn within you. Now another somewhat peculiar characteristic of a charcoal fire is that not only are they hard to get to flame up, but they are also difficult to completely extinguish. If you throw a little water on a charcoal fire it will send out steam and appear to go out but usually somewhere an ember will still burn. So it is with the faith that is within us. The world will try many things to extinguish that faith – will impose many masks that will try to smother it, but somewhere inside an ember will continue to burn. The great twentieth century theologian Paul Tillich referred to that as the “divine spark” that resides within each of us. And when we fan that spark in spite of the world’s attempts to smother it, it will flame up once again and before we know it the Spirit can be burning bright within us. So Paul says to Timothy, that it is not enough to just have the embers of faith smoldering inside of you, you must fan the embers into flame. And then throughout the rest of this incredible letter, Paul gives instruction about how to fan the flame. He talks about fanning the flame with a faithful witness. “Do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord” he says. Through worship. Through preaching and teaching the word. Paul writes: “I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared no matter what the season of your life to correct, rebuke but always encourage with great patience. What you have heard from me keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ.” Fan the flame. And finally be grace filled. If others persecute you, endure the suffering for Christ. “Endure hardship like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
Which leads us to Paul’s third counsel for Timothy. Be brave. Wearing the masks of the Spirit takes great courage. It was true in the 1st Century and it is no less true today. “God did not give us a timid spirit, but rather a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.” Now to understand the urgency of this message, we need a little back ground. In the year 54 A.D. an actor, a hypocrite well known on the stages of Rome, by the name of Nero became Emperor of Rome. He was just 17 at the time. Now Nero wore many worldly masks. He had been adopted as the heir to the throne by his great uncle, the emperor Claudius, and came to power when Claudius died. He was ruthless and power hungry. He even had his own mother killed because she tried to control him. He believed himself to be a god and so because the Christians would not worship him, he viewed them as the chief rivals to his power. And so around the year 60 he began a time of persecution of the Christians. And by 64 A.D. both Paul and Peter, the two heads of the church had been arrested and were slated to be executed, sending much of the church underground. The Christians began to meet in the catacombs under Rome. They even buried their dead in those underground tunnels because Christian cemeteries were being destroyed. And the growing fear was that the church would collapse without Peter and Paul to lead it. And apparently Paul shared that fear. And so it was in that time of uncertainty and fear that Paul wrote to Timothy and said to him that the Christians needed him to be strong. Stand courageous in face of the persecution to come, just as I have stood strong. Do not abandon the faith that is in you because of the fear of persecution. I am not ashamed to die for my faith, Paul writes, and neither should you be ashamed to stand with me. And he goes on to say this to his protege, who I think Paul believed was the greatest hope for the church continuing: This is the truth, because of the faith that is within me, I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal, awaiting my death, but God’s spirit is not chained. So, Timothy, you must be strong to endure everything for the sake of the faith that is within you. God does not give us a Spirit of timidity. He gives us a Spirit of power. Last week we talked about replacing the masks of the world, with the masks of the Spirit. To the Roman church, who were at the epicenter of the persecuted church, Paul gave similar counsel. And then he wrote this: If the Spirit of God, who had the power to raise Jesus from the Dead, lives in you – then just as God raised Jesus, He will give you life (extraordinary life) through that same Spirit that is in you. His Spirit is not a timid Spirit. Now to truly appreciate Paul’s words we need to be clear what that word “timid” meant in Biblical writings. Today we think of timid souls as being meek, even shy, in the face of the world. But for the Biblical writers it was more than that. Timid literally meant being overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by fear. In other places it refers to the one who runs from difficult circumstances. Sometimes timid was equated with Coward. By using the word timid here Paul was expressing a profound fear that in spite of the faith that was in him, that Timothy was going to run from God and his faith, rather than stand strong no matter what. So he’s saying Timothy don’t be a coward, don’t be covered over by the masks of the world, don’t be a hypocrite, don’t run in the face of the hypocrites like Nero. Instead, Paul writes: Come to me and join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God, who saves us and calls us to live a Holy (extraordinary) life. Because God’s spirit in you is not timid, but rather it’s a spirit of power. Now I was curious about that word power. What did Paul, chained and powerless in that Roman prison, have in mind when he spoke of power of the Spirit that was within him. And what I discovered was that the word we translate power means dynamo -a dynamic explosive movement from inside out. When Alfred Nobel invented the explosive material that would change the world forever he borrowed that same word and called it dynamite which meant “power it.” The principle of the Atomic bomb was harnessing the power in the atom and then propelling it out to do great destruction. I recently read an article about what happens when lightning strikes a tree. I don’t know if you have ever witnessed that, but it is an awesome display of power. A bolt of lightning can take down a huge tree that has stood for centuries in just a matter of seconds. (Show picture no. 6) Scientists say it is one of the most powerful forces on earth. But according to the article, a lightning strike only gives the illusion that the power comes down from the sky to strike a tree. Actually only a “leader bolt” comes from the sky. When you see that massive flash as lightning strikes a tree, you are actually seeing a tremendous charge of electricity come up from the ground through the tree. That is what lights up the sky. The power was already present in the tree. The “leader bolt” simply freed it up. Unleashed it. Drew it out. And that’s what mentors do for us. And so Paul is telling Timothy that the power that would allow the Gospel to advance even in the world of Nero, was already in him. But he needed to unleash it. Let it out. It was the power to shatter the masks of the world (show picture no. 7), to overcome the hypocrites, to destroy sin, and rise from the dead, and replace all of those worldly masks with the image of God. When we put on the masks of the Spirit, we are unleashing the image of God that is within us. It was in Timothy from the beginning and it is in each one of us. We are created to live in the powerful image of God. We are created to be extraordinary. But Timothy you must decide whether you are going to trust God and use that power to live your life in His image. Are you going to power it, let it explode out of you into the world, or are you going to be timid in the face of the masks of the world. And run and hide behind them. Because here’s the thing. Courage in the often difficult circumstances the world sends to us does not mean being someone we’re not but rather being more fully who God created us to be. God gives us the gifts of the Spirit in order to empower us in the midst of every circumstance the world might send our way. Persecution. Don’t be timid Timothy. Be brave. Illness. Don’t be timid Timothy. Be at peace. Sin. Don’t be timid Timothy. Be Grace filled. Hypocrisy. Don’t be timid Timothy. Be loving.Even death. Don’t be timid Timothy. Be joyful. Don’t run, don’t hide from, the things of this world. Choose instead to replace all of those death masks with the masks of the Spirit. Love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Those are the weapons of power, the power masks, of the Spirit, that reveal the image of God within each one of us. And when we have the courage to put those on, we will truly embrace the extraordinary life that God created us for. And so every time we go to on the mission field and serve in places like Nicaragua and Guatemala and so many other places around the world without timidity no matter the danger or the hardships, we put on the masks of the Spirit, and unleash the power of God. And every time we help someone fill a cart with food in God’s Pantry, we put on the power masks and unleash God into the world. And when we help a child with homework in Kid’s Cafe. Or help a refugee family assimilate into the community. Or help a senior citizen load food commodities in their cars. Or share love with our neighbor. Or co-worker. We put on the masks of the spirit. We unleash the Spirit’s power. And we choose to live the extraordinary life that God created us for.
Responding to Paul’s counsel, Timothy chose to be extraordinary and became the kind of leader in the church after Paul and Peter that God needed him to be. The kind of leader that God needs you and I to be, for a time such as this. God needs each one of us to choose to unleash the extraordinary within us. I recently read a story about a modern day Timothy who is choosing to live an extraordinary life in a most difficult place.
Fifteen years ago, Bill Tomes was living in Chicago, which is one of the most violent places in our country. In 2016 there were 4368 people shot in Chicago. 762 of those died. And in the first two months of this year those numbers are up rather than down. And in the midst of that escalating violence, Bill Tomes was trying to decide what to do with his life. By his own admission, he was not a religious man, but one day Bill stopped by a church to pray over his decision. And as he knelt in the church, he passed out. But, he later said that as he was losing consciousness, he heard God talk to him. The voice gave him only one instruction: “Love. You are forbidden to do anything other than that.”
And so Bill began giving away all his possessions, because, he said, in the face of that message they had lost all meaning to him. They were the masks of the world. And, in spite of the danger, he began hanging out in some of the most violent, rundown neighborhoods. At first, the local gangs who controlled those neighborhoods viewed Bill as a threat and decided that Bill should be killed, but then they saw the kind of work he was doing, and they decided instead that he needed their protection.
Because every day finds Bill Tomes out in the most dangerous of those Chicago neighborhoods, offering love and support to anyone who needs it. He hands out friendship and advice, gives people rides to the store, buys them food, bails them out of jail, listens to their problems. He has even comforted the dying. Once Bill came upon a young gang member who had been shot and left to die in the stairwell of an old building. Bill held the young man and told him about God’s love. It may have been the first time that anyone had told this young man that he was precious and loved. And the young man drifted off to a peaceful death in the arms of someone who cared about him. Bill Tomes is not a timid man. Why? Because he is driven by the power of the love of Jesus Christ. He is not a timid man. Because he is a man on a mission that gives him spiritual power. His is a mission of redemption, redeeming the extraordinary, one soul at a time. His mission is to share God’s love with the gang members, drug pushers, and prostitutes that he finds there. And fifty three times so far, Bill Tomes has stepped into the middle of a gang gun battle, but he’s never suffered even a scratch. Bill believes that God called him into this work, and so he trusts that God will protect him, even when the bullets are flying all around him.
And so, Paul writes: Timothy, my son, don’t hide behind the masks of the hypocrites, but rather embrace the faith that you were created with and that has been called out of you through my ministry. Don’t be timid in the face of the world, but rather embrace the power of the Spirit that is within you, the power that is fueled by love and sacrifice. Unleash the image of God that you were created in, and live the extraordinary life that Christ came to give you, no matter what the circumstances that you find yourself in.