Sermon: Under The Mask
Scripture: 2 Timothy 1: 1-6
Date: March 5, 2017
This morning I am beginning a new series of messages that will take us through the first four Sundays of Lent. And so in good homiletical fashion I wanted to give you a sneak preview of where I hope to go in these next few weeks. This series is going to focus on the incredible relationship between Paul and his young protégé Timothy – as Paul, in his later years, seeks to mentor Timothy into what he refers to as a young man of “sincere” faith. And I must confess, that as I have reread second Timothy in preparation for this series, I have found myself on both sides of this relationship. Remembering those who were Pauls to me when I was a young man in the faith, and now rejoicing in those whom God has allowed me to serve in the role of Paul. And I have concluded that for the development of this “sincere” faith that Paul writes to Timothy about, this is the natural progression. That people who are on this journey towards a sincere faith, will have times in their journeys when they will be both mentor and mentee. So we are going to explore this mentor-mentee relationship as it unfolds in 2 Timothy as we move through this Lenten Season on the way to the Cross of Calvary and then the glorious day of resurrection, eternal life, new life.
I want to kind of set the stage for the rest of the messages of this series. Give you a little background.
We know that in the first moments of the Church that Christ established among his disciples, a man by the name of Saul of Tarsus, who was a brilliant Jewish Rabbi, became the chief persecutor of the new church. Until, that is, he encountered the Spirit of the living Christ on a journey to Damascus, was converted, had his name changed to Paul and became the first great missionary for the church of Jesus Christ. And on one of his missionary journeys through what is now Turkey, Paul came to a small little village called Lystra. Now Lystra was no more than a crossroads about 200 miles away on the road to the major Mediterranean Port of Ephesus. Now apparently, while he was in Lystra he stayed at the home of a woman named Eunice and her mother Lois. There is no mention of Eunice having a husband at the time Paul met her. We don’t know whether he had died or just left her, but tradition says that he had been a greek and that before he exited the picture, they had had a son named Timothy. Now Timothy was probably just a teenager at best when he had met Paul, but apparently he had already converted to Christianity by the time Paul arrived, and when Paul left Lystra, on his way to Ephesus, he prevailed upon Eunice to allow Timothy to go with him for a ways. And so this great relationship which in a sense dominates the first Century church began. A relationship that Paul, in his last year would describe in terms of a father-son relationship. “Timothy, my son” he writes.
This is how all of that is described in the 16th Chapter of Acts.
(Paul) came to Lystra, where a Disciple Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jew and a believer, but whose father was Greek. The brothers at Lystra spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him (to satisfy) the Jews who lived in that area. As they traveled from town to town, the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.
But at some point, Paul leaves Timothy, probably with the church at Ephesus, and continues his journeys, which eventually culminates with a Roman jail awaiting execution. And it is from there that Paul wrote this treatise on mentoring that we have in this second Letter to Timothy. And he writes this. This is my paraphrase.
Timothy my son, while in this Roman prison awaiting my death, I have been reflecting on my life in Christ, and I have been remembering your SINCERE faith.
Now I am fascinated by Paul’s description of faith here as “sincere”. We use a lot of qualifiers for faith, don’t we? Words like abiding or enduring or transforming or even powerful. But Paul describes Timothy’s faith as sincere. Now I did a quick study of the word sincere and discovered that in Greek one of the root words of the word we translate into English as sincere is the word hypocrites, which is also where we get the word hypocrites. Sincere literally means “not a hypocrite” and alludes to the “sin of hypocrisy”. Now let’s think about what Paul meant when he called on Timothy to not be a hypocrite. The city of Ephesus was, in Paul’s world, the place where cultures clashed. It was the meeting place between the Roman Culture and the Greek Culture. This meeting of the cultures was perhaps best illustrated by the two major structures that Paul and Timothy viewed as they made their way into the city. Because both the Greeks and the Romans enjoyed competition such as gladiator fights and chariot races, athletic events of all kinds, there was a rather large coliseum, a replica of the Roman Coliseum in Ephesus, where the games were held. But the Greeks were also a very artistic people. Many of the great plays came from Greece and were then absorbed into Roman Culture. And so at Ephesus there was also a huge theater which sat 25,000 people. It became the center of culture and the arts where the great actors of the day performed. Now Actors in that day would play many roles in the course of one production. Most plays featured just one or two actors playing many roles. There were no women actors and so the men would even have to play the women’s roles. And there was a mask they wore for each character they played. The actors would change their demeanor and voice to correspond with the mask that they wore. The mask was the device that they used to draw the people into believing the role that they were playing. Those actors were called the hypocrites which literally meant to “sit under the mask.” Now here’s the thing. The actors or hypocrites were constantly warned by the powers that be to not wear one mask too long because the fear was that in doing so they might actually become the character that was portrayed by the mask. The fear was that they wouldn’t be able to come out from under the mask. Today we talk about character actors like Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman for instance whose greatness lies in their ability to become the character they portrayed. Some actors become so thoroughly absorbed by the character that they stay in character the whole time they are shooting the movie. Now that method of acting can lead to some great performances but it can also lead to self destruction. A few years ago a character actor by the name of Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker in one of the Batman movies and to play that role friends say that Ledger took on the dark, evil nature of the character which eventually led to his self-destruction and death. Well apparently that happened to some of the hypocrites of Ephesus so the fear was that if the actors who occupied the stage at Ephesus wore their masks for too long, that they would lose themselves and become the character under the mask. And apparently that had happened enough that the hypocrites were somewhat dishonored in polite society. And so Paul is commending Timothy for not becoming a hypocrite when it comes to matters of faith. But Paul is not the first to make the link between this wearing of Masks and inauthentic faith. In fact, at least 17 times in the Gospels Jesus refers to the Scribes and Priests and Pharisees as hypocrites who put on the mask of holiness in order to convince the people how good and righteous they are, but in reality it is a mask of false holiness that destroys not only them but the people to whom they minister. Jesus believed that the hypocrites were destroying God’s church. Listen what He says as part of His sermon on the mount. This is the way Eugene Peterson understands Jesus’s words in Matthew 6 when he writes in The Message paraphrase:
“Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don’t make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won’t be applauding.
2-4 “When you do something for someone else, don’t call attention to yourself. You’ve seen them in action, I’m sure—‘play actors’ I call them—treating prayer meeting and street corner alike as a stage, acting compassionate as long as someone is watching, playing to the crowds. They get applause, true, but that’s all they get. When you help someone out, don’t think about how it looks. Just do it—quietly and unobtrusively. That is the way your God, who conceived you in love, working behind the scenes, helps you out.
5 “And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
7-13 “The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.
When you practice some appetite-denying discipline to better concentrate on God, don’t make a production out of it. It might turn you into a small-time celebrity but it won’t make you a saint. If you ‘go into training’ inwardly, act normal outwardly. Shampoo and comb your hair, brush your teeth, wash your face. (Take off the masks) God doesn’t require attention-getting devices. He won’t overlook what you are doing; he’ll reward you well. Be wary of (the hypocrites) who smile a lot and are dripping with practiced sincerity. (There’s that word again – sincere.)
With the words of Jesus in mind, what Paul was getting at in his own words to Timothy is this:
Timothy, my son, when I think of the hypocrites (who are responsible for me being in prison), I am reminded of the sincerity of your faith.
Recently a poll was taken among persons who were once active in the church but had dropped out. And there are a lot of those persons all around us. And the question was asked, What was the number one thing that caused you to drop out of the church? And by far the number one response was the number of hypocrites they had encountered in the church. Though we in the church bristle about that, if we really stop to think about it, it has always been true of the church. Jesus saw it. Paul saw it. Now you might not like to hear this but the church was and is and has always been full of hypocrites. Persons who put on the masks of this world and then try and play the part of disciple. And, I must confess that there are times when I have been the chief among the hypocrites.
I love the story of the Methodist Pastor who was relatively new to the church and community that he was serving. And one morning he went walking through town and a man approached him on the street and introduced himself. And then he said, “I am a member of your church, but I don’t attend there anymore.” And the pastor responded, “Oh I’m sorry to hear that. Can I ask why you don’t attend church anymore?” “Well, I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, but you’ll find out soon enough, you have a bunch of hypocrites in your church.” And he began to name names, some of whom the pastor recognized as leaders in the church. And when he was done, the pastor said, “Thank you for the information but you left at least one name out. You need to add my name to the list.” The man was a little taken back by that, but he recovered and he said, “I want to know what you’re going to do about that.” And the pastor thought for a moment, and then he said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. If you’ll come back to the church, I will throw all of the hypocrites out.” And seeing the skeptical look on the man’s face, he went on. “That’s what I’ll do. And I can tell you the exact day that I’ll do it. I’ll throw all of the hypocrites out of the church on the same day that the hospital dismisses all of the patients.” And the man chuckled a little at that. But the pastor continued, “You see, you don’t understand – the church is intended to be a hospital for the soul. And all of us hypocrites and sinners are the patients. Where else should we be? And I suspect that you might need to check back in.”
Paul’s words to Timothy are intended to call into question the masks that we all wear from time to time The roles that we play. Whether our faith is a sincere faith or are we like the hypocrites, acting as someone that we’re not? Are there times when you take on the roles that the world assigns to you rather than reflecting the image of Christ? That’s the question that I’m going to leave you with this morning. And really it’s the question that Paul is posing to Timothy. As a good mentor, Paul is holding Timothy accountable for the times when he becomes a hypocrite. I think we all need a mentor who will hold us accountable in our faith. Who will call us to sincere faith. Next week we’ll work on the diagnosis and talk about the masks of the world that we sometimes wear that from time to time expose us as hypocrites. But let me suggest that the Season of Lent, with it’s emphasis on sacrifice and fasting, is a great time to test for the ailments of our soul. It’s a season to take off the masks and reveal instead the extraordinary person that God created us to be. Created you to be. Do you have a Paul in your life, to help you with that. Because with the Cross looming before us, this is the time to drop the masks and instead reflect a sincere faith in Jesus. The process began on Wednesday with the imposition of the ashes. There is no more humbling act that we do in the church than recalling the dust out of which we were formed. And it continues this morning with Holy Communion, taking on the sacrificial nature of Jesus by sharing symbolically in His body and blood. So may we approach this altar this morning with a sincere faith, leaving behind us all of the masks of hypocrisy and sin that the world imposes upon us.