Watch Now

Keeping The Grinch Out of Christmas: A Heart Two Sizes Too Small


A Heart Two Sizes Too Small

2 Timothy 4, selected verses


It was Grandfather’s birthday. He was 79. He got up early, shaved, showered, combed his hair and put on his Sunday best so he would look nice when they came.


He skipped his daily walk to the town café where he had coffee with his friends. He wanted to be home when they came.


He put his porch chair on the sidewalk so he could get a better view of the street when they drove up to help celebrate his birthday.


At noon he got tired but decided to skip his nap so he would be awake when they came. Most of the rest of the afternoon he spent near the telephone so he could answer it when they called.


He has 5 married children, 13 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. One son and daughter live within ten miles of his home. They hadn’t visited him for a long time. But today was his birthday, and they were sure to come.


At suppertime he left the cake untouched so they could cut it and have dessert with him.


After supper he sat on the porch waiting.


At 8:30 he went to his room to prepare for bed. Before laying down he left a note on the door which read, “Wake me up when you get here.”


It was Grandfather’s birthday. He was 79.


Mother Teresa said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or cancer. It’s the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted – of being deserted and alone.”[i] She wasn’t wrong. John Cacioppo, the director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, is the world’s leading expert on loneliness. In his landmark book, Loneliness, released in 2008, he revealed just how profoundly the epidemic of loneliness is affecting the basic functions of human physiology. Cacioppo writes: “When we drew blood from our older adults and analyzed their white cells, we found that loneliness somehow penetrated the deepest recesses of the cell to alter the way genes were being expressed.” [In other words], when you are lonely, your whole body is lonely.


Loneliness is linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression and according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity. One study revealed that it can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 30 percent. There is also a strong link between loneliness and poverty: having two or more close friends reduces the likelihood of poverty by nearly 20 percent.


As we walk together through the season of Advent, the season of preparing ourselves to celebrate the birth of Christ, we’re doing a sermon series called “Keeping the Grinch out of Christmas.” There are a lot of things that can bring out the grinch in all of us this time of the year, and really all year long. Last week we looked at our tendency to get overwhelmed, especially when we have too much going on or when life doesn’t make sense. That sense of being overwhelmed is the first thing that can bring the grinch out in all of us. Today, we’re looking at loneliness.


We’re going to look at several verses in 2 Timothy 4 this morning, but we’re going to do so a little bit differently. I’m not going to read them, and they’re not going to appear on screen. We’re going to LISTEN to them being read. You know, we take in information slightly differently through our ears than we do through our eyes. Different parts of the brain are involved in processing information from the five senses, depending on which sense you are relying on. And in our highly visual culture, we tend to rely on visual cues over any other, even when others are present. So today, we’re just going to listen. There’s a great app available for your smartphone or tablet called “Dwell.” It’s available for both I-Phone and Android and costs $3 per year to use. It’s basically a Bible listening app, and they’ve done the whole Bible in the ESV, the same version I usually preach from. You can look up a passage by book and chapter, and they also have all kinds of daily listening plans, long listens (usually several chapters) and short listens (just a few minutes). There’s background music while the passage is being read, and you can choose the voice you want reading the passage. Mark is a north American reader who is very relaxed and conversational. Rosie is from northern England and is a soft and relaxed voice. Felix has an east African accent and is very energetic. And Gregory is also North American but he’s very dramatic, a storyteller. I have my app set to choose the voice randomly, and it switches every couple of chapters. So today we’re going to listen to 2 Timothy 4 using the Dwell app. Randy has it hooked up so you’ll hear it through the speakers. Here we go.


Isn’t that awesome? Okay, so what’s happening here? St. Paul is in prison in Rome. He was actually arrested in Jerusalem five years prior. He’d been a prisoner for 5 years. After his missionary journeys all over Asia Minor, he’d gone back to Jerusalem hoping that his preaching would at last be received by his own people. But they weren’t having it. As soon as he was spotted in the temple, the Bible tells us that some Jews visiting Jerusalem from Asia minor, who had encountered Paul in the past, grabbed him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against the people and the law and this place. Moreover, he even brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place” (Acts 21:28). And then things went kind of nuts. Look at Vv. 30-36.


The Roman tribune was going to have Paul flogged, and it was then that Paul revealed himself as not just a Jew but also a Roman citizen by birth, and he appealed his case to Caesar. So he was sent to Rome for trial. For the first two years of his imprisonment in Rome, he was under house arrest, constantly chained to a Roman soldier but otherwise permitted to receive visitors and say what he wanted. In fact, the last verse in the book of Acts says that Paul “welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). And it was then that he wrote what we call his “prison letters,” or prison epistles, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. But Paul wasn’t on house arrest anymore. Now he sat in Rome’s cold, wet, underground Mamartine prison. Now, as he wrote what would be his final letters, letters to the two young Christians he considered among his closest of friends, Timothy and Titus, he had been charged with sedition, and was awaiting his final sentencing, which would surely be death. Look at 2 Timothy 4:9 … and again down in V. 21. He knows he’s going to die, and very soon. So what does Paul do? He asks for his friends to come to him.


Paul is lonely. In fact, he is experiencing all four of the major causes of loneliness. Transitions can cause loneliness – transitions from one job to the next, moves from one place to another, especially if you change cities, transitions from one phase of life to the next, like retirement, the loss of a spouse or close friend to death, even your own death drawing near. And Paul knows that his life is coming to its end, that he will soon be departing this life and moving on to the next in the presence of the Savior he so dearly loved and so passionately served.


Separation can cause loneliness. Again the separation caused by the death of a spouse or close friend, or by a move, or by retirement. Look at V. 10. Five men had been with Paul. Now only Luke remained. His friend Demas had deserted him, fled to Thessalonica. Demas had been with Paul through a lot, through many ups and downs. He was a part of Paul’s inner circle. In the tiny letter Philemon, just one chapter long, in V. 24 Paul says, “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.” Mark, Luke, who was still with Paul at this point, and Demas. Again in Colossians Paul says, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas” (4:14). Demas is mentioned with Mark and Luke, both gospel writers. He was right up there. And he’d been with Paul when Paul was under house arrest. But now Paul was in the infamous Mamartine prison and on his way to certain death, and that was too much for Demas to take. He found something to in Thessalonica instead, probably with the church there, a church to which Paul had written two brief letters. Paul needed tough friends for tough times, and Demas couldn’t hang in there with him.


Two more friends, Crescens and Titus, had gone as well. Paul says nothing about them deserting him as Demas did, so it’s likely they had actually been sent by Paul on missionary work of some sort or another. But they weren’t with Paul, and he knows it. He mentions it. And Tychicus was coming to Ephesus. He’s probably the one who carried this letter to Timothy, and would fill in for Timothy while Timothy was gone. Except for Luke, I’m all alone. So hurry Timothy. I need you with me. I need friends. I’m lonely.


You see, in spite of Luke’s presence, and Luke is nothing but applauded, Paul feels like he’s fighting this battle alone, walking this final path alone. Transitions and separation can cause loneliness. So can opposition. Look at Vv. 14-15. And rejection. Look at V. 16. He was closely connected to the church in Rome. He’d been in Rome, either under house arrest or in Mamartine prison for five years. That’s longer than Paul had spent in any one place at any one time since he’d come to Christ on the Damascus Road some 30 years prior. But no one, not one person, came to stand by him, to speak on his behalf, at his first defense. Yes, God had been with him and had spoken through him, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely. And he wanted Timothy to come, and quickly. And not just Luke. Look at Vv. 11. He wants Luke to bring Mark. Mark had been with Paul during his house arrest when the prison epistles were written, but it seems he’d been sent to Ephesus to assist Timothy. And now Paul wants both of them to come to him, and quickly. He needs tough friends for a tough time. And with Luke, his faithful physician and friend, Mark and Timothy would provide for Paul the answer to his loneliness.


You see, we’re wired for connection, not just with God, but also with other people. We weren’t created to go through this life alone. We weren’t meant to face the challenging times of our lives alone. At the very beginning God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Of course, his immediate solution to that was to create another gender, to sanction the physical, mental, and emotional coming together of woman and man as husband and wife, to be there for one another, to support one another, to encourage and defend and love one another. But that isn’t the only means God has given us of being in relationship, because not everyone marries. In fact, Paul didn’t marry, and says that the non-married state can be a blessed state. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul goes on a long monologue about the blessings of sex and sexual urges and specifies the marriage relationship as the appropriate context for those urges to be expressed throughout life. He says, “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another …” (1 Cor. 7:2-5).


But then he goes on to give his blessing to those who either choose to remain single or find themselves single. “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am …  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:6-9). So a man or woman being alone isn’t good. That’s part of the creation mandate. That’s true for all. But marriage isn’t right for all. So what else do we have? Well, for starters, we have friends. And by friends I mean close friends, not acquaintances. David had Jonathan. Elijah had Elisha. Moses had Aaron. Even Jesus had Peter, James, and John, the three he was closest too. And he was close to Lazarus (he cried when Lazarus died), and his sisters Mary and Martha, and he was close to Mary Magdalene too. And Paul had Luke, Mark, and Timothy, and he wanted all three of them with him.


Ultimately, we have the body of Christ, the church, as a means of being in community, in relationship with others. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere, does the Bible say anything about someone going through something alone, facing anything alone, experiencing anything, good or bad, alone. Marriage, close friendships, and the body of Christ are the three arenas for relationship that God has given to us as blessings and gifts, and we need to make use of as many as we can. And you know, in our culture today, we emphasize marriage to the exclusion of the other two. And marriage is a wonderful thing, it is a sacred covenant. But every marriage ends in heartache. One of the two “D’s” will end every marriage. Every marriage ends either in divorce or death. But for those who live on after their spouse dies, and who outlive their friends, the body of Christ, as an ever-regenerating source of relationship, of brothers and sisters in Christ, will always be there.


A British medical doctor shared a story about his interaction with Doris, an 82-year-old hospital patient. Two days before Christmas, Doris seemed healthy and ready for discharge. But for some reason she kept complaining about inexplicable health issues. The doctor wrote: “Yesterday it was her arm that was hurting, before that her hip. Truth is, Doris is an incredibly healthy 82-year-old, and we can’t find anything. I have no doubt that it will be the same today.”


When the X-rays came back normal, he told Doris that he would have to stick to the plan of sending her home. Doris looked down at the floor and quietly said, “I don’t want to go home …. It’s just that I’m all alone and there are so many hours in the day.” Then after a long pause, she sighed and asked, “Doctor, can you give me a cure for loneliness?”


The Doctor then reflected on this incident: I wish I could say yes. I wish I could prescribe her some antidepressants and be satisfied that I had done my best, but the truth is she’s not clinically depressed. It’s just that she has been left behind by a world that no longer revolves around her, not even the littlest bit. There are thousands like her, men and women …


for whom time stands empty as they wait in homes full of silence ….


They are no longer coveted by a society addicted to youth ….


[Doris] is alone, and it brings home the truth of this epidemic that we have on our hands—an epidemic of loneliness ….


The most difficult part is that I don’t know how to solve this, although I wish I could. For now, I simply retract my diagnoses. Sheepishly, I insist that Doris spends her Christmas this year on the ward, and I can see her mood lift. But as I steel myself for the inevitable influx of unwanted grandparents whom I know will arrive, I cannot help but wonder how it is that things could have gone so badly wrong.[ii]


So here’s the deal: at Christ church, there are no lone rangers. No one goes it alone. No one has to sit alone. No one has to suffer alone. We’re there for each other. And as we grow, we welcome new brothers and sisters into the family. No one who comes through these doors, no matter how broken, no matter how sick, no matter how damaged, faces anything alone. Not if we have anything to say about it. Let us pray.

[i] Mother Teresa, Leadership, Vol. 1, no. 4.

[ii] Dr. Ishani Kar-Purkayastha, “An Epidemic of Loneliness,” The Lancelet (12-18-10)