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"When the Elephant in the Room is a Lamb"

2 Timothy 2:8-15

“When the Elephant in the Room is a Lamb” October 9, 2022

God keeps promises, but they are kept on God’s time, not ours, and may be fulfilled in unexpected ways.

You, of course, know the phrase “the elephant in the room.” It refers to any problem or obstacle that people refuse to acknowledge or see, even though it is painfully obvious and impossible to hide (“the 800-pound gorilla” means the same thing). Like any good phrase, it had to start somewhere — but where?

Some say it originated in an 1882 mock-detective story by Mark Twain, titled “The Stolen White Elephant.” In that story, a white elephant, bound from India to England as a gift to Queen Victoria, goes missing and turns up in New Jersey, and many detectives set out to solve the mystery, not noticing that the elephant is in plain sight.

Others say the phrase originated with the 1814 short story “The Inquisitive Man,” by the Russian writer Ivan Kyrlov, about a man who is so absorbed by the detail in small things on display in a museum that he overlooks an elephant seated among all the displays.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the first official use of failing to see “the elephant in the room” as by The New York Times on June 20, 1959.

There’s no reference to an elephant anywhere in scripture, unless you think the behemoth mentioned a few places in the Bible refers to that majestic creature. All the same, there’s an elephant in the room when it comes to biblical history, and it’s a big one. Lots of people who read their Bibles all the way through, from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22, miss it.

Fortunately, the apostle Paul did not, and he sneaks that elephant into today’s passage from his second letter to Timothy.

To illuminate this “elephant,” look back at the Old Testament book of First Samuel for a moment. It’s concerned with the long struggle of David to become king. Decades went by between the time he was anointed king by the prophet Samuel — an uncomfortable situation since King Saul was already on the throne — and the time when David finally brought the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, the city that became his capital for a United Kingdom. Having established himself as the undisputed ruler of the nation of Israel, he decided it was not appropriate for him to live in a palace while God was honored in a tent, or tabernacle.

He consulted with the prophet Nathan, who at first assured him God would bless his plans, but Nathan returned a day later with God’s word that for now, the tent would be good enough. At the same time, however, God made a bold promise to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”1

In other words, God made a glorious promise that there would always be a descendant of King David on the throne. This remained true for more than four centuries, but all was not well. The books of First and Second Kings, which follow Second Samuel, tell a sad story of disobedience and a lack of faithfulness on the part of the rulers of a then-divided Hebrew kingdom: Israel to the north, Judah to the south. Kings who were faithful to God were few and far between. Other gods were served. Horrible practices, including infant sacrifice, blotted their record.

With that background, think of Paul’s words to Timothy in this week’s scripture passage, which seem to speak to the inevitable outcome of all this sin: “If we have died with [Jesus], we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us ....”

It sounds sensible, if a little harsh. If human faithfulness will be rewarded with God’s faithfulness, then human faithlessness ought to lead to the same response on God’s part.

So, to return to the Old Testament story, the northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians. And after a later rebellion in the southern kingdom, Judah, the last Davidic king, Zedekiah, who reigned from 597 to 587 BC, was captured by the Babylonian Empire under Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed the temple and the kingdom. Zedekiah was blinded after his sons, also descendants of King David, were murdered before his very eyes. Many of Judah’s citizens were marched off to exile in Babylon. Judah was then little more than an impoverished province in a great empire.

Fair is fair. But what about God’s promise of descendant of King David forever on the throne of Israel?

Well, according to the continuing Old Testament story, God “remembered” his people. Eventually, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and the Persian emperor Cyrus issued an edict permitting God’s people to return home.

Psalm 126 speaks of the joy of those who returned to their land a couple generations after being forced away from it: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy ....”2

After many ups and downs, the people were restored to the land, the temple was rebuilt, the walls of Jerusalem were restored and the people resumed the biblical festivals, but God’s promise remained unfulfilled. There was no king descended from David sitting on the throne in Jerusalem.

There were governors and other leaders, but they were not descended from David.

The elephant in the room, the 800-pound gorilla that people pretended not to see, was that God’s promise seemed not to have been kept. There was no king descended from David on the throne.

Earlier we quoted from our passage in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, which seemed to indicate that God rewards faithfulness with faithfulness, and unfaithfulness with unfaithfulness. But one needs to read just a little further: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself”

We are God’s creation. We are God’s delight. Our own faithlessness can bring about consequences, but ultimately, though we defy God, God will not deny us because that would be like God’s self-denial!

See how Paul begins this passage: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David — that is my gospel.” The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” The Good News of Jesus Christ is that he is raised from the dead — and — is a descendant of David!

That’s the point in Revelation, where we investigate heaven and see the reign of Christ acknowledged with these words: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”3

The reign of Christ is eternal, even though it may not be apparent to the world. We are promised, in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that someday “at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”4 The reign of Christ will be acknowledged by all. Right now, a great many in the world do not acknowledge that reign, but even so, Christ reigns.

Now, as Paul writes to Timothy, he is serving in Colossae, in Asia Minor. Not everyone in Colossae would have known much about King David. We’re not sure how Jewish an audience this is — why should descent from David matter to them (or to us, for that matter)? But still, Paul tells them that a divine promise, fulfilled after many long centuries, guarantees God’s faithfulness — and that does matter to us.

God’s promises are fulfilled in God’s time. God’s promise to Abraham that his descendants would outnumber the grains of sand on the beach, the promise to Moses about the Promised Land, and the promise that there would always be a descendant of David on the throne sometimes took centuries to fulfill. But as Paul tells us in our passage, “the word of God is not chained.”

And that’s a hopeful thing for us. Remember that, especially when you feel you haven’t been heard by heaven. Trust in God’s promises, though sometimes you may think you are forgotten. Trust in God’s word, though it seems unfulfilled. Take a good look at the elephant in the room. Then take a second look — because it’s really the Lamb bearing the marks of slaughter that we see in Revelation, whose death and resurrection is the key and because of our salvation, now and forever.

2 Psalm 126:1-2.

3 Revelation 5:12.

4 Philippians 2:10.

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