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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Titus 2:1-15
June 16, 2013 - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

         “Wouldn’t it be neat to live there?” said my daughter. We were driving up the McKenzie River Thursday morning to go fishing. She pointed to a For Sale sign that proclaimed “Riverfront Property” in front of a nice little place overlooking the water. Then she said, “But Mommy would worry about floods.” And I answered, “So would I.”

         A river is a beautiful and wonderful thing. We stood by it and cast our lines and reeled in several fish and had a fine outing on the river. But if it had been flooding, there would have been no place to stand. It might have been impossible even to drive to the place where we fished. A river is a beautiful and wonderful thing… as long as it stays in its banks.

         As we turn to the third cardinal virtue today, what we are looking at is the banks of human life. Temperance is the habit of keeping all the good gifts which God has given us from overflowing their boundaries. Temperance in and of itself is not the goal of life, but it’s what keeps us flowing toward the goal, keeps us from letting beautiful and wonderful gifts turn evil and destructive.

         Unlike justice, and like prudence, “temperance” or “temperate” is not a word we use very often, unless we’re talking about the weather. You may not find it at all in English Bible translations. Here in Titus 2:2 it might go almost unnoticed unless we stop and make some connections. When we do, you will see that temperance is actually a pretty frequent theme in Scripture and it is one of the main themes of our text this morning.

         One problem we have with the idea of temperance is that we typically hear it as an historical word. That’s the way the translators of both the NRSV and the NIV have used it here. You may remember from middle school history class that the Temperance Movement was a women’s political force in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that eventually led to Prohibition of alcohol sales in the United States between 1920 and 1933.

         There’s more to say about the American temperance movement, such as that it’s primary motivation was to alleviate domestic abuse of women and children by drunken men. And that it was supported and encouraged alongside the whole movement for women’s rights by people like Susan B. Anthony. It wasn’t just about a bunch of killjoy church women spoiling people’s fun. It was about what we now separate into family values and feminism, both the protection of marriage and family and equality for women.

         For right now, though, notice that temperance came to mean only the kind of word translated here in verse 2. When Paul asks Titus to “Tell the older men to be temperate,” he’s using a word primarily meaning to avoid drunkenness. And if that were all that temperance meant, you would be listening to a sermon that was all and only about abstinence or moderation in relation to alcohol. But, while temperance definitely has something to do with how you drink, it’s also about a whole lot more.

         In verses 5, 6 and 12 Paul uses a word that’s translated “self-control.” It’s not just being in control of oneself. In classical Greek thought it’s the idea of doing nothing to excess, of moderation, of letting a sound mind govern all your actions. In other words, this is temperance in all its aspects. Moderation not just in drink, but in all things.

         Paul is writing to a fellow missionary he left in Crete to put the Christian church in order there. Back in chapter 1 he gives instructions for appointing church leaders in each town. But he also warns that Titus will be dealing with false teaching and with Cretan tendencies toward sin. So in verse 12 of chapter 1 he quotes as a prophet an ancient philosopher from Crete, Epimenides, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.”

         The philosopher didn’t draw a flattering portrait of his own people. They were lying, mean animals, speaking falsehood and eating too much. It’s easy to understand why Paul would touch on temperance four times in just a short space as he directed Titus what to teach to such people.

         Maybe the fact that we hardly ever use the word is a clue. If Paul were writing to a Titus based in the United States, maybe in Oregon, would he talk about temperance? Later this summer we will come back to the specific sins of gluttony and greed and lust which are addressed by the virtue of temperance, but for now it might be good to think about where excess runs amok in our own lives.

         My wife was fascinated by last year’s documentary film “The Queen of Versailles.” It chronicles the bad fortune of the David and Jackie Siegel family who own Westgate Resorts, a huge timeshare operation. A few years ago they set out to build the largest single-family home in America, 90,000 square feet, patterning it after King Louis IX’s luxurious palace of Versailles in France. The original Versailles bankrupted France and helped lead to the French Revolution.

         Excess might seem to be the particular temptation of the rich and powerful. In our Old Testament lesson we found King Ahab, with all his money and big house, feeling like he just had to have the little vineyard of the man next door, Naboth. It doesn’t matter how much he already has, Ahab wants more.

         You don’t have to be rich in order to want too much and to live to excess. Notice that Paul addresses his concern for temperance to all ages, to older men in verse 2, to older women in regard to drink in verse 3, to younger women in verse 5 and to young men in verse 6. In verse 12 the first quality he names for the Christian life in this world is self-control, temperance.

         A couple of months ago I mentioned my favorite novel, The River Why, by David James Duncan. Part of that story is how the protagonist, Gus, sets out to create the “Ideal Schedule.” For him, fishing is the ultimate satisfaction in life, so he tries to get as much of it as he can. He fantasized a perfect routine for every day:

         1. sleep: 6 hrs.
         2. food consumption: 30 min. (between casts)
         3. school: 0 hours
         4. bathroom, etc.: 15 min. (unavoidable)
         5. housework: 30 min.
         6. nonangling conversation: 0 hours
         7. transportation: 45 min.
         8. gear maintenance: 1.5 hours
         9. fishing time: 14.5 hours per day!

         Then Gus said goodbye to his parents and brother, quit school, and moved into a cabin on a river to live his dream. It only took him about two weeks of truly trying to live that way for him to discover that his ideal schedule was actually pretty dismal rather than satisfying. He couldn’t sleep, his dreams were filled with fish, and he was miserable because “There was fishing. There was nothing else.”

         Paul wrote to Titus about how to teach people to live lives which look beyond whatever we’re doing right now. The virtue of temperance in this passage, in verse 12, is part of a spirit expressed by verse 13, “while we wait for the blessed hope and the appearing of our God and Savior Jesus Christ.” We don’t have to try and get too much of things in this life because we have hope for a life to come.

         Talking about temperance is not a way to take the joy out of life. It’s God’s way for us to grow into lives that are truly joyful. As Gus found out excess doesn’t make you happy. It often makes you miserable. Just ask anyone suffering from a hangover or from eating too much or from watching television for hours.

         Moderation, temperance, lets us truly enjoy our pleasures. Cable and satellite companies, Netflix and Hulu and all the rest keep telling you that you will enjoy television more if you only have enough choices. But have you ever surfed past a couple hundred channels or movies and found absolutely nothing you wanted to watch? More is not always better. It’s often a total disaster for happiness… and for spiritual life.

         Temperance might seem boring. That person who only has a drink or two, who shuts the television off and goes to bed after watching one program, who puts money in the bank instead of buying another pair of shoes, might seem like a pretty dull customer. But that temperate person is less bored than the one who is staying up all night drinking or playing video games. It’s excess that’s boring, not temperance.

         Of course there’s a spirit that looks like temperance, but is just another kind of excess. Temperance is balance, moderation, in both directions. A temperate climate is one that has no extremes, it’s not too hot or too cold. A temperate life is one that avoids extremes in any direction. So you can be intemperate by using too much of a good thing, but also by using too little. Overeating and anorexia are both failures of temperance. The control freak who has to have everything just right is as immoderate and excessive as the person who just doesn’t care what he does.

         Pause for a moment and think about all the different areas of our lives where we are tempted to excess. All the seven deadly sins we will talk about this summer are in some way failures of temperance. We’ve mentioned gluttony and touched on greed and lust, but pride and anger and envy and sloth are also ways in which we go to excess. Temperance is the virtue which moves our souls away from all sorts of sin and toward the good lives God want us to have.

         There’s a good reason for calling this temperance rather than self-control as most Bible translators do. “Self-control” sounds like something you do for yourself. You get your desires in check. You curb your appetites. You bring your mind and actions into balance. But the truth is you can’t do it by yourself.

         The “Queen of Versailles” picked up the Siegels’ story in 2008 as the bottom dropped out of the timeshare business and they suddenly had to live on much less than they used to. Construction stopped and the family had a rude entry into ordinary life. For Beth and many viewers, Jackie Siegel seemed to emerge as the heroine of the story as she managed to remain cheerful through setbacks like having to eat at McDonalds and fly economy class on a commercial airline. It looked like she might be learning temperance.

         But it didn’t stick. At the end of April Jackie Siegel appeared on a Bravo interview after the film was shown. She told viewers that their business had recovered and that construction had resumed. They are doing well in a 26,000 square-foot house on a private island while waiting for Versailles to be finished. She was dressed in a leopard-skin blouse wearing a thick gold necklace. It looks like she didn’t learn anything.

         Paul says, “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions…” We’re only going to find real temperance, real moderation of all our wants and passions, when we turn to the grace of God which appeared to us in Jesus Christ.

         Our Gospel lesson show us that happening for a woman who really did turn away from her old life of sin and excess. She took that alabaster jar of ointment, an expensive luxury she may have earned as a prostitute, and devoted it to Jesus. And because of her love for Jesus, she received grace. Her sins were forgiven. Jesus told her, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

         That’s the salvation which Paul says Jesus brings to all, to anyone who will set aside all the other stuff we think we want and accept His grace. He saves us and sends us out to go in His peace, in His simple, good life in which we don’t live by excess, but by grace.

         Temperance is a balanced life. And to be balanced you need a point on which to balance. Once in our old home the sliding glass door fell off its track. I took a deep breath and lifted it back into place. But it fell off again. I took it down and saw that the rollers were jammed and broken. It couldn’t stay balanced, stay on track. It fell to one side or the other because it had nothing to support it.

         Jesus Christ is the balance point for a temperate life. Jesus Christ can strengthen the banks on the river of all those feelings and wants and needs that run through us. Jesus Christ is the place to turn if you want to have the virtue of temperance, if you want a life that doesn’t keep falling off the tracks or running over the banks.

         I can’t say exactly how it will look for you. But in Christ your life will grow more balanced. You will find the right balance of work and play, the proper amounts for you to eat or drink, a good proportion between what you spend on yourself and what you give away, a healthy distribution of time between home and family and friends and being alone. It will start to fit together, to run straight, to roll where it should.

         At the center of that balanced life, however, will be your relationship to Jesus. You will find time to give yourself to Jesus like the woman in Luke. You will worship and pray and read about Him in the Bible. You will sing His praises and hope for His coming and serve others in His name.

         As Josef Pieper says, temperance is not the river. It’s not in itself the final good which God wants for us. But temperance let’s the good flow where and how it should. It accomplishes what Paul talks about here in verse 14, that Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity,” all our imbalance, “and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” That pure life of good deeds is the point of temperance. It’s the life our Lord made us for. It’s the life He gave Himself to give us.

         One last word. People around us will still think temperance is boring and even stupid. Why cut back on a pleasure when you can have more? Why not a few more drinks? Why not another sexual partner if you can get away with it? Why not more clothes or tools or shoes or fishing gear or golf clubs? If you can have it, why not?

         Paul has already given us his answer to that. It’s not the life God means for us, because those things are not where our hope is. And so he says to Titus, “Declare these things, exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.”

         Let no one look down on you. It’s not boring or stupid to be temperate because you love Jesus. It’s the most blessed and beautiful way to live. Let no one look down on that.


         Valley Covenant Church
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated June 16, 2013