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Finishing Well

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 24, 2010.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Joseph Wittig once said that when we write people’s biographies we should start with their death, not with their birth.  After all, we have nothing to do with the way our lives begin, but we have a lot to do with the way they end. 

Take George Washington, for example.  For all his fame as our first American President and “Father of our Country,” his beginning in life was a mixed bag at best.  Washington’s father died when George was a teenager, and his mother was an emotional mess.  Because of war, George Washington never got a college education like his older brothers. He failed to marry the true love of his life, and could never have children with the woman he did marry.

Eventually, Washington went into the military where he didn’t fare much better.   He first fought for the British, and his eagerness to attack drew the British into the French and Indian War.  Later, he led soldiers into a battle and was crushed by the French and Indian forces.  In fact, over the course of his life, Washington and his troops would lose more battles than they would win, even in the Revolutionary War.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, George Washington could do one thing very well—finish.  Even though he had struggled on the battlefield, General Washington was named Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in the American Revolution.  After a series of exhilarating victories and humiliating defeats, and losing many soldiers to desertion along the way, Washington and his remaining troops retreated to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania for the frigid winter of 1777.  Times were desperate.  2,500 of Washington’s 10,000 troops died during the course of the winter from disease, exposure, and starvation.   

Understandably, Washington came very close that winter to calling it quits.  He sent a letter to his brother that said, “I think the game is up!…I believe no man has ever had greater difficulties and less means to extricate himself from them.”  If Washington had quit, his personal life and our national history would have been very different.  But by the skin of his teeth and the grace of God Washington held on, and the rest is history. 

In time, Washington would win the most important battle of the American Revolution—the last one.  And he would shepherd our nation as its first president, establishing government structures and presidential protocols that last to this day.  Nevertheless, when Washington died, he knew America was still fragile, and he died not knowing if our republic would survive.

This week as I have reflected on what amounts to the Apostle Paul’s last will and testament in 2 Timothy 4, I could not help but see the parallels between George and Paul.  Both men possessed immense strengths and glaring weaknesses.  But when the going got tough and you could only choose one ally, you wouldn’t want anybody else in your corner. 

Paul, you remember, started his life as Saul of Tarsus.  He was a brilliant student of Judaism, and until he met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus he was on the upward path toward the prestigious Sanhedrin Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court.   He was not only a genius but a zealot.  He specialized in chasing down, persecuting, and even executing Christians who were threatening to undermine his precious Judaism. 

Then, just as he was about to become the next Moses for the Jews, he met Jesus, and his life was never the same.  For the next thirty years, Paul preached, taught, evangelized, and wrote about the gospel.  Except for Jesus, nobody had more to do with establishing Christianity than Paul.  Thirteen of the twenty-six books of the New Testament are attributed to Paul.  To imagine Christianity without Paul is like trying to imagine the ACC without basketball!

Now, this man who has clearly said on more than one occasion that he is eager to be in heaven with his Lord is about to get his wish.  Paul is sitting in a jail—we’re not sure where—pondering his imminent death.  Some people think Paul is in his mid-fifties at this point, but truthfully we don’t know.  All we know is that Nero is emperor of Rome in the mid-60s AD, and Paul is the leader of the very Christian movement Nero has vowed to destroy. 

In all likelihood, the words Paul either pens or dictates (to Luke) in 2 Timothy are his last.  These are famous words, read often at funerals, that stir our hearts and stimulate our imaginations.  But they are also poignant, painfully  honest words that cause us to reflect on our own lives, especially if we want to finish well.

I am already being poured out like a drink offering, Paul writes, and the time for my departure is near.  Like the customary wine that Jews pour over sacrifices, or that Romans pour out at the conclusion of their meals in worship of their gods, the cup of Paul’s life is about to be drained to the very last drop for God.  Paul is holding nothing back for his Lord. 

Paul refers to his death as a “departure.”  The Greek root of this word speaks of untying ropes so that a ship bound in the harbor can set sail for the horizon.  For Paul, death is not a nightmare to fear, but a dream come true, a journey to a destination that is so wonderful, so marvelous that it defies human description.

Paul continues with these immortal wordsI have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. 

I have fought the good fight.  Yes, he has.  The Greek word for “fight” is agon, from which we get our word, “agony.”  As he makes clear in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul has truly agonized over and for the Christian faith—he’s been imprisoned, flogged, whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and nearly starved to death.  Not only that, he’s been under constant stress trying to lead the various churches he’s started.  Whoever says the Christian life is nothing but sweetness and light has clearly never read Paul.

What’s interesting to me is that Paul never claims to have won the good fight.  In fact, like George Washington, Paul dies not knowing if the very organization he’s dedicated his life to will even survive.   All he knows is he’s done his best. 

Did you realize, friends, at the end of the day this is all any of us will know?  We may not see the results of what we have worked so hard for in this lifetime.  But that’s okay.  Our mandate is to fight the good fight. 

And finish the race. Paul loves athletic metaphors.  He and his readers are familiar with the competition of the Greek games.  Paul knows the marathon of Christian ministry is not his to run alone.  He’s about to hand the baton to Timothy and others who will continue the work of the kingdom.  But he’s determined to sprint to the end of his leg of the race, fixing his eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

And, he’s equally determined to keep the faith.  This phrase can mean that like any athlete with honor Paul will keep his promise to train consistently and compete fairly.  It can also mean that Paul will keep the faith he preaches pure and unblemished from heresy.      

Once Paul has completed the race, he will be awarded not a laurel wreath of leaves that will eventually wilt, but a crown of righteousness that will last for all eternity.  By the way, Paul is quick to acknowledge that he will share this heavenly reward with all who faithfully serve the kingdom, and await the coming of Jesus.

Fred Craddock observes that one reason this passage fires us up is because we have visions of giving our lives to Christ in some dramatic, eye-catching way that involves going out in a blaze of glory.  “We think,” says Craddock, “that giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1000 bill, laying it on the table, and saying, ‘Here’s my life, Lord.  I’m giving it all.”

“But the reality for most of us is that the Lord sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1000 for quarters.  We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there.  We listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’  We go to a committee meeting.  We give a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home.  Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious.  It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time.  It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”

The truth is, most of us will never have either the agony or the fame of an Apostle Paul or a George Washington.  We won’t start a universal church or a new country.  But we can make a difference in this world if we will pour ourselves out, fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith 25 cents at a time. 

It’s tempting to stop the sermon right here, and frankly most sermons on this passage do end here because Paul is  portrayed as going out in a blaze of glory.  But we cheat ourselves of some of the richness of Paul’s final thoughts if we ignore what’s left. 

In the remaining verses, Paul gets very personal and vulnerable.  You may think you are the only person who’s been deserted or betrayed by your best friend.  If so, then you should listen to the pain in Paul’s voice as he reports about how people in his inner circle have bailed out on him.  George Washington would later have the same testimony.  For that matter, so would Jesus.  Jesus was alone when he was tried and found guilty.  So was Paul.  You literally change the world, and then the very people you count on bail out on you! 

Friends, that’s part of life.  We all carry wounds by abandonment.  And part of finishing well involves letting God heal those wounds by forgiving the very people who turned their backs on us.  Paul says, May it not be held against them.  Which is another way of saying, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they may do. 

If you want to finish poorly in this life, refuse to forgive those who have hurt you or left you.  But if you want to finish well, turn those people on to God.

Another thing I notice is that Paul gives the Lord credit for all his accomplishments.  The Lord stood at my side, Paul says, and gave me strength so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.  And I was delivered from the lion’s mouth.  Which is just a metaphorical way of saying that time and time again God delivered Paul from danger and used Paul for the kingdom. 

It interests me that in his final days on earth Paul is neither patting himself on the back for all his accomplishments nor beating himself up for all his failures.  Paul blew it many times.  For goodness sake, he actually assisted in the murder of the first Christian martyr, Stephen!  You know Paul could have raked himself over the coals for the rest of his life just for that.  But he didn’t.

Nor did Paul revel in all his accomplishments.  He had a resumé second to none.  If anybody had reason to brag, Paul did.  But there’s no braggadocia in him.  Paul understands his gifts and his message come from God.  And even when his human supporters have been scarce, the Holy Spirit has been by his side every step of the way.

Even so this story does not end like a fairy tale with Paul living happily ever after.  According to tradition, Paul is beheaded by Nero’s government.  Of course, that’s better than being crucified upside down like Peter.  But who’s going to say to being beheaded is a good way to die?

Doesn’t Paul’ s execution make a mockery of Paul’s claim that The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom?  No, remember they can kill anyone’s body including Paul’s.  But the soul remains intact—no matter what Nero or a terminal illness for that matter may do.

Friends, our bodies may not have storybook endings.  But rest assured, our souls will ultimately rest in the hands of God.  And then it will be our turn to say, to (God) be (the) glory for ever and ever.  Amen.