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2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
As Christians, we accept the reality of our mortality. We know that our time on earth is limited. We even plan for that time when our earthly lives will end by making wills. But most of us would like to make our time here last as long as possible.
We may, in one sense, look forward to a life after death, but we still want to make the most of this life.
And so, except for those cases in which we are told that we have a limited time, and are even informed of how limited that time may be, we’re in no hurry to say good-bye.
Indeed, even people who move for reasons of employment are not often eager to say good-bye to good friends. They may know they will be leaving them, but they put off confronting that fact for as long as possible.
But what would it be like if we were to confront our mortality, and to put that confrontation into words for others to hear or read? What would we say? What would be our summing up?
I had an aunt who died of cancer. She was widowed and, I think, in her late fifties. When she learned that her situation was terminal, she told her physician that she wanted to go home and gather friends around her one last time.
Her physician told her that she should not delay in doing that, because she had very little time.
And she DID gather her friends around her in a final celebration of her life, to thank them for being her friends, to make a statement of her beliefs, to tell them that she was prepared for the end, and to say that she looked forward to being with her husband again.
Of course, there are different views of how we would wish our lives to end. Many of us would prefer to not know when this will happen.
But it would seem, from the words in the final chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, that Paul DID know that his death was imminent. Or at least he had some strong indications. Strong enough, that is, to make a final statement to Timothy.
We read, in the sixth verse of the fourth and final chapter of that letter,
“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.”
Whereas the New Revised Standard Version speaks of a “libation,” the New International Version calls it a “drink offering.” Paul here is speaking of priestly sacrifice. In the twenty-eighth chapter of the book of Numbers we learn of the various kinds of sacrifices set forth in the law. There were burnt offerings, grain offerings, and drink offerings.
Thus, Paul may be seeing himself as a sacrificial offering, giving his life in service to God.
And so, when he says that he is “already being poured out,” he may be saying that he is in the process of dying.
But what is remarkable about the imagery he is using is that it characterizes, for Paul, the rationale and purpose for his death. It gives his death--and, for that matter, the death of all Christians--a dignity beyond simply being an end to life.
If we are dedicated Christians, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus, our lives are messages of love, of peace and good will toward one another. We are making continual sacrifices in service to one another.
So, what Paul is stating here for himself is, I believe, a theological testament appropriate to all of us. We are all, I believe, throughout our lives, “poured out as a libation” or a drink offering, or a sacrifice. If we are Christians, we can live no other way.
And this reminds me of the characterization of Jesus in Paul’s second letter to the Philippians, where we are told that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” In emptying himself, he also was being poured out as a libation.
If you have seen the website for this church on the internet, the address for which is pdtumc.org, and you have seen the pastor’s page, you know that just below my name and picture is the next verse of the fourth chapter of Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
There are many messages in this verse; and it is as meaningful for what it does NOT say as it is for what it DOES.
Look at that first clause: “I have fought the good fight.” Paul loved allusions to athletic contests. Possibly because folks in those days liked sporting events as much as we do today. But notice what he does NOT say here.
He does not say that he has WON any fight, nor that it is just ANY fight in which he has been a contender. No, only that he has “fought the good fight.” It has been a fight worth fighting, and he has given it his best. And indeed, how many battles in this life have we contested that have not been worth it? How many quarrels, quibbles, squabbles have we endured? But Paul KNOWS that there has been a good fight, and he is proud to have been a part of that.
In the second clause he proclaims “I have finished the race.” Notice that he does NOT say, “I have WON the race.” I have finished last, or nearly last, in more races than I care to remember. It all began in the first grade at the annual elementary school track meet.
We had what must have been a 30 or 40 yard dash. And year after year I finished last or next to last. It wasn’t until I was in the seventh grade that I discovered that I wasn’t nearly so bad in longer distances.
In my thirties I discovered that many distance runners have what I consider rather spiritual understandings of running. I once read this definition of winning: “To be a winner is to be in the running.” I think Paul would like that.
In both of these cases--the fight and the race--Paul is proclaiming that he has done what he can: he has fought the fight and finished the race. Winning? I believe that he is leaving that decision up to God. And Paul proclaims, in the final clause, “I have kept the faith.”
I have a problem with impatience. But then, lots of other people probably do, also. I like to see results. And I don’t like to wait for them. But I’ve been reminded, on more than one occasion, by district superintendents and others, that the results are not up to us.
The results are in God’s hands. What God expects of us is to keep the faith. We may plant the seeds, but God is responsible for the harvest. In God’s own time.
“From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
There may be, it seems to me, an odd transition here. The Paul of verse seven was humble, claiming only, by implication, to have given his best in the fight and the race and to have kept the faith.
But now, he is laying claim to a prize “reserved” for him: a crown of righteousness, that God will give him and all other believers. It is a wonderful hope; but is it too presumptuous?
It’s interesting to me that Paul, who makes such a marvelous case for the concept of grace, should be speaking of a crown of righteousness as something that is reserved for us in the life to come.
We need to understand that at their roots, the words justice and righteousness mean the same thing. To be justified by grace is to be declared righteous. We might say that to the faithful God is continually offering a crown of righteousness, if we only believe!
So I would push Paul’s reasoning; and I would claim that the crown of righteousness is reserved for all of us all of the time through the grace of God; and it is granted to all who believe.
From verses nine through fifteen Paul has sundry instructions and observations, and then, in the sixteenth verse claims, “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them!”
Actually, when Paul first began his work of proclaiming the word, following his conversion, folks did not TRUST him. Here was a Pharisee who had persecuted Christians! Why should anyone pay attention to him? Why should anyone believe him?
Scholars have noted that, while on the one hand, it is discouraging to think that some Christians may have failed Paul, on the other hand, Paul’s personality was controversial within Christian circles.
Paul may even have been like the pushy, demanding, nasty boss who can’t understand why his employees don’t like him.
But I don’t think that Paul’s main concern here is with finding fault with his followers. Indeed, he says, “May it not be counted against them!” No, I think he is drawing a contrast. Since the time of his conversion experience, he has been pretty much on his own, with only God on his side. It took a while for Jesus’ disciples to feel comfortable accepting him.
It took a while for other Christians to accept the former Saul of Tarsus. And after they had accepted him as a CHRISTIAN, it was often difficult for many to accept him as a leader because he was so zealous and demanding.
But in spite of all this, God HAS been with him. Paul is not so much indicting Christians for failing to come to his support as he is expressing gratitude to God for continuing with him. And we hear in the next verse,
“But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.”
Now, remember the context for all of this. Paul is thinking that these may be almost his final words. He has said that “the time of my departure has come.” And in that context I hear Paul establishing his relationship with God and God’s purpose for him.
God stood by me.
God gave me strength.
God rescued me from the lion’s mouth.
God did all this so that God’s message might be proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.
I think it’s a good model for all of us. I think we need to be asking the question, “What has God done for us? What does God CONTINUE to do for us? What events in our lives give evidence to us of God’s presence?”
And then, in light of those questions, we need to ask, “Why has God done all this for us? What is it that God is expecting of us?” And I don’t mean to suggest that God expects us to take on missionary journeys like Paul did.
In fact, God may not be asking us to do ANYTHING different! But I imagine that God DOES have expectations.
And wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of us could say, “God has done wonderful things for me, so that through me, like Paul, God’s presence would be experienced throughout the world.”
But knowing that God has brought him this far, and knowing that his time is not yet over, Paul expresses his continuing trust in God:
“The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
And may our faith be as great as that of Paul. Amen.
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