Finishing the Race

October 23rd, 2022 homily on 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18 by Pastor Galen

The Corn Maze

Yesterday, our family had the opportunity to go through a corn maze. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a corn maze, it’s basically a gigantic maze that has been cut into a cornfield – in this case, a 6-acre field with corn that has been planted close together and extended high up over our heads so that we couldn’t see over it, and you literally have to walk through the maze, trying to find your way out (and search for clues or hidden objects along the way). It’s a great autumn activity that’s become popular in the past few decades, and while getting lost in a cornfield may sound like a nightmare to some, it can actually be quite fun with the right group of people.

Now the thing is that it’s not really a race to see who can get through the fastest. It’s a group activity in which you have to work together to find your way out. And the goal is to make it out – no matter how long it takes – with everyone you came into the maze with. And in that way, I think it’s actually a good analogy for the Christian life, and similar to the image that the Apostle Paul uses here in 2 Timothy of running a race – not a race to see who can finish the fastest – but rather a race where the goal is to run well – to finish strong – and not just individually, but with the other members of our community as well.

2 Timothy Recap

Before we jump into chapter 4, I want to recap a little bit of what we’ve seen and learned along the way in our study of the book of 2 Timothy. If you’ll remember from back in chapter 1, it is
traditionally believed that the apostle Paul wrote this letter to Timothy from the city of Rome, where Paul was in prison because of his boldness for sharing the Gospel. The letter was written as an encouragement to Timothy, but it has been preserved and passed down through the ages as part of the canon of Scripture that it might challenge and encourage each and every one of us in our faith and walk with God.

In chapter 1, Paul encouraged Timothy to “rekindle” or “fan into flame” the faith that had been passed down to him by his grandmother and mother. We talked about how each and every one of us have inherited a legacy of faith from those who have gone before us. Even if we weren’t born into a family of believers, as members of Christ’s Church we have spiritual parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles – women and men of faith throughout history who lived for God. We explored a bit about the history of our own congregation, and the strong legacy of faith that has been passed down to us from those who founded our church, and worked and prayed for revival over the generations. (In fact, in the early years our congregation was called “the church of constant revival!”

2 weeks ago, we looked at Paul’s imagery of dinnerware, and how Paul told Timothy that we should aspire to be like the special plates that people bring out at holiday feasts. Every person on this earth is treasured and valued by God, but the encouragement here is to try to live above the fray, to not get stuck in the quagmire of useless chatter and gossip and empty words that are constantly vying for our attention. If we want to be vessels that are useful to God, we need to intentionally silence those voices or diminish their presence in our lives so that we can stay single-mindedly focused on the mission that God has given to us.

And then, last week, we looked at the importance of Scripture. We talked about how the Bible really has a multitude of purposes, and how it not only inspires and instructs us in the way that we should live our lives, but it also contains warnings – often through examples of what we should not do. Among other things, the Bible shows us the rebellion of humanity so that we can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before us – but we also talked about the importance of studying Scripture together in community, because you might see something that I don’t see, and I might see something that you don’t see. As we study Scripture together as a community, our vision of God can be enlarged and expanded.

“I have finished the race”

And now today we come not only to the end of Paul’s letter to Timothy, but also to Paul’s final reflections as he is nearing the end of his life. Here in chapter 4, we see that Paul has come to grips with the reality that he will pass on to glory very soon. And so there’s a certain gravity to his words, even in some of the seemingly
instructions that he gives to Timothy. In the intervening verses (2 Timothy 4:9-15), Paul instructs Timothy to come and visit him, and to bring his coat, and his writing supplies. He even instructs Timothy to bring their colleague Mark – who had previously deserted Paul. But now as Paul is nearing the end of his life, he wants to get his affairs in order, to reconcile with anyone he may have hurt previously, and he desires to have those closest to him be with him.

And here as Paul is reflecting back over his life, he uses the imagery of running and completing a race, saying, “…the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Notice here that Paul does not claim to have won the race – only that he has completed it. Paul does not list out all of the good things he has done, or list his many accomplishments. Rather, his focus here is that he has run the race well, and he has completed it. He has remained faithful to his mission and calling. And that’s what really matters.

Beyond the Numbers

You see, so often we judge or evaluate someone based on their accomplishments and achievements. What has been the outcome of their work, or their research? Our bosses like hard data and numbers. We have a saying, “the numbers speak for themselves.” And it means that if you can demonstrate growth in numbers, or percentages, or dollar amounts, then normally supervisors and shareholders and board members don’t necessarily want to know how that growth was achieved – they are satisfied with numerical growth.

And yet how often have we see celebrities and CEOs and even
televangelists and megachurch pastors who have demonstrated phenomenal numerical growth, building up a tremendous following, gaining fortune and fame and the admiration and accolades of many, and yet it all came crashing down when they were caught in a scandal, or a moral failure, or anything that caused the favor of the crowds to turn away from them.

By contrast, there are many people – everyday people like you and me – employees, retirees, teachers, parents, business owners, pastors, who live their life in relative obscurity, plugging away at their work each and every day, faithfully fulfilling the responsibilities assigned to them, and in doing so they make invaluable contributions to society. Indeed, I believe it is often those people who faithfully show up day in and day out – many of whom fly under the radar and never receive recognition for their work or accomplishments – that are the people who truly make a difference in this world.

Interestingly enough, although we tend to put the Apostle Paul on a pedestal in our minds, Paul was in many ways one of those people who lived his life in relative obscurity. Sure, he was well-known in certain circles – but mostly as a missionary who traveled around a lot and was always off planting churches somewhere. We never really see him drawing throngs of people crowding around him, seeking to touch the hem of his garments, like Jesus. And he definitely didn’t have political power like the politicians of his day. His writings were circulated around to the different churches, but when he was writing those letters to the churches, I don’t think it ever dawned on him that they would be included in the Scriptures, or that 2,000 years later we would be reading his letters in church.

And even in his day, he was a rather controversial character – he seems to be one of those people that people either loved or hated. Here in chapter 4, we see that many people turned away from him. No doubt many Christians distanced themselves from him when he was incarcerated – since in that society (and unfortunately so often in ours today as well) people were often assumed guilty until proven innocent, rather than the other way around. Even though Paul was imprisoned for his boldness in declaring the Gospel, no doubt there were many who thought that his personality or his methodology were to blame for his incarceration – and they wanted nothing to do with him.

And so, rather than imagining the Apostle Paul as this huge celebrity figure, I find it helpful to remember that Paul was a local church pastor and missionary who spent a lot of his free time making tents in order to support his missionary efforts. He didn’t have a million followers or Twitter, he didn’t have a national platform. He wasn’t even always well-known and respected in his field. But he did indeed stay true to his mission and calling. He put in the time, logged the hours, and stayed faithful to the tasks set before him. And so at the end of his life, he can indeed say with all truthfulness, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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” (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

Get Back Up Again

Now of course this doesn’t mean that Paul was perfect, or that he never made mistakes. Far from it! In fact, in 1 Timothy chapter 1, Paul says “that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15).

In this life we will all stumble and fall at times – and that’s where God’s grace and forgiveness comes in. But those failures and setbacks do not need to prevent us from continuing on, and running faithfully to the end. This past week I was struck by Proverbs 24:16, which says, “for though [the righteous] fall seven times, they will rise again, but the wicked are overthrown by calamity.”

Referring to this particular verse, Gospel music artist Donnie McClurkin says, “we in the church would call [someone] wicked, if [they] fall seven times. One time we can understand. Twice – maybe. But seven times? But what makes [this person] just from the Bible’s standpoint is that he has enough sense to realize that he can get back up” (from the Album, “Live in London”).

And that, I believe, is the key. You see, part of the reason celebrity failures often cause such a huge backlash is that we build them up to be icons of perfection in our minds. And so when they make a mistake, the whole facade of perfection comes crashing down all around them.

This is why, no matter how many followers we have, no matter our role or station in life – it’s important to admit when we’ve failed. To acknowledge our need and dependence on God’s grace, and to see reconciliation with God and with others. Admitting our mistakes, receiving grace and forgiveness goes a long way in helping us to get back up again, to keep on running, and to eventually be able to say along with Paul that we too have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.

Finishing the Race – Together

And so may we be encouraged this morning that this life is not a contest to see who can amass the most followers, or receive the most accolades. May we be reminded that the point is to finish the race well – to remain faithful to the calling that God has for us. And may we remember that we are called to run this race together. Like our group that went through the corn maze yesterday, we need to look out for each other, to help each other make it through. There will be times when I may lead, there may be times when you will lead. We all have our gifts and strengths, and we need the gifts and graces of each and every person to make it through. Sometimes we’ll be helped by random strangers along the way, at other times we’ll need to give or receive encouragement or practical help to one another. But it’s important that we strive together, as a unified Church, helping each and every person to finish strong.

Through it all, may we be encouraged to know, like the Apostle Paul, that the Lord will always be by our side, never leaving us for forsaking us, giving us the strength and endurance we need to finish the race.

So may we lean and depend on God’s grace. May we look to him for our strength, and may we encourage one another, that we may remain faithful to the end.

Amen.

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