Wednesday, October 26, 2016

View from the Finish Line - 2 Timothy 4:1-7, Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7

12 Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with[a] the rain; in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low;when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along[b] and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped,[c] and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath[d] returns to God who gave it.

2 Timothy 4:1-7

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

            In the film, Saving Private Ryan, an old man takes a journey to a cemetery on French soil.  He walks by row after row of white crosses.  Behind him his wife and grown children follow.  He finds the grave he is looking for and begins to remember his experiences following D-Day.  He remembers the sacrifices that were made for him, and all of the young men who died to save him.

            He begins to sob and turns to his wife and asks, “Have I been a good man?”

            It is a question that is asked only near the end of life.  He does not ask as a young man, “Will I be a good person,” but rather he asks this when he can reflect back on his life - “Have I been a good person?”

            In the New Testament Lesson, Paul is standing at his own grave. 

He is in prison and he probably knows it will not be long before he dies.

He is brave,
but also afraid. 

He is comforted by the presence of God,
but he is also lonely. 

            Our New Testament Lesson comes from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, and in many ways, it is his most personal letter.  As he ends it, you can hear the sorrow and pain of this man, even as he finds strength from his deep faith.[1]

            “Do your best to come to me quickly,” Paul writes, “for Demas … has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you …  When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments .”[2]

            Paul is standing at his own grave.

            And there is a different perspective when one stands at his or her own grave. 

            As Paul looks back, he says in our New Testament lesson, “the time has come for my departure.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.[3]

            There is a different perspective when one stands at the end of life.

            In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is old and close to death.  When you read Ecclesiastes, you should have a mental image of King Solomon in a nursing home bed, with IVs in his arm and an oxygen tube around his nostrils.  As he closes the book of Ecclesiastes, he implores the reader, “Remember you Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come … before the sun and light and moon and the stars grow dark ... when desire is no longer stirred … and man goes to his eternal home.”[4] 

            Solomon has run his race.  He fought his fight.  He stands at his own grave.  And he has that unique perspective on life.

            I remember the first time I met Randy.  He was on the Pastor Nominating Committee of a church I served years ago.  He was in a wheel chair.  He was pale and he was so weak he could barely lift his head to look at me.  He was 28 years old.  He’d just had his first surgery for cancer.  He would later have many, many more such surgeries.  Eventually, he came to accept that he would not live as long as he’d once hoped.

            However – even with that acceptance of his coming death, Randy’s strength was renewed and he was able to go back to work for a few years.  Not only to work, but to go back to school and earn a teaching certificate.  He left his first career behind and spent the last few years of his life teaching high school.

            He was elected to the Session and ordained as an elder. 

            But his cancer was always there, and it was always aggressive, and death was always a close companion.

            In one meeting of the session we were agonizing over some decision we were trying to make.  I don’t even remember what it was about.  Randy finally spoke up and said, “Looking from my perspective, with one foot in the grave, this issue is not that important.”

            That’s the way it is in life.  Your perspective changes when looking from the grave.

            St Paul is at the finish line, nearing the end of his life.  What words of wisdom does he share with us?

            First of all, Paul says something very disturbing and unsettling.

            What we want to say to infants and children and teenagers and to young people at graduation is -- “Life is wonderful.  You have your whole life ahead of you.”

            What Paul says is, “Life is tough.”

            Instead of saying, “Relax.  You’ve got Mastercard.  Put your feet up.  Enjoy”  What Paul says is “keep your head in all situations, endure hardship.”[5] 

            At the end of his life, as he looks back on it, he says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

            When he says, “I have the fought the good fight,” the word for fighting that he uses is the Greek word “Agon,” – which is, of course, the root of our English word, “agony.” 

            Life is a struggle.  It can be agony.          

            That is not to say that life is bad.  Life is good.  I love life.  Most of us do.  But most of us who have been running this race long enough know what Paul is saying when he says that life is like a fight, it can be agony.

You live long enough, you experience so much.  It’s hard to go through school.  It’s hard to find that first job.  It’s hard to lose a job, or to be in a job you don’t enjoy.  Marriage and love can bring pain as well as joy.  You have children and then you have to raise them – which is a struggle.  There are times people hurt you, sometimes on purpose.  There are people who are unfaithful to you – and maybe you are the unfaithful one to those you love.  You get sick.  Maybe you don’t get well.

Agon – fighting the good fight – agony.

            How can you endure life?

            Paul, as he stood at his own grave he said, “I have fought the good fight, I finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

            We endure the agony of life – and more than endure, we find joy in life – by keeping the faith.

            What many people do, however, is to reject the faith.

            They let go of their faith and begin to embrace what Paul describes as something that “tickles their ears.”

            Have you seen the commercial on television in which a group of professional people are in a gondola as they move up a mountain.  The car is high above the ground when it comes to a sudden stop.  The car rocks back and forth and everyone becomes very serious.  A large bird lands on the top of the car and begins to scratch at the cable car making strange sounds.

            “What’s that,” someone asks in panic.

            “I don’t know,” someone else says.

            Fear grips the passengers until one person says, “Don’t panic.  I’ve taken a class.  We need to think positive thoughts.”

            With no one watching, one passenger calmly pushes an emergency start button and the cable car continues on its way, but everyone else thinks the positive thinker is the hero.

            We embrace shallow and meaningless things, simply because, as Paul says, “They tickle our ears.”

            And when that happens – we ignore the things that will truly help us – our faith.  Our TRUE faith.

            CNN had a news item not long ago about how “some Christian congregations, particularly in lower income, urban areas, are turning to an unlikely source for help – the Church of Scientology.”[6]

            Scientology was a faith invented by a science fiction writer, L. Ron Hubbard.  It is a complicated faith, but let me share with you one central doctrine and you can make your own evaluation:

            Scientology believes Xenu was an alien ruler of the "Galactic Confederacy" who, 75 million years ago, brought billions of people to Earth in spacecraft resembling a Douglas DC-8 airplane from the 1950s.  Xenu then stacked these billions of people around volcanoes and blew them up with hydrogen bombs. Their souls then clustered together and stuck to the bodies of the living. Scientologists believe alien souls continue to do this today, causing a variety of physical ill-effects in modern-day humans.[7]

            And yet, according to CNN, some Christian congregations are turning to the Church of Scientology for help.  One pastor said he uses Scientology material to supplement to his sermons. He believes it is easier to understand and clearer to follow than ancient Scriptures taken from the Bible.   When asked whether Scientology's values contradict the religion of Jesus Christ, this pastor said, "Sometimes yes. Sometimes no." But he says the teachings of Scientology helped his congregation “get through the day.”

            Well – Scientology may get you the day, but will it get you through eternity?

            That’s our problem.  We look for a support system that feels good.  We look for whatever will get us through the problem of the day. 

            The student in school has a hard time studying.  So what will get you through the day?  What will help you pass the next test?  Cheating.  But that doesn’t get you through to graduation.  It just gets you through the day.  But that won’t get you to the finish line.

            A woman has a difficult day at work and finds strength to face another day by drinking a bottle of Scotch.  But that won’t get you to the finish line.

            We judge churches by how they entertain us for the moment, not by how they inspired us for a life.  Entertainment may get you through the day, but it doesn’t get you to the finish line.

            We search the self-help books in the book stores, and we often go for the feel-good book of the month rather than the wisdom of the ages printed in Scripture.

            We look for those easy answers.  But Paul says, “Endure.” Live life so that at the finish line you can look back and say, “I held on to the faith.”

            This is nothing new.

            Even in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry people sought the feel good, get me through the day sort of faith. 

            At the beginning of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, people can’t get enough of Jesus.  They are following him like modern day Paparazzi following Rihanna or Justin Bieber.

            Then Jesus begins to talk about suffering and the realities of life.  The followers say, “These hard sayings.”  They want easy sayings.  Feel good sayings.  Shallow teachings that will get them through the day.

“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”[8]

            Someday, my name will be mentioned on All Saints Day as having died during the past year.  Your name will be called.  All of us will someday die.

            I was in a Bible Study group one time, and the question was asked, “What do you want written on your tombstone?”

            Some people said things like, “Faithful wife,” and others said things like, “loving father.” 

When it came my turn, I said I’d like my tombstone to read, “Here lies Maynard Pittendreigh.  He died of extremely old age.”

But whether I die later today, or live to be 108, that day will come. 

And looking back from the finish line, what do we say about our lives?

Do we realize that we wasted our time on those things that simply “tickled our ears” and “got through the day.”

Or do we say, “we held onto the faith – because it was faith in Christ that did more than get us through the day – it was this faith that gave us words of eternal life.”
Copyright 2016. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

[1] There is some debate about whether or not Paul wrote II Timothy.  Much of this involves differences in vocabulary and style, which can be explained by the difference in purpose.  Paul is not writing a formal letter as he did with the Romans, or a rebuke or instructional letter as he did with the Corinthians.  Timothy is a personal note to a younger minister.
[2] II Timothy 4:9-15
[3] II Timothy 4:6-8
[4] Ecclesiastes 12:1-5
[5] II Timothy 4:5
[7] Sappell, Joel; Robert W. Welkos (24 June 1990). "The Scientology Story". Los Angeles Times: page A36:1.
[8] John 6:66-69