A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock Ark., on October 24, 2010.
2 Timothy 4:6-18
As far as we know, humans are the only creatures on earth that ponder the meaning of their living. Ants and elephants may do so, but we haven’t figured it out yet. But history, philosophy, art, religion, science, literature, and many other subjects show that humans can and do think about what our living means. Whether we do it well or poorly, before acting or afterwards, humans ponder what we do, what others do, and what our living means. We are prodded to do this by significant events such as births, weddings, serious illnesses, and deaths. Indeed, every funeral or memorial service we attend forces us to think about what living means.
Paul’s words to Timothy that we consider in today’s lesson appear based on such a significant event. The passage suggests that Paul understands that he is facing death. We are reading his intimate letter to a dear friend and younger colleague in the religion of Jesus. What would you write or say to a loved one under these circumstances about what your living has meant?
Unlike most of us and so much of our culture, Paul does not sugarcoat the situation. As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come [2 Timothy 4:6]. This is honest talk about dying that we rarely see or allow ourselves to hear. We do not want our loved ones to speak of dying. We do not want to think about the reality of death. Even with all the evidence of approaching death around us, we try our best to wish death away.
Paul doesn’t do it that way. Instead, he says to Timothy “… the time of my departure has come.” Paul isn’t pretending that things are better than they are. He isn’t hiding the truth from himself or Timothy. He’s preparing himself and Timothy for departure. He must move away from Timothy in a way unlike all other partings. Because he knows this is happening and loves Timothy, Paul acts to prepare Timothy for that parting.
We often read, hear, and draw comfort from Paul’s words at funerals and memorial services. But Paul wasn’t writing an obituary to comfort Timothy after he died. He was writing to prepare Timothy for his death and help Timothy view that death within the greater context of his living for God. We who understand that death is a parting owe it to our loved ones to prepare them for our departure.
Paul also spent some time framing his life and ministry for Timothy. I have fought the good fight [2 Tim. 4:7]. For Paul, life was not an aimless exercise. Life involved a decision to struggle for something Paul called “the good fight.” He had lived with purposeful intensity and saw himself involved in a mighty contest for something worthwhile, noble, and redeeming.
I have finished the race. And Paul framed his life as an ongoing pursuit of that noble cause. It was a marathon, not a sprint. The worthwhile struggle of living cannot be run or finished like a sprint. It must be approached and conducted with the discipline, stamina, and determination of a distance runner.
I have kept the faith. It is as if Paul is saying to Timothy, “Living involves choices about loyalty. I chose to believe that God has me here to live for God’s glory, and I kept my focus on God’s glory. That is why I fought the good fight. That is why I didn’t quit the race during the tough times. I believe in God’s love, God’s truth, God’s justice, and God’s glory, and Timothy, I built my life on that faith. That faith led to ‘the good fight.’ That faith led me to run the race. I held onto that faith. That faith defined my living, my memories, and is the focus for my future.”
Remember that we are reading passages from a letter, not overhearing a conversation. Timothy cannot stop Paul from sharing his thoughts. Paul has the initiative and controls the message Timothy must read. Paul, the person facing imminent death, is setting the agenda. Paul’s writing his epitaph, not his obituary.
Well, what can we take from this?
We can consider whether our lives are being spent in “the good fight.” Are we spending our years doing things that can ultimately be called “good?” That raises the question about the meaning of “good fight.” What does it say about us that we would rather be known for having avoided involvement in the fight for justice? How can we fight the good fight without working to fight oppression, violence, and other violations of God’s love?
Paul shows us that there is a dimension to living that can’t be experienced unless we are willing to involve ourselves in “the good fight.” Unless we are willing to put ourselves on the line for truth, love, peace, justice, and hope, then we will not fight the good fight. Perhaps we will be content to watch others fight. Perhaps we will run from the fight. Many people build their lives around what they can earn or gain from practices and policies that are unloving and unjust. When their departure is at hand, they cannot truly claim to have fought “the good fight” for justice.
We need to give and receive mercy. As we read Paul’s personal message to Timothy we learn painful things from the names that are mentioned. Listen to Paul.
- “Do your best to come to me soon, for … [o]nly Luke is with me.”
- “Demas … has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. …I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus.”
- “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; … you also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message.”
- “At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me.”
- “May it not be counted against them!”
When our backs are against the wall it hurts to see our friends avoid us. But this happens. Paul had already been through a trial. Some dear friends had deserted him. He could have held onto the pain of their abandonment in the spirit of bitterness, but he didn’t. “May it not be counted against them!”
The man for whom following Jesus had meant the loss of so much now follows Jesus in a prayer of grace concerning those whose abandonment had caused so much pain. “May it not be counted against them!” sounds very much like “Father, forgive them.” We must learn to show mercy if we are to fight the good fight well.
At the same time that Paul was showing mercy toward the people who appear to have abandoned him, he also appeared to be requesting mercy from someone else. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry [2 Tim. 4:11(b)]. Paul had not always been charitable toward Mark. In fact, Paul was so rigidly intolerant after Mark became homesick during a missionary journey that Paul and Barnabas parted company. Now, facing the end of his days, Paul appears to realize his error. Mark is useful. Paul has to forgive Mark and ask Mark for forgiveness. So must we. Who has wounded you? Who have you wounded?
At the same time, notice that Paul cautions Timothy about Alexander. If living means involvement in “the good fight,” we must be alert for threats and harms. We must be “wise as serpents, harmless as doves.” Where are the threats and threatening people as we live “the good fight”?
Victorious living involves trust in God’s justice and mercy. Paul has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. He has endured the wounds that come from living for God’s grace and truth, including wounds from others and self-inflicted wounds. With his time running down, Paul speaks from a trust that is electrifying.
- From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me …and also to all who have longed for his appearing [2 Tim. 4:8].
- Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds [2 Tim. 4:14].
- …[T]he Lord stood by me and gave me strength [2 Tim. 4:17].
- The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.
We are vulnerable creatures in a world filled with challenges and challenging people. Ultimately, we will either trust God’s justice and mercy for our living and our futures, or our time in the world will be marked by fear, resentment, and greed. Like Jesus, Paul looked to the end of his days trusting God’s justice and mercy. Paul understood that his duty was to fight the fight, finish the race, and keep the faith. Judging the fight, race, and his service was God’s business.
We have the good fight of God’s love, justice, and truth to fight. We have a marathon to run for God’s love, justice, and truth. We have a great faith to keep. We will be wounded and cause others to suffer wounds. But we can trust God to be fair and merciful. We can trust the justice and mercy of God for deliverance in the fight and afterwards. We can prepare the people who love us to help us depart, and to celebrate our journey, by showing them how to trust God.
Fight the good fight with courage trusting God’s justice and mercy for strength. Finish the long race trusting God’s justice and mercy as you run. Keep the faith however you and know that God’s justice and mercy are working in your living. Then prepare those who love you to join you in trusting God’s justice and mercy for what lies ahead.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.