“Famous Last Words, Week 5” — The “Finishing School” Sermon Rewind

Yesterday’s message …

  • Dug into the last words of Paul’s last words — the inspired section in 2 Timothy 4 where declares clearly that his end is nigh;
  • Observed that the world is full of STARTERS but not so full of FINISHERS;
  • In an aside, noted that 2 Timothy 4:3-4 are among the most FUTURE PREDICTING verses in all of Scripture;
  • Landed at this bottom line:  You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line.

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One thing I know is true and I think you’ll agree: the world is full of starters. There is no shortage of people who BEGIN well. All bright and shiny on the first day of school, first day on new job, first day in church, first day of new diet, first date, first day of being married. Even the less momentous & more mundane: gyms are CROWDED in January. Why? NY Resolutions and scads of ppl starting their new fitness routines. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know: you’ve started diets, books, devotional plans, wedding days. Starters are a dime a dozen.

But the world is less full of finishers. They, apparently, are priceless. Because we all know of diets abandoned, fitness promises unkept, books unread, faith discarded, and even wedding day euphoria replaced by divorce court eruption. Really, many lives with even the best of intentions become like this runner from Oregon (YouTube of guy who pulls up, celebs early, and loses).

And man, this is really on my mind because pastors. There has been this shocking spate of high profile pastors, people who seemed to have it all (to the extent we preachers can) who have taken their own lives. Pastoral suicide. And then other guys in the public eye who if they didn’t commit literal suicide committed pastoral suicide by blowing up their own ministries due to sex or money or anger or all three. So I don’t know about you, but I want to finish well. I want my enthusiasm of beginning to be matched with my excellence of ending. Whatever my realm – as husband, dad, pastor, athlete, whatever. Don’t want to pull up short & fall on my face.

Which is why 2 Timothy 4:1-8 is really a remarkable section of Scripture. I mean, this series has been Famous Last Words, so I know it’s about Paul’s end, but these are the LAST WORDS among the last words. Here’s the deal: Paul is in jail for being a Christian and must be getting more and more ominous signs that the Romans are going to off him. So he wishes to hand not only this letter but the very mantle of ministry to Timothy, his son in the faith, a young man who is pastor of the First Church Of The Conflicted in Ephesus. So in the narrowest of foci, Paul is telling Timothy how to be a pastor – especially how to be one when I’m no longer here and you can’t email or text me with questions – but what he says in unbelievably applicable whatever your station in life.

Look at 4:1:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:

OMG. The stakes are high because eternity is long. This advice is not trifling, trivial; it is substantial, supernatural. What I am fixin’ to tell you, Timothy, is not just urgent it is ultimate. What’s next in 4:2?

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.

Oh because we’re dealing with what is so BIG, make you sure you do the SMALL things well. Do the next thing right. Eternity is vast which means that today matters even more. All you do in ministry, inconvenient or not, is still a massively small step towards forever. I love that he has Timothy think of the MAJESTY in terms of the MJUNDANE. Whatever you do, Timothy, don’t tell people what they want to hear; tell em what they need to know.

Why is apparent in the next pivot:

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

Oh, Lord. Who needs the book of Revelation? These are the most future predicting verses in the entire bible because I KNOW we’re living them right now!! And just know: it is so tempting to be an “ear itching” preacher … to be the hero in the moment by telling people what they want to hear. A hero in the moment but a goat for eternity. It’s only the encouragement of people like you that keeps me from being a people pleaser (and God denier) like that. Then the marvelous contrast for Timothy:

But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

But you. Oh, I love that. Do what you do well. You know what I hear in that? Care more by caring less. Care more DEEPLY by selecting those things & issues that you care about & let other folks care about other good things – things that may be good, they’re just not your good.
And then, and then, it gets really serious.

Look at 4:6:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.

What in the world? Oh my goodness, this OT overtones here … in the Jerusalem temple the priest would pour out as the bull or goat was sacrificed – some think it was wine, some think it was the animal blood – but whatever it was, Paul’s meaning is unmistakable: I am dying. I am spent. Everything inside me is getting ready to be emptied. I’m done. And all of a sudden you realize, whether it was Timothy then or you and me now: we’re watching a hero die. He’s being taken from us and we have a front row seat.

It’s hard when heroes die, isn’t it? Especially a noble death? You weep, you’re shook. For me, it was Arthur Ashe; for some of you it might have been when MLK died or RFK or Ronald Reagan or Billy Graham … or your mom, your dad, your coach. Timothy was reading of his hero’s death in real time. Paul follows the vividness of that up with this triplicate of 4:7:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Wow. Sayonara, my boy. But notice, notice the quiet contentment, the silent assurance. I’m not pulling up before the finish line, I’m not just a starter. 30 years ago, when I was blind in that Damascus house, who could have predicted that I’d go through all this. But I kept it together. I didn’t lose my way, my ministry, my faith. If I had to do it all over again … I’d do it ALL OVER AGAIN!

And I wrestled with the two halves of this section. Why the instructions to the young preacher followed by the quiet satisfaction of the old? How are they connected? And then I realized: his instructions ARE HIS SECRET! The reason for the BIG contentment of 4:7 is the accumulation of little thing in 4:2-5! How do I end up like this? I lived like THAT. It’s genius! The bible is so much more fun when you read IT rather than just the VERSES. And 4:8 closes the deal:

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.

Oh, remember how this all began in 4:1?

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:

It ends essentially the same way. The bookends mean that everything in between – not only on the page but in your life – is drenched with eternity. And note where it speaks of “crown” in 4:8 – that’s actually not a gold crown but a laurel wreath (AV) given to … the winner of a Marathon race. Hello! And what’s the focus of that laurel – not the wreath, but the giver. Not the reward but the Rewarder! And all of a sudden it snaps into focus – the instructions, the bookend, the confidence, the laurel giver: You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line. God is a project manager, your going through a finishing process and Jesus pulls you in as his finished product! When your eyes are off – not the reward but REWARD-ER – then you’ll pull up early, get passed, and mess up your relationships, your finances, your reputation, your ministry.

So I don’t have to finish well. I get to. It’s no burden. It’s blessing. Not punishment. Privilege. Why? Because he’s the one there welcoming me, beckoning me, not only at the end of life but the beginning of the next one.

See, usually any talk of heaven – or even living a “good” Xn life so that your rewards there are on the high end – focus on rewards. Not Paul. He’s settled in on the rewarder. It’s like if your kid gets a trophy for being on a team. Ho hum. I got a trophy. But if Steph Curry is the one who gives him the trophy. Hello! Mama, you’re not gonna believe who gave me my trophy today! Steph Curry! The trophy would be completely secondary to the trophy giver. Or your kid gets a medal. But who puts it around his neck? Christian McCaffrey (CMC for those of us in the know). Daddy, guess who put the medal on? Christian McCaffrey! The medal is meh; the medal giver is everything. That’s what Paul is talking about here. I get to finish because yeah, that laurel upon finishing the marathon is cool, but can I tell you about the one who is going to put it on my head? Can I tell you about HIM?!?!  You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line.

He is the source and focus and all the massively small steps, all that long obedience in the same direction is worth it. He pulls you as you allow yourself to be pulled and fills you as long as you allow yourself to be filled. And good God, who wants to get to the end of your life and look back over a shipwreck. Young people: every small action of obedience, every massively small step you take now matters then. Here influences there.  You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line.

Because there will be opposition. That’s what Paul hints at in 4:3-4.  And no doubt the preacher crash and burners I’ve told you about had opposition internal and external. Demons within and whiners without. This is true whether you’re in ministry or not. The opposition of people and forces arranging your failure and if you’re not daily reminding yourself that he is not only waiting there for you but pulling you toward him … whew!

My dad came from a pretty rough family, made rougher by the Depression. And like me, he was the youngest of a long line. When he was finishing 8th grade, the principal told him not to worry about high school because he’d probably end up in jail like some of his older brothers had. Can we agree that’s opposition? That doesn’t even want you to BEGIN well much less finish strong? Well it’s interesting how my dad responded. That opposition was his motivation … and not only did he finish high school, got in college, did well enough there he earned a scholarship to law school and when there finished #1 in his class with highest GPA ever in school’s history at that time. Before returning to that same place to be a professor. From predicted drop out to the highest of higher education. That’s what happens when you turn opposition into motivation. In these respects, he finished very well indeed – so far from where he began – and I’m honored to have that in my family tree. You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line.

So what’s your “finish” look like? Financially? Relationally? Parentally? Man, I can tell you first hand that parenting adults is a whole different animal than parenting children – and different doesn’t necessarily mean easier. Spiritually? Especially if you’ve been tempted to walk away from faith because virus didn’t leave, because marriage didn’t work, because Jesus wasn’t cool at the college you went to. Oh, finish that race because without him you are “finished” and he is finishing you in ways you’re not even aware of.

I’ve told some of you before of the verse that will be on my marker – however I’m marked – will be Philippians 1:21:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Isn’t that interesting? The same Paul who had this quiet confidence and deep assurance that he’d finished well all rooted in who waited for him at the finish line … He knew that what was on the other side of the line was better. An upgrade! Infinitely superior! His perseverance in the now was rooted in his certainty of the then. May it be the same for all of you …  You will finish well when you know Who is at the finish line.