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Sermon for Sunday 27 October 2013

FIRST READING Jeremiah 31:31–34

31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

PSALM Psalm 46

1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains shake in the depths of the sea; 3though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble with its tumult. 4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. 5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken; God shall help it at the break of day. 6The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake; God speaks, and the earth melts away. 7The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
8Come now, regard the works of the LORD, what desolations God has brought upon the earth;
9behold the one who makes war to cease in all the world; who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire. 10″Be still, then, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.” 11The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.

SECOND READING 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18

6 As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 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. 16 At my first defense no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! 17 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. 18 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.

GOSPEL John 8:31–36

31 Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36 So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

Have you ever given any thought to what you would like to have as your epitaph some day? Have you ever pondered what people will say about you after you’re gone? I think I’m safe in saying, that we’d all like for people to speak well of us, to miss us and remember us fondly. And for those of us who plan to have inscriptions on headstones, we’d like them to remind others of who we were, or what we stood for. One of the things I find interesting is to read some of the humorous inscriptions that have appeared on tombstones from days gone past. For example, here’s one that should have been edited: Here lies Col. Brown . . . Shot in battle by an enemy soldier. “Well Done Thou Good and Faithful Servant.”
A tombstone in Girard, Pennsylvania carries an epitaph that probably would be the source for a good lawsuit. It tells of Ellen Shannon, twenty six, “Who,” according to her epitaph, “was fatally burned March 21, 1870 by the explosion of a lamp filled with ‘R. E. Danforth’s Non-Explosive Burning Fluid.’” Sounds ready-made for a class action lawsuit. You can almost hear the television commercial now: “Have you lost someone you loved in an explosion caused by R. E. Danforth’s Non-Explosive Burning Fluid? Contact the law firm of…..” Some of you can sympathize with this etching on the tombstone of a lady named Margaret Daniels of Richmond, Virginia. It reads: “She always said her feet were killing her . . . but nobody believed her.”
In our lesson for today from Paul’s letter to Timothy, his words, although too lengthy for a normal epitaph, could have been inscribed on Paul’s tombstone. They’re words that inspire and challenge, even today. He writes “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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.” Stirring words that might leave some asking, what’s going on in Paul’s life that would prompt him to pen these words?
It’s an important question and a little context might be helpful as we look at Paul’s statement. At the time Paul was writing Timothy, he’s sitting in the drab dungeon of a Roman prison and he’s facing the capital charge of insurrection against the government. He’s had his preliminary hearing before Nero and he’ll soon stand in his final trial and hear the fateful verdict: “Execution.” We don’t know how soon this will happen, but these verses indicate that it’ll be shortly. Paul knows that the end of his life upon this earth is near.
This is the reason he’s passing on the banner of the gospel over to Timothy. It’s the reason he’s giving his protégé the awesome charge of preaching the Word of God to a lost and dying world. It’s important to note here how Paul encourages Timothy, even in discussing his own impending death. He wants Timothy to look ahead to the end of his own life and to be able to bear the same testimony.
Paul begins by expressing his view of death. “For I am . . . being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.” Paul saw his death as an offering and sacrifice which he was presenting to God. The Greek word Paul uses here for offering or sacrifice is striking: Spendomai refers to a libation, most commonly a drink offering of wine, that was presented and poured out to God. In the Old Testament, when a person wanted to make a sacrifice to God, they would often take a liter of wine or oil and poured it out with the sacrifice. According to Levatical law, it was an offering of thanksgiving. For Paul, the drink offering symbolized the Lord Jesus pouring out His soul dying for us. What Paul is saying here is, “I am laying down my life as an offering to the Lord, as Jesus laid His down in the supreme act of sacrifice. I am dying for him.”
Bible scholar William Barclay describes the scene like this: “Paul did not think of himself as going to be executed; he thought of himself as going to offer his life to God. His life was not being taken from him; he was laying it down. Ever since his conversion, Paul had offered to God his money, his scholarship, his strength, his time, the vigor of his body, the acuteness of his mind, the devotion of his passionate heart. Only life itself was left to offer, and gladly Paul was going to lay it down.” It’s an amazing statement of commitment! And for the modern mind, it’s hard for us to even imagine such dedication. Many even question whether or not we can find that kind of faith in our modern world.
A woman named Lila Moore tells about her days working at a card-and-gift shop. A young woman came in one day, and spent several hours looking through the books of wedding invitations. Finally, she selected the perfect card. She filled out the forms, and put in her order so that the invitations to her wedding would come on time. Two weeks later, the phone rang, and Lila answered it. It was the same young woman calling. “Is it too late to make a few changes to my invitations?” she asked. “Well,” said Lila, “I’ll have to check with the printer, and see if he’s done your order yet. Why don’t you tell me what you want changed, and I’ll call you back?”
“Okay,” says the young woman. Well the date and location have changed. OK replied Lila as she recorded the changes, is there anything else? Well there’s one last change. What’s that Lila asked? The name of the guy. I’m not certain this young woman was ready to make the kind of commitment to have a successful marriage. The reason that St. Paul made such an impression on the world, an impression that lasts to this day, is that he was totally committed. He offered up his life to God with nothing held in reserve.
Of course, this wasn’t unusual in the early days of our faith. The Greek words for martyr and witness come from the same root word. In the early days of the church, the commitment to be a witness for Jesus couldn’t be separated from the possibility of becoming a martyr for Christ. Throughout his ministry, Paul understood the risk he was taking. He saw other leaders of the church offer up their lives. A sentence to death was always a possibility when you committed your life to Jesus; now it was a reality for Paul, and he was prepared.
“I am already being poured out like a drink offering,” he writes, “and the time for my departure is near.” Again looking at the original language, the Greek word for “departure” is also striking in its meaning. According to the Vine Biblical dictionary of New Testament words, the word “departure” suggests three possible scenarios.
To depart is the picture of a ship hoisting the anchor and loosening the mooring ropes and departing one country for another country. Paul had been anchored and tied to this world, but the anchor and ropes of this world were now being loosed, and Paul was about to set sail for the greatest of all ports, heaven itself. That’s one meaning of depart.
To depart is also the picture of “breaking up an encampment.” Paul had been camping in this world, like some of us might camp at the beach or in the mountains. Many times the opposition to his preaching had been so violent, he had been forced to break camp and move on, sometimes fleeing for his life. But now, Paul was to break camp and depart for the last time.
And finally, to depart is the picture of the unyoking of an animal from the burden of the cart, plough, or millstone which it had been pulling to grind the grain. Paul was to be released from the yoke and burden of labor and toil in this life. He was being released and set free to depart for the pastures and still waters and rest of eternity.
Matthew Henry says: “Observe . . . with what pleasure [Paul] speaks of dying. He calls it his departure: though it is probable that he foresaw he must die a violent bloody death, yet he calls it his departure, or his release. Death, to a good man, is his release from the imprisonment of this world and his departure to the enjoyments of another world; he does not cease to be, but is only removed from one world to another.” Paul begins by describing his death as an offering. Paul next describes his life as full of meaning.
In this passage Paul quickly glances back over his life and uses three pictures to describe it, the pictures of a soldier, an athlete, and a steward or manager. Paul says. “I have fought a good fight.” In other words, he had lived life like a faithful soldier: he had responded to the call of the Christ. He had suffered through the threats, scrapes, and wars launched by the enemies of Christ. He had done his time, stuck to the mission of Christ to the very end. Now he was being released from his service as a soldier for the King, released to go home to live at peace in the kingdom of his Lord forever. “I have fought a good fight.” That’s the first picture. Next he says, “I have finished the race . . .”
Paul forward that he had completed the race of life just like the athlete that runs and finishes the course of his race. It’s a powerful metaphor. It means that Paul disciplined and controlled his life to the utmost, in much the same way an Olympic athlete. He controlled his thoughts and his actions. He focused on the course of life, how he ran it. He couldn’t run the risk of being distracted by the things of the world lest he become a castaway and be disqualified from running the race. Barry J. Farber in his book, Dive Right In, tells about the Olympic athlete Michael Johnson. Johnson earned his reputation as the fastest human on earth at the Olympic trials in 1996.
Dr. Phil Santiago, official chiropractor to US. Olympic athletes, was there when Johnson pulled off this feat. Santiago was impressed and amazed by both Johnson’s attitude and his willingness to do whatever it took to win the gold and break the world record. During the trials, Santiago asked Johnson how he was feeling. “Fine,” the athlete replied. “I’m going to break the world record today.” And he did. However, there was a technical problem with the timer and the officials wouldn’t count that race. Afterward, Santiago commiserated with Johnson on his bad luck. “No problem,” Johnson replied. ‘‘I’ll break it again tomorrow.” And he did it again.
Johnson also had the opportunity to win four gold medals in the games. He qualified to run the relays as well as the individual two-hundred-meter race. But he was so focused on destroying the Olympic and world records, he didn’t care about winning the rest of the medals. “He selected the goal he wanted,” says Santiago. “He knew that in order to break these records, he’d probably rip his muscles and be unable to run the relays. That was okay with him.” And that’s what happened.
Immediately after the race, his legs were packed in ice and he was out of commission for a week and a half. He’d known that would happen, but he had the discipline and the focus, the mental strength to go even beyond his body’s limits. Johnson was running to win a gold medal and the recognition that goes with it. Paul had run his race in devotion to Christ. “I have finished the race,” he said. Finally, Paul says that he had kept the faith.
He had looked after the faith just like a good steward looks after the estate of his master. The Lord had entrusted the faith to Paul, and he had kept the faith. He had proven faithful; he had devotedly managed the faith for his Master, the Lord Jesus Christ. The idea is that of a trust, of a management contract between Christ and Paul. Paul is saying that he had kept the terms of the contract; he had managed and looked after the trust faithfully and well. Finally, Paul could look forward to his reward.
Our heavenly reward is an aspect of our faith that we don’t talk about much anymore. That’s probably because we don’t want to sound self-serving in our service to Christ. And that’s understandable. But, at the end of life, there is a reward to those who have been faithful to Christ. Paul writes, “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.” Our motivation is to serve God as our way of saying thank you for all He’s already done for us. We don’t work for the reward, but still it comes.
I heard recently about a businessman who was telling his secretary about an award he was going to receive. She asked, “What exactly does this award do?” He said, “It doesn’t do anything.” She said, “Then they’re giving it to the right person.” The same couldn’t be said about Paul. He wasn’t receiving an award for doing nothing. Paul was receiving what he called “the crown of righteousness.” But he didn’t look at this crown as an exclusive award. It was the award that all who serve Christ will one day receive.
I love the way Joni Tada once described that day when she will fully be in the presence of the Almighty. Joni was left a quadriplegic by a diving accident, unable to use her legs or her arms. She writes, “I can’t wait to be clothed in righteousness. Without a trace of sin. True, it will be wonderful to stand, stretch, and reach to the sky, but it will be more wonderful to offer praise that is pure. I won’t be crippled by distractions. Disabled by insincerity. I won’t be handicapped by a ho-hum half-heartedness. My heart will join with yours and bubble over with effervescent adoration. We will finally be able to fellowship fully with the Father and the Son. For me, this will be the best part of heaven.”
I have to agree with Joni; that will be the best part of heaven. And what’s even better, it’s free; it’s a gift. No one understood that better than Paul. The crown of righteousness isn’t something you earn, something you achieve by your own striving, but something that God bestows upon you. Paul was to receive the crown of righteousness because he’d given his life to be a soldier for Christ, because he had been an athlete for Christ, and because he had been a steward or manager for Christ and his faith, but Paul, more than anyone who ever lived, realized that even his striving was a gift from God. God had chosen him for His service and now Paul would enjoy the rewards that go with that calling.
Think about it: Paul was to be given a crown of righteousness that makes a person perfect before God, righteous and perfect so that he can live before God forever and ever. What a contrast with the fading and deteriorating crowns and trophies given by this world. It truly is a wonderful gift; the reward Paul talks about is our reward as well. As the Greek scholar Kenneth Wuest says: “To those who have considered precious His appearing and therefore have loved it, and . . . are still holding that attitude in their hearts, to these the Lord Jesus will also give the victor’s [crown] of righteousness.”
I think Paul is on to something here. His parting words to Timothy are a fitting epitaph for every believer in Jesus Christ: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness…” What message have we prepared for our tombstones? It isn’t too late for us to make a change, nor is it too late, for us to make our lives a living sacrifice to God.

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