Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy ends on a solemn note: “…the time of my departure has come.” (2 Timothy 4:6)
Paul fully expects the Emperor to hand him a death sentence. He wants to pass the torch to Timothy while he still has time and, in so doing, to reassure Timothy that he’s not afraid to die; if anything, he sees dying for the sake of Jesus Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of his calling.
The subject of death and dying is one we avoid at all costs. It has to do with our denial of death. For some reason, we think we’re immune – that it won’t happen to us. It also has to do with what we’ve been taught, mostly by example, by the culture in which we live. We think of death as a sad and somber occasion and certainly not something we should feel good about.
I’ll never forget a visitation I went to in my early ministry. I was associate pastor and just out of seminary – and yes, idealistic and naïve. An elderly man in our church died, and I was to assist in his funeral. The man had lived a long and distinguished life, but he’d been bedridden for years. He didn’t have any quality of life to speak of. I could imagine that death, for him, came as a welcomed release.
So, in the spirit of the Resurrection, I wore a brightly colored blazer with a colorful shirt and tie and light-colored pants. I would’ve worn a pair of white shoes, if I’d had any. The funeral director – also a member of our church – took one look at me and told me to go home and change, that this was not a time to be funny. As far as he was concerned, we were to look dire and dress in dark suits, preferably black.
I’d like to challenge that notion in the sermon today by listening carefully to what Paul had to say about his own impending death. Here’s what I hope you’ll get out of it: Not only was Paul not afraid to die, he was looking forward to what the Lord had in store for him. Plus, in dying he would be able to leave a lasting legacy of faith for Timothy and others to carry on.
May the same be said of us today. The passage begins, “…the time of my departure has come.”
I’m told that the Greek word for departure has a rich connotation. It’s the word used to unharness a horse or mule or a yoke of oxen after a long day of work in the field. The farmer takes the harness off the animal, gives it a good pat on the rump, and sends it out into the pasture to graze, at will.
At this point, Paul had borne the yoke of discipleship for many years. He’d done his share of the work; he deserved a rest. He looked forward to hearing Jesus say to him,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.
You have been faithful over a few things,
I will set you over many things.
Enter into the joy of your lord.” (Matthew 25:21)
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The Greek word for departure is also the word used to release a prisoner and set him free. Not only would Paul be set free from his imprisonment in Rome, he would be set free from all earth’s limitations.
I like to think back to that old gentleman in my church years ago, so racked with pain. We’ve all had a taste of the infirmities of life, not to mention being saddled with the scars of Original Sin. What a joy it will be to arrive at a place where “…mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
The Greek word for departure is also the word used to cast off the mooring lines of a ship, as it sets out to sea.
A dear friend told me as her death drew near, “I feel like I’m about to embark on the greatest adventure of my life.” What a beautiful thought. What a positive attitude. I can imagine Paul thinking of his death in a similar way. He’d sailed across the Mediterranean several times. Soon he would board a ship of a different kind, cast off the mooring lines and set sail on the greatest adventure of his life. In his poem, Gone From My Sight, Henry Van Dyke writes:
I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white
sails to the morning breeze and starts
for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until at length
she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come
to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says,
“There, she is gone!”
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull
and spar as she was when she left my side
and she is just as able to bear her
load of living freight to her destined port.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her.
And just at the moment when someone
at my side says, “There, she is gone!”
There are other eyes watching her coming,
and other voices ready to take up the glad
shout, “Here she comes!”
And that is dying.
Paul goes on to say, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the course. I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
All three images stem from the Olympic Games. Except for sports like wrestling, athletes don’t fight with each other, but they do contend with each other in hard-fought contests. To this day, we say things like, “It was a hard-fought game.”
We see a lot of pink these days in support of breast cancer research. Breast cancer survivors will be quick to tell you of their hard-fought battle with cancer.
Paul had argued his case in the synagogues and marketplaces, that Jesus was the Christ. When he wasn’t preaching or teaching, he was writing to the churches, imploring them to live as faithful disciples of the Lord. He’d fought the good fight.
He’d also finished the race. He’d stayed true to his message to the end. Anyone can start a race; it takes strength and stamina and, often, sheer determination to reach the finish line.
It’s easy to start something new – say, a new job or a new seat on a board of directors. You jump in with enthusiasm, imagining all the things you’re going to accomplish. It doesn’t take long for reality to set in. Things seldom come as easy as you’d hoped. Plus, you meet resistance. The very same people who gave you the job or welcomed you on board now criticize you and throw stumbling blocks in your way. Lofty goals take time and effort to accomplish. They take patience and perseverance. Rudyard Kipling said it best:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on”;
… (then) Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Paul goes on to say, “I have kept the faith.” Athletes competing in the Olympics took an oath that they would play by the rules, that they would not take short cuts or cheat in any way. As far as they were concerned, it was just as important to keep the faith as it was to win the race.
Paul took no short cuts in his ministry. When it came to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, he was uncompromising. Life could have been easier for Paul. For one thing, he could have curried favor with the Jews – after all, he had impeccable Jewish credentials (Philippians 3:4-6). He could have also leaned on his training at the feet of Gamaliel, the most highly respected rabbi of the day. But no, Paul told the Corinthians,
“When I came to you, brothers,
I didn’t come with excellence of speech or of wisdom,
proclaiming to you the testimony of God.
For I determined not to know anything among you,
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)
Paul could have also had an easier life he’d been willing to let others take care of him; but no, he told the Thessalonians,
“For we didn’t behave ourselves rebelliously among you,
neither did we eat bread from anyone’s hand without paying for it,
but in labor and travail worked night and day,
that we might not burden any of you.” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-8)
Paul kept the faith. And so, he went go on to say, without pretense or apology,
“From now on, there is stored up for me the crown of righteousness,
which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day…”
(2 Timothy 4:8)
Paul fully expected Jesus to keep his word. Jesus had promised the reward of eternal life to anyone who professed his name. He said,
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son,
that whoever believes in him should not perish,
but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-16)
Like a champion athlete, Paul looked forward to wearing the laurel wreath of victory and taking his place among Christ and all the saints in the heavenly realm.
But his hope was not entirely personal. He told Timothy that the crown of righteousness laid up for him was also the prize that others could expect to receive, as well. He said that the crown would be given “…and not to me only, but also to all those who have loved his appearing.”
All told, Paul faced Nero’s verdict with confidence. Yes, Nero could take his life, but he could never diminish the legacy of his faith and good works.
And that’s the thought I’d like to leave you with: When you’re gone, what will you leave behind? Each of us has the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for others to build on. What will your legacy be?
I know of a man who enjoyed woodworking, who left his children beautiful wooden baskets and various articles of furniture he’d made; and a housewife, who left behind a box of her favorite recipes; and a saintly old grandmother who quilted, whose children, to this day, treasure the quilts she pieced and gave to them.
In one way or another, you’re sure to leave behind a legacy of some sort. The question is how lasting will it be, and how beneficial?
For Christians, I can’t think of a greater legacy than to have helped others come to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. What if, at your funeral, individuals stood up, one after another, to pay their respects and tell how it was because of you and your witness of faith that they came to know the Lord?
Here’s the bottom line: No one lives forever. Whether we die young or old or somewhere in between, each of us will die. For those whose faith is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we need not be afraid. We have the promise of eternal life through faith in him.
But what difference will it make? That’s the question. We can’t change the world all that much, but we can touch the lives of those around us in a positive way and help them to know the saving power of God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ.
And so, in closing I’d like to invite you to be more intentional about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Make it your goal to pass the torch of faith to others – especially the children and youth around you – that they may experience for themselves the joy of new life in Christ and carry on the faith after you’re gone. It’s a lasting legacy for which they’ll always be grateful.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.