“ … the time has come for my departure.”
Paul to Timothy, 2 Timothy 4:6 (NIV)
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were close friends and colleagues for many years.
Then a rift came between them as they lived through the frictions and tumult of the early American Republic.
After years of silence a friend persuaded them to write to each other, and in 1812 their correspondence resumed, and continued until they died: both on July 4 1826!
Both were aware of their coming end, and it was certainly on Adams’ mind when he wrote to Jefferson: “You and I ought not to die, before we have explained ourselves to each other.”
Suppose you and I were writing a letter like that. How would you finish it? How would I? “You and I ought not to die before ….” – before what?
My own mind has turned often in the past few months to the closing times of some great people and friends. Pope John Paul is gone. Billy Graham at the age of 86 has likely preached at his last crusade. I have lost two very good friends this past year, plus two sisters- in-law. A half brother in Canada has serious melanoma.
Then I look in the mirror and see a good bit of gray hair, and my youngest grandson asks if I am older than Grandfather Mountain! I also look at the faces in front of me at Wee Kirk and no matter how you disguise them I see more wrinkles!
So it is not at all out of synch for us to reflect on John Adam’s words: “You and I ought not to die before ….” what? what do those words call up in you and me?
Three weeks ago Dr. Billy Wireman, the retired president of Queens University in Charlotte died at the age of 72 after a lengthy battle with cancer. I came to know him as a friend and a Christian in a monthly leadership breakfast group in Charlotte.
Another friend and I went to visit him after hospice had been called in. We had an unforgettable conversation.
When I asked how he was doing he replied with a weak smile, “So, so.” He told us he had had a premonition that he would not live to 79, the average life expectancy of an American male.
Then he looked straight at me and said, “Leighton, I’ve come to this point: Jesus saves.”
“What would you like us to share with friends in the leadership breakfast group?” I asked.
“Tell them I have no bitterness,” he said. “Lots of joy. I’ve had a full life, with so many opportunities.
“Tell them I have never as a historian been more hopeful about our world. There are lots of problems but America has a great capacity of renewal. Tell them don’t despair.”
And then, quoting Paul, he said, “I have fought the good fight.”
My friend and I felt as we left we had been on holy ground. Here was a man stripped down to the bone, getting ready to die, but full of joy, and hope, and gratitude – and faith in his Lord Jesus Christ.
Before we left that morning I read those words he quoted from Paul, and this morning I will read them again as the Word of God to us.
Paul is writing to his young protégé from a Roman cell, where he is awaiting execution. His last appeal has been denied. He does not know how long he has left, and is looking both back and forward.
It’s a very human letter that the old apostle writes to his young friend. He tells Timothy he prays for him. He remembers Timothy’s tears and tells him he longs to see him Clearly he is lonely. He urges Timothy to come to him as quickly as he can, and not to forget to bring Paul’s cloak (for the cell must be damp and cold) and his books (for the days in prison must pass very slowly) and especially his parchments (as he has more he wants to write).
Then as he faces imminent death he writes:
For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has
come for my departure. 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.
(2 Timothy 4:6-8)
At the end of the letter he adds a P.S. and says “Do your best to get here before winter”! He wants Timothy to set out before the winter gales made sailing impossible.
The great Presbyterian preacher of Pittsburgh, Dr. Clarence McCartney, had a famous sermon that he preached once every year on that final note: “Come Before Winter.”
He preached it as an annual reminder that there are things we must do (as John Adams wrote to Jefferson), before it’s too late.
It was in this sort of mood that Paul writes to young Timothy.
He is almost at the final crossing of his life, and so he looks not only at his present situation, but also backward and forward. So much is in his mind that six dramatic word pictures come tumbling out of his imagination.
First, he looks around his cell and to what he is now facing: a life being offered up.
“I am already being poured out as a libation” he writes.
Here is the picture of the drink offering, of wine, or of blood, that a priest would pour out in the temple. But now Paul himself is that cup. In not many days a sword will flash and his own life’s blood will be poured as his final offering to his Lord. And as he waits it is as if day by day his life is being emptied out.
Then he writes “the time has come for my departure.”
“Loosing” is the idea here, a picture perhaps of a sailor loosing the rope and untying his boat from its mooring and setting out to sail.
So, Paul says, “I am getting ready to cast off.”
Paul is a realist. “I have no illusions,” he is saying, “Already I am a dead man. But I am a dead man living and my life is being offered – again!”
Then Paul’s mind escapes the limits of his confinement,. and he thinks back to a life fully lived.
“I have fought the good fight …” he tells Timothy.
These are the words Billy Wireman quoted to us, and this is the language of the ampitheater, the sports stadium.
Paul sees himself as an athlete, a wrestler, who as he once wrote “fought with wild animals in Ephesus” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Life has not been easy. Following Christ has been a struggle. But as a good soldier of Christ, he says, I have fought the one battle worth fighting!
Again, he says, “I have finished the race …”
Here again is the picture of the athlete as runner. Many years before he had said that he counted his life worth nothing until he had finished the race – the task he had been given – to make Christ known – and now the finish line has virtually been crossed.
So as Paul looks back he has a sense of a mission accomplished, a life fully lived.
Did he not have regrets? Perhaps a few. He speaks a few paragraphs later of Demas who abandoned him, and Alexander the coppersmith who did him great harm. “The Lord will pay him back” he adds. There is hurt, and perhaps a tinge of bitterness. But he also tells Timothy to bring Mark with him as a helper: the same Mark who years before Paul had dropped from his team in anger because he had let Paul down. Now he wants to heal that relationship and make things right.
So of course there are regrets. Which of us do not have things we wish had been different? Paul did: but those regrets faded in his mind compared to the full and complete life he had found in Christ.
My good friend the federal judge, Brent McKnight, died this past year of cancer at the age of 50. . It was a great loss of a good man and a brilliant jurist, with great potential. I wrote to his three sons recently and said, “You miss your father. I do. His life was too short. But how long is long enough? If not fifty then sixty? seventy? eighty? There is no answer to that. But the real measure of a life is not how long it is but how full.”
Brent’s life, like Paul’s, was lived in the fullness of Christ.
Can I say? Can you? that we have run that race? fought that fight? kept that trust?
But now Paul looks in another direction: he looks ahead: to life yet to come.
What are the prospects? For the gospel? For himself?
As for the gospel, Paul has finished his responsibility and now passes it on to Timothy. He has given his spiritual son a solemn charge in the presence of God:
Always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2 Timothy 4:5)
As for his own prospects, he says,
“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.”
Here is a mixed metaphor: the stadium and the law court. And now, because he has kept the faith, been loyal to his trust, Paul has a prize awaiting like the green leafed garland Olympic champions received at the Olympics in those ancient times.
Paul had appeared in several courts: before the Roman governor Tertullus, before the Jewish King Agrippa. He had also appealed to Caesar. All had passed him on or judged him thumbs down, guilty, and Caesar had condemned him to death. But now he appeals to the highest court, and the Righteous Judge, the Lord himself has given him the “thumbs up”!
Talk about reversals! This one was a magnificent reversal!
And what is ahead? Not oblivion, says Paul. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness.” The Lord will say, “You kept the faith! And that’s what the reward is: the reward of knowing you got it right!”
Rewards in the Bible are far more than brownie points or badges of honor. They are the heart felt joy of knowing we did what God called us to do, and to be!
I saw Jack Nicklaus interviewed after he made his final walk across the bridge at St. Andrews three weeks ago. When he was asked what he was most proud of he said, “My family!” Then in terms of golf he said, “That I played it right. I played as a sportsman. And I played golf as it’s meant to be played: as a game.” That was his reward.
But there was more to this “crown of righteousness” than what Paul had done. Remember, this man had no illusions about his own goodness. He had written to Timothy before to say “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). So the crown was his because he was Christ’s!
Then comes Paul’s final picture as he looks ahead. This crown is one 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.”
This is the picture of a royal visit, of a crowd awaiting to greet the emperor or a king – not a despot whom they fear but a loving King whom they eagerly await.
All these images Paul pulls together into a wonderful composite picture as he looks at his life! He is
an offering being poured out: a life being offered
while he is fighting his last fight and running his last race: a life fulfilled
and being vindicated in a law court: a life approved
and getting ready to be rewarded by his king: a life yet to come
No wonder he is getting ready to cast off!
Billy Graham was interviewed by Charles Gibson during his recent New York crusade. Gibson asked if he was looking forward to heaven and Billy said, “Yes! I can’t wait because I want to see God!”
That brought back a memory. When Billy received a special award in Charlotte several years ago he told the crowd that he was wearing a new suit and tie (“which I will wear at my funeral!”). Then he told a very funny story about Albert Einstein.
Einstein was on a train in New Jersey and when the conductor came for the ticket he searched all his pockets but couldn’t find it. The conductor said, “Don’t worry, Dr. Einstein, I know who you are. We trust you.”
Several minutes later the conductor made his way back through the coach and saw Einstein in a terrible fit, on his hands and knees, looking under the seat for his ticket.
“Dr. Einstein,” he said, “I told you not to worry. We trust you.”
Einstein looked up and said, “But you don’t understand. I don’t know where I’m going!”
Then Billy said, very gently, “You have given me and Ruth some beautiful crystal tonight. I want to give you something: a question. Do you know where you are going?”
A good question. A crucial question.
Am I ready to cast off? are you?
Here are five “R” questions we should be asking:
Remembering. What do I need to remember, and to say thanks for?
What gifts received? What battles won – or lost and recovered! What races run? What am I most thankful for? Am I above all thankful for the gift of eternal life?
Regretting. What regrets do I have to deal with?
How many “I wish I hads” are there in my life? How many “I always wanted tos” in yours? How many thoughts like “I should call so and so, write that old friend, end that long separation?
Well, when will it be time either to do those things we have put off, or to let those regrets go? or make them right? What about today? This week?
Responsibilities. What responsibilities do I have to give up? to pass on?
Paul had his calling from God. And you and I have also been put “in trust” as followers of Christ. What has been your trust, your vocation: medicine? business? law? family?
What do you need to let go? Sometimes the best thing we can do – for our family, for our church, for our work, for ourselves – is to let go.
What do you need to pass on? who are the Timothys in your life and mine? Our children? grandchildren? the younger men and women who need our encouragement and empowerment?
When the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto knew they were going to be exterminated by the Nazis they wrote “ethical wills”, writing down the things they most believed and valued, in hope that future generations might read them, and live out their heritage.
Remember what we promised when our children and grandchildren were baptized? that we would do all we could to help them grow into true followers of Christ and servants of the church? What could you and I do to leave to them not only a legacy of our wealth, and our name, but of our faith?
When Mother Graham, as we called Jeanie’s mother, was dying, she asked Jeanie to lean over, lifted her weak arms, patted her shoulders, and said, “Pass it on, daughter, to every generation!” It was the faith, the love, the hope that she was passing on!
She left five hundred dollars and a piece of furniture to each of her grandchildren. To our son Sandy she left the money, a bed, and a dresser.
Mother Graham died in August of 1981. She was eighty-nine. Sandy died that following November during heart surgery. He was twenty-one. He never spent the five hundred dollars, never slept in the bed or used the dresser. But the faith Mother Graham had taught to her sons and daughters had been passed on to Sandy, and he too lived – and died – in Christ.
Readiness. What must I do to make ready?
Robert Goulet the singer was one who came forward at Billy Graham’s invitation many years ago in Toronto. I counseled with him after, and he said, “I came down because I like Billy. And I hope when I get to heaven I at least have a place on the edge where I can wave at him and my pastor in California once in a while.”
“What will it take to get there?” I asked.
“I think it’s like God has a scales,” he said. “He puts our good deeds in one side and bad in the other and sees which weighs the most.”
“Well,” I said, “if that’s the way it is, Billy isn’t going to be there, and your pastor isn’t. Because none of us is good enough in ourselves.”
He looked at me in amazement.
“Then who the h _ _ _ can make it?” he blurted.
“You’ve been to London?” I said. He nodded.
“Remember that from across the Thames you can see Old Bailey, the halls of justice, and St. Paul’s Cathedral? On top of Old Bailey is the blindfolded figure of justice, with her scales. On St. Paul’s is a cross. You see, Robert, faith in Christ is not one of the scales, but of the cross. It’s a gift!”
His face brightened. And several days later he called to read me a poem he had written:
“There’s only one Person I want to see.”
He knew how to be ready!
Are you ready – to cast off?
Reward. What reward am I looking forward to? what do I most long for?
Paul had run his race for Christ. Now he looks forward to seeing him! He longs for his appearing!
The British writer C. S. Lewis once wrote, “If nothing in this world fully and completely satisfies our longings, then it must be we are made for another world.”
After his wife Joy Davidman died, after they had been married only a brief time, he was devastated. But he also said, “I have so many questions I want to ask God. But I know that when I get to heaven and look around and see him, I will simply say: Oh!”
If we long for his appearing, then to see him will be reward enough!
All of life is a letting go … a casting off.
To be ready when the day comes, the best preparation is, as Paul once said, to “die daily” – dying to self daily with Christ, letting go of our need to do things our way, so that we may also live his way …so we may say with Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.
Then, as we get ready to cast off we can say with T. S. Eliot: not Farewell … Fare Forward!