October 27, 2019
In a relay race, there is a critical moment when the baton gets passed from one runner to the next. It’s a short window of opportunity – only 20 meters, with a 10-meter acceleration zone for the next runner to get up to speed. And there are lots of ways things can go wrong.
If you drop the baton, you will be disqualified. if you run out of your lane during the baton pass, you will be disqualified. If you run out of the takeover zone without changing the baton, you will be disqualified. if you cross the finish line without the baton, you will be disqualified.
There isn’t much room for error. Every step has to be timed perfectly. Every move has to synchronize perfectly with the other runners on your team.
Paul saw his life drawing to a close, and he knew there were some important things he needed to pass on to the next generation of preachers and teachers. During his lifetime, he had seen a small, loosely organized group of Jesus followers become a huge movement of faith. They had gone from calling themselves ‘followers of the Way’ to identifying themselves simply as “Christians.” From a few dozen believers in Jerusalem, they had grown to a large network of churches throughout the known world.
As Paul prepared for his own end, he needed to pass the baton to a trusted teammate. There wouldn’t be much room for error, there wouldn’t be much time or space to accomplish the handoff. If either of them dropped the baton, they’d be out of the race. But Paul had faith, not only in his teammates, but – more importantly – in the prize they were all running toward.
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 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.
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will pay him back for his deeds. You also must beware of him, for he strongly opposed our message. 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. 2 Timothy 4:6-15, 18
I love starting projects. I enjoy dreaming up an idea and gathering materials and laying out a plan. I like the sense of accomplishment as I see the project coming together, starting to take form, and looking like maybe it could even work!
But somewhere in the process, I often lose interest. I might run into a snag, something doesn’t quite fit the way I thought it would, or the tasks become really complex and I lose track of where I am in the whole scheme of things. My eyes get tired. My back starts to hurt. I give up.
I might leave the project out, half- finished, thinking I will get back to it soon, but sooner becomes later, and eventually, I put the whole thing away in a closet or the attic, so I don’t have to look at my unfinished business.
I can remember working on a Master’s degree in Music. I completed the coursework and got started on my thesis project. It was fun recruiting participants and working with them on my project. But when it came time to writing up the results and complete the thesis itself, I bogged down somewhere in the related literature chapter. The paper sat on a shelf for a whole year, just gathering dust. It took some not-too-gentle nudging from my advisor to get me back on track and get the thing done.
These days, it seem like my experience is becoming more common. Pinterest is full of great ideas that people start and never finish. Children begin learning to play a sport or a musical instrument, and when it starts getting difficult, they drop it to pick up something else. We live in a culture of unfinished, incomplete, never-realized dreams and projects.
What does it take to end well, to finish strong? What is the secret to coming to the end of your life with a sense of accomplishment, firm in the knowledge you’ve done what you set out to do?
Timothy was in the third generation of believers. He followed in the footsteps of his grandmother and his mother. They were among the first generation of believers who had never met Jesus, had never heard him speak, had not witnessed his miracles. Yet, they had believed in Christ.
Even among second and third generation believers, the faith was still in its infancy. Doctrines and creeds were still fluid. The foundation wasn’t yet firm.
Because they were developing a new way of worship and thinking about God’s saving grace through Jesus, instead of through the temple sacrificial system they’d known for millennia, there were many areas of faith that simply hadn’t been addressed before. And they had to figure out how to stay faithful to Jesus in the context of an ever-changing pagan world.
It was easy for false teachers to infiltrate young churches and lead new believers astray. This was the very challenge Timothy faced in his church in Ephesus. It was why Paul wrote to him in the first place, to help Timothy get his bearings and stay true to the gospel, to encourage him, and keep him grounded.
Today, we have similar struggles with ungrounded teaching and uncharted territory. Instead of circumcision, we have the prosperity gospel, that teaches people to give everything they have to a particular ministry so God will bless them with material wealth.
Instead of arguing about food sacrificed to idols, we have disagreements over human sexuality. The topics that divide us may be different, but the challenge is still the same as it was in first century Ephesus. We are still trying to figure out how to stay faithful to Jesus in the context of an ever-changing secular world.
So, while this letter is addressed to one person, the young pastor Timothy, its words offer something to us, as well. As Paul hands off the baton to his young protégé, he is also handing it off to us.
The assigned reading for today skips over some of the verses I read to you earlier. I added them back in because I think that without them, we might miss a really important point Paul makes in verse 8. We have all heard verses 6 and 7, and seen them printed on athletic shirts, and maybe even heard them at funerals: “the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
But we sometimes ignore what Paul says right before he talks about fighting the good fight and finishing the race and keeping the faith. He says, “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation.” A libation is a drink offering, usually wine. The drink offerings made at the temple were poured out on the altar to God, as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Paul sees himself as this kind of a sacrifice, poured out, completely used up in service to God.
But Paul goes on to say that his reward for completely emptying himself before God isn’t just for him alone. The crown of righteousness he anticipates is also for all those who have longed for the Lord’s appearing. Paul tells us something we need to really hear today. He doesn’t claim the prize for himself alone. He knows he runs the race as part of a team.
Paul knows he has not labored on his own. He goes on to name others who have been running the race with him. And with Timothy. Paul understood how easy it is to feel isolated in ministry, how often it feels like there is no one standing with you. And he also understood how dangerous that could be. As Paul takes the time to name others, one by one, he is reminding Timothy – and us – that we are in this thing called church together.
Sometimes, people will disappoint us, just as Demas disappointed Paul by deserting him and heading off to Thessolonica. Sometimes, people will just leave, like Crescens and Titus.
Sometimes people will stay with you, like Luke. Sometimes you have to call them back from somewhere else, like Mark. And I have to think that this is the same ‘Mark’ who caused the first major split between Paul and Barnabas back in Acts 15:39, when they argued about taking him with them after he’d abandoned them two chapters earlier. If so, there must have been some reconciliation, for Paul to describe Mark now as ‘useful in my ministry.’
Situations and people may change, but we are all still running this race together, as a team. And we are running it to the end, through the finish line without stopping.
So Paul, even knowing that his death may be near, is still working, still preaching, still sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. “Bring my books, especially the parchments. Stop by Troas and grab my coat, would you? Winter is coming and I will need it. But mostly, I need to see you.
Come as soon as you can.”
See, Paul knew there was only so much instruction, only so much encouragement that would fit into a letter. To make sure the baton would be passed securely, he needed to see Timothy face to face.
This is how discipleship happens best. It’s how Jesus worked. He found twelve guys who would devote their lives to following him, and he spent every moment of every day with them, teaching and showing them how to live the Kingdom of God after he was gone. Paul is doing the same thing here with Timothy.
Let me ask you, to whom are you devoting that kind of time and attention – as a follower, and as someone who leads others to Christ, as someone who makes disciples? In whom are you investing your wisdom, your love, yourself? Who will continue that work when you are gone?
Marvin McMickle quotes the great black scholar and activist, W.B.E. Du Bois, in his book Prayers of Dark People. Du Bois writes,
“We must endure to the end,
learn to finish things,
bring them to accomplishment and full fruition.
We must not be content with plans, ambitions and resolves;
with part of a message or part of an education,
but be set and determined to fulfill the promise
and complete the task
and secure the full training…
Give us then, O God, to resist today the temptation of shirking,
and the grit to endure to the end.”
We face opposition now, just as surely as Paul and Timothy did. Paul’s warning about Alexander is a reminder that not everyone was eager to hear about Jesus. Not everyone is eager to hear about Jesus these days, either. Paul assures us that God will take care of our enemies. We don’t need to waste time or energy trying to win them over OR get revenge. We need to beware, and keep forging on.
Because a crown awaits us. And that crown isn’t put on our heads to bring glory and honor to us. It serves as a witness to the One who gives it to us. When all is said and done, when the race is finished and the baton has been passed perfectly, and the drink offering has been completely poured out so that not a drop is left, there is only this:
“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.” Let it be so.
 Du Bois, W.E.B., Prayers for Dark People, U of Massachusetts Press: Amherst, 1980, p. 27. As quoted by Marvin A. McMickle, https://www.preaching.com/articles/having-the-faith-to-endure-2-tim-41-8/