I’m preaching the baccalaureate sermon tonight at Hargrave Military Academy here in our town of Chatham, Virginia. One hundred years ago, the pastor of our church became the founding president of Hargrave, so our ties go back to 1909-10, the first full school year.
The Goal of a Successful Life
2 Timothy 4:6-8
6For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure.7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now 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 NIV
Back to the Future in 2080
Imagine tonight that instead of being 2010, the year is 2080. Rather than your age being, say, 18, you are now 88 years old. And you’re reflecting on the life you have lived. You’re looking back on the ups-and-downs, the highs-and-lows, the experiences that have made your life what it is.
You might have retired as the highly successful president of a Fortune 500 corporation. Or you might have published a novel that had the literary critics and the popular press buzzing about your creativity. Or you might have lived your life like most folks do, quietly and without fame or fortune, but with the satisfaction that you made a difference. That the children you taught, or the leadership you exerted, or the love you gave to your family and friends made their lives better and richer for having known you.
That’s very much what the Apostle Paul is doing in these brief verses I have just read. He’s looking back on his life, and telling his young friend Timothy, who is like a son to him, that he’s ready to die.
That doesn’t sound like a very happy topic for us tonight, but I want to suggest to you tonight to think of yourself 70-years from now. What do you want your life story to have been? What do you want others to say about you? When you come close to the end of your life, what do you want your thoughts and feelings to be as you look back at the 70 or 80 or 90 or more years that you will live?
Michael J. Fox starred in a series of “Back to the Future” films beginning in 1985. So, let’s go back to the future with Paul, and imagine ourselves reflecting on our lives 70 years from now.
Life is Like Sports, Or Maybe Not
Paul is writing to his young friend, Timothy, as I said. Timothy may be about your age, or just slightly older. But not much. And, Paul knows that if he wants to get Timothy’s attention, he has to use language Timothy will understand and, more importantly, relate to.
I have spoken here are Hargrave several times since coming to Chatham. After one chapel service, one of the cadets came up to me and said, “That was really good. Not one of our guys went to sleep today.” I took that as a great compliment!
But back to Paul and Timothy. So, if Paul is going to get and keep Timothy’s attention, he has to use examples that Timothy understands and relates to. So, guess what Paul does? He talks about sports.
Now, you may not have known that sports was in the Bible, but here it is right here. Paul uses four sports images to tell Timothy what he wants him to understand.
First, Paul says “I have fought a good fight.”
Then, he says, “I have finished the race.”
Followed by, “I have kept the faith,”
And finally, “I won the trophy.”
So, tonight I want us to look briefly at these four sports metaphors, these sports images, and see if we can learn the secret to living a successful life. Because when you’re 88 years old, or more when you know the end of your life is near, it’s too late then to go back and live your life again. Unlike pickup basketball, or sandlot baseball, there are no do-overs in life. You’ve got to get it right the first time around.
Fight a Good Fight
The first thing Paul tells Timothy, after he says “the time has come for my departure” — which means “I’m going to die soon” — is “I fought the good fight.”
A quick history lesson here, in case you forgot this from Bible class. Paul lives in the first century. This letter to Timothy is written about 67 AD, while Paul is in prison in Rome.
Paul will eventually be executed, probably not long after this letter was written. Paul was beheaded by orders of the Roman emperor, Nero. His only crime was that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, but Nero was using the Christians as scapegoats to blame the problems of his subjects on. “Nero fiddled while Rome burned” is an old saying that reflected the callous disregard Nero had for the welfare of the citizens of Rome. To shift the blame for the failures of his government, Nero blamed Christians for all their problems. And, so the persecution of Christians began officially under Nero, and extended for 250 years under each successive emperor.
Paul knows he’s going to die. And Paul knows Roman life, because although he is a Jew, Paul is also a Roman citizen. Which means, Paul knows about the athletic contests, the sporting events in the Roman empire.
Boxing was a Roman sport. But boxing had started long before Paul’s time. The first historical record we have of boxing as a sport is from a stone tablet found in Baghdad, Iraq which is over 7,000 years old. Boxing has been around a long time.
But in Paul’s day, there were two forms of boxing. There was boxing as a legitimate sport, which was so popular that even some of the emperors of the Roman empire took up boxing.
But, boxing matches between gladiators were far more popular. One ancient statue depicts the Boxer of Quirinal. He’s seated with leather straps wrapped around his knuckles. He has curly hair, not uncommon for Romans, but beneath those curls is a cauliflower ear — the result of some tough rounds in the boxing ring.
Paul tells Timothy, “I have fought the good fight.” Not a dirty fight, not a ruthless fight, not a fight of the gladiators where there were no rules, and it was survival of the fittest.
No, Paul says, “I fought a good fight.”
Now, we don’t know exactly what Paul means, but let’s speculate for a moment. A good fight has rules. A good fight respects the opponent. A good fight is a test of strength and endurance. A good fight is a fair fight.
What does that mean for us? That when we face difficulty, that when there are things we have to fight for, there is a right way and wrong way to state our case, defend our position, make our point. Life has rules, and a successful life is a life that follows the rules, respects others, and fights fair.
And in life, we’re not fighting people, we’re fighting problems. We fight for principles. We fight for justice. We fight for those who cannot fight for themselves, but we fight the problems, not other people. We are tenacious, strong, determined, courageous, and tough, but we are also fair, respectful, honest, and merciful.
Dr. Martin Luther King was a tenacious advocate for civil rights. Dr. King fought unjust laws that effectively denied the right to vote, denied the right to public access, denied the rights of full citizenship to African-Americans. But when Dr. King himself was attacked during a speech in Alabama, he dropped his hands to his side, and let his assailant flail at him until his aides pulled the man away. Dr. King knew the difference between fighting people and fighting problems.
Paul said, “I fought a good fight.”
Finish The Race
Okay, so we’re changing sports now, moving from boxing to track. Paul says, “I finished the race.” Obviously, he’s referring to a track-and-field event, and he finishes.
Paul didn’t quit. When he was thrown in prison in Philippi just for freeing a slave girl from an evil spirit, Paul didn’t quit. As a matter of fact, at midnight, chained to the wall of his cell deep underground, Paul and Silas were singing. Which I’m sure irritated the other prisoners, but said something about Paul’s attitude. And when an earthquake opened the prison doors, and broke the chains that bound Paul and Silas, they didn’t run out to escape, they stayed to tell their story of how God had saved them.
When Paul was shipwrecked off the coast of Malta, he could have said, “This traveling around to preach at churches all over the Mediterranean is too hard. I’m going back home.”
But he didn’t quit. When the other apostles, and the earlier followers of Jesus were criticizing Paul, who was not one of the original disciples, Paul defended himself by saying that “Jesus himself called me.” He didn’t quit.
When finally, old and tired and probably sick, Paul traveled to Rome to appeal his case to Caesar himself, which was his right as a Roman citizen, Paul continued writing letters, praying for all those he had met and preached to, and kept on telling the story of how God had changed his life that night when he met Jesus on the Damascus road. No, Paul didn’t quit.
Paul finished the race, he completed the task. Paul did what God called him to do. He started churches among people who weren’t Jews, he debated Roman orators in the debate halls all over the empire. Paul didn’t quit. He ran the race he entered until the end. He finished.
Don’t quit. When life gets tough in the next four years at college, don’t quit. When others think you’re crazy to give up the possibility of making a lot of money to become a teacher in an urban school, don’t quit. When the task seems too hard, and the days seem too long, don’t quit.
Greg Mortensen didn’t quit. In 1993, while lost while mountain-climbing in a remote part of the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Greg Mortensen was rescued by local villagers, welcomed into their homes, and fed. After a few days of rest, as he recovered from his ordeal, Greg began to walk around this village so remote that it was not on any of his maps.
He found out that the village had so many needs. When he asked to see their school, the local chief of the village took Greg one morning to a meadow, where he say dozens of children sitting in orderly rows, going over their lessons. They had no school building, no books, and no teacher. The teacher of another village wanted about $1 to come to teach there, and the villagers could not even afford that meager amount. So, the older children taught the younger ones what they knew.
To make a long story very short, Greg Mortensen promised the village that he would help them build a school. He had no money, no help, no organization, and he had never done work like that before. But he promised and he was determined to keep his word.
Today, Greg Mortensen has built not just one school, but over 130 schools in the most remote sections of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. His first book about his experiences, Three Cups of Tea, has sold 3.5 million copies. His newest book, Stones To Schools: Promoting Peace with Books not Bombs is also a best-seller. You can read Greg’s story at gregmortensen.com.
Greg didn’t quit despite the difficulties of building the first school. Greg didn’t quit despite being captured by the Taliban. Greg didn’t quit despite having building materials stolen, and some of his schools destroyed by those who do not want children, especially girls, to get an education.
Don’t quit. Finish the race. Do what God has called you to do.
Keep the Faith
Okay, you’re saying to me, “Chuck, I get the boxing thing, and I get the running thing, but this one doesn’t have anything to do with sports.”
That’s what I thought too, until I began to look closely at Paul’s letter. Let me tell you why.
Paul is using four sports images, four sports metaphors here. Boxing is the first, running is the second, and winning the prize is the fourth. I doubt if in the middle of this sports story, he’s going to change his message.
Now we might think that “keeping the faith” means to believe the right stuff, and keep on believing it. That might be one meaning, but the way Paul uses it here, I think he’s talking about something else. I think Paul is talking about teamwork here. Let me explain.
I believe that Paul is saying, “I was loyal to the team. I kept faith with the other apostles, I kept faith with all the members of the churches I started, and most of all, I kept faith with the coach, Jesus.”
I believe that’s what Paul is saying here because Paul wasn’t always on the same team with Jesus. As a matter of fact, Paul (he was called Saul then) was a violent opponent of Christianity. Paul was so opposed to the whole idea of Christianity that he participated in the harassment, arrest, and murder of Christians. Stephen, who was an early church leader, was one of those whom Paul helped kill. In Acts chapter 7, Saul is identified as the one who watched the coats of those who stoned Stephen to death. Paul had not always kept the Christian faith.
But in that same New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles, in chapter 9, Paul is on his way to Damascus to arrest Christian leaders and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial. But Jesus appears to Paul on the Damascus road. Blinded by a bright light, and spoken to by a voice no one else in his party heard, Jesus appeared to Paul, and said, “Paul, why are you persecuting me?”
Paul didn’t know whose voice it was, so he said, “Who are you, lord?”
And Jesus said, “I’m Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
That night, Paul became a follower of Jesus. You can read that story in the rest of the book of Acts. That night Paul went from being on the opposing team, to being on Jesus’ team. Paul changed sides, and was faithful and loyal to the work of Christ for the rest of his life.
At first, Christians were suspicious of Paul. After all, he was the guy who had been harassing and killing them. But he won them over, and over the years, Paul became the most successful apostle at starting new churches, preaching the story of Jesus, and defending the Christian faith.
When the Christian community grew in size and influence, the emperor Nero decided that Christians would make good scapegoats. So, he blamed Christians for all the social problems in the empire, and a program of persecution was begun.
But through it all, Paul was faithful. He kept the faith, he was true to his word, he played for the right team, he was honest and frank with those who needed his help. He gave up his own life, to tell the story of how he found a new life in Jesus Christ.
Drew Brees has kept the faith with his team in New Orleans. Picked up by New Orleans after setting team records in San Diego, Drew Brees found himself the new quarterback of a 3-and-13 team, in a city that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina. The Superdome where the Saints played, had to be completely renovated, and the city was still struggling when Brees and is family moved there.
Drew Brees could have continued to live in sunny southern California, and commute during the NFL season to play for New Orleans. But he and his wife, Brittany, decided that they were all in on the move to New Orleans.
Drew and Brittany set up the Dream Brees Foundation, and so far they have raised of $4.5 million dollars for cancer research, and to help rebuild schools and athletic fields in the city. Drew himself has showed up to hammer nails, and help rebuild parts of the city.
And of course, this year the New Orleans Saints, did something extraordinary. At one time the New Orleans Saints were the worst team in the NFL. The fans were so embarassed by their team, and yet still loyal, that they sat in the stands wearing brown paper bags over their heads, and calling themselves “the Ain’ts.”
But this year, Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints won the biggest football prize of all. They beat the Indianapolis Colts 31-17, to win their first Super Bowl championship. Drew Brees kept the faith with New Orleans and his team.
Oh, and did I mention that Drew Brees is a Christian. Here’s what he said after the Super Bowl —
“Four years ago, who ever thought this would be happening when 85 percent of the city was under water from (Hurricane) Katrina,” Brees said. “Most people not knowing if New Orleans would ever come back or if the organization and the team would come back. … This is the culmination of that belief and that faith.”
Get The Trophy
Okay, last one. Finally, Paul says, “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.”
In the Roman games, when the contest was over, whether the sport was boxing, or track, or a team sport, the winners would stand in front of the emperor’s seat. The emperor himself took a a laurel wreath, a crown of green leaves, and placed it on the head of the victors. But it wasn’t the wreath itself the athletes valued, because it was just made of leaves. But it was the fact that the emperor himself placed it on the athlete’s head that made it all worthwhile.
That’s the image Paul paints in this last statement. Paul is saying “because I fought a good fight, because I finished the race, because I kept faith with my team and with Jesus, I’ve got a trophy coming!”
But, Paul was quick to say, “But it’s not just for me. It’s for anyone who has been on Jesus’ team, who has run the race to the end, who has fought a good fight, and who want to see their leader, their coach, Jesus, again. It’s for anybody who does what I did, and lives a life for God.”
So, that’s it. When you’re 88 years old in 2080, and you look back on your life, will you be able to say with the apostle Paul,
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day…”
If you can, you will have reached your goal of a successful life. May God bless you and keep you, may God make his face to shine upon you, may God lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.