When our children were younger, many of their questions began with “How many sleeps until…?” Many of the questions were quite trivial and I started to just make up numbers. Then one day, one of the children asked, “How many sleeps until I die?” That shook me. I had no clue of my own mortality at their age but they must have been more aware because of my role as a pastor and my involvement in funerals.
When we look around this room, there is a wide variety of experiences represented here. But the one thing that unites us all is that we will all die. We will have a last drive in a car. We will have a last hug with a family member. We will have a last meal. We will have a last breath. There is no getting around it.
Some people have come to grips with the fact that they will die. Woody Allen is reported to have said, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Have you ever wondered why it is so devastating to receive a terminal diagnosis? We already know that we are going to die but receiving a timeline makes it more real. We are forced to face reality.
Last week we looked at 1 Thessalonians, which was one of Paul’s first letters. There he seems to expect that Jesus would return in his life time and that he would not experience death. This week we look at 2 Timothy, Paul’s last letter and we see Paul coming to terms with his impending death. We will look at what that means for how we live and how we die.
Paul Near the End
Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral letters because we see Paul’s pastoral heart. Timothy and Titus are two young men that Paul has discipled and mentored. Now that Paul is nearing the end of his life, he sends these letters as his last opportunity to pour into their lives.
Paul lived a hard life throughout his ministry. When we read about Paul’s conversion in Acts, we see that Paul was warned right from the beginning about how much he would suffer. Paul came into conflict both with non-Christians and Christians that didn’t like the way he did things. He would pour his heart and soul into churches only to watch them make foolish mistakes. Paul experienced poverty as well as physical and emotional pain.
Despite all these difficulties, Paul remained faithful to the Jesus that called him on the road to Damascus. It was common for thought leaders to boast of their accomplishments to support their arguments and although Paul could boast in that way, he would rather boast in his suffering. Staying faithful in the hard times was much more rewarding than receiving human praise. Paul has hopped from one difficult point to the next. But now he is nearing the end. Although Paul has spent much time in prison, he knows that his execution is at hand. This is the time of the Emperor Nero, who was known for his killing of Christians.
How would you feel if you knew that your death was imminent? For Paul, it is not dwelling on the fear of the execution but of reflections of the way he lived. Paul had fought the good fight, he had run the race, he had kept the faith. Notice what Paul says here. He doesn’t compare himself to Peter, James or John. He doesn’t list the number of churches he planted or give the final amount of money he collected for the poor in Jerusalem. It was not a contest in which he could compare his achievements to another. He was given a fight to fight and a race to run and he did it. Did Paul have any regrets in his life? I’m sure that he did, but he doesn’t dwell on that. What matters was that he was called to follow Jesus and he was faithful to that task.
Having reflected on the past, he looks to the future, the future beyond his death. Paul knows that he will stand before Jesus, and specifically Jesus as the righteous judge. The idea of a judgment day may fill us with terror but it does not for Paul. Paul has confidence in this judge, that he is fair and just. Paul also knows that he is righteous because of Jesus and not because of his own effort. At the same time, his actions will be judged and Paul is content to leave that to Jesus. He will receive the crown of righteousness, not because he is the great Apostle Paul but because he, like other Christians, have longed for the presence of Jesus.
How We Live Matters
The idea of death should naturally point us to how we live our life. I recently rewatched the movie Saving Private Ryan. It is a story about World War Two and a group of soldiers sent to rescue a Private Ryan who is behind enemy lines but is to be sent home. Most of those soldiers who go after Ryan are killed, including the Captain that was leading them. Just before the Captain dies, he grabs Ryan and says, “Earn this!” We are then brought back to today and the now elderly Ryan is standing before the Captain’s grave in France. Ryan asks his wife desperately, “Tell me that I’m a good man!” Ryan wasn’t rescued because he was better than anyone else, but out of gratitude for the price that was paid for his life, it was essential that he not waste what was given to him.
That is very much the motivation for living the Christian life. Jesus died for us, not because we had earned it or had done something special. But having been brought into God’s family by the death of Jesus, we need to respond appropriately. The Christian life is not just about duty. It is not as simple as following the rules in the hope of impressing God. Living the Christian life is about living a life of worship. This is what Paul calls elsewhere, offering our bodies as a living sacrifice. We lift up people as heroes who die for Christ, and we should. But equally important are those who live for Christ and in some cases that is more difficult.
We will be on our deathbed at some point and we may have the opportunity of reflecting on how we lived. At that point it will be too late to change but it is not too late right now.
How We Die Matters
We are all going to die. It might be by accident or by disease. It may be in old age or at a far too young age. As a pastor, I have had many opportunities to watch as people transition from this life to the next. For some people the process of dying is filled with fear. For others, it feels natural and they are ready to meet Jesus. How we die matters.
We will stand before Jesus, the righteous judge. The judgment will not be whether we deserve eternal life. That judgment came upon Jesus himself. The judgment will be on how faithful we were with what God gave us. The standard won’t be Mother Theresa or Billy Graham. The standard will be what God called us to do, what gifts he gave us and what opportunities came our way. We don’t have to live in gear of that. Jesus is a righteous judge who can be trusted.
And we will receive a crown of righteousness. Some people take passages like this and develop an extravagant concept of heavenly rewards based on how we performed here on earth. I will confess that I am skeptical of this. I think being with Jesus will be reward enough. The crown of righteousness reflect the righteousness that we already have in Christ Jesus. The crown was given in ancient times to the winner of an athletic contest. We are not competing against other Christians. It is only about our own life and death. The point is that we can trust Jesus to do the right thing and to acknowledge our faithfulness.
You may have hated this message. You may have wished that we could just ignore death. That is not possible. Our friends and family will die. We will die. But before we die, we will live. We get to choose how we will live. We can choose to fight the good fight and to run the race. We can choose to be faithful to Jesus, not out of fear but as an act of worship. Paul had a sense of peace when he looked to his death. Can we say we have that same peace?