I don’t know if you knew this about me, but I used to enjoy running. It was fun, it was exercise, and it was a time for me to spend in my own thoughts. I no longer enjoy running, it’s boring, it’s exercise, and it hurts—but that’s just me. One thing that I have always appreciated about running is when it is done, and not just because it is done, but because at the end, when you are sweaty and thirsty you take that big glass or bottle of water and you drink it, and it tastes good. Sometimes it’s that water, even, that motivates you to finish your race, because you know you’re not getting any water until you get back home.
The Apostle Paul in our lesson describes himself as running, as running the race of life and that race was a fight a “good fight” he calls it. The race of Paul’s life and the fights he had to endure are well documented for us in Scripture. Paul was flogged, he was chased out of cities, he was thrown in prison, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked—if you think about it, Paul’s life would make an epic movie; everything he endured.
But now, after enduring all that, Paul finds himself writing to Timothy to tell him that it is all over, it is “time for his departure.” The race is done, it is all coming to an end. Yet, even though things were coming to an end for Paul, he had hope. He knew he had kept the faith. He knew his faith had not been taken from him. He knew that at the end of his race of life he had an eternally satisfying drink from the Water of Life. He knew that there was a crown awaiting him, a crown of righteousness.
This crown was a crown awarded to Paul and guarded for him by the righteous judge. God himself awarded Paul this crown, and God himself would guard it until he was safely in the kingdom of heaven. But why is Paul telling Timothy all of this? Paul is giving Timothy his profession of faith. Timothy isn’t able to be there with Paul and witness his end, so Paul provides him with words, words which confess the faith which he had fought for so long to keep and to spread to others.
This profession of faith starts with Paul making clear that his life has been an offering of service to God. It then moves to him declaring how he has fought the good fight, and has kept this faith. Finally, Paul’s profession ends with a saying that all of us can trust, that there is in “store for me the crown of righteousness.” This crown Paul says, is a reward. “It has been awarded to me”, and then he adds, that this has not been awarded “only to me, but to all those who have longed for his appearing.” All people, past, present, and future who have longed for Savior, who have faith in Jesus, all those people have this crown. This was Paul’s confession, these were his last words of encouragement to his beloved friend, and fellow coworker Timothy. That he, Paul, has finished his race and received his reward, a reward that Timothy and all other believers would one day share in at the end of their race.
But it is a race, isn’t it? It is a fight. Do we always recognize that? That the life of a believer, our life, isn’t going to be some walk in the park? Like Paul all of us are running a race, now admittedly our race will and probably does look very different than that of Paul’s. We aren’t lying in prison for our faith. Yet, we are still running a race. Our faith is still being tested every single day. All of us have lives that go in different directions and have led us down different paths. All of us have faced different struggles, and experienced different heartaches. Some of us have witnessed the death of loved ones, long before their time. Some of us have dealt with diseases, cancers, and other health conditions. Some of us maybe have not experienced any of those things now, and may not ever, yet it doesn’t change the fact that we are all in a race and that race is a fight it is a fight because often it has pitted us against forces who want to draw us away from our God.
And sadly, they often succeed. The devil and the world have convinced many religious groups and people to throw in the towel, to give up the race. To reject the crown that God seeks to award, and to instead give in “to what their itching ears want to hear” as we heard last week. We are tempted to give up too, as we wonder why God would make our lives so difficult. This is often the argument we hear isn’t it? What kind of loving God would let his “supposed” children suffer, pain, temptation, persecution, and hardship in general? What kind of God is that?
Instead of answering that question maybe we should answer this one. What kind of God would offer a man, like Paul, a man who hunted down arrested and watched as believers were stoned, what kind of God would offer such a man an award, a crown of righteousness? What kind of God would be so willing to offer the award of a crown of righteousness to miserable, wretched, sinners such as ourselves? A God who loves all people. A God who loves us. A God who fights for us.
His fight for us began before the creation of the world. Earlier in 2 Timothy Paul wrote that “God saved us…not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.” God’s answer to a sinful world, a world that rejected him, was a Savior. God the righteous judge chose in his undeserved love to offer up a sacrifice that would pay for all sins, once for all. A sacrifice that was sufficient, requiring nothing on our part. That sacrifice was made through his only Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.
It was for that Savior that Paul had lived, dedicating his life to spreading the message of Salvation that came only through him. It was for that same Savior that Paul now boasted “he had fought the good fight for, he had kept the faith.” And his reward? The crown of righteousness. The same award that waits all of us through faith in Jesus, a place prepared for us in heaven. This is our crown! This is our award!
Let’s go back to conversation about running. I mentioned how I enjoy running alone, but imagine that you are running alone for a long time with no one to encourage you no one to motivate or cheer you on, and you start to get tired, you start to get weak, and even that knowledge of a refreshing drink no longer is motivation for you to keep on going. And you finally just give up. You quit.
As Paul stood on trial, as he saw the writing on the wall, and it appears he was alone. Paul writes, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me.” Imagine, the biggest trial of your life, a trial that means life and death, and witnesses, friends who could speak up in your defense don’t show. They are terrified to show their faces out of fear for their own lives!
Yet, although Paul appeared to be on his own, he was not alone. “But the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength”, Paul says. Paul knew what Jesus told the disciples in the book of Matthew, that when arrested they would not need to worry about what to say, “For at that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” No, Paul was not alone. Paul had his Father standing beside him. Paul had the almighty God strengthening him and encouraging him. For what purpose?
“So that through me” Paul says, “the message might be fully proclaimed” Paul’s suffering, his trial, was an opportunity for him to share the gospel truth with all those around, to be a witness, a light in the darkness, so that all may come to know their Savior. And what was the end result?
At least after this first trial Paul tells Timothy he was spared, he was not killed. “The Lord rescued” Paul “from every evil attack” and Paul believed and trusted that he would be rescued and guarded until he was brought safely to “his heavenly kingdom” Paul knew his crown of righteousness was safe from anyone who would try to snatch it out of his hands, because God was guarding that crown for him.
Do you see the example God gave Timothy and us through Paul? It’s like that picture called “footprints” have you seen that picture? Where there were two sets of footprints in the sand, but at times only one? When there is only one set of footprints, what does that mean Jesus was carrying the other person. As we our running our race of life, and find ourselves beaten down by the world and our sinful nature, Jesus doesn’t leave us to try and make it ourselves, he picks us up. He carries us. He not only awards us a crown of righteousness, but he protects and guards it for us, by guarding us from all temptation and doubt in our lives.
Our salvation, our crown is guarded for us by a jealous God who wants us for himself. He guards us by giving us opportunities, like today, to grow in our knowledge of him and be encouraged by other believers. He guards us by sending his angels to watch over and protect us. Finally, he guards us by daily reminding us that our sins are forgiven.
It is that knowledge and that certainty of salvation that allows us to carry on even when we or someone we know is struggling with their health. It is that knowledge that allows us to praise God even when struggling personally with a sin, temptation, doubt or fear that eats away at us. It is that faith that lifts us up when we are struggling to find a job or are facing a broken marriage, or are just feeling down about life in general.
It is that knowledge that allows you, when someone asks you how can you carry on with all this bad stuff happening to you, in faith will be able to answer, “I myself, I can’t. But let me tell who is at my side and has strengthened me every step of the way and let me also tell you of the crown I have received from him, which he is now guarding for me.” Then like Paul we can share the message of Christ crucified and by God’s grace they too will receive the crown through faith.
And so I ask you when your time comes, after all the running and fighting, when God is knocking on the door to take you home, will you be able to say like Paul, “I have kept the faith?” By the power of the Holy Spirit who created that faith in our hearts, you can, and you will. All of us “who have longed for his, for our Savior’s appearing” will be able to say with full confidence that heaven is our home. The crown of righteousness is ours! Awarded to us through faith in Christ and guarded for us by our Father in heaven. To him be glory for ever and ever! Amen.