A talk given at All Saints Crowborough, 8.00am, Sunday 26 August 2012
It’s surprising how many people have had the interesting experience of reading their own obituary. In 2003 the American broadcaster CNN was embarrassed when draft obituaries for several world figures, who were still very much alive, were accidentally made available on its website. They were unfinished, and some appeared to have used the Queen Mother’s obituary as a template. American Vice-President Dick Cheney, for example, was described as “the UK’s favourite grandmother”. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel had a similar experience back in 1888. His brother had just died and a French newspaper confused the two of them, and printed an obituary for Alfred instead. Nobel was famous for the invention of dynamite, which led the paper to proclaim “The merchant of death is dead!”. Alfred Nobel, it said, ‘became rich finding more ways to kill more people faster than ever before’. Nobel was horrified to discover that this might be considered his legacy; and the story goes that this premature obituary inspired him to create the Nobel prizes which bear his name.
Others have deliberately gone to the trouble of writing their own epitaph for their gravestone. Comedian Spike Milligan requested the inscription “I told you I was ill!” – and in the end the church agreed to it, providing (apparently) that it was written in Gaelic. More seriously, the 18th century preacher John Wesley, expecting imminent death from a severe fever, left a note asking for the following:
Here lieth the Body
of JOHN WESLEY,
A BRAND PLUCKED OUT OF THE BURNING:
WHO DIED OF A CONSUMPTION IN THE FIFTY-FIRST YEAR OF HIS AGE,
NOT LEAVING, AFTER HIS DEBTS ARE PAID,
TEN POUNDS BEHIND HIM:
GOD BE MERCIFUL TO ME, AN UNPROFITABLE SERVANT!”
In fact he recovered and went on to live to serve God for many more years.
But certainly, there’s nothing like death, or impending death, to focus the mind. I wonder how you would like to be remembered after you’re gone? How would you sum up your life, your priorities, and your achievements? In what way might your example be a good example to others?
Well, in our bible reading today we get a glimpse into how the Apostle Paul might answer that question. He knows that he himself is near the end of his life; quite possibly he’s on ‘death row’ as he writes this letter. He’s writing to Timothy, a younger Christian leader, and it’s an extraordinary letter – a distillation of his life down to the essentials which he wants Timothy to take on board after he’s gone.
And these verses tell us three things, I think, that we would do well to learn from as we consider our lives.
First, the Christian life is a struggle; Second, the prize is righteousness; Third, the prize goes to those who are longing for Jesus Christ’s return.
1. THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS A STRUGGLE
Look with me at verse 7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” For Paul, the Christian life has been a fight, a struggle. In one of his other letters, in 2 Corinthians 11, he lists some of those hardships. In a shop I once saw a mug with some of those verses printed on: “Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; … I have been in danger in the city, in danger in the country…I have had sleepless nights, been cold, hungry and thirsty…” And then, in large letters underneath, the mug simply asked, “How’s your day been?”
For us, simply living can be hard. Life in this fallen world, along with many blessings, brings sickness, pain and trouble. And life as a Christian brings greater blessings but usually even greater hardships – the opposition that comes when people take offence at the gospel message.
Part of Christian maturity is accepting that the Christian life is going to be a struggle, trusting that God will never fail us or forsake us, and believing that God uses the hardships we face to strengthen our character.
When Paul says “I have finished the race” it’s not that he’s boasting; more just encouraging the young man Timothy to stay the course – it’s as if he’s saying “If I can do it then so can you!” It is not easy. But the struggle will not last for ever. Because there is an end to the course, a prize. And:
2. THE PRIZE IS RIGHTEOUSNESS
Look at verse 8: “From now on, there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day”. At the ancient Olympics, the winner received a crown made of olive leaves. But the prize Paul is looking forward to is a crown of righteousness. Now we might easily think that he’s saying the crown comes as a prize for being righteous, for having lived a good life. But that’s not what he’s saying at all. Righteousness will be his prize. It’s something he will be given. God will crown him with righteousness in heaven, where he will live for ever, made perfect, made ‘right with God’ – that’s what righteousness means – in the presence of God.
When Alfred Nobel read that premature obituary, describing him as ‘The merchant of death’, he was shocked into trying to improve the way the world remembered him; and that’s all very well; except that on the other side of death we are all destined to meet our Creator, and no amount of good living, no amount of generous donation, can make up for our real problem: the way we’ve ignored him.
A Christian friend of mine was talking one day to a Muslim lady. He asked her what she thoug
ht would happen after she died, and she said that she believed Allah would weigh up her good deeds against her bad deeds. If the good deeds outweighed the bad, then she would be accepted into paradise. “And how do you think it’s looking?” asked my friend? Very honestly she replied, “Not good.” And all of us must surely say the same. The bible tells us we have no hope of ever balancing those scales. That ‘crown of righteousness’ is a gift from God.
And how Paul is looking forward to receiving that prize! It is inspiring his life. But how can he get the prize? Well, this passage tells us that
3.THE PRIZE GOES TO THOSE WHO ARE LONGING FOR JESUS CHRIST’S APPEARING.
Look with me at verse 8. “From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” This is how he describes those who will get the prize: they are those who are longing for Jesus Christ’s appearing. All of us are going to meet him one day, either because we die, or because we are still here when he returns to earth in his glory as he promised. For some, that will be a day of dread as they meet their judge. But for others it will be a day of joy to meet him – not because they have lived a good life or been to church regularly, but simply because they have already made their peace with him, accepting his forgiveness through his death for us on the cross. Paul is longing for his appearing. He’s longing for the winner’s prize of righteousness, and for an end to his struggles.
How about you? Let me ask: what are your greatest longings – the things for which you’ll put everything and anything aside, and the things which inspire you to keep going through hardship? Just as an Olympic athlete will put anything and everything aside because of the longing for a gold medal – what are the things you really long for? Are they the same as Paul’s?
Do you have, like him, a longing to be righteous? Are you frustrated with your own sinfulness? Do you feel a desperate need to be made perfect? Deep down, we might think, “Righteousness? That’s not much of a prize! I could take it or leave it.” If that’s you – if you’re not really excited by the thought of righteousness, then maybe you just need to get to know God better. Perhaps you could ask to get into a one2one bible reading partnership with someone; perhaps you could try new ways of sharing the good news with others, ways which really stretch your faith. Part of being a Christian is having a longing for righteousness.
And secondly, do you long for Jesus Christ’s return? Do you long to meet him? Do you have a vision of what it will be like to be in heaven with him? Does that excite you? It may be that you’re not confident about the prospect of meeting him, because you’re not sure what it will mean, or because you’re not sure how things will stand between the two of you when you meet him face to face. That’s a good concern for us rebels to have when we meet the one who made us! Be assured of two things: firstly, nothing good about you is going to cut any ice. But secondly, if he has forgiven you then the slate is wiped clean. The devil will have no right to accuse you if you trust in Jesus, and you can have confidence on that day. In a nutshell: if we try and cover up our sins, then God will expose them; but if we expose our sins then the blood of Jesus Christ will cover them.
So: the Christian life is a struggle; the prize is righteousness; and the prize goes to those who are longing for Jesus Christ’s appearing. Think back to those obituaries and epitaphs. What would you hope to see written about you? Vain compliments? Surely not! How about “He (or she) died longing for Christ to appear”. That’s more like it!