Monday, April 9, 2012
Fight The Good Fight
Sermon by Jonathan Firme
Some clever person has written a fictitious letter from a pastor to a church search committee. The letter reads as follows:
"I understand your church is looking for a pastor. I should like to submit my application. I am generally considered to be a good preacher. I have been a leader in most of the places I have served. I have also found time to do some writing on the side. I am over fifty years of age, and while my health is not the best, I still manage to get enough work done to please my congregation. As for a reference, I am somewhat handicapped. I have never served in any place more than three years, and the churches where I have preached have generally been pretty small, even though they were located in rather large cities. Some places I had to leave because my ministry caused riots and disturbances. When I stayed, I did not get along too well with other religious leaders in town which may influence the kind of references these places will send you. I have also been threatened several times and been physically attacked. Three or four times I have gone to jail for expressing my thoughts. You will need to know that there are some men who follow me around undermining my work. Still, I feel sure I can bring vitality to your church. If you can use me, I should be pleased to be considered." The letter is simply signed, 'Paul'.
Most leadership of the early church wouldn't make it through the church interview process today. Theirs was a rough and dangerous world. Turmoil on every side, both in the Jewish nation and the Roman. Think of the pictures we have seen from Iraq and Afghanistan these past few years and you get an idea of hardships the Apostle Paul faced as he traveled for 20 years and thousands of miles all over the Roman world.
Our reading this morning comes from 2 Timothy. Writing this letter, his second letter to Timothy, most likely the last thing he wrote, Paul is in prison, awaiting his execution. Still, he writes, “For 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. All that's left now is the shouting – God's applause.” Paul is certain that all the hardships he has endured to spread the message of Jesus were worth it. For him, and for anyone who has worked for God as he has. I thought it would benefit us to take a look at how this extraordinary man dedicated his life to God, by keeping the faith, finishing the race, and fighting the good fight.
Paul writes about keeping the faith. Well, Paul certainly kept his faith through all of his struggles. He was rarely encouraged in the towns he visited. More often he was assaulted, arrested, imprisoned, or otherwise driven out of town. He was mocked, and his message disrespected. Yet, he pressed on, and he did establish churches in these hostile places. He kept the faith.Notice, Paul did not call it his faith. We often hear people say, “I lost my faith.” Paul talks about keeping The Faith, as though it were in capital letters. Not having it, but keeping it. Paul is a keeper of The Faith. He guards The Faith – the message of Jesus Christ, with his every word and action.
I played soccer and coached youth teams for years. Now, people who are not familiar with the game can usually name one position – the goalkeeper. The goalkeeper has one job. Protect the goal from any and all attackers. No matter where the attack comes from, no matter how many attackers there are, his job is to protect that goal. Even if it means getting stepped on, kicked or elbowed, he will defend that goal. In that same sense, Paul was a faith keeper. Everywhere he went, people were out to undermine his efforts, attacking the message he was carrying. Paul never stopped keeping the faith, and that is one of his messages to us. Against all who would use the the message of Jesus to keep some people down, deny rights to others, and pad their own bottom line, we must keep The Faith.
Keeping the Faith, and then finishing the race. Paul tells Timothy that he has finished the race, and it is time for Timothy to take the baton. It is time for us as well. I've been around long enough to know some men and women whose lives were completely dedicated to God, and within a few years, they had given up the race, and walked off the track. They had given up. They had lost their longing for God and all that he is. They felt God had nothing to offer. Too many times, these conversions happen in people who, for one reason or another, become dissatisfied with the teachings or practices of a particular religion. Paul warned us that there will be people who offer alternative messages, false religions. He also told us not to be surprised when people give up The Faith – capital letters again – to follow. Running the race, for us, means to be there when those runners decide to join us again. Not too long ago, I shared with you my own crisis, when I was ready to drop out of the race. It frightened me, but it strengthened me as well. It should frighten all of us. The possibility of quitting the race is real for all of us unless we allow our hearts to be completely gripped by God . . . today...now.
I never want to lose the grip God's greatness has on my life. It can be difficult though. Often times, there are many tasks demanding my attention on the third Thursday of the month, when I am supposed to meet with the admin team – or board of trustees, depending on which language you speak. I often have some other thing threatening to take the place of the council meeting on the last Thursday. Sunday evenings it can be difficult to get motivated for a book study, and don't even mention Sunday morning activities before church. It is all too easy to take some time off for me. To drop out of the race, just until the next checkpoint. However, the last thing I want to do is crawl across the finish line a defeated, derailed Christian or worse-give up the race before my life is over. I want to break that tape with arms high and my face to the sun and say with the apostle Paul, "I have finished the course; I have kept the faith"
The more I study Paul, the more I admire the man. Paul did fight the good fight. I want to share his own words on this subject, as he wrote in 2 Timothy, from The Message :
Don't be naive. There are difficult times ahead. As the end approaches, people are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They'll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they're animals. Stay clear of these people.
These are the kind of people who smooth-talk themselves into the homes of unstable and needy women and take advantage of them; women who, depressed by their sinfulness, take up with every new religious fad that calls itself "truth." They get exploited every time and never really learn. These men are like those old Egyptian frauds Jannes and Jambres, who challenged Moses. They were rejects from the faith, twisted in their thinking, defying truth itself. But nothing will come of these latest impostors. Everyone will see through them, just as people saw through that Egyptian hoax.
You've been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there's no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They're as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.
But don't let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother's milk! There's nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God's way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.
I can't impress this on you too strongly. God is looking over your shoulder. Christ himself is the Judge, with the final say on everyone, living and dead. He is about to break into the open with his rule, so proclaim the Message with intensity; keep on your watch. Challenge, warn, and urge your people. Don't ever quit. Just keep it simple.
You're going to find that there will be times when people will have no stomach for solid teaching, but will fill up on spiritual junk food—catchy opinions that tickle their fancy. They'll turn their backs on truth and chase mirages. But you—keep your eye on what you're doing; accept the hard times along with the good; keep the Message alive; do a thorough job as God's servant.
You take over. I'm about to die, my life an offering on God's altar. This is the only race worth running. I've run hard right to the finish, believed all the way. All that's left now is the shouting—God's applause! Depend on it, he's an honest judge. He'll do right not only by me, but by everyone eager for his coming.
Fight the good fight. Some battles in life are fought and instantly won; passing tests, playing games, solving a puzzle in the newspaper, or winning at a sporting event. We preoccupy ourselves with these "battles" because they give us instantaneous gratification and bring us a measure of pleasure and self assurance.
Some battles are fought for a while and won; graduating from high school or college, getting a promotion at work, achieving "retirement." We can see the need for fighting these kinds of battles because there is a significant achievement to be won at the end and once we have achieved that level, we can move on to other things, having won the battle.
There are other battles, however, that are ongoing and we will never, in this life, completely win until we conquer them in death. These battles are constant and daily efforts with which we must struggle on a regular basis. This is a hard thing for our society to accept as we are accustomed to complex crimes being solved in a one hour TV program, sporting events ending in less than two hours, and worship ending by 11:30. This kind of battle is only won in the continued fighting of it; it isn't a battle that is won, never to be fought again.
Paul's command to a young new minister is Paul's command to us, today. Keep The Faith, finish the race, and fight the good fight. So, what can we do now to ensure, as Paul put it, God's applause? That finish line victory? We can get back to basics: Honestly answer these five questions:
Do I hunger for God? Does God's Word govern my life? How quickly do I repent when I see my wrong? Am I sensitive to the Spirit's prompting me? Is my faith growing?
Well, is it?