“Purpose-filled Faith”

2 Timothy 4:1-8

September 14, 2003

 

          The pages of history are graced with the names of numerous people who have lived extra-ordinary lives.  Names such as Marie Curie, Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr., George Washington, and Harriett Tubman.  All of these people, through their accomplishments and works, have become nearly legendary in status compared to others who have lived throughout history. 

We look upon these extra-ordinary people with a sense of awe and admiration, because they, in some way or another, went above and beyond the call of duty in their every day work and every day lives.  They took upon themselves a mission greater than themselves, and looked upon the world and their place in it as one of potential and possibility – and purpose.  It truly is a testimony to the good God in heaven, who graced these mere human beings with the talent and gifts to become extra-ordinary people, a people who in their own way changed the world in which we live.

          All of us, in some way or another, aspire to be extra-ordinary people.  All of us, in some way or another, want to make a difference in this world even if it is just with the people we know.  There is, I believe, in all Christians, if not in all people, an innate desire to have a purpose-filled life.  We look at the world around us and wonder about our place in it.  We stand next to the ocean, and we realize we are but a drop of water.  We stand on the beach, and realize we are but a grain of sand.  We look upon the night sky, and realize we are put a tiny speck in the universe. 

We wonder if we can truly make a difference, if we truly are important in God’s grand creation, if we, in the end, will have counted for something.  It is the glorious good news of the Gospel that the answer for us who live our lives in loving service and faithful witness to Jesus Christ is an emphatic, YES!  YES!, we can truly make a difference.  YES!, we truly are important in God’s grand creation.  YES!, in the end, we will have counted for something. 

          John W. Gardner, founding chairman of Common Cause, a non-partisan citizens' organization whose goal is to ensure open, honest, accountable and effective government at the federal, state, and local levels, once said that it’s a rare and high privilege to help people understand the difference they can make – not only in their own lives, but also in the lives of others, simply by giving of themselves.

          Gardner tells a story of a cheerful old man who asked the same question of just about every new acquaintance he fell into conversation with: “What have you done that you believe in and you are proud of?”  He never asked the conventional questions such as “What do you do for a living?”  It was always, “What have you done that you believe in and are proud of?”  It was an unsettling question for people who had built their self-esteem on their wealth or their family name or their occupation. 

The old man was delighted by a woman who answered, “I’m doing a good job raising three children;” and by a cabinetmaker who said, “I believe in good workmanship and practice it;” and by a woman who said, “I started a bookstore and it’s the best bookstore for miles around.”  “I don’t really care how they answer,” said the old man.  “I just want to put the thought into their minds.  They should live their lives in such a way that they can have a good answer.  Not a good answer for me, but for themselves.  That’s what’s important.”

The old man was right – that is what’s important, to be able to have a good answer for ourselves, to be able to say, when all is said and done, “I gave it my all.  I gave my whole self.  I fulfilled my purpose, and my cup still runneth over;” to be able to say, like the Apostle Paul, “I fought the good fight.  I finished the race.  I have kept the faith.”

Certainly, if there was any person who lived an extra-ordinary life, it was the Apostle Paul, and what a life he lived.  We know Paul best as the first missionary to numerous cities in the Roman Empire, and for his numerous letters to the churches, which some have stood the test of time and compose the majority of the New Testament.  We also know that it was Paul who gave the Christian community much of its theology about Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. 

But we don’t always remember that Paul was at one time Saul, and that he was not always a zealous advocate of the gospel.  He was most likely an athletic man in his younger years, a highly educated man of the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek philosophy, and he was a hard line Pharisee and persecutor of the church.  “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh,” writes Paul to the Philippians, “I have more.”  But for Paul, is whole outlook on his life changed on the day he meet the living Christ on the road to Damascus.  From that moment on, his mission and purpose was clear – to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the end of his days.

In our text for today, Paul now stands at the threshold of this world and the next as death’s shadow is closing in upon him, and he reflects back on his life in this moving, heartfelt, and intensely personal letter to Timothy.  In the end, he is able to declare for himself that he had given his all to his purpose, that he had given his whole self, that he had fulfilled all that he was called to do, and his cup still runneth over, that he had “fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith.”

For Paul, as it must be for us as well, we must never forget that each one of us has a purpose for our lives and a place in this world.  We must never forget that we can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of the people around us through Christ.  Each one of us is important, and each one of us has been given the talents and gifts to become extra-ordinary people in God’s grand creation. 

Yet, so many in the Church continue to search for a purpose in themselves, for a meaning to their life, for some kind of way to get off the hamster-wheel like marathon that they live in.  Yet in all their searching, they only find themselves, like a hamster, running and running and running, but going nowhere fast.  The Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, once said that a person without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder – a stray, a nothing, a none person.  The problem isn’t that they don’t have a purpose, the problem is they have forgotten that their purpose is in God, and that the purpose of their faith in Jesus Christ is important to God’s work in the world. 

As Christians, as it was for Paul, we can never forget that our lives of faith has a purpose, a purpose to carry God’s message of salvation to the ends of the earth, a purpose to be persistent and patient in our teaching of the Gospel, a purpose to carry out our ministry fully to the end of our days, because, as Paul tells Timothy, we are “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…in view of his appearing and his kingdom.”  This is why Paul was so confident in the purpose of his faith, because he knew that he was in full view of the living Christ, the same Christ who had met him on the road to Damascus, the same living Christ, who is the righteous judge of the living and the dead, the same Christ who has reserved for him the crown of righteousness when he comes again.

Like Paul, we too must have a purpose to our lives of faith, and set out to fulfill our purpose with all the ambition, determination, devotion, and enthusiasm of faith that we can muster, because like Paul we too stand in the presence of God and of the living Christ, and we too have reserved for us the crown of righteousness when Christ comes again.

          Our purpose-filled faith must be ambitious.  In the jargon of athletics, it means desire, it means having a hunger to want to accomplish more than what we expect to accomplish, to want to grow and mature in the faith more than what we are now, to want to push ourselves to greater and greater heights of spiritual joy and fulfillment. 

We hunger after many things – money, prestige, even power – and we stuff ourselves with the food that provides no spiritual nourishment.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  Even when we do hunger and thirst after righteousness, we prefer not to make a big deal out of it.  We prefer to speak softly.  We would rather have a faith that is written without punctuation, when what we need is a faith with an exclamation mark.  We should be so ambitious in our faith that we crave to be filled over and over again by the only one who is the true food for eternal life.

Our purpose-filled faith must be determined.  We must be determined to reach the goal and prize that awaits us on the last day.  Too many people today are determined to reach the goal and prize of the crowns of this world, but in the end, the crowns of this world only rot and decay, but the crown of righteousness lasts forever. 

But reaching the goal and prize that awaits us on the last day is not always easy.  In the 1992 Summer Olympics, while running in the 400-meter semifinal, British runner Derek Redmond tore a hamstring and fell to the track.  Derek struggled to his feet and began to hobble down the track, determined to complete the race.  As he hobbled down the track, a man ran out of the stands to help him off the track.  It was Derek’s father.  But Derek refused to quit.  He leaned on his father, and the two of them crossed the finish line together to a deafening applause. 

Paul experienced more pain and suffering in his ministry than any one of us will ever experience in our lifetime, but he remained determined for the sake of the gospel, because Paul knew that the one who suffered humiliation and death upon the cross, was now the same living Christ who supported and helped him to finish the race he was called to run. 

Our purpose-filled faith must be one of devotion.  We must be so devoted to our mission and ministry that nothing will distract us from who we have been called to be and what we have been called to do.  We must devote ourselves, commit ourselves, dedicate ourselves, and give ourselves fully to God’s purpose for us.  Our eyes must be fixed upon the prize that awaits us, our eyes must be fixed upon the goal to which we run, our eyes must be fixed upon the fulfillment of God’s salvation plan for the world.  Being devoted is more than just being devoted to our own lives of faith, it is always being devoted to Christ’s church as well, for it is in Christ’s church that we learn, hear, and embody God’s purpose for all of God’s people.  Devotion, commitment, dedication, and giving are not done in isolation, but in community; in a community that is devoted, committed, dedicated, and gives together in witness and in service.

Finally, our purpose-filled faith must be one of enthusiasm.  Everyday should be a day when we get up excited about what the day has to offer us.  Everyday should be seen as another opportunity to enjoy God’s presence, to enjoy God’s love, and to enjoy God’s gifts to us.  There are some days when we just don’t quite feel right, just can’t quite pick ourselves up, or just don’t feel like we have much to offer.  It is in these times that we can rely on the power and strength of God to carry us through.  It is in these times that we can remember that God has already called us into a new life with Him, and given us the possibility of a deeper, more fulfilling relationship with Him.  These are the gifts we don’t have to strive for, run toward, or fight for, they are ours as God’s gracious gifts.  Allow them to help build you up, rely on them when your down, and remember them in your hearts.  Let God’s gift of grace resonate in you, fill you, and lift you up, and then just enjoy them.  Let them be the fire that rekindles your faith and enthusiasm.  

Ambition, determination, devotion, and enthusiasm – these are the hallmarks of the Christian faith and Christian life.  Let them be the means by which you fulfill your purpose-filled faith, so that in the end, you will be able to confess with all boldness and conviction, “I have given my all to God’s purpose for me.  I have given my whole self.  I have fulfilled all that God has called me to do, and my cup still runneth over.  I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith to the glory of God.”  Amen.