Summary: Finishing well doesn’t happen by accident. Today we march to battle in the name of the Lord. The day of rest comes later.
Just before his team left the locker room to play for the national championship of college football at the Fiesta Bowl last January, Jim Tressel, head coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, gathered his team for one final talk. After going over the game plan, he asked his team one simple question, “How do you want to be remembered?” It must have worked because when the game was over, the Buckeyes had pulled off one of the great upsets in recent memory, defeating the Miami Hurricanes, in the process ending their 34-game winning streak, and winning the national championship.
The question hangs in the air: “How do you want to be remembered?” What do you hope people will say about you after you are gone? How will the people who knew you best summarize 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 or 80 years of living? A while back my brother Andy, who lives in Florence, Alabama, told me that he wanted to show me a graveyard in the country. The next time I was in Florence, he drove along a remote country road and finally stopped near the ruins of an antebellum plantation. We got out and walked into the forest about a quarter of a mile. There we found the family cemetery for the owners of the 19th-century plantation. We climbed over a low wall and began inspecting the gravestones, most of them 150 years old. Most of the markers contained phrases like, “Loving father,” “Beloved mother,” “Darling son,” “Rest in Peace,” “Asleep in Jesus,” and so on. Eventually we came to the grave of the man who had owned the plantation for many years. Under his name there was the date of his birth and the date of his death. Then there was a five-word statement that summed up his whole life: “A man of unquestioned integrity.” Just five words. Nothing more, nothing less.
Suppose it was your tombstone. What five words would your friends choose? How do you want to be remembered?
Here is Paul’s answer to that question. Writing from a Roman jail, with the certain knowledge that he would soon be dead, he looked back at his journey with Christ, and then he looked forward to what would happen after he died. Then he wrote his own epitaph: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:6-8). After an exhaustive study of the men and women of the Bible, Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary concluded that there are approximately 100 detailed biographies in the Bible. He notes that approximately two-thirds of those men and women ended poorly. Either they turned to immorality or they drifted away from the faith or they ended their life in a backslidden condition. The Apostle Paul was not among them. He finished well. Once when John Wesley was asked to explain the spiritual strength of the early Methodists, he replied, “Our people die well.” But in order to die well, you have to finish well. Our text tells us how that happens.
Finishing well doesn’t happen by accident. This week I’ve been reading about a man named John “The Penguin” Bingham. Serious runners will recognize the name. Since I am a biker, not a runner, I had never heard of him. He is both a runner and someone who knows how to motivate others to successfully run marathons. What is his secret? I ran across this quote by him and it stuck in my mind: “As I stand at the starting line, I know that somewhere out there is a finish line.” That’s a good principle to keep in mind. Out there somewhere is a finish line for all of us. Most of us probably think the finish line is a few years down the road—maybe ten years or 20 years or 30 years away. For me personally, I don’t know what to expect. If I live as long as my mother, I’ve got at least 30 more years in front of me. If I live no longer than my father, I have about six years left. All I know is, the finish line of life is “out there” somewhere. And it may come sooner for me than I expect. But whether sooner or later, it is bound to come because “it is appointed unto man once to die” (Hebrews 9:27 KJV). I have an appointment with death. I don’t know when or where or how, but it’s in God’s book in heaven. That’s one appointment I won’t miss and can’t postpone.