Summary: Paul calls us to count the present as a gift of God, make peace with the past, and rest assured in the future God has in store for those who are his. (This sermon could easily be modified into a funeral/memorial service message.)
Did you know the human condition is 100% fatal? How about that for a sermon starter? But the truth is, unless Jesus returns first, we will each reach that moment where we cross over from this life to eternity. What will it be like? Will we be at peace? Will we be ready? Will we be able to say in respect to this earthly life, “I have finished well”?
In today’s passage, it almost seems like the Apostle Paul is preaching his own memorial service. Did you hear about the three guys who were talking about their own funeral services? They were wondering what people might say when they walked by the casket. The first guy says, “I want them to say, ‘He loved his family so much!’” The second guy says, “I want them to say, ‘He always loved God and served people!’” And the third guy says, “I want them to come up and say, ‘Look, he moved!!!’”
Whenever I speak at a memorial service, I organize it around three activities: to celebrate the life of the one we love, to look ahead to the heavenly home to which they point us, and to worship the Lord. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul does the same: he celebrates his life, he looks ahead to his heavenly home, and he worships the Lord. His outline is simple. Paul speaks of his past, his present, and his future. As we look at each, let’s contemplate our own lives to prepare in advance for that great transition when it comes.
First, Paul begins in the present. I read somewhere this pithy statement: “All we really have is today, and that is a gift; that’s why we call it the “present.” God has given Paul some clue that he is presently at the point of transition from this life to the next. Paul’s death is imminent. He writes in verse 6, “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering...” Here he borrows imagery from the Old Testament system of sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-41; Numbers 15:1-16). For the drink offering, the priest would pour wine around the base of the altar as an offering to God. Paul envisions his own life as “already” being poured out, the word “already” telling us that he anticipates death soon.
Paul also says, “The time for my departure is near.” The Greek word for “departure” originally referred to the loosening of something, such as the mooring ropes of a ship or the ropes of a tent. Later by association it came to mean “departure.” When we reach that moment of transition from this life to our heavenly fate, we are loosened from the restrictions of mortality and freed at last to depart to heaven.
History proves Paul is right about his fate. This is his second imprisonment. About five years before he was on house arrest, but this time he’s in a cold dark dungeon. Around AD 64 Nero stepped up to fearful heights a wave of persecutions against Christians. This crazed emperor tortured Christians by crucifying them, by wrapping them in animal skins and turning his hunting dogs loose on them, and by burning them alive—as human torches—to illuminate the games in his garden. And tradition tells us Paul did indeed die a martyr’s death around AD 67 or 68, probably shortly after the writing of this letter.
But Paul writes that his life is not in waste; no, his life is being poured out as a living sacrifice to his God. So Paul can live up to what he wrote earlier to the Philippian church, when he said, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
As Paul suffers in a dungeon, approaching death, he somehow grows closer to Jesus through his Lord’s own sufferings. Paul’s faith grows stronger through adversity. I wonder if we can imitate his attitude in saying: “Jesus, help me not to wallow in self-pity, but to grow closer to you as I suffer alongside your suffering. Let my suffering remind me of how much you suffered for me.”
Rick Warren writes, “If you’re alive, there’s a purpose for your life.” Even here at the end of his life, Paul is using some of his last breaths to compose a letter that we are reading some thousands of years later. Your life is not over until it’s over! And God will help you, even through your suffering, as you reach out to him.
As Paul reviews his present situation, approaching the great transition, he considers his past. I can imagine him thinking back over 30 years of ministry as an apostle of Jesus. He uses military and athletic images in his OER support form. In verse 7 he says, “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race.” Paul gave it all he had. He gave 110%. He went the extra mile. And he concludes, “I have kept the faith.” He has lived up to his beliefs. He has walked the talk. He has accomplished through God’s power all that the Lord has called him to do. So he is at peace. He is ready. As someone once said, “Better to burn out than to rust.” Paul is used up, burned out, fully fulfilled. He has completed the life God had for him to live on this earth.