Running the race 2 Timothy 4:1-8

Three weeks ago we were staying in the Swiss Alps in the beautiful mountain village of Bettmeralp. The Sunday was the day of the Aletsch Half Marathon. Two and a half thousand runners came from all over the world to take part. The start line beside the village cable car station was at 6400 feet above sea level. The competitors then raced, not on smooth roads but over narrow and rough mountain tracks. The path goes up and down a lot but generally climbing because the race finishes at the top at the Bettmerhorn cable car at an altitude of 8,700 feet. Over the course of the race the runners have not only run more than 13 miles but they have also climbed an extra 2,300 feet. The day was baking hot. But more than that, as you go higher in the mountains the air gets thinner. So at the finish line there is only three quarters the amount of air that there is at ground level. Up that high even just walking it is noticeably harder to breathe. The winner finished the race in 1 hour 36 minutes and 59 seconds. That was an average of each mile in just seven and a half minutes. Those athletes were truly amazing!

Watching the runners reminded me of my own experiences of competitive running at school half a century ago. Every few weeks our games afternoon took the form of a cross-country run. Every year the school used to set aside a whole day to a cross-country running competition called “The Gatley.” For the first four years absolutely everybody had to take part – and I did not do very well. But in the sixth form people chose whether to take part, and I did. In my second to last outing I came a respectable 56th out of a couple of hundred runners. In my last run I came 25th against a field which included a number of county-level runners, athletes and other players of different sports. What I remember most about competing in the Gatley was how totally exhausting it was to run three and half miles in 20-something minutes! Winning wasn’t ever a possibility for me – the challenge was simply to finish the course!

Which brings us to these words the apostle Paul wrote with the end of his life fast approaching.

2 Timothy 4 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 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.

“I have finished the race”. We have looked before at different pictures Paul used of the Christian life: the soldier serving his commanding officer, the hard-working farmer anticipating the harvest, and the athlete who competing in the games. We read in 2 Timothy 2:5
2 Timothy 2:5 … anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.

Here at the end of this letter Paul returns to this picture of the Christian life as a race to be run but he had used the metaphor in other places as well.

Acts 20 23 I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. 24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

This picture of a race is an inspiration to all of us in our Christian lives.

Winning the race requires COMMITMENT

You may find it hard to believe, but there was a time in my life when I was a bit sporty. My chosen sport was not tennis but the national sport of Canada, lacrosse, which is known as the fastest sport on two feet. It is a field sport played with sticks a bit like hockey throwing a sort of cricket ball in the air between players. Just about the only rule in men’s lacrosse is that you aren’t allowed to hit your opponent if he hasn’t got the ball. I had the joy of representing my university at lacrosse. That meant much more than just turning up and playing a match on a Saturday afternoon. For a start, away matches were anywhere across the bottom half of England, from Birmingham and Nottingham to Oxford and parts of South London so it sometimes took up 8 or ten hours to travel, play and come home again. Then there was 3 hours training on the pitch on Wednesday afternoon, an hour practising skills on the field on Tuesday lunch hour and an hour of circuit fitness training in the gym on Thursday lunchtime. That made anywhere between 9 and 15 hours a week – just to play a match for 80 minutes. 9 to15 hours a week to fit in between lectures and laboratory work and tutorials and study. Winning requires commitment, dedication and training00!

1 Corinthians 9 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.

I’m no casual jogger – I’m no shadow boxer. Paul was in the race to win the prize and so he went into strict training. He wasn’t just trying to win some sporting competition – what he was doing was of eternal importance. And he uses that picture of a race to encourage all believers to work hard in their Christian faith.

Paul says the same to the Philippians

Philippians 3 12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

Forgetting what is behind and straining towards the goal to win the prize. Somebody once asked Bill Shankley the football manager whether he thought football was a matter of life and death? “Oh no”, he replied, “It’s much more important than that!” Winning the race of life requires commitment and dedication!
Winning the race requires FOCUS

Philippians 3:15 So let’s keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us. If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you’ll see it yet! Now that we’re on the right track, let’s stay on it.

Writer to Hebrews

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus gives us our example. We need to stay focussed, keeping our eyes fixed on the finishing line

The snow covered the ground where three lads were playing. A man came along and said to them, “Would you like to try a race and the winner receive a prize?” The boys agreed and the man told them that his race was to be different. “I will go to the other side of the field,” he said, “and when I give you the signal, you will start to run. The one whose footsteps are the straightest in the snow will be the winner.”
The race commenced and the first boy kept looking at his feet to see if his steps were straight. The second lad kept looking at his companions to see what they were doing; But the third boy just ran on with his eyes steadfastly fixed on the man on the other side of the field. Of course the third boy was the winner, because his footsteps were straight in the snow. He had kept his eyes on the goal ahead of him. Too many Christians have their eyes fixed on themselves, or on other Christians. Many get distracted into looking at the distractions of the world or the flesh or the devil. Instead we should keep our eyes fixed on Jesus! And on the crown of righteousness which wwaiting for us when the race is over.

We need to throw off all the weights which might slow us down. There is a story about the army of Alexander the Great as was advancing on Persia. At one critical point, the troops were about to be defeated. The soldiers had taken so much plunder from their previous campaigns that they had become weighted down and were losing their effectiveness in combat. Alexander immediately commanded that all the spoils be thrown into a heap and burned. The men complained bitterly but soon came to see the wisdom of the order. Someone wrote, “It was as if wings had been given to them—they walked lightly again.” Victory was assured.

Jesus calls us to look beyond the struggles of this world to the joys of the next! We should be storing up for ourselves treasures in heaven, not chasing after prizes on earth. I am reminded of the true story of Eric Liddell presented in the film Chariots of Fire. When it came to competing in the 1924 Olympics, he refused to run on a Sunday. Liddell put serving God before winning Olympic medals. But what are OUR priorities? We must make sure we are aiming to win God’s prize! We’re not just doing the kind of spiritual jogging which lets us slow down to a stroll or even hop on a bus home when we get a bit tired. We have to keep our focus in order to take first prize.

Here was Paul’s testimony.
2 Timothy 4 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Paul himself fought the good fight. And he urged Timothy to do the same.

1 Timothy 1 18 Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, 19 holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith.

1 Timothy 6 11 But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses

We should be aiming to fight the good fight. To finish the race. We need commitment, we need focus and then
Winning the prize requires PERSEVERANCE

because the Christian life isn’t a sprint but a marathon!

When I was about 15 I ran the 1500 metres for the first time representing my form. I was on the track against the best middle distance runner in our school. He was actually county champion. I easily kept up with him for the first lap. I even managed to stay with him for the second lap. During the third lap I began to get tired and by the end of the third lap I was absolutely exhausted. He ran on and won of course. Going into the last lap I just collapsed in a heap on the floor and never finished the race!

Paul says, “I have finished the race.” And that is what counts. There is the old saying, “it isn’t the winning that matters, all that counts is taking part.” But that is not what Paul says. What he says is that he has finished the race. Victory is not about coming first, but about getting to the finishing line without running out of steam or giving up half way or getting distracted. “I have finished the race.” High in the Alps there is a monument raised in honor of a faithful guide who perished while ascending a peak to rescue a stranded tourist. Inscribed on that memorial stone are these words: HE DIED CLIMBING. A maturing, growing Christian should have the same kind of attitude, right up to the end of life. God gives us this wonderful promise.

2 Timothy 4 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 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.

We have this glorious promise of eternity with God. But a verse of an old spiritual reminds us of an important truth. The song is “I gotta home in gloryland which outshines the sun.” The verse goes “If you will not bear the cross you can’t wear the crown, Way beyond the blue!” God calls us to look beyond the struggles of this life to the glory which is waiting for us, and for ALL who finish the race, who fight the good fight, who keep the faith. The race may be difficult and painful – but the prize will be worth it.

The Tour De France is perhaps the most gruelling of all bicycle races. An article in National Geographic once called it “An Annual Madness.” The race covers about 2000 miles, including some of France’s most difficult, mountainous terrain. Eating and drinking is done on the run. And there are extremes of heat and cold. Some riders train for the event by riding more than 20,000 miles a year. But what kind of prize makes people endure so much hardship and pain! £10,000? £100,000? No. It’s just a special winner’s jersey. What then motivates the contestants? “Why, to sweep through the Arc de Triomphe on the last day. To be able to say you finished the Tour de France.”

For us as Christians the prize awaiting us when we finish the race is so much more glorious, more wonderful, more totally undeserved. God will give us the crown of righteousness – the crown of life.

You may have heard about the evangelist Tom Rees – the English Billy Graham. Back iin the 1950s and 1960s Tom Rees filled the Albert Hall more than 50 times with his “Get Right with God” rallies. He led an evangelistic “Mission to Britain” where he preached within 50 miles of every person in Britain. Throughout his life Tom Rees committed verses of Scripture to memory until he could recite the whole of the New Testament by heart. The last book he had to learn was 2 Timothy. And he never finished it. On the very day he died Tom Rees had just learned this verse, which gives us our encouragement, our motivation and our inspiration::

2 Timothy 4 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.

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