The Quest for Character: The End Game

(2Ti 4:6-8 GNB) As for me, the hour has come for me to be sacrificed; the time is here for me to leave this life. (7) I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. (8) And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on that Day---and not only to me, but to all those who wait with love for him to appear. (2Ti 4:16-18) No one stood by me the first time I defended myself; all deserted me. May God not count it against them! (17) But the Lord stayed with me and gave me strength, so that I was able to proclaim the full message for all the Gentiles to hear; and I was rescued from being sentenced to death. (18) And the Lord will rescue me from all evil and take me safely into his heavenly Kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever! Amen.

As I understand the story, the District Superintendent had come to his wits end with this church that was never pleased with the pastors they were sent. At this year's meeting of the Staff-Parrish Relations Committee, the DS brought a letter from a potential candidate. It went something like this...

"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 (no children), 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. I have gone to jail three or four times 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 SPR committee was a bit surprised the United Methodist Church would commission or ordain such a person let alone, that their District Superintendent would think this was a good candidate for them. The SPR committee chair, asked the DS, “Why did you come here with someone with these credentials? I'd like to know who this pastor is so I can call the Bishop!” The DS handed the letter over to the committee chair. His face went blank. Then someone piped up, “Who signed it?” The chair simply said, “Paul.”

In no story that I've read or watched have I found the quest or goal to be easy. We watch and read movies and books to journey with those characters on their quest. These characters face life and limb to achieve the results they desire. I think our kids grasp it better than us grown-ups because they have imaginations we have long sense turned off. But even we know the truth, usually in the times we brush up against our mortality.

I know from experience having twice in my life rubbed elbows with my death. The first, was night diving off of Radio Island, NC and getting caught in the tide going out. Suddenly, I was swimming against the current, and watching the rock wall go by, then nothing and then seeing the channel marker go past. I realized in that moment, that if I didn't get hold of that marker at 40 feet, I would be swept out into the Atlantic Ocean. The second, was facing the diagnoses of testicular cancer in the year 2000. I hope that when the next time comes, I will be able to join with Paul I have done my best in the race, I have run the full distance, and I have kept the faith. (8) And now there is waiting for me the victory prize of being put right with God!

Three things Paul says he did three things in the course of his life to endure...

“I have done my best...” I cannot say or hear the words without thinking about my four years as a Cub Scout Den Leader and the motto of Cub Scouts - “Do Your Best!” But I also grew up with that motto when I was a Cub myself and it is a reminder to us all that WE can only do our best. Different translations have fight but the idea of race seems to follow better here as it does in 1 Corinthians 9:25.

Next up Paul notes that he has "run the race in full." William Barclay in his Daily Bible Study, reminds us of the history of the Battle of Marathon between the Greeks and the Persians. Upon defeating the Persians, a Greek soldier ran the entire way back to the magistrate to declare, “We won!” and then he died. 26.2 is the sticker on the backs of cars that indicates someone has completed a marathon.

Finally, he says, “I kept the faith,” but maybe not what you were thinking. You see this phrase has a couple of meanings, one of which refers again to the sports analogy that Paul is fond of using. You could say here, “I kept the rules of the contest and didn't foul out.” It is hard here in October, not to be reminded here of the doping scandals surrounding baseball and the Tour de France. Paul says in his quest he never tried to cheat his way to the finish line. His letter to the SPR committee assures us of that!

Yet there remains something of greater significance and it is by far of greater significance than Paul's will power as verse 17 declares, "the Lord stayed with me and gave me strength, so that I was able to proclaim the full message for all the Gentiles to hear; and I was rescued from being sentenced to death." Paul, on his own, could never have sustained himself over the course of his life. We don't have a biography or his journal to go by so we don't fully appreciate what Paul must have faced.

What we have is the assurance of where Paul has placed his trust, where Paul kept his eyes focused, and where Paul kept his feet moving – always toward Jesus Christ and the message of the Gospel – that God had come into the world to rescue you and me from ourselves, from doing life our way. And Paul believed it had all been worth it – I for one, believe he was right. His example taught others to run the race and they passed down Paul's words and example all the way till today.

And what about today? What about you and me and the race before us? Maybe the analogy doesn't fit you. Maybe swimming or hiking or driving is more your thing. It doesn't matter, but what does, what is central is this, are your eyes on Jesus? Rest assured, no matter how bad you're cramping, no matter how lonely the road, no matter when you are about to give out, Jesus will stay with you and give you strength – not for your own goals but for pointing the next runner you meet in the direction of Jesus Christ. This is the Quest for Character – to give your life for others – just as Jesus did.

The Quest for Character: Words to Live By

2Ti 3:14-17 NASB You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, (15) and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (16) All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (17) so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. 2Ti 4:1-5 NASB I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: (2) preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. (3) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, (4) and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. (5) But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

There are certain sermons that as a United Methodist, I simply can't do without looking to John Wesley for some insight. But in a sermon on this very same text, Dr. Maxie Dunnam, retired President of Asbury Theological Seminary, took a unique twist. Dr. Dunnam noted that there is in fact a problem that has come from one of Wesley and it is this, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”

Dr. Dunnam went on to say that he wished Wesley had never said those words and I think I must agree. It has led far to many to believe that you can believe anything and be a Methodist. Granted, I don't believe that is Wesley's fault – it is at the root of what Paul was writing to Timothy when he said, “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

When I moved the middle of my junior year of high school, just months after making the decision to follow Jesus Christ, I was just a baby in my faith. I knew that if I did nothing, if I sat ideally by, then this new relationship that I had with God would not last. At our new church, I picked up a copy of a little book called, “The Upper Room” and I began the habit of reading from the Bible everyday. Today, The Upper Room is my homepage on my computer for the very same reason.

Maybe the difficulty here is the idea that somehow the words of the Bible are stagnant. In terms of how this passage is normally taught, there is little reference to it beyond using verse 16 as a means to berate others to believe the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. As Professor Dirk Lange (@ puts it, “... faithfully continuing what we have learned does not mean quoting Scripture ad infinitum on any subject or controversy until we are blue in the face (or our opponents run away!).”

Look at theses verses again. My problem with school and learning was always that it had to do with regurgitating information for a test of a paper. But the truth is that isn't about learning – it is about living. And here lies a central point in Wesley's words - “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer.”

People will reject the Bible but are quick to believe and put their trust in practices of witchcraft or UFO's. How quick will we dismiss that God might have spoken something of relevance to our lives that we ought to change but are quick to listen to a politician or media personality. We prefer entertainment and contentment to righteousness and holiness. And we wonder why the world, our country and the Church is in the state that it is in?

The monk, Thomas Merton, wrote, “The Bible is without question one of the most unsatisfying books ever written – at least until the reader comes to terms with it in a very special way (pg 11, Opening the Bible).” Likewise, Eugene H. Peterson, whose works include, “The Message” Translation, places clergy in the cross hairs for “...turning their studies into “stills.”

“The great attraction for distilling Scripture into truths and morals and lessons is simply laziness,” Peterson writes (pg. 134, Working the Angles). This moonshine gospel, this 100 proof stuff, are empty calories that strip all the nutrients and life from the narrative that is the Bible. As long as we treat it merely as another book, then it will remain unsatisfying – and we'll live with tickled ears or in this case, throats warm to little more than snake oil.

Paul's words are clear and the tradition of the Church universal echoes through the centuries – ALL Scripture is inspired by God. It applies at once to the Old but by consideration of the Church also applies to the New. We do not seek it out for a word. It is The Word and the Word seeks us out.

Yes, the Word has given every follower of Jesus has their good work to do. (3:17)
Yes, every pastor is accountable to the Word in fulfilling their ministry. (4:5)
And yes, the Word is living and not stagnant – the Word “put on flesh and moved into the neighborhood (John 1:14, The Message)" and the Word is available for you and me today to follow and be changed into His likeness.

The Quest For Character: Conformation

2Timothy 2:1-15 NASB You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. (2) The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (3) Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. (4) No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life, so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier. (5) Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules. (6) The hard-working farmer ought to be the first to receive his share of the crops. (7) Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. (8) Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel, (9) for which I suffer hardship even to imprisonment as a criminal; but the word of God is not imprisoned. (10) For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus and with it eternal glory. (11) It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; (12) If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; (13) If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself. (14) Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers. (15) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

I like to do things my way. I like to eat my cereal with a tablespoon not a teaspoon. I like to mow my grass in a routine way. When I clean the bathrooms, I have my routine and cleaners that I like to use. I like my week's schedule to go just so. When I get up in the mornings, I have my routine and the same when I go to bed at night. I really like to do things my way.

The lion liked things his way too. One day he met a monkey in the jungle. The lion pounced on the poor monkey and said, "Who is king of the jungle?" The frightened monkey replied, "You are, O mighty lion." So the lion let him go. The next animal the lion met was a zebra. He pounced on it and roared, "Who is king of the jungle?" "You are, O mighty lion." So the lion let him go. The lion next met an elephant and asked the same question. The elephant grabbed the lion, twirled him around the threw him 50 feet. The lion picked himself up and huffed, "Just because you don't know the answer is no reason to get so rough."

The Old Testament reading from 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15, tells the story of Naaman who was someone who liked things his way too. As general over the armies of Aram, he knew had plenty of power and knew how to get his way but he had one flaw. He was leper and his leperousy was taking it's toll on his health. From a slave girl he learned of the prophet Elisha in Israel and so journeyed to seek healing. When he arrived at Elisha's house, Elisha's servant came out to Naaman and told him to wash in the river Jordan seven times and he would be healed.

But Naaman wanted more! He wanted a show and a ritual! He didn't want wash in the nasty, dirty Jordan River! (5:13) But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" 95:14) So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. (5:15c) Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel...”

Oswald Chambers, author of the devotional, “My Utmost for His Highest” wrote, “My vision of God is dependent upon the condition of my character. My character determines whether or not truth can even be revealed to me. Before I can say, “I saw the Lord,” there must be something in my character that conforms to the likeness of God.”

Paul to Timothy says, Conform to the Gospel! (v.8) 2Ti 2:8 NASB “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descendant of David, according to my gospel.” Paul is addressing here that we can't go around teaching something different than the gospel of Jesus Christ – what Paul was in fact in teaching. Verses 17-18 speak of Hymenaeus and Philetus who were preaching a different message, one that was stealing the hope from people.

Paul goes on to share from what appears to be an early hymn of the church. Our hope is not in Christ crucified but in Jesus resurrected from the dead. It seems to me that if I consistently want things my way, it is going to be hard for my character to ever look like Jesus'. For us to discover the trait of conformation of Character, Paul says

1. Die to your way (v.11)
John Wesley noted here it means we have to become, “Dead to sin, and ready to die for him.” This is precisely the path Naaman had to travel. Naaman struggled with pride. So do I. What is it that is keeping you from conforming?

2. Endure His Way (v.12a) It will be hard.
Enduring the way of Jesus Christ is not going to be easy. Ya think? This is what Paul is talking about in his own testimony. He is called a criminal though he broke no law. Naaman had to endure the humiliation of bathing in the Jordan river.

3. Don't disown The Way(v.12b) –
There are far too many zombies in the Church. What do I mean? We Christians preempt our dying. It takes place when we gloss over the point of Paul in the previous verse that being a Christian exempts us from difficulty. Rather than bathe 7 times we do it 1 time and then 6 times we take a sponge bath and think we followed directions. We got up and started walking around before the work was done and there is nothing pretty about it.

4. Your faith may falter – His faithfulness never will (v.13)
But losing faith isn't the same as disowning The Way. Like Peter, we may take our eyes off of Jesus and look at the waves. We might slip back into our pride as Naaman did before someone corrects us.

What is it you need to die to? What is there for you to endure? Have you disowned? Faith faltered? Today offers you another chance to conform to the character of Jesus. Character begins at the Gospel – Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

The Quest For Character: Legacy

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, To Timothy, my beloved son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy. For I am mindful of the sincere faith within you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am sure that it is in you as well. For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me His prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle and a teacher. For this reason I also suffer these things, but I am not ashamed; for I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day. Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me, in the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. Guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you. (2Timothy 1:1-14 NASB)

To this day, I give credit to Don and Jon Hall and Curtis Martin for mentoring me in my faith as teenager. But it was my grandmother Bonnie, with her body crippled by arthritis, who was faithful in prayer and in setting an example for me. Consider for a moment, who was it who truly kindled your faith?

This may well have been one of Paul's last letters written. He sends it from a prison cell in Rome as he awaits his fate before Caesar's court. It goes out to this young man Timothy, the pastor at the church of Ephesus.

Author and pastor, Bruce Wilkinson, tells about attending a conference many years ago. He discovered that a man sitting off to the side at this conference was the son of a very famous Christian leader. Wilkinson decided to introduce himself to this young man and find out what it was like to grow up in the home of such an admired leader. He worked his way over to the young man and said, "I understand that you're such-and-such, the son of so-and-so." This young man stared right at Wilkinson as he asked, "What was it like, growing up in your father and mother's home? What was it like being the son of such a great Christian leader?" The next thing Wilkinson knew, this young man turned, swore at him, swore at his father, swore about the Bible, and said, "I hate God. I hate Jesus Christ." Then he turned on his heel and walked out of that conference, and didn't come back the rest of the day.

Wilkinson was stunned. He couldn't think of anything more gut-wrenching than having his own children hate him, hate God and hate Christ like that. What had happened to this young fellow, he asked himself, and what could he do to avoid it happening in his own family?

What kind of legacy of faith are we leaving behind? Paul was encouraged by what he saw in Timothy's faith in Jesus Christ. Paul could see both Timothy's response to legacy left by his mother and grandmother and the Timothy's response to Paul's own example. But Paul knew more than Timothy about what was in front, things Timothy had yet to experience namely that suffering goes with the name of Jesus Christ.

The legacy of Faith Paul indicates is one that comes from the Holy Spirit (v. 7). It is a gift of grace. Then Paul uses a unique word here that I really like, a word we translate re-kindle. It is a word related to a fire. Having had a great deal of outdoor experience, one of the things we know is that when lost, the most encouraging thing one can do to help moral is to start a fire. Carefully tended, a fire can die down overnight and then be rekindled in the morning with coals once thought dead.

How we live makes a difference in the lives of others. Faith in Jesus Christ changes the character of a person and it does not easily die and it is worth striving for, protecting and growing. It is what we commit to as a church at every baptism. We testify to it every time we celebrate the gift of eternal life at the Communion table.

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