TEXT: 2 Timothy 4:7,8 -- I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day -- and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
In the Name of Jesus, whom we long for, whose return we eagerly await, who keeps us in the race of faith until life eternal, dear Christian friends,
In the world of horse racing there's a very exciting series of races that only a few horses have won. This series of races is called The Triple Crown. A three year old horse must win three races -- the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes, and the Preakness -- in order to walk away with this championship. As I've said, very few 3-year-olds have won the Triple Crown. It's a very challenging series! And what do you get if you're a jockey or a trainer or the owner of the horse and you win such a championship? Well, you probably get a victory wreath, a trophy, and some money. You also have the Triple Crown title and a place in the history books.
Now the excitement of winning the Championship is beyond compare in the world of horse racing. But we have to realize, all the prizes of such a race, and all the worldly fame are for this world and this world only. You can't take them with you when you die. The wreath will someday crumble into dust. The trophy will tarnish. The money will be spent. The fame will fade. And then when God's final summons of death comes, all these things will be meaningless. The Triple Crown is a great earthly achievement, and the prize received certainly seems glorious, but the cold fact of the matter is this: you can't take it with you!
Wouldn't it be great to run in a race that you already know you're going to win, for a prize that will never fade away, and for a reward that not only lasts forever, but keeps getting better and better and better? Well, my fellow-redeemed, such a race does exist, and remarkably, only a few wise souls in this world are running it! It's called the race of Christian faith, and only those who've responded to the Holy Spirit's Gospel call are in the competition. You and I are in it. Every true Christian on this earth is in it. Every true Christian who's ever lived has been in it, and they've finished it, and they've received their everlasting crown of glory!
Now you know, maybe some of you are at a point in your Christian life where you've been running the race of Christian faith for a long time. And perhaps you've come to the point where you're thinking, "Hey, so what? I've been running this race, and I know what the prize is, and quite frankly, it doesn't excite me anymore. In fact, I'm a little tired of it." Well, dear Christian friend, all of us feel that way from time to time. Our interest in the race fades a bit. We start to lose interest in the crown. Perhaps, if we get dangerously weak in our faith, we start looking for other races, and other crowns. "Tim and Mary over there don't go to church or put Christ very high up in their lives, and they seem to be doing fine," we might say. You know, thoughts like that may occasionally run through our heads.
So how do we get the zeal for the race again? Well, the only way to get the excitement of the Christian race back into our blood is, first of all, to look again at where we were before the race started. Before the Holy Spirit brought us to faith through the Gospel in baptism, or the Gospel heard or read directly, we weren't even in the race! We were disqualified! We didn't have the right jersey on, you see! The jersey that you have to wear to be in the race of Christian faith is blood-red! You have to be covered by the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ through Spirit-given faith to start the race.
But before we were brought to faith, we weren't wearing that blood-red jersey. We were wearing a soiled, dirty, tattered and shredded one. Dirty, dark, tattered and shredded, reflecting our total depravity, our total slavery to sin. Our sin was uncovered, unforgiven, damning. Our sin was condemning us from the moment we were conceived and brought into this world.
You and I were not in the race to eternal life before faith came. But we were in a race -- the race to eternal condemnation in hell! Doesn't sound like a very good race, does it? In fact, if a person truly realizes what hell is all about, it's a horrifying race! But most people choose this terrible race instead of entering the race of faith! Jesus tells us in Matthew 7 that the road to hell is broad, and the gate into hell is wide. If you're racing to eternal destruction, you're going to be racing on a broad superhighway in a Formula One race car! You won't have to put Jesus first -- you can be your own boss, your own god. You won't have to be under the lordship of the true God. You won't have to struggle with temptation. You won't have to be persecuted for your faith. The race may seem pretty smooth. And those that run in the race of destruction have a lot of company. They tend to cheer each other along. They don't usually stand out as oddballs in this world.
But let me tell you, the prize at the end is nothing but hideous. Talk about your bait and switch! The "prize," if you want to call it that, is to spend eternity, endless ages, in the lake of fire. The "prize" is eternal torment with no hope of death. The "prize" is to be separated from God Himself, to be separated from love and joy and happiness, forever and ever. So we can see, many people take the easy road now, but they regret it forever after they die!
But thanks be to God, my fellow-redeemed, that God in His grace took us out of that horrible race, and put us in the race of faith, where we know a crown of life awaits us! He's put us in that race, and He's guaranteed the outcome! You know, we didn't deserve that ... and God didn't have to do it, did He? God would still be a perfect and holy God if He'd never saved a single human being. Certainly the whole world, including you and me, justly deserve to run like lemmings off the cliff of this life and fall headlong into the abyss of eternal punishment! There's nothing in us by nature that God would feel sorry for. If we were to see our natural sinful natures the way God is able to see them, we'd be seeing an ugly, a very ugly sight, let me tell you! No, there was nothing in us that God would have felt sorry for.
But God's own Word, the Bible, tells us that God is love, pure love. And because of His undeserved, unconditional love He did for mankind what He was by no means obligated to do. God the Son was sent down by God the Father with the full participation of God the Spirit. God the Son was sent down to this earth in the Person of Jesus Christ. And as Jesus the Christ, the promised One, the One God's people had been waiting for for thousands of years, God the Son substituted Himself for us. He lived a perfect life for us. He didn't do the don'ts, but more than that, He did all the do's perfectly. He substituted His perfect life for our corrupted ones.
And then, as the ultimate sacrifice, Jesus the Christ was rejected by His own people, the Jews, and sentenced to death. He was placed like a lamb for slaughter on the altar of a Roman cross. His hands and feet were pierced through, just as God's prophets had predicted. His back was split apart by the Roman whip and a crown of thorns was pressed upon His head. All that was excruciatingly painful, dear friends, but that wasn't the worst of it. The worst of it was when God the Father turned His back on the Son, and the Holy Spirit withdrew His presence. At that moment, Jesus the Son suffered the punishment that should have landed on every one of us. At that moment, Jesus the Son suffered an eternity's-worth of hell at the Father's hand. God the Father vented His full fury over sin on the spotless Lamb of God. Jesus endured the fiery blast of hell's endless and horrible punishment! And in this way, God satisfied both His justice and His love.
God punished God on that Good Friday long ago, satisfying His need to punish sin thoroughly and completely. And by punishing Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ, God saved all of mankind, satisfying His loving desire not to punish His creation. And after all that hellish punishment was completed, when the price had been paid to set us free from the curse of sin, there was one more substitution ... and a glorious outcome. Jesus, God the Son in human flesh, died for us, so that death, the final enemy of humankind, could be conquered! And since death's stinger had been removed by His victory on the cross, death couldn't hold the Lord in its clammy grip! Jesus rose triumphantly from the grave, proving that all sins have been forgiven, all slates have been cleaned, and all can share in an eternity of joy in the presence of Almighty God!
But there's a problem, for you see, dead men can't run, they can't walk, they can't even move ... and that's what you and I were! As Paul tells us by inspiration in Ephesians 2:1, we were all, by nature, spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins. We couldn't reach out and grab the wonderful prize, the wonderful gift that Jesus won for us on the cross. In fact, we didn't even want to because, by nature, we were also God's bitter enemies! But here's where the undeserved, unconditional love of God comes in again! He did yet another thing for us that we couldn't do for ourselves.
That same passage in Ephesians 2 tells us that God "quickened" us, He made us alive spiritually, He gave us saving faith. For many of us it was at baptism. Peter says in his first epistle, "Baptism doth also now save us" and that's where most of us were brought into Christ's blood-bought salvation -- at baptism. Through the powerful, life-creating Word of God connected with ordinary water, God put faith in our infant hearts -- faith which immediately began to cling to and rely on Jesus Christ, trusting Him alone for salvation. What our little minds couldn't possibly comprehend at that point, out hearts understood and accepted -- salvation is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God! We were put into the race at that point, dear Christian friends.
But in a very important sense, we didn't have to wait for the prize at the end, for you see, when God baptized us through the agency of human hands, He baptized us into our justification. As soon as we were baptized, as soon as saving faith was planted in our hearts, as soon as we were declared to be God's children in that heavenly washing, we were also declared to be 100% forgiven and 100% holy and righteous -- not only then, but right now, and for the rest of our lives, and for eternity! At that moment, Jesus put His blood-red jersey over our muddy, filthy, tattered one and declared us to be "not guilty." And if you have faith in your heart right now, you're still wearing that jersey -- and if you stay steadfast in God's Word, you'll wear it till the day you die! We received the whole deal when God gave us saving faith, dear friends! We don't have to wait until the end to see what the outcome's going to be ... we know what it is! God's guaranteed it in His Word! He's promised it to all who believe! He says it in so many places! The Bible is saturated with His promise of eternal life in Jesus Christ through faith alone in that Savior!
One of the best-known and most dearly loved is John 3 verse 16 where the apostle John records this precious promise spoken from the lips of Jesus Himself: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." That promise is for all, and the salvation it promises is made a living reality in all who believe!
And if you were never baptized as an infant, but nevertheless believe, then you were without a doubt brought into the race of faith and the kingdom of God as many thousands of others were brought in before you. The Good News message of salvation in Jesus Christ was preached to you, or shared with you, or heard by you, or read by you, and the Holy Spirit worked through that Gospel Word to put you on the racetrack of faith, give you spiritual life and legs to run the race, and give you the promise of an unconditional "not guilty" verdict in the here and now, and an eternity of joy in the hereafter!
We've been put in the race of faith, and the outcome is guaranteed, dear friends. But at this point we need to remember something about the Christian race of faith -- it's not a smooth, wide track. It's an obstacle course! It's narrow. It's sometimes muddy. It's littered with felled trees and large boulders. It sometimes crosses over rivers and mountains. It's a hard course -- but you don't run it on your own power. The Holy Spirit runs you through it. And if you're growing in the power of God's Word and precious Sacrament, you can get better at the race the longer you run! You can, as God gives you the strength, leap over rocks, dodge trees, forge rivers, and climb over mountains faster and better the stronger you get and the longer you run! It won't always be pleasant, though. Sometimes the obstacles we face -- illness, persecution, temptation, the death of a loved-one -- sometimes these obstacles can threaten to lay us low with grief and frustration. But God helps us through and keeps us in the race through His means of grace. And fellow-redeemed, no matter how well or how badly we run it, the crown for every believer is the same: forgiveness, peace, joy, love, eternal life -- happiness with God forever in heaven!
God's given us everything we need to stay in the race. You're either in the race, or you're not. And God wants every one us to stay in. That's why He's given us the means to keep chugging along the track, even when we feel like throwing in the towel!
He's given us His Word as a nutrient for us. It was that same Word that gave a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ to our hearts and brought us into the race of faith. And it's that same Word that gives us daily power to stay in the race of faith! If we hear the Word in public worship with the rest of the Body of Christ, God will be able to keep us on the track. If we go even further by attending a Bible study and having daily devotions, we'll be even more enabled to leap and jump and do somersaults on the track! We'll be able to run an even better race!
Furthermore, God has given us the Lord's Supper as divine food to keep us strong for the race. How tragic that so many Christians miss God's divine "call to dinner" more often than not, and some eventually lose their faith and forfeit the race. We receive a great additional blessing through that holy meal! As Christ offers and gives us the forgiveness of sins, along with His body and blood, He sends the Holy Spirit to strengthen our faith through His saving Word of promise. And the stronger we get, the more certain we can be that we won't disqualify ourselves by leaving the race.
And when we remember our baptisms, dear friends, and remember that in baptism God has promised us a crown of life at the end, that keeps us in the race, too!
In our text, Paul writes to young Pastor Timothy from a prison cell. He knows that soon he may be put to death for his faith. And he says with confidence, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." Paul was able to say that he kept the faith and stayed in the race until the very end.
And then Paul confidently says these words: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day." Paul knows he's going to get the crown, doesn't he? He's more sure of it than anything else in life. Is he being arrogant? Is he boasting that because of his good running he's going to make it to heaven? No, not at all. If Paul were depending on his own goodness to get into heaven, he wouldn't be nearly so confident. In fact, he wouldn't be confident at all. Remember that Paul called himself the "chief of sinners." Remember that before Paul was brought to Christ, he was responsible for killing Christians, and he persecuted the Church of God! If Paul were to try for the crown of life through his own running, he'd never make it!
Paul knew the crown of glory was his -- not because of anything he'd done, but because of what God had done! He knew he was going to end up in heaven -- not because he'd run a superior race -- but because someone else had run a perfect race for him. That someone, of course, was the Lord Jesus Christ. We've already looked this morning at how splendidly He ran! He ran through the Ten Commandments without breaking a one! He ran with perfect love in His heart all the way. He defeated all the obstacles. He kept His eyes on the prize and didn't turn to the right or to the left. And then He won The Triple Crown, dear friends! He won the race against sin. He won the race against death. He won the race against the power of the devil. He took the Championship, The Triple Crown! He did it by suffering the punishment of hell, dying on the cross, and rising from the grave! And because Paul was putting his faith and trust in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit's power, he knew the crown of life was his.
And so my fellow-redeemed, we can also walk and run through life confidently. We can be sure. We don't have to doubt at all. We can know that the heavenly crown of life belongs to us -- not because of our racing skills, but because of the One in whom we trust, who ran a perfect race for us. Of course, out of love for Christ and our neighbor we try to run the best race we can. But we know it's only Christ's perfect run that guarantees the crown! And we know it's Christ, through powerful Word and precious Sacrament who'll keep us in the race!
At the end of our race, dear friends, when our earthly lives come to a close, you and I will stand in the full glory of the victory Christ won for us. We'll be in heaven, enjoying a perfect bliss we don't even deserve to have! And on the final day of history, we'll all be assembled at the finish line as Jesus, the Perfect Runner comes to meet us there. And He'll bring millions of crowns with Him. One by one He'll put a crown of life on our heads -- a crown that will never tarnish. And in brand new bodies, our own bodies glorified, bodies which will be able to run and never grow weary, we'll live and reign forever with our Lord in His Kingdom. The battles will be over, the fight will be done, the race will be run -- and we'll receive the crown of life that's been ours and waiting for us since our baptisms, since the very first moment faith flamed to life in our hearts -- the crown that God has planned to give us since before time began!
May God grant by His grace that we stay in the race of faith through Jesus our Lord and His mighty and saving Word -- and receive the golden crown of His righteousness and abundant, never-ending life! Amen.