2 Timothy 4:5-8
Many years ago I had a friend who was a runner. This friend decided to run in a marathon and I thought it would be fun to run as well. I started to run a little, but not much and convinced myself that I could do this even if I walked a little bit. When the time came to sign up for the marathon, I filled out the form, paid my entry fee, got the T-shirt and a number and a place in the race – along with a lot of other people. On the day of the race my friend and I started running together, but pretty soon, I realized that this race was a lot of work and I hadn’t really realized how hard it would be. I tried to stay with my friend for a while, but her superior training was soon evident and she left me behind to struggle on my own. After not much distance, I moved over to the side of the course, stepped off and walked back to the car and waited for my friend to finish. I started this race, but I really didn’t have an idea of how hard it would be to finish. I didn’t really have anything to keep me in it once the going got tough and I didn’t really have a vision for the rewards at the finish to inspire me to keep going. After all, I had the t-shirt already so it didn’t matter whether I finished the race, right. My life was just fine without running the whole race. I was short sighted and so I dropped out and I missed out on whatever joy and satisfaction might have come at the end. To this day I don’t really know what might have been if I’d taken my training seriously and gotten into the kind of condition needed to run the race; I don’t know the benefits of forcing myself to endure the hardship of going the distance and reaching the goal. I can still tell myself that it really didn’t have an impact on my life, that running that race wasn’t important to the rest of my life. But I don’t know for sure because I never really held on long enough to get a vision of why I was running in the first place. My friend who did finish the race had that vision and it kept her running all the way through the race to the end no matter how difficult it got in the middle. In the end she did see the rewards of finishing race and its importance to the rest of her life.
In his letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul writes as one who has endured throughout the whole race and who sees the finish line in front of him. He has suffered for his confession of Christ, sometimes even at the peril of his own life. He sacrificed many of his own dreams, hoping instead for the rewards of the Kingdom of God. He “stayed in the race” throughout his whole life because he knew there was something more that was awaiting him at the end of his earthly life. This vision of the rewards of the kingdom of God spurred him on and enabled him to follow Christ throughout his whole life no matter the cost and the difficulty – he saw the reward and continued to run the race in order to obtain them. Now in his letter to Timothy, nearing the end of his life, the apostle sees clearly the winner’s crown that awaits him and he encourages Timothy, who is still in the beginning of his race, reminding him that this same crown awaits all who follow Christ.
We, who are Christians, are also enrolled in the same race as the Apostle Paul and Timothy and all the saints. In our baptism, we are entered in the race, the application is filled out the entry fee is paid and we get the t-shirt (that is we can now call ourselves Christians). But all this is just the beginning and in order to make all these beginning things come profitably to their endpoint, we have to run the race – that is we have to follow Christ throughout our whole lives. One of the things that keeps us on the course of the race and that enables us to get through the difficulty and go through the race to the end is the promise of the reward at the end, the crown that awaits those who love Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
As Christians following Christ we are faced with many temptations to move to the side of the track and step out of the race. We may have made a good beginning, but then we are faced with the difficulties of denying ourselves and of taking up our cross to follow Christ. If we don’t have that promise of the eternal life in front of us, we begin to wonder why in the world we are going through all this difficulty. Wouldn’t it be easier just to set everything aside and enjoy living our life our own way. Without the vision of eternity with Christ before us we begin drift toward the sideline and slow down until finally its just easier to stop running altogether and step aside, off the course and into the crowd of spectators who get to watch the race but who don’t have to do all that work themselves.
Another danger that we face is simply distraction. We are running the race, but we get distracted by all the other things we could be doing instead. We drift off course because we take our eyes off the prize and begin to get pulled this way and that by other hopes and goals and ideas. The life of Christ begins to drop off as the life of the world takes over. All too often we forget that this life is only temporary, that it is only the preparation for the life of the world to come. When we take our eyes off of Christ, when He is relegated to secondary status, when we are no longer actively following Him, then the things of the world, our careers, our hobbies, our pleasures and all those things that seem so important in this life begin to take the place of following Christ. Following Christ no longer seems to be important because our attention and priorities have been diverted and redirected to the things of this world. We have lost the vision of the Kingdom of God and eternity and substitute a vision of our own making that is limited only to this world.
If we do not recall that this life is only the preparation for the world to come and that a reward awaits us when we enter the Kingdom of God that we have prepared in this life, then we forget why it is that we do the things we do and our Christian lives lose value and importance. This reward is why we pray and come to the services of the Church and receive the sacraments. This is why we endure the routine of the life of the Church, the fasts, the feasts, the rule of prayer. This is why we strive to quell the passions and encourage the virtues. All of these things, in the eyes of the world are just extra trouble, they just make life of more difficult. But that point of view is the result of forgetting Christ, of forgetting that this world and all that is in it will pass away and we will live for eternity in the presence of God.
At this point it is also necessary to mention the mercy of God. He knows that we will be faced with all these difficulties and distractions. He knows that we will be tempted to leave the race, to step off the course. He knows all these things and yet He loves us and desires that we will indeed finish the race and receive our reward. For this reason He always holds out to us the opportunity to repent, to get back in the race, to return to the course. Even if we have given up or have been distracted and wandered off the course, the opportunity to return is given to us by our Lord as often as we need it. All we need to do is to step back into the race, to again engage in the pursuit of the rewards of the Kingdom of God and we are restored to the path of salvation. This is the mercy of God that holds all men as beloved and Who desires that no one perish but that all might be saved.
Those of us who have “entered the race” through the sacrament of baptism have engaged upon a path that leads through this life into the Kingdom of God. Before us is the promise of “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord … shall give me on that day” Everything we do in this life leads us to that moment when we shall stand before Christ to receive our reward. But in order to realize that reward in the Kingdom of God, we have to run the race in this life, follow the path set out before us by the Church, endure through the difficulties and trials that tempt us to give up, resist the distractions of this world. If we remember that this life is nothing and that the rewards and life of the Kingdom of God are the only thing that endure eternally, then we can push through to complete the race and we can resist the distractions that would pull us off the course. If we hold that moment when we will stand before Christ and receive from Him the heavenly crown, then that thought, that vision will hold us to the path of Christ, that we may finish the race and hear the words of our Lord Jesus Christ as we enter into His Kingdom, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matt 25:21).
Saint David the King was one of the ancestors of our Lord, and a man of deep faith, and zeal for doing the will of God. He fought the giant Goliath, trusting in God for victory, he spared the life of King Saul on two occasions because Saul, despite all his faults, was anointed by God. Even in falling into great sin of adultery and murder, he demonstrated his great repentance and acceptance of the punishments that God sent to him for his actions.
Saint Joseph the Betrothed was a godly and righteous man who lived an honorable life, keeping the commandments and the statutes of the law in his life. He was hard-working but poor, but because of his holiness and virtue, he was entrusted with protecting the greatest treasure -- The Mother of God and her Son our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Saint James the Brother of the Lord, was the son of Saint Joseph, and learned holiness from an early age from his father. We are told that even as a child he lived an ascetic life in his food and drink, and in disdaining the comforts and passions of the flesh. He alone among his brothers was willing to share his inheritance with Christ who was not truly his brother according to the flesh. We are told that the skin on his knees was like that of a camel from all of the time spent in prostrations. He was greatly renowned even outside of the Christian community that he led as a devout and holy man, even being allowed into the holy of holies to pray.
These three great men are celebrated by the Church this morning. Though Saint Joseph was not Christ’s earthly father, and though Saint James was not truly the Lord’s brother, all three of these men are shown by their lives to be true kinsmen of the Lord in the keeping of the commandments and the will of God.
This feast comes on the first Sunday after the Nativity of our Lord. In the midst of this feast in which we remember our Lord assuming human flesh, lying in a manger in a cave, we know all the things that He will accomplish for our salvation. And we acknowledge the greatness of His love and mercy toward mankind. But we still despair of His ability to save someone like you or me. Surely Christ came to save Saint David, Saint Joseph, and Saint James, but I can’t break free of my sins, I am a slave to my passions and desires, and so where is the hope for me?
But we also heard Saint Paul say in the epistle this morning: “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Saint Paul, back when he was Saul the persecutor, was a zealous man, he was a knowledgeable man, but he was certainly not a good or holy man at this point. And yet not only was Christ born in the flesh for his salvation, but he appeared to him to call him to repentance.
We must understand the words of our Lord, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” It is not that the righteous do not need the salvation which Christ comes to offer -- indeed everyone needs this -- but rather Christ calls to repentance those who are still stuck in their sins. Saint Paul says in his epistle to the Romans: “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The Lord who is born in our flesh in the cave of the Most Holy Theotokos came for us sinners, not merely for the righteous. This is what makes this feast so extraordinary, it is for each and every one of us, no matter what our sins, no matter what temptations we face, no matter how many times we fall and have to pick ourselves up.
To underscore this, we have in the gospel reading this morning the account of the flight into Egypt of the Lord and His mother along with Saint Joseph and Saint James. We know that our Lord traveled into Egypt for His safety. Our Lord desired not just that He should be born a man, not just that he should die to defeat death, but that he should be known by us. And so He spared Himself from those who sought to kill Him, that He might later teach us, perform miracles and mighty works for us, and that He might be known to us as both God and Man.
Our Lord was born in a cave and after the fulfilling of the commandments of the Law, one of the first things that He did was to go into Egypt. He departed from the land promised to Abraham and his descendents, to travel to Egypt where the people of Israel had been enslaved. Our Lord journeyed into a land filled with idols, in which men, women, and children worshiped creatures rather than the creator, or worse yet offered sacrifice to demons. Our Lord entered into Egypt, and destroyed the idols of Egypt. The idols fell before the presence of the Creator of all.
We see in this account that it was not merely for the protection of the Lord that He was brought into Egypt, but to show that Our Lord comes to save even the most sinful, even the most depraved, even the most hopeless.
Our Lord created us in His own image, He desires us to know Him. He implanted in us the ability to do so. We are capable of seeing Him in our own lives when we live according to His commandments and demonstrate by our acts that we are in the Image and Likeness of our Creator. This is what we see in the three great Saints we celebrate today. We are also capable of knowing our Creator by looking to the magnificence of His creation. We also can know our Creator through the teachings of those who know Him, the prophets, the righteous and the saints. By the time of our Lord’s Nativity, men had disobeyed and ignored God’s commandments, they had turned to the worship of creation rather than the Creator, and they had disregarded the teachings of the Prophets and even persecuted and killed them. This is the state of mankind which our Lord comes today to save. So do not despair if this is you. Rather lament when your lack of desire to change.
Our Lord came into the world to save sinners. He came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance. We don’t deserve this gift, but it has been given to us even while we are still sinners. The examples of the Saints are not given to us so that we can see what is possible for people who are already holy, but so that we can strive to be more like them in our lives.
So be repentant like Saint David the King. Don’t allow the magnitude of your sins, your shame, your pride, or your status in life, to keep you from declaring your sin and seeking forgiveness.
Be righteous and honorable like Saint Joseph. Choose to live in accordance to the commandments of God in all things and choose to pass this on to your children. Protect and cherish the holy and sacred things that God entrusts to you in this life.
Commit yourself to a life of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving like Saint James. Choose godliness over worldliness. Choose heavenly rewards over all the pleasures, comforts, and riches of this life.
The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. He has chosen to dwell among sinners and even to dine with them. He has chosen us even though we are not deserving. We are not called so that we can stay undeserving, but so that we can be transformed into His likeness. We are given countless examples of how this can be done, including the three Kinsmen of Christ this morning. Be Christ’s brothers and sisters likewise by doing the things they did. Love God, live according to the commandments, pray, fast, and give alms, and repent. And most of all do not despair of God’s love for you. Don’t despair that there is no hope or help for you. Recommit to this life daily no matter how many times you fail. God is with us, choose from moment to moment, from hour to hour, from day to day to be with Him.
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