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Finishing the Race
multiple lessons
Rick in Va

I've been asked to bring a message in a local nursing home. The following is a rough draft of the message. Your productive critique is welcome. As are your prayers. May God deafen the ears of those who hear me speak, may He open the hearts of those who hear Him speak through me. Thanks.

The year was 1968. The place was Mexico City. The nations of the world had gathered for the Olympic games. Athletes from around the globe had trained for years to compete in the games, and finally, the time had arrived. The Opening ceremonies had been held, and events were under way. The marathon, while not the most exciting sporting event, is arguably the most severe test of human endurance. Many runners trained extensively to compete in the 26 plus mile race. The race began, the eventual winner came running back into the Olympic Stadium, welcomed by cheers from the appreciative fans. Soon other runners arrived as well, and eventually, the race was over. Over, that is, except for one runner. A single, lone runner was still out on the course. Other track events continued in the stadium, and an hour passed. Then two hours. Finally, several hours later, the final runner, John Stephen Akhwari, running for the country of Tanzania, in 57th place out of 57 runners, entered the stadium.. His pace was slow. His steps were wobbly. His knee was bloody and bandaged from a fall earlier in the race. He looked absolutely terrible, but as he entered the stadium, the fans realized who he was and what he was doing, and they began to cheer. As he made his way around the track and finally, painfully, across the finish line, the cheers swelled John’s determination as the fans saluted the.

Later, after the race, he was asked why, even though he had lost the race by several hours, he had continued running. His answer was simple: “My country did not send me 7000 miles away to start the race. They sent me 7000 miles to finish it.”

In 2 Timothy 4:6-8 Paul writes: 6For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8Now 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.

Paul said that a crown of righteousness awaits each of us who finishes the race. But finishing is much harder than starting. Finishing means running day in and day out. Finishing means training, self-denial, discipline, and staying focused on the goal. God has not put you or me on this Earth to simply start or even simply run the race. God has put us here to finish. You and I must keep running the good race to its completion.

Let’s more narrowly focus on the good race. The race is clearly a word picture for life. Earthly life. A life that for many can be tragically short or filled with troubles but also filled with incredible opportunity. Billy Graham put it this way when he said “Life is a glorious opportunity, if it is used to condition us for eternity. If we fail in this, though we succeed in everything else, our life will have been a failure.”

Christians need to succeed in the race of life by focusing on Jesus, who conditions us, who prepares us for eternity. Non Christians may look at success by believing in such things as the power of positive thinking or the pursuit of happiness, . Non Christians may live only for the present moment, and if unhappy in it, enter into a cycle of despair that only Jesus can break. Christians however, can endure unhappiness, sadness and loneliness; backstabbing, betrayal and friendlessness; poverty, hunger and thirst; mourning, grief and even death, because Jesus faced all those things on our behalf. As Christians, we know that Jesus’ suffering was an act of obedience, and His Crucifixion, the door to eternal life. As Christians, we know that He ascended on high and sits, alive and well, at the right hand of His Father and our Father, where He rules over all things and pleads our case. You and I can face our own crucifixions, our own tribulations and our trials, because we know Him who blazed that trail for us, a trail that leads to heavenly glory.

Let me take a moment to paint a picture of Jesus today, right this moment - not on a cross anymore - but alive – and risen. His great work of salvation finished. - Jesus is our sustenance as you and I struggle to finish the race. - Jesus sits at the right hand of God where He pleads our case to the Father. – Jesus is bright & shining in all his eternal glory, awaiting to embrace those who finish the race. – Jesus’ nail scarred hands are folded in prayer as he intercedes on your behalf & mine to the Father. - Jesus dispatches His Holy Spirit to fill & empower the church, Christians, that’s you and me, even now. – Jesus sends angels to assist & minister to us, as we face the struggles of this race.

The Bible says that this Risen Jesus - seated in Heaven is able to save those who come to God by Him. It also says this about Jesus. He is able to keep us from stumbling. He is able to present us as pure before the throne. He is able to enable us for victorious living. He is able to help us walk for him day by day. When the race gets hard, and I know that for some the race is so very hard, we can look to Jesus in all his roles. By that I mean we must remember that Jesus is our Prophet, our Priest, and our King. He is our Prophet when He calls us to turn away from selfishness and turn towards holiness. He is our Priest, when we recognize the sacrifice at Calvary, where our sins are forgiven, and where we are made clean by the blood of the lamb. He is our King when we allow Him to lead and direct us, He is our Shepherd who loves us and cares for us, He is our Physician who heals us, makes us whole, if we only submit to His urging, His longing to do so.

So we’ve defined the race as the journey we call life. We’ve described that hardships are part of life and how focusing on Christ is the most effective means by which to endure the journey. But we’ve only touched and hinted at what awaits those who finish the race.

Allow me to tell you a story here. There was once a woman who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and had been given three months to live. So as she was getting her things "in order," she contacted her pastor and had him come to her house to discuss her final wishes. She told him which songs she wanted sung at the service, what scriptures she would like read, and what outfit she wanted to be buried in. She also requested to be buried with her favorite Bible.

Everything was in order and the pastor was preparing to leave when the woman suddenly remembered something, something very important to her. "Pastor, there's one more thing," she said excitedly. "What's that?" was the pastor's reply. "This is so very important," the woman continued. “I want to be buried with a fork in my right hand." Pause. The pastor stood looking at the woman, not knowing quite what to say. "That surprises you, doesn't it?" the woman asked. "Well, to be honest, yes” said the pastor. The woman continued. "In all my years of attending church socials and potluck dinners, I always remember that when the dishes of the main course were being cleared, someone would sooner or later lean over and whisper, 'Keep your fork.' I would get excited because I knew that something better was coming... something worth waiting for, something like velvety chocolate cake or deep-dish apple pie. Something wonderful, something with substance! So, I just want people to see me there in that casket with a fork in my hand and I want them to wonder "What's with the fork?'. Then I want you to tell them, "Keep your fork....the best is yet to come."

The pastor became misty eyed with tears of joy as he hugged the woman good-bye. He knew this would be one of the last times he would see her before her death. Yet he was comforted by the knowledge that this fine Christian woman had a better grasp of heaven than he possibly did. She KNEW that something better was close at hand.

At the funeral people were walking by the woman's casket and they saw the pretty dress she was wearing, her favorite Bible, and the fork placed in her right hand. Over and over, the pastor heard the question "What's with the fork?" And over and over he smiled as he told them about the fork and what it symbolized.

Allow me now to read a few Scripture verses.

From I Corinthians 9:25 - 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 forever.

From Philippians 3:12-14 – The Living Bible translation - I'm not perfect, but I'm bringing all my energies to bear on one thing: forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ did for us.

And finally from II Timothy 4: 6-7 - I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day.

Folks, I can’t make anybody believe those verses. I can’t make anybody really feel that they represent truth. But the Bible says that this isn’t really my job. That’s the job of God’s Holy Spirit, the job of His ministering angels.

My job, as I see it, is to proclaim the hope that is in Jesus Christ. A hope that is within the grasp of anyone who believes. A hope that is sustaining, and has become so real to me, and so real to countless of others.

It’s a hope that Max Lucado has so eloquently written of in his book called The Applause of Heaven. In the final chapter, Max writes vividly about home. But not our earthly home. Listen with me to Max Lucado.

First he reads from the book of Revelation, chapter 21: 1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.

Then Max writes:

The most hopeful words of that passage are those of God’s resolve: “I am making everything new.” It’s hard to see things grow old. The town in which I grew up is growing old. I was there recently. Some of the buildings are boarded up. Some of the houses are torn down. Some of my teachers are retired. Some are buried. The old movie house where I took my dates has “For Sale” on the marquee, long since outdated by the newer movie houses that give you eight choices. The only visitors to the drive-in theatre are tumbleweeds and rodents. Memories of first dates and senior proms are weatherworn by the endless rains of years. High School sweethearts are divorced. A cheerleader died of an aneurysm. Our fastest halfback is buried only a few plots from my own father. I wish I could make it all new again. I wish I could blow all the dust off the streets. I wish I could walk through the familiar neighborhood, and wave at the familiar faces, and pet the familiar dogs and hit one more home run in the Little League Park. I wish I could walk down Main Street and call out the merchants that have retired and open the doors that have been boarded up. I wish I could make everything new… but I can’t. My Mother still lives in the same house. You couldn’t pay her to move. The house that seemed so big when I was a boy now feels so tiny. On the wall are pictures of Mom in her youth-her hair autumn brown, her face irresistibly beautiful. I see her now- still healthy, still vivacious, but with wrinkles, graying hair, slower step. Would that I could wave the wand and make everything new again. Would that I could put her once again in the strong embrace of the high-plains cowboy she loved and buried. Would that I could stretch out the wrinkles and take off the bifocals and restore the spring to her step. Would that I could make everything new… but I can’t. I can’t but God can. ‘He restores my soul’ wrote the shepherd. He doesn’t reform; he restores. He doesn’t camouflage the old; He restores the new. The Master Builder will pull out the original plan and restore it. He will restore the vigor. He will restore the energy. He will restore the hope. He will restore the soul. When you see how this world grows stooped and weary then read of a home where everything is made new, tell me, doesn’t that make you want to go home? What would you give in exchange for a home like that? Would you really rather have a few possessions on earth than eternal possessions in heaven? Would you really choose a life of slavery to passion over a life of freedom? Would you honestly give up all of your heavenly mansions for a second-rate sleazy motel on Earth? “Great,” Jesus said “is your reward in Heaven.” He must have smiled when He said that line. His eyes must have danced and His hand must have pointed skyward. For He should know. It was His idea. It was His Home.

Max Lucado is a gifted, a very talented man. Here he has described for us what awaits those who finish the race. It is home. My prayer here is that all of you will persevere, will continue the struggle, will finish the race that God has placed us each in. For if you know Jesus as your Savior, if you have repented of your sins and accepted Him as the substitionary sacrifice for all that you have done wrong in this life, if you have asked for His mercy and His love to fill you, then you to will one day see the crown of righteousness, you too will one day see Jesus with His arms held high and wide to embrace you, and you will hear Him say to you, amongst the applause of heaven, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Let’s pray: Holy and precious Father, ruler of all things, King of this earth, Director of this race we find ourselves in, we worship you, we praise you, we exalt you. We thank you for Your grace and mercy. We thank you that You have given us Your Son Jesus. We ask in His name, that You send Your Holy Spirit, even as we pray, and minister to each of these your servants. Father wrap them in Your strong and loving arms. Whisper Oh Lord, to their spirits, and tell of that great reward that awaits them as they finish the race. Oh Lord, thank You for this time, thank You for Your presence, thank You for what you have done and are doing in this place, thank You for each person here. Remind us Father, as we leave this place we never leave Your presence. We pray this in Your Son our Savior’s name. In Jesus’ Mighty name, amen!