Come Before Winter

2 Timothy 4:21

The Bible has a lot to say about time. The most important thing it says is something we know already—that our time is limited. Time can be used or wasted, it can be invested or squandered, but either way, once used, it can never be regained. Time matters because we have such a limited supply. The most famous passage in the Bible about time reminds us that there is a time for everything in life. Here are the first four verses from Ecclesiastes 3:

There is a time for everything,
And a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance.

We always have plenty of time to do everything we need to do. This means that all of my time belongs to God, and therefore how I spend my days is a sacred issue. Someday I will answer for what I did on October 8, 1966, a date that means nothing except that I pulled it out of the air. I could have said January 17, 1985 or August 8, 1999, or I could have said May 26, 2008, which would definitely bring the matter much closer to home.

Time matters because time is the stuff of life, and when time is gone so is life. Therefore what I do with the moments of my life, the opportunities I take, the people I talk to, the path I follow, all of it matters because sooner or later, for me and for you, time will be no more.

Time matters because time is the stuff of life, and when time is gone so is life

All of us are slaves to time more than we like to admit. I ate lunch with a man who pulled out a cell phone and put it on the table so he wouldn’t miss a call. He had a pager and a beeper on his belt just in case he was busy on the cell phone. These days we all seem to be clued to our cell phones, so much so that we talk more on the phone than we do in person. And to save time we have changed the way we communicate:

If you are over 60, you remember handwritten letters.
If you are between 40 and 60, you rely on email.
If you are under 40, you prefer instant messaging,
If you are under 30, you communicate via Facebook or MySpace.
And if you are really on the cutting edge, you Twitter. (If you don’t know what that is, ask someone in their 20s.)

Time has become the new currency of life. For most of us time matters more than money. We will spend money to save time whereas our parents would spend time to save money. In a world where most of us feel stressed out, we value our free time more than a few extra dollars in our pocket.

How Much Time Do You Have Left?

How much time do you have left? No one knows for sure. I spoke with a friend whose cancer is in remission, but the doctors told him that his cancer would almost certainly come back. They planned to do a bone marrow transplant but they won’t unless the cancer does come back, which it probably will but they can’t be sure. So my friend doesn’t know whether he is living or dying or both.

Psalm 90: 12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Have you ever numbered your days literally? That’s hard to do because no one knows how many days they have left. But that’s precisely the point. Numbering your days keeps us from the ultimate folly–thinking we will live forever and therefore giving us excuses to put off doing what we know we ought to do. A stanza of a famous hymn puts the matter squarely before our eyes:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

When a man knows he is going to die in the morning, it has a wonderful way of concentrating his mind.

The Bible reminds us to redeem the time (Ephesians 5:16 KJV). One translation says “make every minute count.” When a man knows he is going to die in the morning, it has a wonderful way of concentrating his mind. Most of us don’t think we are going to die tomorrow and that’s why we let time slide by thoughtlessly.

Paul’s Final Thoughts

But if you knew—really knew—you were going to die soon, it would concentrate your mind, wouldn’t it? That’s what happened to the Apostle Paul as he wrote his final letter to his young protégé Timothy, a letter that we know as 2 Timothy in the New Testament. As we come to the end of chapter 4, we are reading the final recorded words of the Apostle Paul. After he wrote these last few verses, the curtain closes on his life. What happened next has been debated for 2,000 years, but it seems most likely that very soon he was beheaded in Rome on the order of Nero. So what was on his mind at the end of his life? His last recorded words are mostly about people. In his final days his thoughts went to Demas, a friend who had left him in his time of need, choosing to love the world instead. He thought of other good friends (Crescens, Titus, Tychicus) who were serving the Lord in other places. He is grateful that Luke has remained in Rome to give him comfort while he in prison. He mentions a man named Alexander, the metalworker who opposed him and did all he could to stop the preaching of the gospel. He sends special greetings to friends in distant places, and he sends Timothy greetings from friends in Rome. And he gives thanks to God for standing by him in his trial, when it seemed that all had forsaken him. The Lord delivered him from the mouth of the lion, and will continue to deliver him so that he has complete confidence that he will one day enter the heavenly kingdom.

Above everything else, he wanted Timothy to come see him in prison before he died. Remember that Timothy is probably in Ephesus, hundreds of miles away, and it would take several months for him to come to Rome. The aged apostle wanted to see his young friend one final time before he died. Listen to what his says, and how he repeats himself:

“Do your best to come to me quickly” (v. 9).
“Get Mark and bring him with you” (v. 11).
“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (v. 12).
“Do your best to get here before winter” (v. 21). The King James Version translates verse 21 with three simple words: “Come before winter.” “Timothy, if you’re going to come at all, come now. Don’t wait. Don’t delay. I won’t be alive much longer. Come quickly, my friend. Come before winter.”

When Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his I have a dream speech in August 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C, he said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” What a phrase that is. “The fierce urgency of now.” Some things simply can’t be put off forever.

Some things simply can’t be put off forever.

For thirty years Clarence McCartney served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every year he preached a sermon called “Come Before Winter” based on 2 Timothy 4:21. It became one of the most famous sermons of the 20th century. In preparing this message, I have borrowed some of his thoughts and shaped them in my own words.

 This text raises three questions for us to consider:

I. Why Come Before Winter?

The answer to that question is practical and simple. During the winter the weather made travel by sea difficult and sometimes impossible. If Timothy delayed at all, he would not come to Rome until the spring. And if he waited that long, Paul would very likely already be dead.

Some things must be done “before winter” or they will not be done at all. There are doors of opportunity that open before us today, but if we do not take advantage of them, by springtime they will be forever shut. You can’t wait forever to respond to things that are important. Things that seem small today become large tomorrow. Shakespeare said “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, when taken at flood, leads to fortune…” Sometimes we must respond now, we must answer now, we must act now, we must not wait or delay or put things off. We must not say, “Tomorrow is another day.” The Bible says, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:13-14). That’s all we are, just a vapor, a mist, we’re dust in the wind, like the grass of the field that is here today and gone tomorrow.

Life changes so quickly. You can be a United States Senator, one of the most powerful men in the world, and one morning you have a seizure and then another one. When the doctors investigate, they discover an inoperable brain tumor. Suddenly your life is measured in terms of how many months you have left. That’s what happened to Ted Kennedy last week.

Or you might be a greatly beloved Christian singer whose songs have touched millions around the world. Suddenly tragedy strikes and a child dies in a heartrending accident. In what was the saddest story of the week for most of us, that happened to Steven Curtis Chapman and his family. Life is so short, so fragile, so uncertain for all of us. No one knows what the future holds.

Life is so short, so fragile, so uncertain for all of us. No one knows what the future holds.

On December 22, 2005 Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, got the phone call every parent dreads most. His son James, 18, had committed suicide. No matter who you are, you are never ready for something like that. Suicide leaves an indelible mark on those who are left behind—a deep pain that never goes away. What do you say in that instance? Because he is a Christian with a strong faith in God, Tony Dungy spoke at his son’s funeral service. This was his advice to other parents:

Hug your kids every chance you get. Tell them you love them every chance you get. You don’t know when it’s going to be the last time.

II. Did Timothy Go?

Here we are faced with a mystery. We simply do not know the answer to this question. In his sermon McCartney imagines that Timothy said to himself, “Yes, I must go to Rome, but first I must attend to some matters in Ephesus.” And because he delays, winter comes and he cannot get a ship until spring. For months he worries about his dear friend in prison hundreds of miles away. At last, better weather comes and he makes the long journey to Rome. When he arrives, he tries to find Paul but no one seems to know where he is. Finally he comes to the home of Claudia or Pudens or Linus (names mentioned in II Timothy 4) and they recognize him: “Aren’t you Timothy? Paul wanted so badly to see you. He prayed that you would come; he never gave up hope of seeing you again. He was beheaded last October. His last message to you was, ‘Give Timothy my love, tell him goodbye for me. Tell him to meet me in heaven.’”

Now we do not know if it happened like that or not. But this much is certain: Procrastination destroys many good intentions. More marriages die because of slow neglect than from deliberate desertion. Things essential and basic are neglected every day. We mean to say a word of encouragement, but we never get around to it. We mean to write a letter, or make a call but it never gets done. We mean to share Christ with a neighbor, we intend to get serious in our Christian faith. We hope to pray more, we want to read the Bible. We have great dreams and high ideals, but time and neglect and the trivia of life sap our strength and divert us until the day comes when our resolve is gone, our marriage has grown cold, our children have left home, our spiritual life has grown dull. Come before winter! Yes, come now, do it now, serve God now. What you would do for God, you can do, but you must not delay.

 Procrastination destroys many good intentions.

The story is told of three apprentice devils who were coming to earth for their first assignment. They met with Satan who asked them what strategy they planned to follow: The first one said, “I will tell people that there is no God.” “That will not work,” said Satan, “because in their heart of hearts they know there is a God.”

“I will tell them,” said the second, “that there is no hell.” “That won’t work because there is so much evil on earth, they know there must be a hell.” Satan replied.

The third apprentice devil thought for a moment, and then he said, “I will tell them that there is no hurry.”

“Go,” said Satan, “tell them that and you will ruin them by the millions.”

III. Would You Have Gone?

Yes, I’m sure we would. Yes, of course we would have gone. But I remember a day when someone I loved was dying. He was in a hospital in a city down south, and Marlene and I were driving through that city. We were in a hurry, on our way home, it was late in the day, but I thought to myself, “I should stop and see him or at least stop and call.” Marlene even said, “We can stop if you want to.” But I did neither, and we drove on, and he died a few days later. That happened more than two decades ago, and I hadn’t thought about it for many years, but this week, out of nowhere, the memory of what I didn’t do came back to me.

Many of us live with that reality. Too little, too late. We had good intentions but somehow we never got around to doing it. We truly meant well, we meant for things to be different. All too often we end up with the “ifs and buts” of life. Some things need to be said now, done now. The opportunity is today, not tomorrow.

What is it that God is calling you to do? What good deed? What act of forgiveness? What step of faith? What prayer should you pray? What sin should you confess? What bad habit must be broken? What service could you render for the Lord and his church? What class could you teach? What call must you make? What email must you write? What relationship must you repair? Who in your life needs to know Jesus and you’ve been putting off telling them? Whatever it is, “Come before winter.” Do it. Do it now. If you intend to spend time with your children, do it now. They won’t be at home forever.

You’ve probably seen the following quotation many times. It’s over 200 years old and comes originally from the Quakers.

I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

May I ask you a question: If you knew that today was the last day of your life, who would you call? What would you say?  What act of kindness would you render? What broken relationship would you try to heal? Whenever we ask a question like that, it always tends to be theoretical because deep inside, most of us expect to live many more years. That’s certainly a reasonable expectation, and I hope it comes true for you. But perhaps we should take Martin Luther’s advice to live every day with the day of our death placarded before our eyes. Leadership experts call that “living with the end in view.” I wish to everyone who reads these words long life and good health, but I can’t guarantee it for myself or for my own family, much less for anyone else. Things can change so quickly. Just one phone call and life will never be the same again.

If you intend to serve the Lord someday, why not now?

Some of us need to reach out to people around us. There are things we need to say now:

“I love you.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Please forgive me.”
“Thank you.”
“I miss you.”
“I wanted to see you one more time.”
“I wanted to squeeze your hand.”
“I wanted to give you a hug.”
“I wanted to hear you laugh.”
“I wanted to see your beautiful face.”

Others of us need to get serious about our relationship with Jesus Christ. “I’m going to serve the Lord some day,” we say. If you are going to serve him someday, why not today? What do you gain by putting him off? How can you be certain that when tomorrow comes, you will still want to serve the Lord?

If you intend to serve the Lord someday, why not now?

Christ Stands at the Door

In the end, it is Christ who calls to us. He speaks to us today. He stands and knocks at the door of your heart. Will you open the door and let him in? He says, “Come unto me. Come now. Don’t delay. Don’t put it off.” The Bible says, “Behold, now is the day of salvation.” The sweetest word and the most solemn word of salvation is the little word “today.” Jesus said to Zaccheus, “Come down out of that sycamore tree. I’m going to your house today.” Today is the day of salvation. Tomorrow may never come. If you can find one place where the Bible says, “Come to Christ tomorrow,” then I will come down from the pulpit and never preach again. But the Bible always says today—not tomorrow. Come to Christ while you have the opportunity and while you have the desire. Consider these words by Henry Twells:

When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept.
When as a youth I waxed more bold, time strolled.
When I became a full-grown man, time ran.
When older still I daily grew, time flew.
Soon I shall find, in passing on, time gone.
O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then?

For some who read these words, Jesus is standing at the door of your heart, knocking, knocking, knocking. Will you open the door and let him in? Many years ago Holman Hunt painted a classic picture called, “Christ Standing at the Door.” It depicts Jesus at the door of a lovely English cottage. Everything seems normal until you study the picture closely and discover that there is no doorknob on the outside. Why not? Because the door to the heart must be opened from the inside. The painting is true to life and true to the Bible. If you hear the Lord knocking at your heart’s door, do not delay, go now and open the door and trust Christ Savior and Lord. Don’t wait a second longer. Do it now.

Come before winter!

 

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Ray Pritchard

RAY PRITCHARD

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