Come Before Winter
2 Timothy 4:9-22
August 31, 2003
Listen to this Sermon
Three things—apparently unrelated—have come together in my mind as I have prepared this message.
First, in just a few days we will come to the second anniversary of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001. A survey released this week shows that 80% of Americans believe that terrorists are in this country and are ready to launch an attack at any time. More than half think an attack on U.S. soil will come in the next few weeks.
Second, in September we are launching a churchwide emphasis on stewardship relating to the renovation program now underway. I will be preaching four messages leading up to Commitment Sunday on September 28, when we will ask everyone to make a personal commitment to support this project financially.
Third, this is the final message in the series on II Timothy. Though I haven’t emphasized it, the title of the series is “Passing the Torch.” That perfectly describes the message of this book. The aged Apostle Paul, writing from death row in a dark, dank prison cell in Rome, pens a final message to his young protégé Timothy to encourage him to continue his work after Paul’s imminent death. In a sense, this book is Paul’s last will and testament.
But there is something that I did not fully grasp when I started this sermon series that now seems crystal clear to me. The theme of “passing the torch” is very relevant to our current situation. I had a revelation of sorts last week when Marlene and I drove to Alabama and dropped our son Nick off at Samford University in Birmingham. I have said since last September that when you turn 50, you become a philosopher of sorts. Certainly you begin to look at life differently. And when your youngest child leaves for college, you begin to think about the changing seasons of life. At one point last week, as we were in orientation together, and before we left to come back, I looked at him and saw the excitement on his face, and this thought hit me with enormous gravity, “The future belongs to the young.” In a sense I’ve always known that to be true, but last week I saw the future clearly—and I realized in a new way, that the future always belongs to the young. They say that youth must be served. And youth will be served. I am no longer young, no matter what people may think. I am a middle-aged man—the calendar does not lie. I do not regret that or bemoan that. I have no desire to be young again. The thought of being 20 again makes me want to lie down and take a nap.
“The future belongs to the young.” What is true of life in general is true of the church as well. The future of the church belongs to the young. This week I had lunch with a good friend, someone who was here the day I came to Calvary and has been here through all these years and is still here today. I asked him out of the blue what he thinks about when he thinks of our church, and he said that increasingly he has a burden to equip the younger men for leadership. He spoke of accountability and discipleship. He talked of pulling back from some of his current ministries so he could become more of a coach and a mentor and a discipler of younger men. As we talked, I shared with him my own observations about Calvary at this crucial moment in time. In recent months two facts have become very obvious to me. First, we are becoming a more diverse congregation, with more people from a wider variety of backgrounds than ever before. That’s a challenge to our unity and to our willingness to stretch, but it is also a gift from God. Second, we are becoming a younger congregation. You can see it in every service, but especially in the 10:30 and 11:45 a.m. services. We have more and more people coming who are under the age of 35, both married and single. This speaks well for our future. But it is a huge challenge because much of the current leadership of the church was in that category 15 years ago. Now most of us are 40 or 45 or 50, and some are moving toward 55. But the future doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to the generation rising up beneath us. I believe one of the lessons of II Timothy is this: Every generation must pass the torch to the next generation. And even while we lead, we must at the same time prepare to hand off leadership to those who are younger.
It is right at this point that all three concerns that I mentioned converge in my mind. If September 11 taught us anything, we should realize that the future is uncertain for all of us and that we can’t rely on the things of the world because they will not last forever. Therefore, we must do what Jesus said—Seek first the Kingdom of God. Not just theoretically, but spiritually and practically and in the end, financially. One part of seeking God’s kingdom means laying up treasures in heaven by investing our earthly money in God’s work. And in the final analysis, that means living today by letting go of our need to constantly be in control or to think that the future is in our own hands. It’s not. It never was. And so we who lead must say to the next generation, “We won’t be here forever so you must prepare to lead.”
Paul’s Final Thoughts
That’s exactly how Paul felt toward Timothy. 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 by 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 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 the last part of 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 Clarence McCartney was a young man, he was called as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1915 he preached a sermon called “Come Before Winter” based on verse 21. It so moved the congregation that the session asked him to preach it again. So he did—every year—for 37 straight years. 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.” This week the transcripts of messages to and from the Port Authority of New York on September 11, 2001 were released. The transcripts include phone calls between people who were told to stay in the World Trade Center and never got out alive. One of the most heartrending calls came from the assistant manager of the Windows on the World restaurant on top of one of the towers. She called four times asking for help. In the final call she reported that the stairwells were filled with smoke and the elevators were not working. “We’re trying to get up to you, dear,” an officer told her.
But they never made it. A few minutes after that final call, the tower collapsed into a smoking heap of rubble. 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.
After I preached the first service on Sunday, I stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air. Greg Hines, the Oak Park police officer who handles our traffic on Sundays, came over to say hello. He noticed the pin I was wearing and asked what it said. I told him it says, “Are you ready?” He smiled and said, “That’s the question, isn’t it?” Later he mentioned that there had been a homicide in Oak Park early last week. Three men from Chicago were on Roosevelt Road in south Oak Park, evidently planning to go to a neighboring town to commit a crime. While they were talking, another man from Chicago drove by and opened fire. Two of the men were injured and the third died from gunshot wounds. “He’s gone to his reward,” Officer Hines said. Then he added, “But was he ready?” Good question. Sooner or later, we will all die, and the day may come sooner than we think.
So Paul says, “Timothy, make sure you come quickly. Bring my cloak because it’s cold in prison in the winter. And bring my books and the parchment so I can write while I’m here.” We all need friends, don’t we? Sometimes we feel like we can’t make it without our friends to help us out. I don’t think Paul was afraid to die. He’s already said, “I’ve fought the good fight, I’ve finished my course, I’ve kept the faith.” He knows exactly where he is going. Death was not the problem. But Paul was very human. He didn’t want to die alone. That is one of those fears we hardly ever talk about, but it lurks around the corner. We don’t want to die alone, and we don’t want to be forgotten. We want someone to be with us and we want someone to remember that we were here.
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.
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,” said Satan, “will not work 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 to or from Dallas, 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 was almost 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 letter 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.
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.
Some of us have to take a long journey in the wrong direction before we finally respond. This week I received a wonderful e-mail from a man who is 40 years old. After his parents divorced when he was 15, he began to drink heavily and soon his drinking was out of control. In his 20s, he “got involved with a girl from whom Delilah could have taken lessons. Some old friends gave lots of support, Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Bud Weiser.” He served in the military in various hot spots around the world—Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Korea—getting drunk every chance he had. He left the military but continued to drink heavily. Many years later he met a woman, they got married, and he and his wife began church hopping. Meanwhile, he continued to drink because he thought he had it “under control.” Somehow they came to Calvary. “That Sunday we came to Calvary Memorial, the Bible Bus was in full gear in the Book of Genesis and you seemed to be speaking to us as if we were the only people in the room. … For the first time I picked up the Bible and read it cover to cover, by Christmas Eve 2002. Along the way, I listed my sins, then confessed them to the Lord Jesus Christ and accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. I remember the feeling that radiated out from me at that moment, for the first time I truly understood the term ‘born again in Christ.’” Then he adds these wonderful words: “Not only was I saved but the Lord has given me the strength to resist alcohol but has also blessed us with a baby girl. … Now a day doesn’t go by when I don’t thank the Lord for all the blessings over my lifetime and ask forgiveness for the times I took them for granted.”
Here is a man who decided to “come before winter.” He heard the call and he ran to the cross. I appeal to you to do the same. 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 invite Christ into your life as Savior and Lord. Don’t wait a second longer. Do it now.
Would you come to Christ before winter comes?
For the clock of life is wound but once.
And no one has the power,
To tell just when the hand will stop,
At late or early hour.
Now is the time we have.
Live, love, toil, work with a will,
Do not wait for tomorrow,
For the clock may then be still.
Come before winter!