January 4, 2015

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



II Timothy 4:6-10a


I want to tell you all I know about one of the more obscure characters in the Bible.  His name is Demas.  If you’ve never heard of him, don’t feel bad.  I’m sure you’re in good company.  Everything the Bible tells us about Demas would fit on a postage stamp.  You’d have to write real small, but it would fit.  All we have are 3 verses.

We are introduced to Demas in Paul’s letter to Philemon.  He closes the letter with a list of names.  Demas is on the list.  “Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers . . . send greetings to you” (vs 24, 23).

Two of the names on this list are well-known.  Mark and Luke both have Bible books named after them.  Both travelled with Paul.  Demas is third on this list.  He is listed ahead of Luke.  That may mean nothing or it may mean that Demas was valued by Paul even more than Luke.  And we know he valued Luke greatly.  So why do we know so little about Demas if Paul thought of him so highly?  The other two verses will help us understand.

Demas is mentioned next in Colossians.  This time he is also mentioned in the same sentence with Luke.  “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you” (4:14).  A couple of things stand out here. One is that the order of their names has changed.  Now Luke is mentioned first.  The other is that Luke is described as “the beloved physician”.  Demas is just Demas.

You could say we’re reading too much into these subtle clues, were it not for the third and final verse where Demas is mentioned.  This one is in Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  Timothy is a young man who is becoming a valuable part of Paul’s missionary team.  Paul writes to him, “Do your best to come to me soon” (II Timothy 4:9)  Why?  “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (4:10).

Just three verses tell us all we know about Demas.  But they tell us a lot.  “Demas my fellow worker . . . Demas . . . Demas deserted me.”

You can draw a curve through any three still points.  The curve to illustrate the trajectory of Demas’ life might look like this.  (On screen, a downward slope.)  We might say this of Demas.  He started strong.  He did not finish strong.  His starting power was greater than his staying power.

All we know about him from the Bible comes from these three verses.  But as is often the case with Bible characters, there is also a legend that is not found in the Bible.  The legend may well be pure fiction.  Or it may be true.  It says in the Bible that Demas deserted Paul and went to Thessalonica.  The legend is that in Thessalonica Demas became a priest in a pagan temple.

This is the first Sunday of 2015.  This is the Sunday when we typically talk about getting the year off to a good start.  Those of you who are here today are in the select company of those who can still potentially have perfect worship attendance for the entire year!  That’s the kind of New Year’s resolution pastors like.  You may have other resolutions in mind.  We all have areas in our lives where we need change.  We need to break old, destructive habits and begin new habits that will make us healthier and happier and more useful to God.  And normally that’s what we talk about today.  But since we talked about that last week, this week I want us to consider what comes next.  Not starting power, but staying power.  Not the starting line, but the finish line.  Not starting strong, but finishing strong.

Runners know it’s easier to start strong than it is to finish strong.  That’s one of the early lessons most everyone learns the hard way.  When the starter’s gun goes off you not only have the benefit of rested muscles, you also feel that surge of adrenaline that comes from competition.  If you are in even moderate physical condition, you feel no pain.  For awhile.  But if you go as fast as you feel like going in those early stages, soon you will feel a lot of pain.  Starting power is easy.  Staying power is hard.  But it’s staying power that wins races.  It’s the strength you summon down the homestretch when you have no strength that matters.

It is a blessing to get off to a good start.  Some of us had that blessing as children.  We were fortunate.  Parents who loved us and provided for our needs, physical and emotional.  A church that taught us the Bible and introduced us to Jesus.  Teachers in those early grades for whom teaching was more than just a job.  They made learning fun.  And they taught us that learning is worth the effort even when it isn’t fun.  That was my experience anyway.  I had every advantage while I was growing up.  I had lots of good starting power.

That may not be your story.  You may be where you are today not because of your good start in life but in spite of your bad start.  But children who have the blessing of a good start are more likely to have a good life than those who don’t.

So this church is committed to helping children get off to a good start.  Children’s church, Sunday school, VacationBibleSchool.  And we have a whole wing of our building dedicated to kids.  We call our “EarlyLearningCenter” Kids Stuff.  We have 100 children enrolled right now.  It’s a program we’re very proud of.

Helping children get their lives off to a good start is a very good thing.  But it’s what these children do with that good start once they grow up that really matters.  Not starting power, but staying power.

I just finished a 576-page book that is nothing but letters President Truman wrote to his wife, Bess.  They start in 1910 when he was courting her.  No pun intended.  He built a tennis court because he knew she liked to play tennis.  He proposed in one of those early letters and she turned him down.  The last letter was written in 1959, after 40 years of marriage, eight of which were lived in the White House.  There’s a lot of love in all these letters.  That’s what marriage is all about.  The romantic love at the beginning may be the reason you got married.  But the growing, deepening love that takes time to develop is what makes you glad you got married.  Staying power, not just starting power.

Jesus asked a question.  “Which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:28)  It’s a good thing to start building.  It’s a better thing to be able to finish what you started.

Most of us here today are in the finishing phase of our lives, not the starting phase.  Take your age and double it.  If you expect to live that long or longer, you are still in the starting phase.  But for most of us, the number we get when we double our age is a number exceeded by Methuselah but that’s about it.  And of course we all know that the way life works is that any of us can die at any age.  Any of us might be in the homestretch of life right now whether we realize it or not.  Finishing strong, not starting strong, is the concern most of us share.

And here’s what complicates things.  Life gets harder the older we get.  I don’t know if you’ve noticed that yet.  Physically the human body simply can’t do at 60 what it could do at 30.  And it can’t do at 90 what it could do at 60.  Some of you tell me that a good part of your week every week is spent sitting in a doctor’s office.  And mentally, just remembering things gets harder as we age.  I remember my grandmother always writing things down that she wanted to remember.  I wondered why she didn’t just remember them without bothering to write them down.  Now I know.

There are many compensations as we age.  I’m enjoying life now as much as I ever have and I hear people much older than I am say the same thing.  There’s no reason to fear growing old.  It’s a privilege and a blessing and it beats the alternative.  But here’s the thing:  Finishing life well requires the best we have to give at the very time when we are not at our best.  Kind of like finishing a marathon race well requires running hard at the very time when you can hardly run.  When the starting power is long gone and the staying power is dwindling away, that’s the very time we reach the moment of truth!

Often our later years give us an opportunity for redemption.  God is gracious.  God does not deal with us according to our sins but according to God’s steadfast love (Psalm 103:10).  And that love is still there even when we’ve made a mess of things earlier in life.  Have you noticed how often our presidents find redemption in their later years?  They may have made mistakes and made enemies while in office, but they seem to have an uncanny ability to finish strong.  Harry Truman left office with a very low standing in popular opinion.  He is now regarded among our greatest presidents.  Nixon, Carter, Clinton all left office under a cloud.  All are held in much higher esteem today because we admire the way they lived their later years.  The same could be said of both presidents named Bush.  And I hear there could be a third on the way.  Or a second Clinton.

Redemption is offered to all of us, not just ex-presidents.  We all have stumbled and fallen.  We all, by God’s grace, are given the opportunity to get back on our feet and finish strong.  The tragedy is that we don’t all avail ourselves of that opportunity.  The tragedy is that too many lives follow the trajectory of Demas.

“Demas my fellow worker . . . Demas . . . Demas deserted me.”

Mitch Albom has chronicled great men who were at their greatest as they were dying.  He wrote Tuesdays With Morrie.  Morrie Schwartz was his sociology professor at BrandeisUniversity.  Now he was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Years had passed since his college days, but Mitch Albom reached out to his professor.  He looked him up and visited him.  And visited him again.  And eventually was spending a good part of every Tuesday with Morrie.  They talked about life.  They talked about death.  Their conversations were profound and funny and down to earth.  Mitch Albom took careful notes.  The book became a best seller.  And so Morrie Schwartz, who had helped many people in his earlier years, helped many more people after he died.

Twelve years later Mitch Albom wrote Have a Little Faith.  It was the story of another man who finished the race of life with a burst of glory.  Albert Lewis was an 82-year-old rabbi who asked Mitch Albom to deliver his eulogy.  Mitch had never been particularly active with his faith.  He believed, sort of, but faith was not a big part of his life.  So when his rabbi asked him, whose synagogue attendance was pretty sporadic, to be the main speaker at his funeral, he was taken aback.

He agreed, but first he had to get to know this man.  They spent time together.  It was kind of like Tuesdays With Morrie all over again.  At first he thought he was doing this old man a favor.  Soon he realized the old man the one who was doing him a favor.

Woven into this story is a second story.  It’s the story of Henry Covington, a black man with a criminal past.  But Jesus had changed his life.  His life was now given to those in inner city Detroit who were living lives Henry Covington once had lived.  He founded the I Am My Brother’s Keeper church.

Albert Lewis knew he was dying.  He died at age 90.  Henry Covington didn’t know he was about to die.  He was 53.  Mitch Albom gave both eulogies.  He spoke about how each of these very different men finished their lives strong and how each of them had led him, Mitch Albom, back to faith.

The second half of our lives can be better than the first half!  As our outer nature is wasting away our inner nature can be renewed every day (II Corinthians 4:16).  The trajectory of our lives need not follow that of Demas.  “Demas my fellow worker . . . Demas . . . Demas deserted me.”  In this new year let’s resolve that the trajectory of our lives will follow that of Paul.

Paul had a lot of regrets in his life.  His first half included arresting Christians, approving when Christians were killed, and in general doing everything in his power to destroy Christianity.  Then he met Christ and Christ changed him.  His second half was better than his first.  Much better.  There was no comparison.

And so in the very passage where he reports the sad news that Demas had deserted him and gone to Thessalonica, he reports also that as his life approaches likely martyrdom, he has no regrets.  None.

For I am already at the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (II Timothy 4:6-7).

In other words, I have finished strong.  God has forgiven the sins of my first half.  And God has given me staying power all the way to the end of my second half.

My prayer is that you will be able to say the same, that I will be able to say the same, that with God’s help we will finish strong.

As we begin a new year, dear God, we are once again reminded of how precious and how fleeting is your gift of life.  We are reminded this life is not given to us so we can run out the clock and reach death safely.  Life is given to us so we can live.  Fully.  Faithfully.  For you.  Even when life is hardest.  Especially when life is hardest.  Give us your grace and your strength.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.