For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
Be diligent to come to me quickly…Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.
Our emphasis in the church today is on a good start. But not all who start well finish well. The term “born again” has become the buzzword for conservative Christians. The thrust of our popular gospel is on a good start.
A gospel of the good start, yes, but also a gospel of the good finish.
In his valedictory address to young Timothy, the apostle Paul gives us the credentials of the gospel of the good finish of which he is an exemplar. He “fleshes out” a gospel that has not only a good beginning but a good ending.
Paul talks about several qualities that helped him to finish well. Let me walk us through the imagery Paul uses to describe a long obedience in the same direction.
First, he says,
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering…”
Ancient sacrifices were not only flesh from animals and cereal grains, but they were also liquid. They were called “libations.” Paul says, “The last drops of my sacrifice are falling.”
Then he says,
“…and the time of my departure is at hand.”
The word used here means “striking the tents of an army.” Paul says, “My time to go has come.”
Then he says,
“I have fought the good fight…”
The term “fought” comes from the Greek agōnia, meaning “struggle. From it we get our English word “agony.” It comes from the Olympian and Isthmian games and the agony of effort it required to compete for the prize. Paul says, “I’ve agonized with a noble and beautiful agony.”
Then he says,
“…I have finished the race…”
He sees himself as the Lord’s runner. (In Jerry’s case, he might be a cyclist or skier) He had said to the Ephesian elders at Miletus in Acts 20:24–“[Pray for me] that I may finish my race with joy.”
Finally, he says,
“…I have kept the faith.”
He says, “I have cherished it. I’ve kept it pure, undiluted, unmixed, undefiled. Now I’m ready to give back this precious treasure to the One who has entrusted me with it.”
You can read the final words of any hero from any era, or any generation and you’ll not find more beautiful poetry than in that five-fold imagery. And it reminds us that the gospel of the good finish is built on a life of developing Christian maturity.
I am already being poured out as a drink offering,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I have fought the good fight,
I have finished the race,
I have kept the faith.
If I have ever met a man that personified fighting the good fight it was Jerry Thornhill.
If he told me once, he told me twenty-five times that he wanted to finish strong. That was his sunum bunum—to finish strong for Jesus Christ.
The weekend Lynette and I came to be formally presented to Mountain Heights as a candidate for their next pastor and our schedule was filled with meetings. I met with every committee on a Saturday. Then there was an open meeting in the Fellowship Hall where the church could ask me any questions they wanted, and I could ask my questions. It was a great meeting. I felt really good about the pastor/people connection.
The search committee, of which Jerry was the chairman, met at my dad’s home down in Poncha Springs and we debriefed the day. We talked about the procedure of voting. Who was going to make the secret ballots, what would be the collection process, and other details. We talked about the percentage necessary for me to win so that I could be the pastor. I remember telling them that the vote would have to be at least 90%—and even at 90% I would have to pray long and hard about it.
The next morning, I preached what we call in the Baptist world “In View of a Call” and I thought it went pretty well. When the service was over, I think Dan Ehlers escorted us to the pastor’s study, while Jerry conducted the business meeting to vote on me as the next pastor.
We had barely sat down when we looked up and Jerry was standing in the doorway. He had that hound dog look on his face and said, “We didn’t get the vote.” His eyes were swollen and red and his voice broke.
I looked at Lynette and thought, “Man, I totally misread that congregation.”
Jerry walked around the coffee table in the study, and I stood up to comfort him.
I said, “We didn’t get the vote? Wow.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It was unanimous.”
I thought, “Holy Cow! It was that bad of a sermon?”
Jerry said, “They are waiting for you in the auditorium.”
(I’m not going down there!)
A faint smile began to form at the corner of his mouth.
I had misunderstood what he said. I thought he said, “We didn’t get THE vote.” But what he actually said was, “We didn’t get TO vote.”
They were getting ready to pass out the secret ballots and Helen Presswood stood up and made a motion that they accept me as their next pastor by acclamation. It was seconded, in true Baptist tradition, and they voted. There were no negative votes.
Later he told me that he had stopped by the restroom to compose himself after the unanimous vote and was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude for his Lord and his church that it went so well—and that it was over. He said the emotions just flooded. It was right after that that he came to tell us about the church’s decision.
In my second year as pastor of this church, the deacons and I went on a hike up in the Four Mile. We wanted to go to The Arch. It was Dan Ehlers, Bruce Clardy, Jerry Thornhill, and Dan’s granddaughter, Samantha. Dan took off like he was shot out of a cannon, and we never saw him again until he was silhouetted against the blue sky on the ridge above us. Samantha and I plodded along a good route and got to know one another a little better. Bruce and Jerry, our resident geologists, took a trail that led them up a cut in the hillside that was lined on one side with thick willow bushes and the other with a rock face. They came up the rock face.
Samantha and I sat down and waited for Jerry and Bruce. Soon we saw their heads poking up above the willow bushes. They were struggling. Well, Bruce was fine, but Jerry was struggling. All the strength had drained out of his 81-year-old legs and turned them into spaghetti noodles. They had climbed too high to go back, but Jerry was too tired to climb on up. I climbed down to him and got beneath him and pushed him up the rest of the way.
When we got up to where Samantha was waiting, we sat down and rested for a long time. After we both had stopped gasping for breath, Jerry said, “Don’t ever tell Shirley about this.”
When Shirley was dying in the hospital after having suffered a stroke, it was during the height of Covid, and we all had to wear masks in the hospital. Jeri Ann, Tim, and Mike were gathered around the foot of Shirley’s bed telling stories and I was in the corner watching Jerry. He was seated beside the hospital bed and was holding Shirley’s hand.
Jerry had a mask on and as he was patting her hand. I could see his jaw was moving, and he was looking earnestly into her face. He was passionately telling her something. I have never been so grateful for a mask in my life. That mask on Jerry’s face hid the intimate words he was telling the bride of his youth. But they could not cover the deep covenant love on full display in that room. It was one of the most sacred things I have ever witnessed.
Jerry went to see a counselor friend of mine for grief counseling after Shirly died, and I asked her how it was going with my tall, deep-voiced friend. The counselor’s father was suffering from dementia, and she was his primary caregiver. She smiled and said, “I’m pretty sure he is helping me more than I am helping him. He is such a good man. I enjoy being in the same room with him.”
Jerry told me that he was going to stop going to see the counselor. He said, “She just cries when I talk.”
I said how about you and I get breakfast together every week. He agreed. So, every Monday after Shirley’s death, until the chemotherapy treatment meant that he could no longer be in a public place, Jerry and I would meet for breakfast. We always ordered the early bird special, and he always gave me two of his three pieces of bacon.
I would ask him about his heart. Then he would weep as he told me about his love for his bride. As tears and snot would drip off his nose into his eggs, he would say, “I should be stronger than this. Where is my faith? She is with Jesus. She is happy. She is doing really well. I’m sorry, pastor.”
I know you aren’t supposed to scold a grieving man, but in my most firm and intense pastoral voice I said to him, “Jerry! You love your wife. You have loved her longer than I have been alive. It is perfectly normal and wonderful for you to be hurting and weeping. Every time you shed a tear for Shirley, God captures that tear and puts it in a bottle, and labels that bottle “Beautiful Sorrow.”
The Sunday before Jerry died on Wednesday, the lady’s Sunday School class must have known the time was near because they joined the men’s class to hear Jerry teach. No one knew that it was the last time Jerry would teach.
The afternoon before Jerry died, we prayed together in his room, surrounded by pictures on the wall of his wife at various stages of their life together. I held his hand with his pinky finger curled inwards and cradled in my palm. He showed me pictures of his family when he was a boy. We talked about how he felt. He had no pain—just tired. We talked about how good it was that his family was there in the next room. He told me that he loved, Jeri Ann, Tim, and Mike.
We talked about the book of James and his Sunday School class. We talked about his love for his Lord and Savio, Jesus Christ. (Jerry never said, “Jesus” without adding “Christ.”)
I told him that, other than my own father, he is the most death-prepared man I had ever known. I told him that Jesus and Shirley are ready and waiting for him.
I asked if I could pray with him. He reached for me, and I held that crooked-fingered hand and said my last prayer with my friend. At nearly 4:00 the next morning, Jeri Ann texted me that he was gone.
Since Jerry had received his diagnosis, almost everyone in my world knew about his sickness and how important he was to me. I shared it widely and asked for prayers for Jerry all around the country and the world.
Every week I meet with three local pastors here in Buena Vista. They have prayed with me for Jerry. Right before Jerry died, I was meeting with them and one of the pastors told me a story.
“Joe, last night a nurse shared in the small group in our church that one the kindest men she had ever treated and who had a huge impact on her spiritual life was dying. Said he loved to talk about his Sunday School class and hoped that he would get to finish teaching the book of James.”
The Pastor asked, “Is his name Jerry?”
She said, “Yes. How did you know?”
Because his pastor is my friend, he has told us all about Jerry.
That is how you finish strong.
That is the Gospel of the Good Finish.
That was the life of Jerry Thornhill.
There were at least four things that Jerry did that helped him finish strong.
- He prayed every day.
- He read God’s Word every day.
- He made worshipping with God’s people on Sundays the highest priority.
- He had companions for the journey.
That is what we learned from the Apostle Paul as well. Paul says,
“Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.” I Timothy 4:11
I don’t know what image you think of when you think of the Apostle Paul, but many of us might imagine him as a strong, stoic, and independent lone ranger, church planter, and theologian. But here at the end of his life, we see him craving companionship.
Toward the end of Jesus’ life, he climbed Mount Hermon, and he took Peter, James, and John with Him. While up on the side of that mountain, the shekinah glory cloud of God surrounded them, and Peter saw that Elijah and Moses were talking to Jesus—about his coming death. Companions for the journey.
Do you remember the night before Jesus went to his cross and he went into the Garden of Gethsemane? He didn’t go alone. He took Peter, James, and John with him.
So, whether it was Jesus desiring companionship at the end of his life, or the Apostle Paul longing for John Mark to come close to him at the end—you won’t finish strong without companions for the journey.
At Jerry’s request, the Saturday before he died, he was surrounded by his son, Mike, and men from our church: Doug Green, Dan Ehlers, Bruce Clardy, Dub Chambers, and me. We anointed Jerry with oil, laid hands on him, and prayed for God’s will to be done.
Finishing strong requires a long obedience in the same direction with prayer, the word, the church, and companions for the journey.
Saint Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.
I invite you to follow Jerry as he followed Christ. You will finish strong if you do.
The Celtic poet John O’Donohue has become a favorite of mine. I offer his words as a comfort and, perhaps, a guide for you this morning.
by John O’Donohue
When you lose someone you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Flickers of guilt kindle regret
For all that was left unsaid or undone.
There are days when you wake up happy;
Again inside the fullness of life,
Until the moment breaks
And you are thrown back
Onto the black tide of loss.
Days when you have your heart back,
You are able to function well
Until in the middle of work or encounter,
Suddenly with no warning,
You are ambushed by grief.
It becomes hard to trust yourself.
All you can depend on now is that
Sorrow will remain faithful to itself.
More than you, it knows its way
And will find the right time
To pull and pull the rope of grief
Until that coiled hill of tears
Has reduced to its last drop.
Gradually, you will learn acquaintance
With the invisible form of your departed;
And, when the work of grief is done,
The wound of loss will heal
And you will have learned
To wean your eyes
From that gap in the air
And be able to enter the hearth
In your soul where your loved one
Has awaited your return
All the time.
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