Sermon by Steve Cooper
Good morning! It’s good to be with you. In my work as a pastor I spend a fair bit of time with people who are older, in the last decades of their lives. Older people are all very aware of increasing problems as their bodies become more tired and weak and their minds become slower and more confused.
Yet I meet some older people who are such an inspiration! I was chatting the other day with an elderly man in our church family who is now well into his 80s. His wife is becoming unwell, and he himself struggles with many ailments. Yet there is a quiet joy and peace and contentment in this man’s life which is attractive to all who know him. His relationship with God gives him the strength and positive outlook he needs to face life.
This morning let’s consider how we can enjoy growing older. The apostle Paul shared his own approach to life with the Philippian church. It’s a profound approach which gives the key for us all to enjoy growing older.
I read the other day about an Olympic Games hero who, oddly, came last in his race. It was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The last event of the games is always the men’s marathon – 42 km of gruelling running. On this occasion in 1996 the marathon race was over and the winner of the gold medal had passed the finish line three hours before. Yet the word spread in the stadium that there’s a young man still out there on the course! He was from Afghanistan, with a torn calf muscle. He insisted on finishing. So the officials had to hurriedly set up the finish line again.
The young man appeared in the stadium, and as he limped and staggered through his final lap the crowd who were left applauded and cheered with all their might as at last he reached the tape. His name was Baser Wasiqi. He wanted to represent his country, Afghanistan, to the world, so the world could see that after 16 years of war his country was still alive. His training for the race had been very difficult. There was constant danger of being shot or blown up when he ran on the streets. There was even the danger of land mines. Yet he kept up his training. In the Olympic marathon he had hurt himself early in the race, but still he had not stopped. He said later to the world media: ‘I am taught that it is an important Olympic idea, to finish, to complete the race if you possibly can, so I keep going.’ What an inspiration!
That story reminds me of the apostle Paul’s approach to life. To the Philippian church Paul wrote: ‘One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 3:13-14). Here we see three aspects to Paul’s approach to life. First, he chooses to forget the things of the past, his achievements and failures. Second, he strains every nerve and muscle on the remainder of his race of life. Third, he focuses on the finish line and the reward which awaits him at the end of life.
This morning I want us to think about this second aspect of Paul’s philosophy: ‘straining toward what is ahead.’ Baser Wasiqi was so motivated to finish his marathon run that he ignored his injury and pain and kept on persevering, step after staggering step. That’s the kind of picture Paul had in mind as he explained his personal approach to life. He saw himself as a runner in a race, following the course of life God had mapped out for him, concentrating with all his might on running well and completing his race.
It’s important for us to remember that when Paul wrote these words he was under house arrest in Rome. He was chained to guards, not free to leave the house. Paul was awaiting trial for his faith in Jesus Christ. In some ways Paul’s situation is similar to what we all face when we grow older. Our bodies are restricted, we’re not able to do what we used to do, and our future is uncertain. Let’s reflect more in a few minutes on Paul’s secret for joy in our latter years.
This morning we’re asking the question: how can we enjoy growing old? The apostle Paul had a personal approach to life which helps us all, including those growing old, to enjoy life. Paul saw life as a race. He wanted to run well. He strained with all his might to focus on the course before him and get to the finish line at the end of life.
What did Paul mean when he saw life as a race? He explains that he had a very definite goal in his life. His goal was to know Jesus Christ, the crucified Saviour and risen Lord (Phil 3:8). This race begins when we hear the good news about Jesus, turn from our sin and place our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We run the race as we follow Jesus and obey his commands. During the race we are to get to know Christ better, sharing with him in his sufferings and his resurrection power (Phil 3:10). At the end of life is the finish line, when all believers in Christ are taken into the presence of the Lord Jesus, and we then know him fully.
Paul challenged the Christians in Philippi to adopt the same approach to life. It’s important for you and me to hear the same challenge. We’re invited to enter the race by trusting Jesus, to run the race by following Jesus, and to reach the finish line at the end of life and meet the Lord Jesus face to face. As we grow older we can continue to see life this way – as a race to be run. Like Paul, we can strain ‘toward what is ahead.’ This gives to the aging process a sense of adventure, enjoyment, purpose and fulfilment.
Let’s be practical and reflect on what it means for us as we grow older. How do we run our race of life well, as Paul did? Paul’s letter to the Philippians provides us with practical insights. Paul’s whole life centred on the Lord Jesus Christ. He wrote: ‘For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (Phil 1:21). Paul’s goal was to know Christ, love Christ, obey Christ, resemble Christ, and make Christ known to others. For Paul, life is a race where we know Christ and make him known, and when we reach the finish we know Christ completely.
How do we grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ? There are daily disciplines we can practice. If we set aside time each day, we can spend time reading and exploring the Bible. As we learn more about Christ in the Bible, we respond to him in prayer, confessing our sins, praising him, thanking him, and asking him to work in our own lives and in the lives of others. It’s vital, too, to set aside time each week to be actively involved in a local church, especially attending a weekly worship service. In these ways we deepen our relationship with the Lord Jesus.
There is always so much more we can learn about Christ. When we’re older we must not assume we know all there is to know! The Bible contains so much treasure and wisdom and insight. We learn more of the Lord Jesus when we trust him with our problems and concerns. We learn in new and deeper ways how faithful and strong he is. Like Paul, continue to know Christ better, even as we grow older.
It’s possible to grow old and enjoy the experience! Paul the apostle showed a brilliant way to enjoy growing older. He invited the Philippian church to see life as a race to be run. Paul said: One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 3:13-14). This morning we’re looking at what it means for us if, like Paul, we strain toward what is ahead.
Paul’s clear goal in the race of life was to know Jesus Christ and make him known to others. How do we do the second part of that, make Christ known to others, especially when we grow older?
One of the great things about growing older, particularly when we retire, is that we have more time to spend with people. Life slows down, and we have time to do projects and help people which we were not able to do earlier in life. Other older people have the time to talk, and we can enjoy leisurely conversations with them. There are so many needs, so many opportunities to be useful, so many ways we can serve others. We can serve in our local church, serve our neighbours, and serve the community. Be a volunteer and contribute what you can to show the love of Christ. If you go to the shops and just sit on a seat it’s amazing the conversations you may have and the people you might bless with a smile, warm interest, and a listening ear.
Older people have gained a lot of wisdom and maturity and experience over their lifetime. If possible, get to know younger people, and be available to offer friendship and support when they ask for it. Every older person is a ‘survivor’, and has insights to share with the younger generation who are struggling through the challenges of life. If you pray about this, and look for opportunities, God may give you the chance to speak to people about Jesus and point them to him.
As Paul presents his own approach to life, he uses vigorous language. His goal is to be like an athlete in a race who is ‘straining toward what is ahead.’ He is straining forward with all his might, focused on the remainder of the race that lies ahead, looking towards the finish line, his body bent forward as he enters the last and decisive stages of the race. If you are an older person, you may be thinking: ‘I’m struggling so much these days with my health and weakness – how can I strain every nerve and muscle as Paul did to know Christ and to make him known?’
The answer is, you can! Too many older people become inward looking and timid. It’s really a matter is determining, with God’s grace, to strain forward with the strength you do have toward the finish line. Your strength may be limited, but it’s amazing how the Lord can sustain you when you step out, take a risk in serving him, and trust him. Decide that you will be outgoing and adventurous! Be actively involved each day in getting to know Christ better and making him known to others.
Do you remember that scene toward the end of the movie Chariots of Fire where Eric Liddel is running on the last straight of the 400 metres final, with his awkward style of throwing his head back and pumping his arms like he’s climbing a wall? Liddel was in the last and decisive stages of the race, and he was determined to run well for God’s glory. That’s the picture Paul gives us of how to enjoy growing old. Strain with all your might on the remainder of the race before you, giving your utmost effort to know Christ better and make him known.
‘Heavenly Father, give us the energy, concentration and determination to run the race of life well for your glory. We ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’