Come Before Winter
II Timothy 4:6-21
The Second Letter to Timothy, one of Paul’s last writings, contains a marvelous passage. I’m going to read some selected verses from that passage, The fourth chapter of 2 Timothy, beginning at the sixth verse. “For I am already on 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. Henceforth, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous judge will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas in love with this present world has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia. Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful in serving me. Tychicus, I have sent to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas and also the books and above all, the parchments. Greet, Prisca and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus remained at Corinth. Trophimus, I left ill at Miletus. Do your best to come before winter.”
Soli Deo gloria. To God alone be the glory.
Let us pray. Now may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Here is a picture of the Apostle Paul which you may never have seen before. We have a tendency – do we not? – to think of Paul as being so tough and brusque and single minded that he would be incapable of any real human tenderness. But that’s not at all the picture of Paul that we see here in the closing section of 2 Timothy. And so I’m going to ask you right now, if you will put your imagination to work with mine, and let’s see if we can paint the picture with words.
Paul was locked in a Roman prison cell. He was under the sentence of death. He is hunched over a writing table, eyes straining in the dim light of that dungeon, cramped fingers holding a pen pouring out his heart in the form of a letter which he is writing to his dear young friend, Timothy. As Paul writes, the shadows fall across him, the literal shadows of a waning day, but also the figurative shadows of a waning life. And in the midst of that circumstance, loneliness begins to enshroud him like a heavy mist beclouding his heart. The mood is reflected, I think, in the way he wrote. The words he uses here are bleak. The phrases, gaunt. The sentences, lean and stark. “Do your best to come to me soon,” he says. “Demas has deserted me. Crescens has gone to Galatia. Titus to Dalmatia. Tychicus, I left in Ephesus. Do your best to come before winter.”
Do you get the picture? I mean, this is no carved marble saint. This is no stained glass window, apostle. This is a real down-to-earth man with real down-to-earth needs in a real down-to-earth prison cell, and time is hanging heavy on his hands, and it will hang heavier still when the winter comes. And so he opens up his heart, and he pleads with his young friend, Timothy, “Do your best to come before winter.”
But why before winter? Because Paul knew that from October to April, the Mediterranean Sea would be closed to navigation. The weather at that time of the year, so severe as to make it risky for ships to venture out. And so if Timothy did not come to Rome before winter, then he would not be able to catch a ship to Rome until the spring, and the spring would be too late, because you see, Paul, has a premonition. He knows that he’s going to die. He senses that he will not survive the winter. He says it himself right there. The words just leap out at you, “The time for my departure has come.” And one can almost see the tears welling up in his eyes, and one can sense the feeling of desperation in his heart as he pleads with Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. Do your best to come before winter.”
Back in the autumn of 1915, Dr. Clarence Edward Macartney of the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, stepped into his pulpit and preached a sermon on this passage, which he entitled, “Before Winter or Never.” That sermon so profoundly impressed the people of Pittsburgh that every single autumn, one Sunday, every autumn, for 35 years thereafter, Dr. Macartney stepped into his pulpit and preached the same sermon in the same words to the same congregation. 35 years.
I want to lift up for you just a single paragraph from that marvelous sermon. Macartney said, “There are some things which will never be done unless they are done before winter. There are tides of opportunity running now at the flood which a year from now will be at ebb. There are voices speaking clearly now which a year from now will be forever silenced. There are some things which unless they are done before winter will never be done at all. Before Winter or Never, Timothy. If you do not come to Rome before winter, then there will be no need to come at all.”
Now, what is it about words like those that would strike such a response? I believe it is because all of us, whatever our age or our circumstance may be in life, all of us have a tendency to surrender to the power of the little word, “wait.” Wait and we’ve seen what happens. Wait and lovers do not marry, and friends are not reconciled, and hopes fade, and dreams die, and opportunities are missed, and chances are lost. Wait and then always afterward the other words that follow, too late. It might have been farewell.
When I read the words that Paul wrote to Timothy here, I am compelled to try to say something which with God’s help may encourage someone here to take the way and to follow the will of Jesus Christ and to do it today. I’m not sure that I shall be able to say it. But at least I must try because you see, Clarence Macartney is right. There are some things which will never be done unless they are done before winter.
And so let the words of Paul begin to ring like a great bell in a towering steeple in your mind and in your heart. “Come before winter. Come before winter. Come before winter.” And with those words ringing, let’s listen to some voices which are speaking clearly now, but which a year from now, may be forever silent.
There is the voice of Almighty God.
Oh, but you say, God doesn’t speak to me in my life. That’s not true. God does speak to you as an individual. It’s just that you have not yet recognized His voice for what it is. You’re probably expecting God to speak in thunder and in lightning and in Shakespearean English. And you know what the Bible says? The Bible says that God speaks to us in the most ordinary ways. He spoke to Adam and Eve while they were walking in a garden in the cool of the evening. He spoke to Moses while he was tending to the flocks of his father in law, Jethro. He spoke to Gideon while he was threshing his wheat, to Amos while it was pruning his vineyard, to Isaiah while he was sitting in, of all places, church. He spoke to Jeremiah in the death rattle of a nation. He spoke to Hosea in the clattering collapse of his own marriage. He spoke to Matthew while he was trying to square his accounts at the tax tables. He spoke to Peter and James and John while they were fishing out on the lake.
The Bible tells us that God does speak to us, and he speaks to us in the most ordinary ways and in the most ordinary places and through the most ordinary means. He can even, yes, he can even speak to us through an ordinary preacher trying desperately to preach about extraordinary things. God does speak to you. And there’s an urgency in that speaking.
Dr. Oswald Delgado, a friend of mine and many of you, preached a sermon on this particular text. And he said in that sermon, “Who is here today whose life would not benefit from some radical reform from within, some mending of the character, some alteration in the soul, some change in direction which is threatening to undo us, some overcoming of a habit which is threatening to destroy the best that we know and the best that we want to be?” “There is in all of us,” he said, “the need for change and to change now today before winter,” and he’s right. The voice of God is speaking to you.
I know we have a tendency to say, oh, but don’t you understand? I’m rather busy just now. I’ve got a lot of demands upon my time. I’ve got a lot of obligations to fulfill. Come the spring time, ah, yes, that’s it. Come the spring, and I’ll do something about it. And that spring so seldom comes. Come before winter.
And then there is the voice of the world, a voice all around us crying out, “I’m hungry. Will you not feed me? I’m thirsty. Will you not give me to drink? I’m a stranger searching for freedom. Will you not take me in?”
And we have a tendency to reply, oh, you say you’re hungry. Well, don’t you understand there’s food by the surplus? It’s piled up in storage bins. If you’re hungry, then it must be your fault somehow. You’re a stranger? Well, never talk to strangers. And besides that, we’re overrun with people who are refugees and homeless. You say you’re poor? What is it that they say the poor we will always have with us? Oh, well, I suppose that maybe something ought to be done. Tell you what? Come the spring. Yes, come the spring, and I’ll try to do something, and that spring so seldom comes.
And there’s an urgency in this because, my friends, if the crushing, crashing crises of the recent past have not taught us anything else, they have taught us that there are some problems which exist in our world that simply will not wait. There are people starving and there are people lying, there are people killing and there are people dying, and those problems will not wait, wait until spring, oh, no. Come before winter.
And then there is the voice of friendship.
Just suppose that when Timothy got that letter from Paul, he said to himself, well, looks like I’ll have to go to Rome. But there are a few things that I need to take care of first. There are some matters that I need to clean up here in Ephesus. And then there are those elders in Laodicea. I’ve got to ordain them. And then after that, well, there’s that sticky little problem in the church at Corinth, and I really need to deal with that. And then, after I’ve taken care of these things, then I’ll go to Rome so that after he had taken care of those things, the winter had come. And there was no ship. So that then in the spring, when at last, he could get a ship, and he arrived in Rome, only to be greeted there by the words, “Timothy, did you not know that Paul was executed just a few weeks ago? And every time that the jailer came and stuck his key into the cell door, Paul thought it was you coming to be with him, at long last. Why didn’t you come sooner?”
Suppose that’s what happened. We know what that’s like. I mean, we get word that a friend has died. And we say, that can’t be. It’s impossible. I just saw him not long ago. Yes, you saw him not long ago, but now, you will see him no more. And all along the way, you’ve been saying to yourself, I really ought to express the way I feel to that person. I want to tell that person how much that person means to me. I want to do something nice for that person, and you haven’t done it. And now, it’s too late. And every time you hear that name and every time you see that empty chair, your heart will break a little bit. Why didn’t you do something sooner? Why didn’t you come before winter?
And then there’s the voice of the family.
Your wife says to you, “I need you. Do you think you could try to spend at least a little more time at home? Do you think that we can try to recapture some of the love and the joy and the excitement that marked the beginning? Do you think we can?”
Your husband says to you, “I need a wife, a loving, supporting, encouraging wife, not just a housekeeper and a chauffeur for the children. Why can’t we learn how to enjoy one another once again?”
And your children say to you, “Please listen to me. I’ve got some things that I need to talk through with you, and they may not seem very important to you, but they are to me. Please love me enough to listen to me.”
And your parents say to you, “I know that I’m advancing in years, and I know that you’ve got a life of your own to lead, and I know that I can’t make too many demands on your time, but just a visit on occasion. Maybe even just a little written note or even just a phone call would be a help.” And there’s an urgency in this.
Do you know that it’s said that the saddest words in all of English literature were written by Thomas Carlyle just after his wife’s sudden death. He wrote, “Oh, that I had you yet by my side for just five minutes more that I might tell you all.” Later on, Thomas Carlyle would write, “Cherish what is dearest while you still have it.” Come before winter.
And then most importantly of all, there is the voice of Jesus Christ, the voice that is calling us to faith and trust in Him, the voice that is saying to us now, “Come to Me before winter.”
And there’s an urgency in that call. I want to ask you to do something. I want you to spend time searching the Scriptures and find some place in Scripture where it says, believe in Christ tomorrow, or repent and be baptized tomorrow. You find a place like that where it says that in Scripture, and I promise you, I will never stand in this pulpit again for I would have no gospel to preach.
“Now,” Jesus says today, “Now,” He says. “Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of your salvation. Now, all things are ready. Not tomorrow, but today. Come before winter.” And there’s reason for that urgency.
It was David, in a conversation that he had with his beloved friend, Jonathan, the last conversation he had with Jonathan, and David said, “There is just a step between me and death.” That’s true. That’s true of all of us. Just a step separates us from death. Just a step.
So, once, the old Rabbi said to his people, “Repent on the day before you die.” And the people responded, “But Rabbi, we do not know the day of our death.” And the Rabbi said, “Then, repent today.” Come before winter.
Well, I wonder which way it was. I wonder if when Timothy got that letter, he said, “Ah, I must get to Rome immediately.” And then headed out toward Troas and picked up the things that Paul requested and took a ship across the Adriatic Sea to Brindisi on the Italian coast, and then walked up the Appian Way to the city of Rome. I wonder if Timothy was there before winter. I wonder if he was there all that winter long every day going to that prison cell, there reading to Paul from the Scriptures, there writing down Paul’s last instruction to the churches. I wonder if Timothy was there to walk with Paul on that day, that one day, that day when he took the last walk to the place of execution where his head was lopped off in the name of Jesus Christ. I wonder if Timothy was there so that Paul did not have to die alone. I wonder if Timothy did come before winter.
Or I wonder if when Timothy received that letter, he said, ah, well, if winter comes, can spring be far behind? And then in the spring, did he come, keeping his leisurely rendezvous in Rome? When there was the fragrance of fresh flowers in the air and the birds were singing and the winter was gone and Paul was dead, I wonder if Timothy had to stand beside a new grave choking back the tears of remorse and regret. I wonder if Timothy was haunted for the rest of his life by the words, “Do your best to come before winter.” I wonder which way it was.
And I wonder which way it will be for you and for me because you see, the Lord, Jesus Christ is saying to you and to me, “Come before winter.” “Come to me,” He says, “before the chilling winter winds begin to blow. Come before your heart turns cold. Come before your desire fades. Come to Me now, today. Now is the day of your salvation.”
I believe, I believe with every ounce of conviction which I can muster, I believe that Jesus Christ is here in this place, this day, and He is saying to you, and He is saying to me, “Do your best to come to Me soon. Do your best to come before winter.”