This fall, I’ll be looking at perceptions that (some) Christians have about faith that seem popular but flawed. In some cases, they will obviously not be literal things Jesus said, but ideas or concepts that we have adopted or internalized to the point where we think they’re canonical. Like… assuming that there were three wise men who came to visit the baby Jesus. We’ll stretch our understanding of what God wants for us and what God’s kingdom looks like, while challenging our own misconceptions about the world we live in.
Football is in the air! Or on the ground if you’re fumble prone.
Speaking of fumbling…
Two boys are playing football in Central Park when one is attacked by a rabid rottweiler. Thinking quickly, the other boy rips a board off of a nearby fence, and fended off the dog.
A reporter strolling by sees the incident, and rushes over to interview the boy.
“Young Giants Fan Saves Friend From Vicious Animal,” he writes in his notebook.
“But I’m not a Giants fan,” the little hero replies.
“Sorry, since we are in New York, I just assumed you were,” says the reporter.
“Little Jets Fan Rescues Friend From Horrific Attack,” he writes in his notebook.
“I’m not a Jets fan either,” the boy says.
“I assumed everyone in New York was either for the Giants or Jets. What team do you root for?” the reporter asks.
“I’m a Redskins fan,” the child says.
The reporter starts a new sheet in his notebook and writes, “Little Redneck Maniac Fights Off Beloved Family Pet”.
It’s fourth and one on the goal line, with the clock ticking down to zero. One team is backed up to their end zone, heels pressed to the end line, struggling to maintain the defensive focus that they’ve shown throughout the game. The other team is shouting changes to their last play, a final chance to score a touchdown and rip victory away from the other team. The game, the season, their career could be at stake.
And then you see it: players kneel on one sideline, sometimes holding hands, with their heads bowed. They are praying for victory, imploring God to allow them one more chance to Tebow in the endzone. While across the field, on the opposing sideline, players are doing …. the exact same thing.
So what exactly is God supposed to do? I mean, these players are praying so shouldn’t God do something?
On sports teams and Christian athletes huddles up and down the east coast, I’ve heard people pray for victory while heading into a sporting event. We seem to be so caught up in what we want sometimes, that we fail to see that the moment in front of us is … just a game.
Now, I’m just as competitive as the next guy (some might say, more competitive…) but I think we’re looking at this all wrong. I think we’ve missed the point of battle, and the point of what God holds to be important.
We have two major options when we consider what it means to battle Biblically. We can look at the example of Jesus or we can consider some other player in our stories.
Today, let’s consider David in I Samuel 17:34-50, as David battles Goliath. We can see that the Philistine Goliath, a giant among men, thinks of David as unworthy, and so he insults him and derides him. This is pretty standard behavior and we know that it has worked against the grown-up army of Israel.
17:8-11 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
Goliath’s size and words were enough to reduce the Israelites to nothing, crying, sniveling weaklings who were convinced of their own mortality. The Israelites saw that Goliath was their enemy and that he was powerful. They looked at themselves and their own weapons, and counted them worthless.
The Israelite soldiers thought that it was all about them. And then there was David.
David keeps the perspective of a faithful person. He still sees Goliath’s sword, spear, and javelin, but he knows that’s not what the battle is about.
17:45-47 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
David recognizes that the battle is not for him or for his glory, but that he is merely a messenger, the hands and feet of God. David knows that Goliath might be emotionally his enemy, geographically his antagonist, but it’s not about David and Goliath.
Ephesians 6:12 states “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Paul’s awareness of a bigger picture shows that the sides aren’t us/them, but God versus evil. It’s not a team versus team battle that God cares about but a God’s side versus not-God’s-side, a reckoning of God’s kingdom in the world.
Of course, some of you are saying, ‘well, of course, that’s true! I don’t pull for the Hokies or the Wahoos. Frankly, I don’t care about sports, so this is all pretty pointless. I don’t need you clarifying that God doesn’t care about football, because I certainly don’t care.”
So let me put football in a perspective you’ll understand then, with football terms:
Blocking: Talking endlessly to the pastor at the church door and keeping everyone else from exiting.
Illegal Motion: Leaving before the benediction.
Interference: Talking during the prelude.
Draw Play – What many children do with the bulletin during worship.
Staying in the Pocket – What happens to a lot of money that should be given to the Lord’s work.
Sudden Death – What happens to the attention span of the congregation if the preacher goes “overtime.”
End Run – Getting out of church quick, without speaking to any guest or fellow member.
Flex Defense – The ability to allow absolutely nothing said during the sermon to affect your life.
Two-minute warning: The pastor’s wife looking at her watch in full view of the pastor.
Now, wait, that wasn’t the point I was supposed to make…
It’s not just sports that God doesn’t decide, intervene, or justify based on …
Contemporary or traditional.
Methodist or Baptist.
Left or right.
Conservative or liberal.
Fox News or MSNBC.
Republicans or Democrats.
Gay or straight.
Pro-life or pro-choice.
God’s kingdom is God’s concern.
Paul unravelled this spool as far as he could when he said, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” in Galatians 3:28.
I’ll admit the other ‘big button issue’ this sermon represents is that Jesus never said that America was a Christian nation. (Of course, Jesus wasn’t alive when America was formed. Work with me.) But the truth is that people are running around expecting a) that we’re going to return to the good ole days (Woodstock? Salem Witch Trials? Presidents who cut out the parts of the Bible they didn’t like) and b) that God is going to bless America more than somewhere else.
What if God has blessed America? What if God does want the American church to be down on its knees on the sideline?
What if God is hoping that we will begin to see that the people on the other sideline, across the aisle, in situations we don’t agree with, are our brothers and sisters?
2 Corinthians 5:15 says, “And he [Jesus] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
David didn’t win because his team was the best or because he was the strongest or the most valuable.
David beat Goliath because David put his faith in God and believed that God would decide the battle.
Today, I believe we’re called to stop worrying about whether we have enough, or who is on our team, and instead focus on building the kingdom of God by putting our efforts, our gifts, and our graces to work.
For too long, we have worried about the wrong things, heard the wrong emphasis, and missed the point. We have run the ball toward the wrong end line, tackled our own players, and made too much of things that are not that important.
If we the church are to become who God wants us to be, it’s time we put down the things that divide us, and embrace the truth that we all have the opportunity to embrace God’s love and forgiveness. That was Jesus’ message. “Repent and sin no more.”
That’s the goal, the end zone, the home run: embrace forgiveness and live free.
We’re called to fight for those things, for everyone, to be a blessing. We’re called to end sex trafficking, poverty, racism, violence, child neglect, hunger, and more. It’s the underlying attitudes and powers we’re to fight not each other.
There’s nothing wrong with competing on the playing field because it builds bonds and helps us to be healthy. But competing isn’t the main thing. It’s remembering that we are all the children of God, sanctified by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
On the field of life, we have the opportunity to show each other how we’re loved and why we play. It’s for the glory of God and the love of the game. That’s why I love a different image of football players praying.
It’s of two teams at midfield after the game, clasping hands and praying together. For safety, for healing, for comfort, and for strength.
As Isaiah the prophet said,
“Those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.”
May it be so with us. Amen.