Sermon for November 25, 2018
Texts: Isaiah 1:2-8/Matthew 24:36-44
Sermon Title: “A New Game Plan”
I can summarize my sermon this morning a single sentence: When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan. No, that is not invitation to take a mental vacation for the next few minutes, rather consider it an arrow pointing in the direction I invite you and I to travel. When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan.
My summary sentence is particularly fitting in light of the Packers—one of my favorite teams—sad performance Thursday before last. The team had an off night both offensively and defensively. The blockers couldn’t protect well, the defenders couldn’t defend, and Aaron Rodgers, arguably one of two best NFL quarterbacks couldn’t find his receivers in crucial situations. You don’t win playing the way the Packers played.
When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan. Failure is always bitter, but failure needn’t be debilitating. It may have become a cliché, but it is a cliché whose truth has been repeated proved: You and I learn the most from our failures. We learn the most from our failures. Perhaps we should qualify that by saying the wise learn from their failures. For the wise failure is seldom the final verdict, rather it gives incentive to attempt new approaches. The Packers have an incentive, now can they find a winning approach? That remains to be seen.
Success and failure are not terribly difficult to judge in the world of sports. All you have to do is look at the scoreboard or the standings in the won and lost column. The data for judging success or failure is a measured in passes completed, yards gained, and ultimately touchdowns scored or field goals made.
In life in general, however, wins and loses seldom tally with that precision. Is a C average on the report card a win or a loss? Should a 2% gain in the gross domestic product (GDP) for the quarter be judged a win or a loss? How might wins and losses in parenting be measured? Judgments regarding success or failure, wins or losses, are often very subjective. For instance, I may think I have done a bang up job doing the dinner dishes, or doing some other task around the house, but ultimately I don’t judge my performance. Those judgments are in Linda’s hands. She will render the verdict.
When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan. Assuming that a new game plan is something we agree we need, the implementation of such a plan may offer significant challenges. After all, we have our routines, our well-established ways of doing things.
Nothing destroyed routines like the introduction of the computer. In the early eighties when I was waiting tables in San Francisco my boss purchased a computerized order system. Every waiter balked. We were accustomed to delivering our hand written order tickets to the cooks ourselves. No more. With the new system each order now was typed into the computer terminal for electronic delivery to the kitchen. While the boss raved about efficiency, we waiters groused about the extra time we spent inputting our orders at the computer terminal.
Is the game plan working? Not so for the Packers. The game, after all, was lost. Time to learn from mistakes. Time for the team to try a new approach. My emphasis on team is intentional, because a game plan is in many, many cases a team enterprise.
Several centuries ago God founded a team, and Abraham was his General Manager, the person God placed in charge. It was to Abraham that God entrusted his game plan, and subsequently to his son Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob. The three, commonly referred to as the patriarchs, were God’s point persons in establishing the nation Israel and guiding her through the challenges of infancy. Later the task would fall to Moses and a cadre of prophets.
Unfortunately, despite God’s handpicked leadership team and numerous incentives, Israel repeatedly failed to execute God’s game plan. God’s lament and anger over Israel’s failures pour out across the pages of the Old Testament.
God devised a game plan, and Israel failed to move the ball. Failure built on failure generation to generation. Let this small snippet from our first lesson illustrate what God was up against. This is Isaiah speaking on God’s behalf: “Hear, O heavens, and listen, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”
“My people do not understand.” The lament can be heard in some form or another in each and every one of the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament.
Israel had trouble with God’s game plan from the very beginning. The prophet Isaiah laid out the bill of particulars. The Jews were disobedient. They ignored God’s commandments. They worshiped the gods of the peoples among whom they lived. They married pagans. Yet despite all that God remained committed to his game plan. So what did he do?
He wrote a series of prophets into his game plan. His name was Isaiah but for the people of Judah, that southern portion of the divided kingdom of Israel to whom he prophesied, his name was trouble. You see, Isaiah brought a word of judgment against the people. Why? The people repeatedly defied his will. They were working their own game plan.
Fact of the matter is they needed a game plan, any game plan, because they were being threatened by the armies of Assyria. The northern half of the divided kingdom of Israel was already lost, and the borders of Judah were already threatened. To try to save herself Judah sought to buy herself some time by entering into an alliance with the Assyrians, reasoning that such a strategy might stall that nation’s expansionist plans. Russia attempted the same thing with Nazi Germany in 1940. We know how that worked out. The desperate who grasp for straws often pull the short one. That was Israel’s fate.
Isaiah warned the leaders of Israel to stand back from Assyria. If Judah’s skin was to be saved, it was God who would do the saving. Judah was not to launch independent efforts to preserve herself.
When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan. God dispatched Isaiah with a game plan, but Judah thought she could move the ball on her own. Assyria was the key. Be nice to Assyria and everything might work out.
Israel rejected the prophet’s warnings believing that she could manage events on her own. She knew what suited her best. She was in control. Or, was she?
We often harbor the conceit that we are the captains of our destinies, guided by our own north star. Wouldn’t that be great if that were the case? If only I could play God, not long, just long enough secure this or that outcome, or to fulfill some treasured phantasy.
Autonomy, control is what most of us relish, until, that is, we get in a jam. The ancient Israelites living under God’s prophets thought they knew what was best for them. Call it the human condition. We like to think that we know best for ourselves.
Our pride makes us vulnerable to bad outcomes, but so to do other things. We bite off more than we can chew. Circumstances beyond our control make us vulnerable. A job is lost. A loved one becomes ill. The wildfires plaguing the state make us vulnerable. If you are an investor the recent unpredictability of the stock market makes us vulnerable.
If we were the masters of our fate such things would not harm us. That, at least, is what we would like to believe. But we are not writing the game plan, are we? Some other hand is writing the script, and sometimes that hand writes things that undermine our wellbeing, upsets our carefully laid plans.
Fact of the matter is God is not composing his game with our best interests at heart. Or had you noticed? The innocent enjoy no exemption when someone enters a music club and opens fire. No one is exempt from the various flu bugs that prey upon us. No one is exempt from natural disasters. The list goes on and on.
Vulnerability is a fact of life. The Jews of Isaiah’s day didn’t like that anymore than we do. They rejected any notion that God would allow them to suffer at the hands of their enemies. Such a notion was unthinkable. But, friends, the unthinkable happened. The people of Israel would see all of the illusions she maintained about her greatness and her personal worth in the eyes of God come crashing down.
The unexpected hour to which Jesus referred in our second lesson, the hour of judgment, was experienced by Israel with devastating consequences as she saw Jerusalem fall and most of the “best and brightest” of her people carted off into exile by her enemies.
When you can’t move the ball try a new game plan. There is a game plan perfectly suited to your life and mine. You won’t find it laid out in football team playbook. You won’t find it advertised in an infomercial on the television. You won’t find it lined out in the self-help books at the bookstore.
God’s game plan has been in place since the beginning of time. His plan factors into it all the accumulated sin and disobedience the likes of us have ever come up with. He bears the anguish of a parent as he watches us do foolish and self-destructive things. He weeps with those victimized by man’s selfishness and cruelty. He weeps over injustice and neglect.
They were the Chosen, the apple of God’s eye, but they failed. God wept. But God also restored.
Friends, the ending was already written even before Israel chose to go her own way. God restores. That’s God’s game plan. “Though your sins are as scarlet, says the Lord, they shall be as white as snow.” That is God at work, not us. God turns that scarlet to white. It’s all in the game plan. In fact, it is the key element in the game plan.
Our restoration from brokenness to wholeness is the game plan, and God is its guarantor. That ancient fellow Isaiah was given to see the game plan up close. By modern standards the worldview he maintained was very, very limited, yet be that as it may, the God Isaiah worshiped was not limited, IS not limited. The same God who chose Abraham and his insignificant tribe to bring God’s name to a world numbering perhaps in the mere thousands reigns over this vast world we inhabit today.
The hope Isaiah pronounced for the world in God’s name a few centuries later is the same hope we embrace right now, today. It is hope established on unity between nations and peoples, the cessation of war, where swords are retooled into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
God has promised to return this world to “mint condition,” and in one greater than all the prophets, Jesus, the Christ, gave the world the final game plan for mint condition.
Restoration is God’s game plan, hope linked not to the fulfillment of your personal ambitions or mine, though God does account for them. The restoration that God envisioned through the prophets is a game plan where hope, justice and righteousness can flourish for all people. That is the reality that God envisions, that is the game plan to which God is committed.
God designs the game plan, but each of us has been given a role in carrying it out.
To be sure, this world may well change through some massive intervention by God, some scenario of judgment. Scripture reports that interventions like that have occurred. Yet throughout most of history God has relied on human agents, his faithful, to do what love, justice and righteousness require. It is largely through the decisions that we are making, or not making, as individuals and nations that we determine the quality of life mankind will enjoy.
God’s Spirit is present in our midst, coaching us along. But how coachable are we? It turns out that in many cases we are truly coachable. There are people who are attempting to bring sanity to our world through their awesome and unrelenting commitment. You will find them advocating for those suffering injustice. You will find them attempting to save the coral fields in our oceans. You find them working to sort through the many issues that have created our current immigration crisis. You will find that teaching in economically deprived school districts. You will find them attempting to find ways to curb the threat caused by global warning. You will find that at work devising plans to feed the world’s growing population. You will find that living among and serving people in third world countries.
Amazing work is being done by amazing people. People are working God’s game plan, and you and I have a standing invitation to join them. In fact, each of us has had that privilege on various occasions of doing that. We have experienced the rewards of that service. There are more of those rewards out there to be enjoyed.
We have a vocation that calls for us to use all of the intelligence, imagination, and love with which God has equipped us. God wants us to revel in the joy of serving, to delight in watching our bit of his game plan blossom and flourish. No, folks, we are not going to deny ourselves that privilege, for there is simply too much that needs doing for any of us to take a pass. Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, source of grace and compassion, we rejoice that we are privileged to know and serve you. Grant us faith, wisdom, and compassion as we use our individual gifts as you direct, ever rejoicing in the privilege of serving.
O God, who created us with hearts to seek thee, our sin and disobedience are too blatant to ignore, yet we seek deny or deflect responsibility for our actions. Forgive us for our failures to heed your will, for allowing our selfish aims to rule our conduct. Create in us a new mind and spirit that we might seek your will with greater constancy. And may the joy that comes with doing your will, O Lord, inspire us to even greater service to you and neighbor.
Lord Christ, head of the church, be with this fellowship that we may be faithful to your holy calling. We have come here not merely to learn a vocabulary through which your name might be honored, but to be equipped to take your message to the streets. May our ambition be worthy and pleasing in your sight. May it be ambition consistent with the ambition you yourself modeled to your disciples and all people who gave your life to serve. May that ambition for service become a commitment that grows and expands as our service becomes more unselfconscious and habitual.
O Holy Spirit, who is ever present where your people congregate, may the words spoken today, the hymns sung, and prayers open us to a richer experience of Christian discipleship. We thank you, Lord, for the privilege of worship and the fellowship in which we engage. And as we contemplate the beginning of the Advent season we pray that familiar stories, songs, and traditions may yield new and fresh delights.
Finally, O Lord, we continue to pray for those for whom each day brings reminders of loss and dislocation. Abide with victims of the fires, who lack the means to rebuild. May ways and means be found to assist them in establishing a foothold, the first step in establishing a future. With gratitude we lift up firefighters, law enforcement and the numerous personnel who render counsel and support to those in need. O God, strengthen and comfort those whose loved ones are among the hundreds whose fates remain unknown. O God, who counsel and heals, we know that your love sustains, and will sustain even in the midst of despair.
Pilgrims on the path you have chosen for us, we praise you for the lives we are privileged to live, and the faith you have awakened in us. In confidence and hope we seek to serve you and neighbor, even as we pray the prayer our Savior taught…