Last Minute of Play: Back to Basics

(Based on Joshua 24:1-18.)

Today we are beginning a new series called “Last Minute of Play.” And the big idea behind this series is that sports can be seen as a metaphor for life. A sporting event has a beginning and an end. And so does life. In team sports, there are things that you do as individual and there are things that you do in partnership with others. It is the same in life. In sports, what you do during the game matters. So it is in life.

And here is another thing about sports: The intensity increases as you approach the end of the game, and in the midst of that intensity it becomes very clear what is really important. In the last minute of play, especially in a close game, every moment and every movement counts, and so it is important for players to remember what is really important. Because you don’t want to have any regrets when the game is over.

And so it is with life. As life draws to a close for each one of us, the things that we once thought were very important may seem worthless as our life draws to a close. And the things that we perhaps took for granted may seem very precious in the last days of our lives. But here is how life is different from a game. We do not know when our lives will end.  There isn’t a clock telling us exactly how much time we have remaining. Our reality is that the end could come for any of us at any time.

And so, wouldn’t it be better if we settled in our hearts and minds right now what is going to be important at the end of our lives, and then live as if those things were really important right here and right now? Wouldn’t it be better if we lived our one and only life according to what really counts whether we are 18 or 80? Because if we could live according to what really counts when we are 18, then we would have fewer regrets at the end of our life, no matter when that is. And my hope and my prayer for each one of you, regardless of whether you are a sports fan or not, is that when you come to the end of your life, you will have no regrets because you lived your life with the same intensity, clarity and purpose throughout your life as an athlete does in the last minute of play.

One can discover the basics in any sport by seeking the answers to these three questions:

  1. What is the goal of the game?
  2. What counts as a win?
  3. What is the strategy? That is, how will the players on the team work together to accomplish the goals of the game and achieve a win?

In hockey the goal of the game is to put the puck in the net. A win is having more goals at the end of the game than the other team. And the strategy is for everyone on the team to work together to score goals on the other team and also to prevent the other team from scoring goals on them.

So if life is like sports, what is the ultimate goal of the game of life? There are many different kinds of goals that someone can have in life, like learning a trade, getting a degree, going on a trip around the world, and so on. And these are not bad goals to have, at all. But what can be very regrettable in life is if we have lots of good goals, but we neglect to align our lives with the greatest goal in the game. That would be like being the best skater, passer and shot blocker in the league, but you never take a shot on goal even when you have a wide open net. And that would be ridiculous.

And to uncover the ultimate goal of life, we look in the Bible to see what heaven applauds. You can always tell when the home team scores by the sound of the applause of the people in the stands. So when heaven hoots and hollers over something that has happened on earth, then you know that that is the ultimate goal of life. And when we look at Luke 15, here is what we find:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:1-7)

So what action on earth causes rejoicing in heaven? When one sinner repents. Every time one person who is far from God turns around, heaven erupts in a tremendous cheer. So if we truly want God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, then repentance can be the goal of our lives too. It starts in our own lives, since we are confident that Jesus’ love and forgiveness is already with us, we turn around each day on the various wrong paths where we tend to wander astray and we head back toward Jesus, knowing that he is already standing at the end of the lane ready to welcome us back and restore us to our proper place in the family of God.

But we also share in the joy of heaven by encouraging repentance and reconciliation with God in the lives of others. When our hearts and minds are aligned with heaven and we see repentance as the goal of life, then we cheer with heaven when we see repentance happen. All of our other goals become secondary and they have importance only in the way that they contribute to the ultimate goal of repentance. So here is a question for you to think about: What will have to change in your life to make repentance your ultimate goal?

Now I realize that I have had a lot more time to think about this question than you have, so let me share an example with you from my life. As I have thought and prayed about this question, the direction that God has given me is that I need to direct my will to want what God wants on a moment-by-moment basis, and that I need to repent of my pride and my rigidity.

Let’s pause for a moment to give you time to think that question for your own life. What will have to change in your life to make repentance your ultimate goal? When God gives you the answer to that question, make a mental note of it, and then share your answer with someone else after the worship service, maybe during the coffee time, or during lunch or this afternoon.

So repentance is the goal of life. But what counts as a win? What is the measure of a successful life according to God? For the answer to that question we turn to Romans 8:15-25, which I will share with you from The Message:

15-17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!

18-21 That’s why I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times. The created world itself can hardly wait for what’s coming next. Everything in creation is being more or less held back. God reins it in until both creation and all the creatures are ready and can be released at the same moment into the glorious times ahead. Meanwhile, the joyful anticipation deepens.

22-25 All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We’re also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance. That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy. (Romans 8:15-25 The Message)

Winning in the game of life means that you get to be part of the renewal and restoration of all things that Jesus is going to bring about when he comes back at the end of time. And this game of life is not an individual sport. When resurrection life comes in all of its fullness on that great and glorious day, all of creation is going to get renewed and restored along with everyone who looks to Jesus in faith. The Stanley Cup of life is to be part of the renewal and restoration of all things.

Any athlete will tell you that preparation for a championship begins before the first day of training camp. And so it is with us. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus not only saved us from sin and death, he also made us part of the resurrection team that is working towards the restoration and renewal of all things. And Jesus works through the relationships that we build with our neighbours, our friends and our co-workers to move them one step closer to being part of the restoration and renewal of all things.

The Engel Scale which was developed by James F. Engel as a way of describing where people are at in terms of faith. (Google “The Engel Scale” to see what I am referring to.) Everyone is somewhere on this scale. You may have a neighbour who is at -9, where they may have some experience of emptiness. Now if Jesus works through you and your relationship with that person to bring them -9 to -8, where they have a vague awareness of Christianity, did they move closer to being part of the renewal and restoration of all things? Yes, of course they did. So were you helping to contribute towards a win in that situation? Yes, you are. And the more that you pray for and look for opportunities to join in the renewal and restoration of all things, the more that you will see opportunities to join in the renewal and restoration of all things. Jesus will open your eyes to see how he is ripening people towards faith all around you.

So the goal of life is repentance, and a win in life mean being part of the resurrection. So what is the strategy that coach Jesus has for us? What is his plan for his team, which is the church, to bring about the goal of repentance and achieve the win of resurrection? For the answer to that we turn to Romans 12: 1-8:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (Romans 12:1-8)

So God, in his wisdom and mercy, has brought onto his team people to whom he has given many different gifts. Working alone, none of these gifted people can do very much. Even Wayne Gretzky needed a team around him. But when God-gifted people work together in Holy Spirit-guided ways, repentance happens and more and more and more people are gathered into the renewal and restoration of all things that Jesus is bringing about. And the key to Jesus’ strategy for his team is found is verse 1, which reads, Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

The key to Jesus’ strategy for his team is worship. In the Christian understanding of worship, worship always begins with God’s action, and that action of God draws out a response in us. As we remember events like the Exodus, the Passover, the crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, it causes us to respond to God with prayer, praise and thanksgiving. Worship is not only agreeing with something God said or did. Worship is going “all in” with our heart, soul, strength and mind. In other words, when we worship God, we direct our will to want what God wants, we guide our emotions to resonate with God’s emotions, we use all of our physical and material resources to accomplish what God wants accomplished, and we train our minds to line up with the truth of God’s word. Worship is not just 90 minutes on a Sunday morning. Worship is what you do at home. Worship is what you do at work or school. Worship is what you do when you are involved in activities with your friends.

Worship is what we do all the time. Worship is something that we do in our bodies. And worship is sacrificial. It is sacrificial in the sense that we are giving ourselves to God when we worship. And it is sacrificial in the sense that it costs us something to worship God. Saying “Yes” I will worship God in this moment, usually means saying “No” I will not do this other thing in this moment. But it is through worship that the people hear the direction of the Holy Spirit and know what God’s will is. And when people worship God in the big and small things of their everyday lives, God directs those actions, whether it is a kind word spoken to a neighbour or a heartfelt response to a Bible passage during morning devotions, God coordinates all those actions to work together in a way that turns hearts towards repentance and gathers more and more people into the renewal and restoration of all things.

So in the last minute of play, it becomes clear that the basics of the game life are

  1. repentance,
  2. resurrection and
  3. worship.

These are the things that are most important in life.

And the question for us today, and every day, is now that we know the basics of the game of life, how will we respond? And this is the question that Joshua was asking in our reading for today. He begins by listing all of the things that God has done for his people down through the centuries. If we were to make such a list it would be even longer because we would include all that Jesus has done for us and we would include how God has been at work in our spiritual ancestors. And after listing all that God has done, and remember worship begins with God’s action, Joshua then says this:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:14) This is a call to worship. Joshua is basically saying the same thing that Paul did centuries later to the church in Rome when he wrote, Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1) The covenant that God made with Abraham some 4,000 years ago is a one-sided covenant. God promised to fulfill not only his side of the covenant, but Abraham’s side as well. And Joshua’s call to renew that covenant was simply a call to worship God in view of all the miraculous and amazing things that he has done to save his people down through the centuries.

You are part of a long line of people that have been saved by God and that line stretches back all the way to Abraham and beyond. Not only has God been working down through the ages to save your spiritual ancestors, God has also been at work in your life too. God made a one-sided covenant with you in your Baptism where he claimed you as his own child and washed you clean of all of your sin, guilt and shame. Jesus has made a connection with you that from his side of the relationship is unbreakable. The Holy Spirit now lives within you to lead, guide and direct you. God has placed around you people who have spoken God’s love and truth into your life. God protected you from harm in times of danger and kept you safe during times of trial and tribulation. Jesus has put you on his team, and that team has been given the great and wonderful task of working towards the scoring goals of repentance and aiming at the win of resurrection.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on October 4, 2015.)

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