To Win or Not to Win - a Sermon for the Start of the World Cup

(This month sees the (football) World Cup in Korea and Japan. World-wide, we are told, it is more popular than the Olympics. The following is a transcript of the sermon at the Invitation Service at Jesmond Parish Church on 26 May.)

Question: when was the fastest goal in the World Cup? Answer: 1962 when Czechoslovakia took only 15 seconds to score against Mexico. Question: when was the earliest sending off in the World Cup? Answer: 1986 when Sergio Batista of Uruguay was sent off after only 56 seconds. If they had been with us tonight, some of the New Testament apostles would have been interested in that useless information.

That is why I make no apology for talking about sport tonight. As you read the bible some, especially St Paul, seem to be great sport's enthusiasts. On recent Sunday mornings we have been looking at Paul's first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 9 verses 24-27 he talks in one go about athletics, boxing and fitness training. And in Philippians he talks about chariot racing - the ancient equivalent of motor racing. Well, tonight I want us to focus on a sporting reference in Hebrews and in particular chapter 12 verses 1-3:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."

And first, I want to talk about THE COMPETITION, secondly, about HOW TO WIN, and, thirdly, about HOW NOT TO WIN.


The writer to the Hebrews says that life is like a competition - an athletic competition or race. And that is true for each one of us. In verse 1 the writer says there is "the race marked out for us". That means God has a plan for your life and a way for you to go. Many deny that. They say, "I believe that this life is just meaningless." Many believed that when the New Testament was being written. It was the philosopher, the late Bertrand Russell, who said in his autobiography:

"There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within."

But the bible says that life is going somewhere. History had a beginning and it will have an end. There was a creation and one day there will be a new heavens and a new earth when Christ returns. In the previous chapter, chapter 11 of Hebrews, we read:

"By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible" (Heb 11:3).

Chapter 11 is all about faith, reasonable faith not irrational superstition, faith which is the secret of knowing God, faith that is concerned with the future and with the unseen spiritual world. So you are going somewhere. And there are only two destinies. It is not like when you go on holiday. You go to Newcastle airport and look up at the information board and you see scores of exotic places listed. Life is not like that, says the bible. For on life's information board there are only two destinations, and only two routes you can take. This is how Jesus puts it in his Sermon on the Mount:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Mat 7:13-14).

There is a B class road and a motorway, Jesus is saying. The motorway looks attractive initially, but it leads to destruction. It is the B class road alone that leads to life. And you have a choice. There are people reading this who know that they have to make that choice. Jesus says, "choose the B class road." But you say "that is discrimination - it is to say that one road is right and the other is wrong." Absolutely. The modern world is bewitched by the idea that in and of itself nothing is wrong and nothing is false. And all are winners. But common-sense tells you that life is not like that.

Africa's finest footballer is Elhadji Diouf. He was raised by his grandmother in a house made of straw but is now a super-star in a French first division team. He has helped Senegal get into the final rounds of the World Cup. But he was only a small boy in 1990. That was the year Senegal missed playing in the World Cup. Why? Because their officials forgot to send in the entry form. Can you imagine it? Yes! Life is like that. There are hard realities. You can miss trains, planes and the World Cup. There is a fundamental discrimination in the competition of life. But that discrimination has nothing to do with the things we rightly abhor - discrimination because of race, colour or wealth. No! It is all to do with whether you are going God's way or going your own way. Nor is that unreasonable. In a long distance race, like the Great North Run, you can start off but then refuse to go south over the Tyne Bridge because you want to run north of the river to Tynemouth. You are free to do so, but you will not get to the finishing line. That is the way life is. And that is the way eternity is. There is a right road and a wrong road. You can live as God wants you to or you can go your own way. But there are consequences. The end of going God's way is heaven. The end of going your way is hell. The bible says:

"There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death" (Prov 14:12).

Most people in their heart of hearts know that to be true. And millions have said that quite openly and confidently. Hebrews 12.1 says:

"we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses."

These are people who have proved throughout history that God is real and God is good. So there is a competition.

Secondly, HOW TO WIN?

Look at verses 2 and 3:

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him."

Note these words carefully. The writer doesn't say, fix your eyes on Mohammed, or the Buddha, or a New Age Guru, or secular thinkers like Marx, Darwin or Freud. Today it is fashionable to say that every religion or philosophy leads to God in the end. But Hebrews says "No!". The people to whom our writer was writing, like people today, thought that it was very narrow to say that Jesus is the only way. After all that was a bit hard on their old Jewish friends. So they wanted Jesus and Judaism. But Hebrews says in earlier chapters, "No!" Jesus is greater than Moses, greater than the greatest High Priest, greater than any angel, for Jesus is the divine Son - as Christians remind themselves on this Trinity Sunday.

Of course there is an attraction in saying that all roads lead to God. It means you can live and let live. But if others are going to get messed up by what they believe and then do, how cruel to stand by and just watch. Sadly non involvement is also fashionable today. A woman we know was beaten up on the Metro recently and people just watched. They didn't want to get involved. The writer to the Hebrews wants to get involved for the good of his friends. So he says, Jesus is the only way. It is Jesus Christ alone who is ...

"... the same yesterday and today and forever" (Heb 13:8).

Notice, however, his precise words here in chapter 12 verse 2:

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus."

He includes himself - "Let us". So a Christian doesn't stand in judgment on the world when he or she says that Christ is the only way. It is, as one great Indian Christian once said, like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. But we have to "fix our eyes on Jesus" or, verse 3, you have to "consider him". That is what many do not do. They never consider the reality of Jesus. It was G K Chesterton who famously said that the trouble with many people is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it has not been tried. Many are totally ignorant today of even the simple facts of the bible. When you fix your eyes on Jesus, you see the evidence of his life - a remarkable life. No other religious leader compares with Jesus. Hebrews 5:8-9 says that Jesus Christ ...

... learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him

There was a perfection in Jesus that has been seen in no other human being. Then there was his death - the source of that eternal salvation. Of course, others have been crucified - a most terrible form of execution. But Christ's death was unique. It dealt with sin. The writer to the Hebrews saw this as the high purpose of Christ's life. Hebrews 1 verse 3 says that Jesus Christ is "the Son ... the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word." Jesus Christ, the second person of the divine Trinity, is the one through whom this whole universe of space and time holds together. So referring to that Christ - not some figment of a liberal theologian's imagination who turns out to be a glorified social worker - no! but referring to that divine and almighty Christ, he then says:

"... after he had provided purification for sins he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven."

No other religious leader provides "purification for sins". In this, his atoning death, is Christ's supreme uniqueness. And no other religious leader, after death, rose from the dead, left a tomb empty, ascended to heaven and is at "the right hand of the Majesty in heaven" - reigning and ruling. So you must fix your eyes on Jesus and consider him. He alone is the answer to what is wrong with the world.

You ask, "what is wrong with the world?" People come up with different answers. Some say it is a shortage of money. In one form that was Marx' view. But some of the greatest evils have been committed by the richest of men. Some say the problem is all to do with your up-bringing, or the frustrations you have over sex, nutrition and power. That was Freud's view. Others say it is because the world has not evolved enough - that is the view of the social Darwinians. Yes, the world is getting better and better, from one perspective. My notes for this sermon prove that. I have used a computer to write them and a printer to print them - legibly. Computers are wonderful. But at the same time, the world is getting worse and worse. My computer also proves that. On Monday afternoon I discovered I had caught the computer virus W32.Klez.H@mm. It corrupted so many of my files. They could only be quarantined. They were unrepairable. It was quickest to reinstall my operating system and then reinstall everything else. But that wasted a huge amount of precious time. Just imagine someone sitting in the back streets of Jakarta, or Johannesburg (or Jesmond) employing a huge amount of mental ability trying to create computer viruses just to make life a misery for thousands - endangering not only businesses but hospitals and other key institutions. That is evidence of what the bible says is the real cause of what is wrong with the world. It is sin or going my way and not God's. And it is like a disease. The bible says it is like ingrained dirt. And God cannot tolerate that.

This year's World Cup is being held in Korea and Japan. Japan is in the monsoon season, "when the Land of the Rising Sun becomes the land of the Rising Sewer" - as one journalist put it. You can be pretty sure there will be a lot of mud around. It will be like that glorious World Cup Final Day in 1966 - when England won! Bobby Moore was the England captain at the time. Sadly he died young from cancer. But before he died, he was interviewed and the interviewer said: "Bobby, what was it like to receive the Jules Rimez trophy - the World Cup - from Her Majesty the Queen, in front of that huge home crowd at Wembley Stadium?" And Bobby Moore said: "well, frankly it was terrifying." He said,

"as I was going up the steps to the balcony at Wembley I saw that the Queen was wearing some beautiful white gloves. I then looked at my hands and realized that they were covered in Wembley mud, and I thought 'How can I shake hands with her like this? – I'll make her gloves dirty.'"

And you can still see it on the footage of the replay of that match. There is Bobby Moore as he goes up the steps desperately trying to wipe his hands against his shorts to get them clean. Now, if he was worried that his muddy hands would spoil the white gloves of Her Majesty the Queen, how much more concerned should we worry about approaching God himself. The bible says not that we have muddy hands but muddy hearts. The problem is not on the outside but on the inside. Jesus says:

"For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean'" (Mark 7:21-23).

So how can we approach a God who, so to speak, is "white" and clean in his holiness? That's the problem. How can spiritually unclean people approach a clean and holy God. The bible says that is the problem and it can't be dealt with by a superficial solution. It's not a superficial problem. I can't just go and get baptized and think that'll deal with it. I can't just take communion and think that'll deal with it. I can't just come to church on a Sunday and think that'll deal with it. For the problem lies deep within. We have unclean hearts. Christ alone can deal with it. You say, "How?" Well, look at verse 2. It says that Jesus is ...

"the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

Sin needs to be cleansed and forgiven, and you need to be changed so that you have the strength to be living a new life. That is why you need Jesus Christ as the "author and perfecter of our faith". On the cross he took your sin, in your place, and bore the penalty you deserve. It is like Mick McArthy, the Ireland manager, who was abused by Roy Keane, coming back home in Roy Keane's place. That is something like what Christ has done on the cross for you. And you need faith to accept his forgiveness and new life and power to overcome your selfish instincts. But the good news is that Christ is the "author and perfecter of our faith". By his Holy Spirit he will give you that faith, forgiveness and new life - if you ask him.

So that is how we win in the competition or race of life.

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."

Thirdly, and very briefly, HOW NOT TO WIN

It is to do the opposite of all that - to fix your eyes on everything but Jesus, or on everything else and Jesus in the second place. And it is not to do three things our writer tells us to do in verse 1:

"let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us."

The English World Cup team can't play in suits. They need much lighter gear. There is nothing wrong in a suit, but it is not for playing football in. There may be things in your life that are quite OK but they prevent you from coming to faith in Christ. These are things that hinder - your career, your house, your hobbies, even your sport - you realize that these will have to take second place, and you want them to come first.

Then, secondly, there can be something in your life that is not OK that prevents you from coming to faith in Christ. This is the "sin that so easily entangles". It may be an immoral relationship which you know you will have to give up. It maybe your selfishness which you quite enjoy. It maybe something else.

And then, thirdly, you do not "persevere" or you "grow weary and lose heart" (verse 3). You need to keep going to the final whistle or the tape. And you can do that in Christ's strength. But you have to ask him for it for that strength

I must conclude. I will do so with three questions and then we'll pray.

First, are you someone who needs tonight to make that choice of roads? You've been thinking long enough and you know that God is calling you to ignore the crowd on the motorway that leads to destruction and choose that really more attractive B class road that leads to life. Why not say, "Yes!" to God tonight; and by faith as you pray receive the forgiveness and new life that Jesus Christ offers.

But may be you are someone for whom this is all very new, and you want to know more and start to "fix your eyes on Jesus ... and to consider him". So why not join the Christianity Explored course at JPC? Or why not take from the welcome desk, the little booklet "Why Jesus?" or "The Choice We All Face" - it is about choosing between those two roads.

Many tonight, however, have already chosen that B class road. So I ask you, "are you persevering"; are you continuing to "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles". That is something you have to do throughout your Christian life. You will sometimes fail - but, if you confess, Christ will forgive you and give you new strength. Our writer says (Hebrews 4.15-16):

"we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb 4:15-16).

So why not approach that "throne of grace" in whatever state you are in and pray for Christ's "mercy and grace to help us in our time of need" - whatever your needs may be.

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