Desperate for a Win
First United Presbyterian Church
“Desperate for a Win”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 6, 2018
O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory.
2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody.
6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.
1 John 5:1-6
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.
3 For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome,
4 for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
5 Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
6 This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
They were desperate for a win. The Kalamazoo Hornets football team had struggled all season to prove that after years of rebuilding, they had finally arrived. They were playing the University of Chicago, a relatively new team in their division. It had been a rough game for the Hornets. They were away from their fans, and the field was muddy. Down by seven points in the final minutes of the game, they neared the goal line. As they were driving to tie the game, one of their offensive linemen, the handsome and talented Jason Morgan, went down with a knee injury. As Morgan watched from the sidelines, the Hornets made the touchdown. With only a few seconds left in the game, everyone expected the coach to follow the typical protocol for away games and kick the ball for the extra point to tie the game. But instead of sending in the kicking team, he told the offense to line up and go for the 2-point conversion.
The quarterback handed the ball off to the tail back, who immediately hit a brick wall of defensive linemen. There was no way to execute the play they had planned. The tail back spun around, trying to find a way through the crush of bodies. And then he noticed the quarterback, who had drifted out to the right, beyond and behind the line. In a leap of faith, the tail back lobbed the ball backwards to the quarterback. As the line began to collapse in the center of the field, the quarterback easily slipped past Chicago’s defense and into the end zone. Game over. Victory for Kalamazoo.
When we are desperate for a win, hungry for victory, we are sometimes willing and able to try things we would otherwise never consider doing. Sometimes this means we will find resources within ourselves we never knew we possessed. Sometimes this means we will take risks. Sometimes this means we will be cruel.
Whatever your feelings may be about comedienne Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I think it is fair to say she was cruel, as comedians often are. But in her closing remarks, it became evident that her cruelty was not born simply out of the motivation to be funny, to get the crowd laughing. It was a cruelty born of desperation. Her last words, after she said “good night,” were, “Flint still doesn’t have clean water.” She’s desperate for the press to cover something that matters, to help solve our big problems, to shed light on injustice. And instead, according to Wolf, all they write about is “Trump, Russia, Hillary.” So in her desperation, she cruelly lambasted individuals, networks, and the press corps as a whole.
More often than not in human history, our desperation to conquer the world, to achieve victory, has resulted in unimaginable atrocities. Desperate people have beheaded monarchs, condoned genocide, and slaughter masses of innocent people.
But the weapons of desperate people are not always guillotines and gas chambers and nuclear bombs. Desperate people have used slander and manipulation to conquer as well. Twitter and trolling, speeches and preaching have been used to conquer the world.
The church addressed by the first letter of John was also desperate for a win. It was a broken mess after disagreements about theology and doctrine meant that they could not hold their fellowship together. They likely experienced some sort of persecution or at least prejudice. So Coach John was working to rebuild their confidence, team spirit, and discipline. He reminds them that they are beloved children of God, that they need to love one another, and that they need to obey God’s commandments.
And, he tells them, And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Not the pen or the sword. Not violence or slander. Faith is the thing that will conquer the world.
There is a particular object of their faith: Jesus Christ, the son of God in the flesh. Now, we have to remember that this letter is likely addressing a heretical theology that had arisen within the Johanine community. Some people believed that God’s Spirit had entered the man Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism and had departed before his death. This letter contradicts that belief, asserting that This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. Jesus was fully human and fully divine in both his baptism and his death.
Faith in this particular Jesus matters greatly, because it defines the victory we hope to have and the methods by which the world is conquered. Jesus may have said that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword,” but did we ever see him wield one? No.
Jesus came by water, by human birth, in all its terrifying vulnerability. Jesus came by water, entering into the messy brokenness of humanity and experiencing how we are drowning in our inhumanity. Jesus came by blood, feeling a heartbeat in his chest that could both break and fill with love. Jesus came by blood, pouring out his life for people who hated him, people who mocked and ridiculed and abandoned him.
I know lots of folks have trouble with the divinity of Jesus. This first letter of John shows us that those concerns are nothing new, and good people have been working for millennia to try to sort that. It might be easier to believe Jesus was inhabited by God than to believe he was God. It might be easier to believe Jesus was just a really good guy who knew God really well. Faith in that Jesus might protect what we think about God, or what we think about humanity, or what we think about science and creation. And I’ll go ahead and have the theological humility to admit that God is mysterious enough to allow those beliefs to be true.
But faith in that Jesus will not conquer the world. That faith will not win us victory.
The writer of this letter is very specific, some would say exclusive, his is understanding of faith, in his understanding of who Jesus is. But that understanding is shaped by the witness of the whole arc of God’s action and self-revelation in the world. And that understanding shapes what it means to conquer the world.
Conquering the world with faith in Jesus Christ, the son of God in the flesh, who came by water and blood, is to conquer not with weapons or words but with love and obedience. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.
In the gospel of John, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: to love one another as he has loved them. Love is obedience. Love is the only commandment. And love conquers the world because, as the apostle Paul says, “Love never ends.” If nothing else, love outlasts the enemy. War and hatred and apathy will dry up. But love will still be there, victorious at last.
In the meantime, we are obedient to God’s love commandment because it gives us victory over the antagonist we struggle to overcome. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” wrote Paul, “but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12 NRS) Our opponent is not someone with different political ideology or language or skin color or nationality or social values. Our opponent is the spiritual forces of despair and anger and fear. Loving those “others” and loving God gives us power over those spiritual forces. It conquers the world, not just once and for all, but little by little as well. Victory does not give us power over other people. It gives us power over anything that would separate us from God and one another.
With faith in Jesus Christ, the son of God in the flesh, the world is not divided and conquered, it is united. Conquering the world means bringing all people, and the whole creation, together. That is the image of God’s victory we get from scripture. A world John’s Revelation depicts, where “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away… "See, I am making all things new." (Rev. 21:3-5 NRS)
But we aren’t there yet. In fact, it often feels like we are losing. And we are desperate for a win. Those things we thought would protect us have been broken and sidelined. We’re not really sure if our government is for the people, or even by the people anymore. African-Americans are terrified of those who risk their lives to protect and serve them. Wealth, we have seen, can melt away like the wings of Icarus in the heat of our collective hubris. Powerful men whom we looked to for inspiration, whom we looked at with admiration, have been exposed for their shameful abuse of power. The church seems more interested in self-preservation than in transforming lives with the gospel.
We are desperate for a win. And we are facing our opponent without the security, the defenses, the tried and true players that have helped us to victory in the past.
And so, we shouldn’t be surprised when we hit a wall, when our game plan is shot, when we can’t seem to move forward and gain any ground. Hard as we may push, the obstacles won’t budge. We shout at each other until we’re blue in the face. We threaten and bully and ridicule. And it gets us nowhere.
But faith in Jesus Christ, the son of God in the flesh, allows us to quiet the noise, take a breath, turn around…and notice. Back there, behind us, is someone perfectly positioned to give us victory. It would be so easy. All we have to do is let go of the ball. All we need is a little faith.
Here, at the Table of our Lord, is where we come to have that faith replenished, to train for this very moment. Here, we remember that our faith is in one who would sacrifice everything for love. Here, we are nourished by that love and equipped to trust God and love others. Here, we practice obedience to that love.
Desperate for a win, we come to this table, with a faith, to find a faith, to develop a faith, that will conquer the world with love. Now that is a true victory.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.