Sermon: Underdogs and God

Scripture: Numbers 13:1-14:10

We all like an underdog story. Hockey TEAM USA in 1980. As Al Michaels said, “Do you believe in miracles?” If you were tuned in to the Olympics from Lake Placid, you watched one unfold before your very eyes. A bunch of college kids and “can’t make it in the pros” young guys came together to beat the world, including arguably the best team ever assembled by the USSR. They won a gold medal and won our hearts.

Or what about the story of Seabiscuit the horse. As one review from the movie says, “Seabiscuit was an unlikely champion: a roughhewn, undersized horse with a sad little tail and knees that wouldn’t straighten all the way. But, thanks to the efforts of three men, Seabiscuit became one of the most spectacular performers in sports history. The rags-to-riches horse emerged as an American cultural icon, drawing an immense following and becoming the single biggest newsmaker of 1938 — receiving more coverage than FDR or Hitler.”

Or who can ever forget the Notre Dame football player named Rudy. What an amazing story of perseverance. He stuck with the dream of his life, playing football for Notre Dame, until he finally realized that dream by suiting up for the last home game of his Senior year. I always get emotional when I watch the final scene of the team carrying Rudy off the field after the game.

There is something that excites us about overcoming difficult odds and becoming victorious. It captures our imagination and transforms our hearts, even for a moment, to think that we too are capable of extraordinary acts of courage, skill, and perseverance.

The nation of Israel is a story of an underdog nation that God continually rescues, forgives, and equips. Sounds a lot like what my wife does for me on a weekly basis: rescue, forgive and equip. We pick up their latest saga here on the precipice of the promised land. God used Moses and Aaron to deliver them from the hands of Egypt. They spent decades wandering the desert being prepared physically, emotionally and spiritually as both individuals and a nation to be the inhabitants of the promised land. And it is here that God commands Moses to send out spies into the land of Canaan to assess the inhabitant’s military strength and customs.

After 40 days of spying, the group comes back and paints a dramatic picture of the landscape. There were giants in the land; ferocious and huge warriors with large and well fortified cities. The spies said they felt like grasshoppers among human beings and thought that there was no way the Israelites could be victorious. In fact, it was suggested that the Israelites should immediately appoint a new leader and go back to Egypt.

There were two dissenters among this group however (God almost always begins with a remnant). Joshua and Caleb thought quite differently than the rest of the spies. Joshua and Caleb who were convinced of the need to enter the promised land and fight. They saw this as the fulfillment of God’s promise whereas the other spies were convinced that entering the promised land would lead to the destruction of Israel. There is much to be learned from the contrast between Joshua and Caleb and the rest of the spies. In the final analysis, Joshua and Caleb saw the enormity of God instead of the enormity of the task. Joshua and Caleb knew that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was mightier than any earthly army of people. The Apostle Paul would say it this way, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”

The other spies failed to see that this was just as much a test of faith as it was a test of strength. The task at hand had to be overwhelming. The people had to be giants living in fortified cities in order for God to get the credit for the victory. If they were small and unarmed, then the Israelites would have taken full credit for the ensuing battles. What was the covenant with Abraham? God will make you a great people through whom all other people will be blessed. The covenant was that God promised to do the making and the people needed but to remain faithful to God which included being willing to be used by God. That lesson is not lost on us today.

We are called to be faithful, and God is called to bring about success. We are called upon to be bold and courageous, God is called upon to provide the power that brings about victory. We share in these battles. Whether the battle is cancer, or a besetting sin which plagues our conscience, or the powers of evil which the church is called to fight. Victory is left to God, we are encouraged by Paul in 2 Tim 4:7 to follow his lead to, “fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith.” What is it in your own life that seems to be overwhelming? What is it in the life of Trinity UMC that seems to be overwhelming? Perhaps, just perhaps that is the very place that God wants to work and is waiting for your willingness to fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith.

With any test of faith, we take risks. What separated Joshua and Caleb from the rest of the spies was that they were willing to risk greatly and fail for God. The others were willing to return to slavery and throw away all that God had done for them up to this point. Joshua and Caleb were willing to get to a point and trust that it will either be God’s will or not and that will determine the success. Rather than figuring it all out before hand, they placed their faith in God. Isn’t that the very definition of faith used in Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance for things hoped for and conviction for things not seen.” If we are not failing at some things, we are not stepping out in faith. The church has to be willing to look foolish and fail at times. Leaders have to be willing to be criticized and even demoted for the causes that Christ calls them to.

When asked if he ever got discouraged about failing so many times before inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison responded, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. ” Are we willing personally to risk and perhaps fail at some things in the name of Christ? Is Trinity UMC willing to risk and perhaps fail at some things in the name of Christ? What are we willing to risk for God? Our finances? Our security? Our “good name”? I often think about Nabil Samara who is a Palestinian Christian living in Bethlehem. Nabil was a part of First Church Lexington for several years while getting his Doctorate from Asbury Seminary. Nabil and his family are starting a Seminary for Palestinian Christians. Bombs fell as close as 200 yards from his home this past summer. They could easily come to the US and begin a pastorate here, but they are committed to what God has called them to in Israel. They are willing to risk, and quite honestly even fail for the cause of Christ.

But let’s face reality for just a moment. It is easier to pull for the underdog than to be the underdog, isn’t it? I am riveted by the stories for sure. But when push comes to shove, I many times refuse to put in the effort or take the personal risks needed to tackle overwhelming odds. How does our faith grow to the point where we are able and freely willing to do what God requires of us?

First of all, our life of worship is very important to growing our faith. Hebrew worship focused on three elements that led them to greater faith. Remembrance, Repentance and Raise…Actually it is Praise, I couldn’t think of another “R” word to complete the alliteration. Remembrance grows our faith as we lean upon the wonderful things that God has done in our past, the past of our church and the past of His people. What is your favorite hymn? Think of the first couple of lines and the tune. It connects you with your past and builds you up. Remembrance helps us to draw strength from God’s faithfulness of our yesterdays and reminds us that God will continue to be faithful in our tomorrows. Repentance is the second piece to their worship. When we review our life and confess all that is not in line with God, God is faithful to forgive us and make us right. We grow closer when there are not things between us and God. Just like it is with our spouse or a friend. Praise is our natural response from a life that has been transformed. It is our healthy fear of God that flows through our thoughts and actions that makes us acknowledge God’s grandeur, mercy, and love for us. Praise puts God in perspective and helps keep us firmly in alignment with God.

A life lived in accountability to others is also vital to growing our faith. The only thing that grows in the dark is moldy yucky stuff (that is a theological word taught to me in seminary) that is not much good for anything. We all need people around us to hold us accountable, challenge us in a spirit of love and truth, and to cheer us on during the difficult days. You might get this elsewhere, but I believe that accountability is one of the most important aspects of the church. In our western culture, accountability has become a bad word. We are our own people and do not need anyone looking over our shoulder. Wrong. We do need others to come alongside us to encourage, challenge, and help us to be all that God wanted us to be. Why else would God have created more than one person? We are here to help one another.

As our faith grows, we are all the more equipped to be the people God calls us to be. In my reading of the Scriptures, that means we are called at many points in our journey to live the life of the underdog. A life of faith by its very nature propels us to take on what seems humanly impossible, overwhelming and sometimes even foolish. All are attributes of what the people of Israel faced as they looked over the promised land. All the attributes that the 1st century church as described in Acts faced. All the attributes that Martin Luther faced when beginning the reformation. All the attributes that John Wesley faced when he shook up the Church of England and birthed the Methodist movement. We are an underdog people assured of victory by God. Are we willing to be the people God calls us to be? Are we willing to face whatever tasks God puts in front of us? For the sake of the world, I pray that we are. Amen.