Sunday, February 6, 2022

Sermon: “Undefeated”, Isaiah 6:1-8/Luke 5:1-11 (February 6, 2022)


Human beings are extremely competitive in nature. I suspect this originated as a survival instinct: in our hunter-gatherer days, those who were most skilled at foraging survived, while those who were less so didn’t. The development of agrarian societies meant that our survival no longer depended as heavily on competition, yet our rivalries persisted—instead of struggling over food, shelter, or mates, we competed for land, status, and power. In more modern times, we’ve found newer, more abstract reasons to compete: when resource allotment isn’t in question, we’ve been known to start wars over competing values and principles.

Today, while competition for resources and power and ideals certainly still exists, it’s not always the life-and-death struggle that it has been in the past (especially for those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born into circumstances of privilege and opportunity). But it turns out that in the absence of necessary competition, human beings seek it out for entertainment. I admit that I’ve never quite understood the appeal of sports, but it’s undeniable that they have an almost sacred place in our society—especially this time of year. The Winter Olympics kicked off on Friday, March Madness is in a month, and the Super Bowl is right around the corner: next week, we find out which NFL team gets to claim the title of “champions” for the year. It’s hard not to notice the cultural excitement surrounding the Super Bowl, even for someone as disengaged as I am.

Ultimately, of course, as has been the case with competitions throughout human history, whoever proves themselves the superior competitor will receive honor and glory, while the loser will be subjected to disappointment and shame. One team will prevail, whether because of superior skill or tactics or even luck, and be celebrated as Super Bowl champs, while the other team will fade into the background until a new season starts in the fall. This pattern has been deeply ingrained in us for millennia; it’s a tale as old as time. So much so that we’ve come to depend on it to make sense of our society. That’s the purpose of a competition, right?—to separate the winners from the losers.

This paradigm may help explain why Isaiah and Peter react the way they do in today’s scripture readings. Both are call narratives, recounting the moment that God appoints Isaiah and Peter to their respective ministries. But a LOT happens before God gets around to the actual call part. Both stories start with a miraculous epiphany, a revealing of the divine to mortals through visions and miracles. Now, I imagine that a direct encounter with the divine would overwhelm anyone, but I’m fascinated by Isaiah and Peter’s reactions. They respond to their respective experiences of the divine not just with humility, but with outright despair. There’s almost a sense of hopelessness to each man’s words: Isaiah declares himself “ruined”, while Peter implores Jesus to leave him. They each (correctly) infer their dramatic inferiority, and they immediately dissolve into grief and anguish.

What a strange response this is! Confusion I can understand; wonder and awe and bewilderment all make sense to me, but despondency? It seems completely nonsensical…until you remember what’s historically happened when humans of unequal power or status encounter each other. Whether in the context of war or of sporting events, the stronger conquers the weaker. So, what else would a sinful human being expect to happen in the mighty presence of God? Defeat is not only inevitable; it’s the way things SHOULD be. Isaiah and Peter are merely fulfilling their natural role as they understand it.

But God isn’t bound by human customs or expectations. God doesn’t need to prove God’s superiority, and God has plans that are much bigger than winning a championship or building an empire. So, God reacts in a way that Isaiah and Peter don’t expect at all. Instead of reveling in obvious superiority, God not only disregards the men’s declarations of their inferiority, but actually invites these lesser mortals to do divine work. God *recruits* them—uncleanliness, sinfulness, and all.

Can you imagine if, instead of jubilant interviews and announcements of celebratory trips to Disneyland, the first words out of the Super Bowl MVP’s mouth were *an invitation for the losing team to join the winning side?* What if that were how ALL competitions worked: every time someone lost, they’d be grafted onto the winning side, until all that was left at the very end was one giant team—all champions. It sounds absurd, right? And, of course, it is…*if* the goal is to determine a hierarchy based on merit or ability. The Super Bowl would never work under an assimilation model; it simply wouldn’t hold the nation’s attention in the same way. What would be the point? Without status and bragging rights on the line, I’m not sure we’d care who was able to make the most homeruns in the basket (I’m kidding, of course…I may not particularly enjoy sports, but I know the difference between baseball, basketball, and football. More or less).

But God’s objective is different from ours. It isn’t to rank us from least to most holy, but to lift up *all* who desire righteousness and draw them together in love into God’s kin(g)dom. The point isn’t to be the best—the point is to fill out the team roster. That’s why God sends prophets like Isaiah and apostles like Peter to go recruiting. They themselves are proof that God isn’t searching for professional-caliber spiritual athletes—all you need is the desire to be a faithful teammate, and you’re in. No competition required.

Now, I’m not arguing that we should do away with all contests of strength or skill; healthy competition can inspire human beings to achieve great things (not to mention that it can be a lot of fun). But the fact that the kin(g)dom of heaven doesn’t operate according to this principle should at least be enough to cause us pause. Competition is not the only way of existing in the world, and we may need to reevaluate its influence on us as Christians. Perhaps we shouldn’t be comparing our stats and perceived rankings with other “teams”. Maybe we shouldn’t be cutting people from our team just because they’re new to the game or can’t follow the rules that we’ve made up. We need to focus all of our energy on accepting the place offered to us on God’s team and encouraging others to accept theirs.

Of course, being on God’s team means playing by God’s rules. Accepting a spot on the roster means putting away our old identities, our old prejudices, our old priorities, and conforming to God’s. Seeking justice, even when we don’t want to; loving our neighbor, even when they make us angry or uncomfortable; recognizing all that God has created as good. Being on God’s team isn’t just a new label—it’s a new way of life. A new way of playing the game.

That’s why, even though there’s a place for everyone on the team, not everyone winds up making the cut. It’s not that God is a ruthless coach who rejects anyone with the slightest flaw; it’s that a lot of players simply aren’t willing to do what it takes. For every Isaiah that pleads, “Here I am; send me,” there’s a Jonah who runs the other way. For every Peter that leaves everything behind to follow Jesus, there’s someone who would rather try squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle than give up their riches. That’s why Isaiah is sent to preach a message of judgement and exile, and why Jesus talks about the wheat being separated from the chaff and the sheep from the goats. Not because certain people are unwelcome on God’s team the way they are, but because many people are UNWILLING to make the necessary commitment—a commitment that requires giving up your sense of superiority over others for the sake of the whole. One that requires us to leave competition behind.

God’s deepest desire is for all of humanity to be a part of God’s team so that none can ever again be defeated by sin or death. But first, we must accept everything that it means to be on God’s side. It means humbling ourselves. It means learning from our teammates. It means letting go of the things that we think make us better than others, and valuing instead only that which serves our God and our neighbor. It means celebrating the diversity that makes God’s team a better reflection of Godself. Most of all, it means welcoming every new recruit, without exception, with joy and thanksgiving, just as we were extravagantly welcomed when we first said “yes” to our own unearned place on God’s team.

As we all tune in (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) to the “big game” next week, we should all remember that, as exciting as competition can be, it’s not the life that God has called us to. The divine “Super Bowl” happened over two thousand years ago—Christ has already snatched a resounding victory from the clutches of sin and death for God’s team. And even though we contributed nothing to this win (and in fact, have worked against it from time to time) God has offered us a place on this championship team. It’s not up to us to keep the team undefeated; despite what we might think, that’s not why we were recruited. It’s our job to fill out the team roster by welcoming “losers” just like Isaiah, just like Peter—just like us. God will take care of the coaching. Christ will take care of the victory. The Spirit will take care of the celebration. And together, we will create a kin(g)dom where all are undefeated, not because we’re better than everyone else, but because we’re all on the same team. Amen.

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