By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Any of you old enough to remember the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona? That was the year the International Olympic Committee first allowed professional athletes to compete. Before that, it was amateurs only. So, a group of basketball enthusiasts saw the green light and put together a dream team. You’ll recognize some of the names: Patrick Ewing of the Knicks, Larry Bird of the Celtics, Michael Jordan of the Bulls, Magic Johnson of the Lakers. The roster read like a Who’s Who of basketball superstars.
And it worked. Team USA swept the competition 8-0 to win the gold medal. Similar dream teams won the gold in 1996, 2000 and 2008.
What would it be like for God to put together a dream team of spiritual giants? That’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning. But before we get there, here’s another morsel to add to the pot.
Since the election, President-elect Obama has been assembling his cabinet and advisors. As you might expect, he’s put together a dream team of his own. At Secretary of State, there’s Hillary Clinton; at Attorney General, Eric Holder. He’s asked Robert Gates to stay on as Secretary of Defense. The list goes on. From the get-go, he’ll be surrounded by nothing but the brightest and the best.
So, who would you think God might choose for his dream team?
Billy Graham comes to mind, but, then, he’s getting up in years. Let’s put him in as coach, along with Pope Benedict XVI. For the starting lineup, let’s go with the Reverend Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston with 47,000 members. And the Reverend Bill Hybels, pastor of the Willow Creek Church in Illinois with 23,500 members. Another Houston church is Second Baptist with 23,000 members. We’ll certainly want to include its pastor, the Reverend Edwin Young. Of course, there’s Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Community Church in California and author of the celebrated book, The Purpose-Driven Life. He’s been asked to give the invocation at the Inauguration this week. And, closer to home, let’s not forget Bishop J. T. Jakes of Potter’s House in Dallas. He’s a charismatic preacher, and he’s published a number of books of his own. As for Potter’s House, it’s a congregation of a mere 17,000 members.
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Well, that’s enough to get us started. You can add your favorites when you get home. The question is: Is this how God would choose a dream team? Let’s look to the witness of scripture.
In the gospel lesson today, Jesus passed by John the Baptist and two of his followers. John told the others, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” They took off after Jesus. Jesus asked them, “What are you looking for?” To be honest, they weren’t sure. So, they said, “where are you staying?” And he said, “Come, and see.” (John 1:35-39)
Does that sound like individuals with the right stuff to play on God’s dream team?
John goes on to say that one of these two men was Andrew and, when Andrew heard that Jesus was the Messiah, he went and got his brother, Simon. If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll find that this is the only thing Andrew ever did to distinguish himself as a disciple – he introduced his brother, Simon, to Jesus. Other than that, he was just one of the Twelve.
When I think of Andrew, I’m reminded of the first-grader who tried out for the PTA play. He wasn’t very talented, and his mother was afraid he wouldn’t get a part. But he tried out and, when it was over, he came out smiling. “Did you get a part?” she asked. He beamed and said, “I sure did. I get to clap and cheer!” That’s Andrew.
As for his brother, Simon, the scouting report is not all that favorable. True, Jesus called him to be the Rock on which he’d build his church. (Matthew 16:18) But, looking closer, you have to wonder how rock-like he really was. For example, he tried to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem because he knew there’d be trouble. (Matthew 16:23) Later, he tried to hang on to the transfiguration and stay on the mountaintop where it was safe and secure. (Matthew 17:4) And, the night Jesus was arrested and taken before Caiaphas, he denied even knowing who Jesus was, not once, but three times! (Matthew 26:69-74)
Then there’s Philip. John says Jesus found Philip the next day and said to him, “Follow me.” (John 1:43) Now, Philip’s my namesake, and I’d love to tell you something outstanding that Philip did, and how, if he’d gotten the recognition he deserved, Jesus would’ve picked him to be the rock on which to build the church, instead of Simon.
But, to be honest, Philip proved to be low on the gene pool. In his book, All the Apostles of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer calls him a “slow-witted plodder.” (157) Another commentator calls him a “dullard.”
So, let’s face it, Philip was the Edith Bunker of the disciples – good-hearted, but always saying the wrong thing. Like the scene in the Upper Room where Jesus told the disciples,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life.
No one comes to the Father, except through me.
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.
From now on, you know him, and have seen him.” (John 14:6-7)
Philip didn’t get it. He blurted out, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8) You can hear the anguish in Jesus’ voice when he said, “Have I been with you such a long time, and do you not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9)
Like Andrew, though, Philip did one thing right – he went to tell his friend, Nathanael. He said,
“We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (John 1:45)
Now, Nathanael was a Hebrew scholar. He studied scripture day and night. This is why, when Philip told him that he’d found the Promised Messiah and that he was from Nazareth, Nathanael said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)
It’s not that he meant to put down the good folks of Nazareth; it’s that he knew the prophecy of Micah, who said that the Promised Messiah would come from Bethlehem of Judea. (Micah 5:2)
To cut him some slack, Nathanael was a Bible scholar. He was also a man of prayer. When Jesus came to him, he found him sitting under a fig tree. This was a common place for devout Jews to sit and pray.
So, Nathanael may have been a nerd, but he was an honest nerd; plus he was sincere. When Jesus saw him, he said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” (John 1:47)
And yet … what did Nathanael do to distinguish himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ? Nothing. As far as we know, he never preached a sermon, never started a church, never saved a soul.
So, let’s see: So far, we’ve got Andrew, Simon, Philip and Nathanael. I’d say God’s dream team is getting off to a slow start. And, if we were to list all twelve disciples, we’d find that it gets worse. There’s the Doubting Thomas, Thaddeus, James the Less, Simon the Zealot and, of course, Judas Iscariot. What kind of dream team is this?
You’d think Jesus would’ve used a little common sense. The leading rabbi of his day was Rabbi Gamaliel. Why didn’t Jesus pick him? Another was Rabbi Shammai, yet there’s no mention of him. Jesus could’ve named some of the members of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. That would’ve endeared him to the high priests and given him some political clout. But no, Jesus picked twelve ordinary men. What gives?
Let’s ask the Apostle Paul. In his First Letter to the Corinthians he talks about how the Corinthians are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, together with all those who share faith in Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 1:2) Then he goes on to talk about the nature of their calling. He says,
“For you see your calling, brothers, that not many are wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, and not many noble; but God chose the foolish things of the world that he might put to shame those who are wise. God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and God chose the lowly things of the world, and the things that are despised… that no flesh should boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
The Corinthians aren’t alone. Throughout the Bible God picks the most unlikely individuals to do his bidding. For example, there’s …
• Gideon – the Barney Fife of the Bible – a nervous, jittery little man – yet God chose Gideon to lead the people of Israel in victory over the mighty Midianites. (Judges 6:11ff)
• And Saul, the first king of Israel, who, when it was announced that he was to be their king, was found to be hiding in the baggage cart. (1 Samuel 10:22)
• And Elijah, one of the greatest prophets of all time. Yet, when he heard that the wicked Jezebel was out to get him, he went and hid in a cave, afraid for his life. (1 Kings 19:1ff)
Paul, himself, was no exception. As a young man, his greatest ambition was to destroy the church, not serve it. After his conversion on the Damascus Road, he went to a Christian prayer meeting, and the Christians were afraid to let him in. They couldn’t believe he was now one of them. They said,
“Isn’t this he who in Jerusalem made havoc of those who called on this name? And he had come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests!” (Acts 9:21)
Yet, Paul not followed in the footsteps of Jesus, he went on to become the church’s leading spokesman and the catalyst to spread the Good News of the Gospel all the way from Jerusalem to Rome.
When it comes to putting together a dream team, God picks the most unlikely individuals.
This came home to me in my early days of ministry. As most of you know, that was in the United Methodist Church. We were living in Prosper, Texas and expecting our first child. My District Superintendent was a kindly old minister named Bill Morgan Smith. I looked up to him and thought of him as a saint. He was one of the wisest, most godly men I’d ever known. When John was born, he and his wife, Louise, were at the hospital bright and early the next morning – the first ones to arrive. They brought a satin pillow for Donna’s bed.
That was 1972, and the United Methodist Church was electing bishops that summer. I just knew Bill Morgan Smith would be elected. Sadly, he didn’t even get an honorable mention.
Then there was Dr. Marshall T. Steele, pastor of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas. At the time, he was one of the most respected and esteemed ministers in the country. By now, we’d moved to Paris, Texas, where I was serving as Associate Pastor, and we were expecting our second child.
Dr. Steele came to lead a three-day series of renewal services. His wife, Ouida, came with him. She stayed in the background. Dr. Steele was the featured attraction. The next week, Donna received a package in the mail. It was a beautiful hand-stitched baby blanket Ouida had made for Patrick and sent with her love.
Individuals and experiences like these helped me to see that, while there will always be a place for the superstars of the faith, the work of the kingdom largely falls into the hands of uncelebrated rank and file men and women who share the gift of God’s love in unremarkable and unrecorded deeds of loving service: Visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved and encouraging the lonely and the lost.
And this is what I hope you’ll take home with you today: God has chosen you to play on his dream team. Every time you share a meal with one who’s hungry, or give a cup of cold water to one who’s thirsty, or show kindness to one who’s down and out, you honor Christ and further his kingdom on toward victory.
You may never get the recognition you deserve – but, hey, neither did Clyde “The Glide” Drexler. He was also a member of the 1992 Dream Team, though overshadowed by the likes of Charles Barkley. Yet, he did his part, and the team won … and, when the final buzzer sounds, isn’t that what it’s all about – winning the world for Christ?
Howard Grose sums it up for us this way:
Give of your best to the Master;
Give of the strength of your youth.
Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor
Into the battle for truth.
Jesus has set the example,
Dauntless was He, young and brave.
Give Him your loyal devotion;
Give Him the best that you have.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.