sermon

The Sign in the Stands

Rev. Rev. Dr. John J. Lolla, Jr.

May 27, 2018

Text: John 3:16, O.T.: Isaiah 6:1-8, N.T.: John 3:1-17

            Back in the days of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth, a sign hung from Three Rivers Stadium’s end zone. Emblazoned on national television was “John 3:16.”

It was an odd place to tout Jesus Christ. The Christian message of salvation at the altar of Pittsburgh’s football deities. The sign in the stands pointed Steelers’ worshippers and opponents to God’s love in Jesus Christ.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might have eternal life.”

John 3:16 is one of the most beloved passages for modern Christians. For many Christians it summarizes the essence of Christian faith. Through the years the sign of “John 3:16” has emerged beyond the conjunction of the Allegheny, Mon, and Ohio Rivers. Other evangelists took the cue. The sign spread to other sports venues.

A higher purpose was proclaimed by this simple sign in the life of athletic competition. Life is greater than physical achievement. There’s more at stake in life than whether we win or lose in contests that test human strength and endurance. The true deity to be worshipped transcends human contests.

The sign in the stands quietly stated that despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent annually by parents outfitting their youth for playgrounds, a higher goal exists. Hours of slavishly transporting children to fields of play are dwarfed by the importance of driving children to church. Life isn’t measured by the scoreboard at the end of a game. The sign in the stands reminds us that the only measurement of winning and losing in life is by the yardstick of eternity.

How many times do we measure life’s success by eternity?

Eternal life is far more valuable than winning a human competition. True life – eternal life – is the glory to be won. God’s glory lies far beyond the tarnished hero worship of professional athletes.

This is certainly evident with what has happened in the NFL.

The NFL is taking it on the chin. Bounty gate displayed the despicable depths to which a team will spiritually degenerate in order to win. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in betting parlors across the land with the outcome of NFL games. It ought not come as a surprise to us what emerged in New Orleans when coaches, owners, a league of millionaires, and a worshipping public is consumed by achieving an economic reward. What matters in life for too many Americans is winning, no matter what the cost. Who cares if we lose our souls?

God cares.

Junior Seau’s untimely death challenged the invincibility of the NFL’s vision of a glorious life. Twenty years of adulation and wealth as an All-Pro linebacker wasn’t enough. Junior Seau couldn’t find meaning in life beyond preserving the perpetual youth needed to play the game. Many former athletes struggle with the same disillusionment. They don’t go to the extreme of Junior Seau. But many get lost when the game’s over and they can’t play anymore.   Playing the game is everything.

Too many Americans vainly try to stay young through the excitement of a game. Staying forever young is America’s happiness myth. The reality is life is always advancing towards the ultimate goal. We aren’t predestined to eternal youth. The ultimate destination is eternal life.

Certainly Junior Seau saw the sign in the stands in stadiums in which he played. He couldn’t pay attention. There’s greater glory than hero worship as an NFL great. When your body is gravely damaged, the crowds and adulation are gone, and the reality of life sets in, we face life’s greater goal.

“God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him might have eternal life.”

Eternal life is the only goal to reach. Eternal life isn’t earned by athletic exploits on fields of play. Neither is eternal life a collective bargaining right.

It can’t be negotiated by an agent fighting with a league for a lifetime financial endowment.

Eternal life is priceless. It’s the heaven-sent gift that overcomes the reality of mortality. It’s the one gift that shows your value doesn’t lie in athletic abilities or physical health.  Nor does eternal life rely on outwitting the opposition through schemes and plans to exploit their weaknesses.

Eternal life isn’t earned through incessant practices designed to increase your strength to win a game’s survival of the fittest. Eternal life is granted by faith – faith in the only one worthy of worship and praise. Eternal life is the source of strength by which to stand before life’s reality.

Obtaining eternal life doesn’t involve angry pre-game frenzies and frenetic shouting. Reaching eternal life can’t be schemed or drafted.

Eternal life is the consummate victory that is already won for the world on a lonely cross in Jerusalem. Eternal life has no interest for Las Vegas’ odds makers. The only contest in life that matters is finished. Jesus overcame the odds stacked against Him. His victory is the victory for all who recognize it and believe in it.

The NFL’s idolatry is blatantly obvious. There’s no grace, no mercy in the NFL. If a player doesn’t perform and the team doesn’t win, the player, the coach, the team, faces the fury of the fans. Worship is fickle in the NFL. One day you’re a hero who’s worshipped. The next day you’re a goat sacrificed upon the altar of winning. What happens in NFL temples of worship is just a microcosm of what happens on fields and gymnasiums across America and around the world.

If there’s a place where hope is needed, true hope that redeems the world, it’s on the fields of the world’s sports contests. National pride rests on the backs, shoulders, and skills, of athletes competing in the Olympics. The spectacle of global expectations rests upon the Olympic Games. Yet for all of the commercial interest in the Olympics, the only outcome that truly has global significance is what happened in the forlorn tomb in a Jerusalem garden.

Modern day heroes who meet national expectations rise upon victory stands to receive their medals of gold, silver, or bronze. The only true hero who is the victor for all nations has already been raised to His place before the world.

The sign in the stands modestly points to the world’s victor. It silently points to the greater goal, the greater victory that makes irrelevant the outcomes in earthly stadiums. It’s what led Troy Polamalu to cross himself after every play in Heinz Field. It inspired Troy to study salvation in Jesus Christ at an Orthodox monastery near Saxonburg with monks who devote themselves to the message on the sign. Troy may play on the field of Black and Gold. But he hasn’t forgotten the importance of the sign in the stands that once graced Pittsburgh’s end zone.

The sign in the stands is engraved upon Troy’s heart.

The sign in the stands is not just one man’s grateful offering that honors where the true victory lies. It’s the presence of the victorious Christ in the hearts of those who believe in Him.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.”

Believe this Good News. Embrace this Good News. Receive the hope of this Good News. Live by the promise of this Good News!

It’s the only news for which to give thanks. It’s the only victory worthy of our worship and praise. Amen.

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