NFL of Grace (Matthew 17:1-9)

By | February 7, 2010

Super Bowl Sundays #1


     I read that once, during Vince Lombardi’s years at Green Bay, the Packers were resoundingly defeated by an opposing team. They did everything wrong. The very next day at practice, Coach Lombardi stood up and said, “Gentlemen, I’ve seen about enough. We’re going to start over, right at the very beginning! The object I am holding in my hand is a football.” One of the players, a jokester of the bunch, is supposed to have said:  “Coach, please don’t go so fast.” (1)

     How many of you are going to watch the Super Bowl tonight? It’s sort of an American tradition isn’t it? You have to watch it, if for no other reason than to watch the commercials and be able to talk about them the next day with everyone else.

     Today is Super Bowl Sunday and I don’t think these is anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. There’ll be lots of hype and hoopla. There will be a multi-million dollar half time show. And while we’re all watching the half time show, the players will be in the locker room getting that half time speech from the Coach. That moment with the coach where they are pumped up to give it their best during the second half.

     I think one of the greatest halftime speeches ever given or portrayed as being given, was by Syracuse Coach Ben Schwartzwalder during the historic Cottonbowl when Ernie Davis was a Sophomore at Syracuse. From the moment the Syracuse Team arrived in Dallas, in 1959, people had been shouting racist threats. During the first half of the game people were throwing beer bottles and cans at the team. The team was beginning to lose focus both on their game and on who they were and what they stood for. The coach re-centered them with these words.

          “Winning means nothing if you lose yourselves. Don’t give this one away. Keep it. Hold on to it for yourselves.” I love that line, we could say that about our lives of faith. “Winning at whatever we are doing, means nothing if you lose yourselves.”

     The passage of Scripture for this morning could almost be seen as one of those half time speeches by God to help Jesus re-center and refocus before the crucial second half. God comes to lift Jesus’ spirits and give him the courage and strength He’s going to need to go on, to finish what He was called and commissioned to do. Let’s look at passage.

     The passage for this morning could almost be seen as one of those half time speeches by God to help Jesus re-center and refocus before the crucial second half. God comes to lift Jesus’ spirits and give him the courage and strength He needed to go on, to finish what He was called and commissioned to do. Let’s look at passage. Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV)

[1] Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

[2] And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

[3] Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

[4] Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

[5] While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

[6] When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

[7] But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

[8] And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.

[9] As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

     Not only did the head coach, God, show up but a couple of the most famous former players were there to affirm and inspire as well. Moses and Elijah. In lives of the disciples, in Jesus’ life and this passage, we see the grace of God reflected and at work. You can see it worked out in the NFL of Grace. Not the National Football League, this sermon isn’t about football, despite all of the football stories. It’s about God’s Grace, the NFL of God’s Grace. In this case NFL stands for the Nudging, Forgiving and Leading of God’s grace.


     Let’s look at the Nudging of God’s Grace. Wesley called this Prevenient Grace. This is the grace of God working in our lives before we’re really aware that it is working. It is God knowing our name and calling us by that name to get our attention. It is God wooing us with love songs and all the blessings of life. It is God whispering our name and showing us God’s great love for us, before we ever have a concious relationship with God.

     It was this Grace, the Nudging Grace of God working in the lives of the Apostles which allowed them to answer the call of Jesus to follow Him. What else could it have been? They didn’t know who Jesus was. They didn’t know what He was capable of or what His ministry would lead to, yet they dropped everything and followed Him.

     Bobby Dodd, the former great football coach of Georgia Tech, tells the story of a game in which his team was leading 7 – 6 with just a minute to go. He instructed his quarterback not to pass the ball under any conditions. He said, “Whatever you do, hold on to that football; do not pass the ball.”

     In the next ten or fifteen seconds of play, they moved the ball down the field to within 10 yards of the opposing team’s goal line. As the quarterback began to execute the next play, with the seconds ticking away, he just couldn’t resist, and he threw a pass. As it often happens, the pass was intercepted by a player on the other team.

     This player rushed toward the Georgia Tech goal line. The entire team had given up the chase – except for the quarterback who had thrown the pass. He continued to chase his opponent and somehow was able to tackle him. The ball was fumbled and the quarterback recovered the ball and Georgia Tech won the game 7 to 6.

     After the game, the losing coach said to Coach Dodd, “I will never understand how that quarterback was able to do what he did.” Dodd explained, “Well, it’s actually quite simple – Your boy was running for a touchdown; my boy was running for his life.” (2)

     You know what was going through that quarterback’s mind don’t you? He was hearing the voice of Dodd in his head. Prevenient Grace, or Nudging Grace, allows us to hear the voice of God before we ever really know God. It’s God Nudging us closer to Him, closer to Jesus.

     Sometimes, we are a part of the Nudging Grace for others. Let me tell you how we can be a part of the Prevenient Grace. Today is Super Bowl Sunday but it is also the Souper Bowl of Caring Sunday. Last year, the youth of our churches in the US raised over $10 million for local food banks by sumply standing at the doors of their churches with a soup pot for donations. All of our proceeds will stay in our community and go to our local Food Bank.

     Also, UMCOR has received well over 1 million dollars online for Haitian earthquake relief. That’s unprecedented. And that doesn’t count what has been sent in through the local churches. I think we can have a major influence on the future faith of the people in this community and in Haiti through our outpouring of grace and love as we help them rebuild.

     Understand, our motive is simply to love and help, because that’s what we do for people in need. That’s what our faith is about. But if we flood them with a wave of love and grace, without any other agenda but to help, then they can’t help but notice and ask “Why?”

     And when they ask “Why? Then we can tell them about Jesus.” Just as God is continually calling and nudging us along in our relationship, we can be a part of God’s Nudging Grace in someone else’s life.


     A. Then there is the Forgiving Grace of God. This is the grace that makes it all real. God calls our name and continually nudges us toward a loving relationship with God. In that relationship God offers us forgiveness. Once we accept God’s love and forgiveness through Christ, it all becomes real. It is at that moment that Jesus becomes our friend, our Savior, our companion and our Lord, and not just a name.

     Wesley called this Justifying Grace. Through the forgiving and justifying grace of God we are brought into a right relationship with God. A friend of mine explains it like this, through the forgiving grace of God we’re justified and it’s “just if I’d never done it.” We’re forgiven and the slate is wiped clean.

     Several years ago, Coach Joe Paterno and his Penn State football team were playing for the national championship against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They probably would have won, but they had a touchdown called back because there was a twelfth man on the field. After the game, Paterno was asked to identify the man: “It’s only a game,” he said. “I have no intention of ever identifying the boy. He just made a mistake.” (3) That’s Forgiveness.

     The Disciples experienced that same kind of forgiving Grace there on the mount of transfiguration. Peter wanted to build tabernacles and enshrine the moment, he wanted to stay there forever in the Gory of God. And when God spoke, don’t you know he trembled in fear, thinking “Oh my God, what have I done.” But Jesus stretched out his hand and offered forgiveness in the words, “Get up. Do not be afraid.” You see, God is in the Forgiveness business.

     B. The Movie Gridiron Gang, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is based on a true story account of Sean Porter, an officer at the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention facility, who finally became fed up with the 75% recidivism rate of the young men who passed through his program. Determined that goals and discipline were what was lacking, Porter and Malcolm Moore, his colleague, decided to create a competitive football program.

     The movie explores the distinction between controlling bad behavior and repentance, how to handle ourselves when we blow it, and the life-giving nature of asking for and granting others forgiveness. Coaches Sean Porter and Malcolm Moore had an extremely difficult time finding any high school football programs willing to compete against their team of inmates from the Camp Kilpatrick juvenile detention facility. But they persevered and they got to play, even though they only had four weeks to mold these rival gang members into a unified team. Of course, during the game all kinds of mistakes are made.   

     I particularly like how this movie does not sugar coat the outcome of these young men. And the fact that it film examines the idea of second chances, forgiving your enemies, repenting of mistakes, and the power of God’s Word to create change.

     You see, all of us have run in the wrong direction at some point. All of us have fumbled the ball. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But because of the forgiveness of Christ, the game isn’t over. God is not going to pull us out of the game or write us off. We don’t have to give up, God doesn’t want us to give up. Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation. The Nudging Grace of God whispers God’s love to us, and the Forgiving Grace of God gives us a second chance.


     Once we’ve accepted that Forgiving Grace. God’s Leading Grace takes over, leading us into a life that everyday becomes more and more like the life of Jesus. That’s what the disciples did. Jesus lead them not only to the cross but beyond. They were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and then they lead the Church and proclaimed the Good News throughout the world. Wesley called this Sanctifying Grace, the Grace that Leads us toward perfection.

     We talk about how God “leads us beside still waters” like a Shepherd in the 23rd Psalm. And we ask God “not to lead us into temptation” when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Those are both ways in which we remind ourselves that we are called to follow and that God’s Leading Grace will get us through whatever comes our way. God’s Grace continues to Lead us.

     In John 16:33 Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take courage; I have conquered the world!” On the We Are Marshall DVD, there were several clips of various college coaches giving words of wisdom. My favorite was that of Coach Bobby Bowden of the Florida State Seminoles.

     “When everything else is equal on a football team and the team your playing, it’s usually which team has got the best leadership. You know? You simply are not gonna win all the time. You’re gonna lose some, you know it? And to me, a coach’s success, somebody says: “What do you have to do to be a successful coach?” I say, “You gotta get over the bad times.”

     “If you never had adversity you ain’t gonna be nothing. You have got to have adversity to build your character and find out how tough you are and find out how good your judgment is.”

     “You’re gonna have adversity, you know? There’s gonna be times where you’ll think you do not more deserve to be a football coach than the man in the moon. But you’ve got to overcome it. You’ve got to fight your way through it. You can’t listen to outside opinion.”

     What Coach Bowden said is true. We will have trials, there will be trouble and our faith will be tempted. But the secret is to not listen to the world, to what others are saying. Christ has conquered the world for us. He defeated sin and death and promised to be with us always. In those times of trial we’re called to listen to the Leading and Promptings of God and to trust in God’s Leading Grace.

     It was a comical picture that caused Dad to burst out in laughter. It caused the rest of family to come running to Dad’s workout room. There in the middle of the workout room was the pro football players seven year old son. He had dressed out in a full set of Dad’s pads and uniform. He had tied a string around the bottoms of the pants and pulled the waistband up under his arms. The jersey hung to his knees. The helmet looked like it had swallowed the boys head. You could just barely see his eyes peeking out. The boy’s feet were lost in his father’s size-eleven shoes. The little boy said, “Look, Daddy, I want to be just like you!” (4)

     That’s what we all say when we encounter and experience the love of Jesus. We want to be as loving and kind and caring and as God centered in our lives as Jesus. We want to be as compassionate and as forgiving. We want our lives to make a difference like his life did. We want to touch people with the Good News as he did. We want to be like Jesus. And the Good News is that we can.

     Through God’s Holy Spirit and the Leading Grace of God we CAN and WILL become more and more like Christ in our daily lives. Even in the face of hardship and adversity. When we rely on the the power and Presence of Christ, through God’s Holy Spirit, when we listen to the Nudging, Forgiving, and Leading Grace of God, nothing is impossible.


     Tom Landry once said, “The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do, in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.” (5) In a sense that’s the NFL of God’s Grace. The Holy Spirit Nudges us to do what we don’t want to do in order to become what we’ve always wanted to be. God Nudges us and loves us into a relationship. God Forgives us and sets us free to become a child of God. And then God Leads us into becoming like Christ.

     That’s the life of faith and that’s the NFL, the Nudging, Forgiving, Leading Grace of God. Let the NFL work in your life. Let God nudge you a little so you can experience the forgiveness God offers and be lead to become more and more like Christ each day.

This is the Word of the Lord for this day.


1.   Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), February 1994

2.   Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), February 1993

3.   The Pastor’s Story File (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), April 1986

4.   Wayne Rouse Astoria, Illinois Leadership-Vol. 13, #2

5.   Parables, Etc. (Saratoga Press, P.O. Box 8, Platteville, CO, 80651; 970-785-2990), October 1986