NFL of Grace (Matthew 17:1-9)

By | February 3, 2013



     There’s a story told about a football game between the big animals and the little animals. At the end of the first half the big animals were ahead 24 to 7. It seems the little animals just couldn’t stop the Rhinoceros. He wasn’t fast but every time he got the ball, he ran in for a touchdown. The little animals were devastated.

     At the beginning of the second half it looked like, “second verse, same as the first.” On the kick off, they gave the ball to the Rhino. Off he took. But this time he took about three steps and “Whoomp” down he went. Nobody could figure out what happened. So, on the next play they gave the ball to Rhino again. The Rhino took about three steps and “Whoomp” down he went. On the third down, same thing, the Rhino took about three steps and “Whoomp” down he went.

     Finally as they were untangling from the tackle, they noticed that the last player up was a centipede. One of his teammates asked, “Did you make those tackles?”

     The centipede answered, “Yeah, I made those tackles. Why? Is something wrong?”

     The other player said: “Yeah! Where were you the first half?”

     And the centipede replied, “Oh, I was in the locker room putting on my shoes.” (1) It takes some people longer to get ready. And some even longer to understand. That must have been the case for the Disciples, it certainly was for the ones in the passage from 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.”

Jesus must have felt like Vince Lombardi after one of the games when they got spanked by an opposing team. It wasn’t pretty. The Packers did everything wrong. And Lombardi wasn’t happy.

At the very next practice, he stood up, picked up a football 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:  “Hey, Coach, please don’t go so fast.” (2) Sometimes it takes longer for some of us to get it.

     Steve Deace former sports reporter for the Des Moine Register and syndicated talk radio host wrote:

     “I believe we’re so passionate about football because it embodies everything we love about American exceptionalism. Merit is rewarded, not punished. Masculinity is celebrated, not feminized. People of various beliefs and backgrounds – a melting pot, if you will, – must unify for a common goal for the team to be successful.

     In football fortune favors the bold, just as it once did in the American frontier. But football also sprinkles in the right amount of fairness by letting the bad teams draft first in the NFL, so there’s at least a chance that one day the glass slipper fits Cinderella.”

     While the Disciples seemed to stand around clueless to what was happening around them, they knew it was something big and eventually they learned from it. You and I can learn something from the Super Bowl but especially from the NFL. But instead of standing for the National Football League, NFL stands for the Nudging, Forgiving and Leading Grace of God. So while we may tell football stories and quote football heroes, this sermon isn’t about football, it’s about Grace, God’s Grace.


     Let’s look at God’s Nudging  Grace. Wesley called this Prevenient Grace. The grace of God working in our lives before we’re ever really aware that God 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.

     I can tell you how that took place in my life. You see, I didn’t grow up in the Church. I wasn’t a Christian when Mary and I got married or even when our oldest son was born. It came later. Mary likes to tell everybody that she “married a nothing and made a Methodist preacher out of him.” And it’s true.

     As I look back, I can see how God continually called my name and kept nudging me toward a life of faith through her gentle witness and through her life of faith. My lack of faith didn’t stop her from living out her faith. She didn’t try to cram it down my throat. She just lived what she believed.

     I can also see how God called me and began nudging me with people I met early in life. While I wasn’t a Christian and didn’t go to Church on a regular basis, I did attend Sunday School occasionally with some friends. I went to Vacation Bible School and later to their Youth Group, mainly for the food and the girls, but I went.

     I didn’t realize then how much of a foundation they really gave me. Or how much of that was God’s Nudging Grace. God’s Prevenient Grace Nudging me to both a decision for Christ and eventually, a decision for the ministry. For all those years God just loved me and let that love nudge me closer and closer to God until I could see it, feel it and accept it for my own.

     It wasn’t my doing, it was God’s. That’s what Grace is all about, God’s free gift of love to us so that God may be glorified through us.


     A. Then there’s God’s Forgiving Grace. 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, 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. We’re forgiven and the slate is wiped clean. The trash has been deleted and the recycle bin is empty.

     B. Some of you may know the story of “Wrong Way Riegels.” On New Year’s Day, l929, Georgia Tech played UCLA in the Rose Bowl. In that game a young man named Roy Riegels recovered a fumble for UCLA. Picking up the loose ball, he got turned around and ran sixty-five yards toward the wrong goal line. One of his own teammates ran him down and tackled him just before he scored for the opposing team.

     Several plays later, UCLA had to punt. Tech blocked the kick and scored a safety, demoralizing the UCLA team. That strange play came in the first half. At half-time UCLA filed off the field and into the dressing room. As the others sat down on the benches and the floor, Riegels put a blanket around his shoulders, sat in a corner, and put his face in his hands. Now a coach usually has a great deal to say to his team during half time. That day Coach Price was quiet. No doubt he was trying to decide what to do with Riegels. When the time keeper came in and announced that there were three minutes before playing time, Coach Price looked at the team and said, “Men, the same team that played the first half will start the second.”

     The players got up and started out, all but Riegels. He didn’t budge. The coach called out to him. Riegels didn’t move. Coach Price went over to where Riegels sat and said, “Roy, didn’t you hear me? The same team that played the first half will start the second.”

     Roy Riegels looked up, his cheeks wet with tears and said, “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you and the university’s reputation. I’ve ruined myself. I can’t face that crowd out there.” Coach Price put his hand on Riegels’ shoulder, and said, “Roy, get up and go on back out. The game is only half over.”  He finally got up, went onto the field and the fans saw him play hard and well. (3)

     All of us have run in the wrong direction at some point. But because of the forgiveness of Christ, the game is only half over. We don’t have to give up. Jesus is God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation, as somebody put it. 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 God’ Forgiving Grace. God’s Leading Grace takes over, leading us into a life that everyday becomes more and more like the life of Jesus. Wesley called this Sanctifying 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 player’s 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!”

     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 become more and more like Christ in our daily lives. If we listen, we’ll see that we are actually being Lead by God’s Sanctifying Grace to become more and more like Jesus, a little at a time. A step at a time, but the Leading Grace of God is moving us toward God’s goal for our lives.


     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.”  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.   Pastor’s Story File, August 1993. Adapted

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

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