This is the first draft of Sunday's offering. The stuff in very small type has been cut, unless you can think of a good reason why not. Can't post the PPT, which is a shame as I have some very nifty slides with good quotes. Nevermind. Any ideas or suggestions very welcome!
Most of you know that I like football. Some of you might debate that, given that I support Exeter City, but it's true. So when I call this morning "Football: more important than life or death?", I'm not doing it because I disapprove of football or of sport. I love it.
There's some debate over the exact wording and meaning of Bill Shankly's quote. He was a witty man, yet you rather suspect that there was something more than a joke in what he said. Part of him believed that there was nothing in the world as important as football. In an interview shown on Granada TV in April 1981, he told an interviewer:
SHANKLY: Everything I've got I owe to football. You only get out of the game what you put into it, Shelley. So I put in all my heart and soul, to the extent that my family suffered.
SHELLY RODHE: Do you regret that at all?
SHANKLY: I regret it very much. Somebody said: 'Football's a matter of life and death to you. I said, 'Listen it's more important than that.' And my family's suffered. They've been neglected.
SHELLY RODHE: How would you do it now, if you had your time again?
SHANKLY : I don't know really. If I had the same thoughts, I'd possibly do the same again.
Later in the same interview Sir Harold Wilson, who was also on the programme, said of football:
WILSON: It's a religion too, isn't it?
SHANKLY: I think so, yes.
WILSON: A way of life.
SHANKLY: That's a good expression, Sir Harold. It is a way of life. And it's so serious that it's unbelievable. And I wonder what all the rest of the world does.
On another occasion, describing the Liverpool fans, Shankly said:
"The word 'fantastic' has been used many times, so I would have to invent another word to fully describe the Anfield spectators. It is more than fanaticism, it's a religion. To the many thousands who come here to worship, Anfield isn't a football ground, it's a sort of shrine. These people are not simply fans, they're more like members of one extended family."
"Football: more important than life and death?" We might take it too seriously sometimes, if you – like me, face relegation for your team this season. But what happened on the pitch last weekend at Spurs quickly puts everything into perspective.
As we see from some of these images, the incident at White Hart Lane eight days ago shook people. Fabrice Muamba, who is only 23 years old, has made 200 league appearances, mostly in the Premiership, and played for England Under 21s, 33 times. I found out this week that I saw his Under 21s debut at Bristol City. It was Stuart Pearce's first game in charge and Fabrice was one of 18 players used, which partly explains why I didn't remember him playing. Most people had never heard of him until he collapsed on the pitch just before half-time in the FA Cup tie he was playing for Bolton Wanderers against Spurs. That's all changed, for all the wrong reasons.
Fabrice, as is widely known now, came to this country as an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fleeing from the war there. He arrived here as an 11 year old, unable to speak a word of English. He clearly has brains though, he has 10 GCSEs as well as A-levels in French, Maths and English. None of the other players in the Bolton Wanderers dressing room has as many qualifications. He is said to enjoy listening to opera (which I suspect is unusual amongst Premiership footballers. Pat Nevin tells a story about when how when he was a top level footballer, his manager fined him for going to an art gallery). Fabrice is described as deeply religious. In his profile provided in match day programmes it says: "Fabrice is an extremely strong believer in God and says that he is the reason for everything he has done and accomplished." He has a three year old boy who he is said to be devoted to and he got engaged on Valentine's Day last month.
In thinking about the events of that F.A. Cup tie, I want to look at four small passages in the Bible. As we have seen, events like this often lead us to look outside ourselves for some answers and because I am a Christian the first place for me to try and make sense of the world I live in, with all it's complications, is the Bible.
- Why do bad things happen to good people?
As we reflect on Muamba's collapse on the pitch from a sudden heart attack, it's an obvious question, isn't it? Why do bad things like this happen to good people, to the young, it all seems so unfair.
The issue of how we try to make sense of suffering is a difficult one. People throughout the ages, of all religions and none, have wrestled with this question, and, at best, come up with only partial answers.
Many have tried to make sense of the problem of suffering. In writing about this problem, the author Philip Yancey says of C.S. Lewis' book, The Problem of Pain, that it "offered perhaps the most articulate of the subject in this century" (referring to the 20th century)… "written at the height of his intellectual powers". (Where is God when it hurts?, 20)
Yet, when some years later his own wife died of bone cancer, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, under a pseudonym. If you read that book (I've only dipped into it) you can tell that Lewis has really been dragged through the mill by the awful experience that he has been through. For instance, he writes,
"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away." (Where is God when it hurts, 15)
One of the problems we have is that the pain of some suffering seems to cloud any understanding we might have of the subject. Lewis was able to write a great book on the subject of suffering. And then he watched helpless while his wife died. It was hard for his experience and his intellectual understanding to match up. And that is a problem that we might have as well.
The question of why bad things happen to people is a question that the Bible itself asks in the psalms for instance, and there is an occasion where Jesus is asked why seemingly innocent people had such terrible things happen to them:
Luke 13.1-4 and the Tower of Siloam
1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
The situation here is that Pilate's soldiers had killed a bunch of Galileans when they were on their way to present their sacrifices. Jesus tells his listeners that they were no more or less guilty than any of the other Galilieans – they didn't suffer because of anything particular that they had done.
Similarly, the local news seems to be reporting that, in Siloam, 18 people had died when a tower had collapsed on them. Were they more guilty than the rest of the people living in Jerusalem? No, says Jesus.
There are no easy answers to why some people suffer and others seems enjoy the life of riley. But this is the way that the world is, we live in between the perfection of Genesis 1 and the complete renewel of Revelation 22. We live in a twisted, broken, damaged world; this is what life is like for people in this day and age. In other words, these are things that happen in the world. It wasn't a punishment because they were especially wicked.
So it would be foolish to say that it happened to Fabrice Muamba because of any great sin in his life. It happened to him because it happens to people in the world we live in.
Just before we move on though, notice what Jesus is keen to tell his listeners and what we should be listening to, as well. He says it twice, word for word, in verse 3 and again in verse 4: "But unless you repent, you too will all perish". There is a reality far beyond the day to day of our lives. We will all, one day, perish. We might have a tower collapse on us, we might fall down in the street and experience a sudden heart attack, or it might be of natural causes in later life. None of us know how long we have. When I was at college I said goodbye to a lad that I knew from the Christian Union at the end of the summer term, a couple of months later I was at his funeral. No-one would have expected it. One of the lads I played cricket with, killed instantly in a car crash.
Jesus' concern seems to be less for the accidents and incidents that people ask him about, more for the need of each and everyone of us to repent so that we don't perish. If we want to live with God in the hereafter we need to have first repented, to have turned away from all the muck and mistakes that make us unclean before God and to live differently, as forgiven people leading a new life with Jesus in charge.
2 Where do we turn when it all turns bad?
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth. Psalm 121
We've seen a huge outpouring of prayers for Fabrice Muamba this week.
No-one is pretending that we have suddenly experienced a great spiritual revival in this country but it has been fascinating to see so many people in football talking openly about the importance of prayer and urging people to pray for Fabrice. The whole of Real Madrid side wearing shirts urging people to pray for him! Fabrice's girlfriend urged people to pray for him, saying that God is in control.
It led to this remarkable headline in The Sun: "Praying for Muamba... God is in control".
Some of the players that have been quoted are people who are Christians and are happy to be identified as followers of Jesus. Others aren't, and yet there seems to be an awareness that all the fame and wealth in the world are no protection when you come up against something as terrible as a life threatening illness. Perhaps this was summed up well by the tweet of one of the Tottenham defenders: "Doesn't matter who you support. Doesn't matter if you aren't a football fan. Doesn't matter if you aren't religious. Pray for Fabrice Muamba." Kyle Walker
When you're at the end of your rope you'll try anything. Or for some of us it reawakens the memory of something we once heard about God, or a curiosity about what he was like that we haven't really thought about much for a long time but this is a wake-up call for us.
We know that there are some things in life that we are powerless to prevent and that we need help from someone or something stronger than us to get us through. Instinctively it seems that we are driven to prayer at a time like this. We have got to the end of ourselves and need something or someone more.
So far it looks like those prayers are being answered. It's amazing that Fabrice has made the recovery that he has. Millions of us prayed for him, we did so in the service here last week and we were asking God to do something so huge that was way beyond any capability we might have.
They tried to restart his heart with the defibrillator twice on the pitch, once in the player's tunnel and a further twelve times in the ambulance, all of which were unsuccessful attempts.
Jonathan Tobin, the Bolton Wanderers club doctor underlined how serious it was when he told the BBC, "It was 48 minutes when he collapsed to reaching hospital and a further 30 minutes after that. He was, in effect, dead at that time."
No wonder that Harry Rednapp, on Friday, was repeating the words miraculous and miracle about Muamba's recovery in his interview on 5 Live.
Andrew Deaner – consultant cardiologist and Tottenham fan:
"If I was ever going to use the term miraculous it could be used here. He has made a remarkable recovery so far."
(There was a lovely quote from him later in that interview too, that says a lot about the kind of man Fabrice is...:
"Two hours after [regaining consciousness] I whispered in his ear, 'What's your name?' and he said, 'Fabrice Muamba'. I said, 'I hear you're a really good footballer' and he said, 'I try'. I had a tear in my eye." Andrew Deaner, Consultant Cardiologist.
Florence Nightingale (a Fiorentina fan? She was born there), who is always being quoted in sermons on football, wrote:
"often when people seem unconscious, a word of prayer reaches them".
And for what it's worth I've seen that flicker of recognition when I have sat by the bedside of people who were seemingly unconscious, when I have prayed for them, read them the Scriptures or sung, very softly, the words of an old hymn to them.
In the letter he wrote to a church in Ephesus, Paul reminds them that God is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. (3.20) Seems that this is the case here. God is more than capable.
Do we limit God? Expect too little from him? Only turn to him in prayer as a last resort rather than start there.
But before I finish this morning I'd be leaving you with the wrong impression if you think I'm saying, pray and it'll all be okay. Because what if you pray and your prayers were not answered as you wished?
Praying doesn't always result in what we want.
Ruth Bell Graham, who was married to Billy Graham, is quoted as saying that had God answered all her prayers she'd have been married several times before she even met Billy. We don't always get what we want. The question is, are those occasions when we come away and decide there is no God, or do we conclude that there is a God and that he is in control. Back at that Sun headline. Do we believe it? In good times and in bad?
To be straight with you, there are a couple of times in my life where people close to me have been seriously ill and despite my prayers and the prayers of whole communities, they haven't pulled through. I don't know why. I can't offer you any iron clad promises about prayer always working or that things always work out well. But I do know that God has been very good to me over the years and I have learnt that I can trust him. I may not always understand what he is doing but I believe he knows a lot more than me and that he knows best. That he is in control and that he tends to work things out for the best. I don't always understand why things happen the way that they do, but I know him well enough to trust him all the same.
I guess knowing that helps us when we are struggling. It's the kind of thing that will keep us hanging in there when prayers don't seem to be answered, as well as in those exciting times when we see something of what God is doing and his answers to our prayers. Do you know him well enough to trust him through thick and thin, in good times and bad? Have you repented so that you won't perish and placed your trust in him? Jesus warns you and I pass it on, this is something of urgency, please don't walk away this morning and forget about it.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Let's pray for Fabrice Muamba, his family and friends, and for ourselves...