I heard a guest speaker once, somewhere, commenting on how the AFL – the management of the whole AFL – set an example for the Church. He was reflecting on two aspects. The first was the intentional process of planting new teams and financially supporting that work – and the challenge to the church of its lack of intentionality regarding this work. The second one, how the draft system enable teams that were struggling to have first pick of the best players – and the challenge to this aspect of the Church. His thinking was how the financially rich churches continued to pick the best ministers, both lay and ordained, and the struggling churches, were left with the rest.
This has led me to continue to think about football as a metaphor for the church, the role of the coach, team structures, forwards, mid-fields and backs. All an ongoing exercise, and much fun.
As I was thinking about this and the reading concerning the prophet Elijah today, I recalled an image from a number of years ago from a football game. I can’t remember whether it was a segment from one of the football commentary programmes or from the telecast of the football game itself, but it was certainly a focus of commentary on the football team.
During either the quarter time or three-quarter time huddle, Brisbane Lions were under siege from their opponents, and Lee Matthews, when he was coach of the Brisbane Lions, talking from the midst of the pack of players, placed his hand under Michael Voss’ chin, then the captain, and lifted his head. It was a telling sign for the team, even though they were under attack, they needed to lift their head out of the depression.
This is the context of the story for Elijah in the battle between pagan Baal worship and the worship of Yahweh, the One true God. Elijah has just had a significant victory. He is on top of the league ladder, but now he is being smashed by the wooden-spooners. He wanders off into the desert with his head hung low, in a state of depression. Elijah is running away from Ahab and Jezebel, because Ahab has told Jezebel what Elijah has done. Jezebel has taken out a hit contract on Elijah’s life and he runs into the wilderness in fear of his life. Depression has set in.
What had Elijah done? What was his great victory? Ahab had gone to meet Elijah, whom he called, ‘The troubler of Israel.’ Elijah refutes him, ‘I have not made trouble for Israel, but you have abandoned Yahweh and worshipped the Baals. Elijah lays down a challenge: Elijah against the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Ashera (the fertility goddess). 850 to 1, I wonder what odds Tom Waterhouse would put on that one.
Two bulls slaughtered and prepared for sacrifice, the Baal prophets placed theirs on a pile of wood but did not set fire to it. Elijah set his on twelve stones. The challenge was to see who could get their god to set fire to their sacrifice. The prophets of Baal and Ashera shouted and dancexd and even slashed themselves with swords and spears all day until evening. But nothing happened. Elijah, even after pouring water three times over his bull on stones, so much water that it gathered in the trenches around the altar, and then called on Yahweh, and fire fell from heaven and burned up the sacrifice, the stones, the soil, and also the water including that which was in the trench.
This confirmed for the people who were watching that Yahweh was indeed the God and Elijah commanded them to slaughter all the prophets of Baal and Ashera.
We, too, are in a battle. We have the greatest of victories, the one won by Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection, the victory over sin and death. But we are also in a battle I our present time against those things which are taking place around us. Sometimes they can make us downcast.
God asks us, ‘What are you doing here?’ and, like Elijah, we hear ourselves saying, ‘I/we have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for there are many who have forsaken your covenant, stopped coming to worship you, and abuse those who continue to speak out for you. I/we alone am/are left, and they are seeking my/our life to take it away.’
The result of our being attacked is that we throw all our energy into the defensive position. Some tine ago, then coach of Australia’s Soccer team, Pim Verbeek was accused by the Australian public for failing in the selection of the team to play the first round of the World Cup against Germany. With the prospect of facing a very fine, attacking football team, Verbeek had selected a team that was defensive. Our offensive players, our attacking players, were left on the bench and Australia lost 4 – 0.
For a Football team to win, it needs centres, backs and forwards. Geelong, for example, has the strongest backline in the competition. It managed to keep its head above water because of the strength of its defence and centre, but it wasn’t until the forward line, the attacking line started firing, that Geelong was able to win the competition and those elusive premiership cups.
I can’t help thinking that what we do on Sunday mornings is our defensive position. It is right that we should worship God; and worship and relationship with God is fundamental to everything that we do. But in the face of the onslaught within our society, our tendency is to take the defensive position. We have grown accustomed to our culture of understanding what it means to be church is in the escape to the wilderness. We feel alone, our heads are down and we escape to the place where can be alone and ministered to by God through his angels.
When Elijah lifts hid head in confidence in the Lord, he is able to go forward. Elijah is again able to challenge Ahab and Jezebel over their dealings with Naboth and his vineyard. Eventually Elijah was honoured by God by being assumed into heaven. Elijah won the victory in attack as well as defence.
We need to lift our heads and build and nurture a forward line. The forward line is the place of attack, for want of a better word. It is the place of those who go out, make connections with new people, challenge injustice, and help others to find a relationship with God that will be expressed in our midst in worship. Perhaps the forward line of the church can be described by the ministry of the apostles, prophets and evangelists. But we need to lift our heads, move out of a purely defensive position, and score some six pointers for Jesus. There may be a few behinds and few games lost on the way, but there will be no crown of victory, no premiership, unless we lift our heads.