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Keep Your Eye on the Ball [OR Full-Throated, Joyful Noise in the Playbook] Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

**sermon photo: Quintorris Lopez “Julio” Jones, Wide Receiver, Atlanta Falcons.  The Washington Times (Associated Press) August 7, 2018.

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on November 17, 2019

[sermon begins after two Bible readings]

Psalm 98 O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. 2 The Lord has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 4 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. 5 Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13  Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8 and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9 This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11 For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12 Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13 Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

[sermon begins (Luke reading is at end of sermon)]

“Keep your eye on the ball.”  Wise words whether you’re up to bat with a fast-ball pitcher on the mound, launching up the line on the soccer field awaiting the sweet send, or hauling down the field and turning right when the quarterback’s pass is about to arc just so.  Wise words, indeed.  And you ball players among us can tell us just how hard it is to stay in the moment and keep your eye on the ball so that the bat connects with the ball before that mad dash to first (base), so that the ball goes from toe to toe for the boot into the goal, and so the pass lands in your hands before you shift toward the end zone.

Oh sure, those of us on the sidelines can easily declare that you should have had it.  But you all know how hard it is to keep your eye on the ball.  There are defenders rushing toward you, fans cheering, music blaring, refs in your way, coach’s threat to pull you out of the game, the urges to move toward scoring before you actually have the ball, and who knows what else on your mind to prevent you from keeping your eye on the ball. But there are those moments when all the blood, sweat, and tears of practice and past games come together, and the right things happen. Those moments when the joy of the game makes it fun.  For those of us watching, we’re often trying to read the signs as to whether or not the team has the focus, grit, and spirit to play strong through the last seconds.  Or whether they will give up.  We can see it in their eyes, that giving up.  They kind of disengage and glaze over – no longer energized by what’s happening on the field because eventually that last second will come and the game will be over.  Sweet relief.

Perhaps we could call that beleaguered team, um, I don’t know, hmmm. Let’s go with Thessalonians. I know, some of you have a different beleaguered team on your minds.  Regardless, we’ll call this team the Thessalonians.  The Thessalonians were awaiting a Second Coming to save them. Jesus’ Second Coming, that is, not a new quarterback.  As they waited, they grew idle in their community.  It’s not totally clear why. Regardless, they sat out of the work and were getting challenged by friends in the letter.

These comments to the Thessalonians have been used in so many wrong ways over the years to prove one view or another about who deserves food.  However, this letter is not about identifying the lazy people to justify sticking it to them.[1] The focus is on Jesus followers giving up on working together for what is right as Jesus taught them to do because they felt that Jesus was coming soon so their work didn’t matter.  Perhaps in the face of real persecution they’d simply shut down in the hope that Jesus was coming soon.  Whatever the reason, they were being challenged in verse 13 to “not be weary in doing what is right.”  They had taken their eye off the ball and quit the game before it was over.  Disengaged, eyes glazed, they had forgotten that doing what is right matters and that God has never called the church to withdraw into isolation and sectarianism.

Can we really fault the Thessalonians?  With wars, insurrections, plagues, and famines common in their time as in ours, their temptation to connect these signs with what God must be up to in Jesus was possibly like what Jesus was warning his disciples about in the Gospel of Luke.  Maybe not so different from us as we react to the extraordinary and disappointing events in our time.  More than react, we interpret these events as if they were certain signs from God.[2]  Time and again Jesus tells us not to interpret the signs.  We do it anyway. I certainly do. This often comes from a trusting, faithful place. I’m good with that. But it makes the reminder given to idle Thessalonians even more relevant to us – “…do not grow weary in doing what is right.” Is that a Christian faith checklist item then?  Not weary – check!  I wonder how many of us could check that box today…

If “not growing weary in doing what is right” isn’t a checkbox then it’s likely something else.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it may have something to do with faith being more like a team sport than a solo effort, maybe even more like a team sport if we talk about keeping our eyes on the ball, on doing what is right without wearying.  Perhaps it has something to do with what God is up to when we’re together as we are today in worship. Here’s where the psalmist gets unusual top billing in the program.

Psalm 98 slices through the mayhem of Malachi, the last days in Luke, and the lethargy of the Thessalonians, to focus on God.  Not ignoring the realities of suffering but rather sustaining us through those realities and strengthening us for the work of engaging them. With the psalmist, we remember God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, first through God’s covenant with Israel and then to the nations, which is to say, to us through the ever-expanding, radically inclusive new covenant of Jesus Christ.  Because the cross breaks down the barriers we create with the illusions of certainty, safety, and permanence.  In place of our illusions, God gives faith and liberation into an unknown future with the reassurance of God’s prodigal grace, steadfast love, and righteousness.

For these marvelous things, we sing a new song to the Lord.  Our full-throated, joyful noise joins with the oceans’ roar and the singing hills as we praise God.[3]  God doesn’t need our unending praise. Rather, we need to praise God so that we can keep our eye on the ball and not grow weary of doing what is right. Not because God demands your praise and do-goodery in exchange for the perceived need for a golden ticket.  If any kind of golden ticket is needed at the imagined pearly gates it was attained on through the self-sacrificing death of Jesus on the cross anyway…and not by you (just to be clear about that). God demands your do-goodery on behalf of your neighbor who God loves just as much as God love you. Appalling isn’t it? God’s love for all people is especially appalling when you think about those super unlikable people that you’d rather weren’t on the planet the same time as you.

God’s love is the source of our focus, grit, and spirit with which we do “not grow weary of doing what is right.”  We join the psalmist’s celebration of God’s marvelous things, including the wonder of God’s radically inclusive love, which are worthy of our praise with a new song. Thanks be to God for this and for all that God is doing!

Song after the Sermon: Earth and All Stars

1 Earth and all stars! Loud rushing planets!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Oh, victory! Loud shouting army!
Sing to the Lord a new song!

Refrain
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!
God has done marvelous things.
I too, I too sing praises with a new song!

2 Hail, wind, and rain! Loud blowing snowstorm!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Flowers and trees! Loud rustling dry leaves!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

3 Trumpet and pipes! Loud clashing cymbals!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Harps, lute, and lyre! Loud humming cellos!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

4 Engines and steel! Loud pounding hammers!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Limestone and beams! Loud building workers!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

5 Classrooms and labs! Loud boiling test tubes!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Athlete and band! Loud cheering people!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

6 Knowledge and truth! Loud sounding wisdom!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Daughter and son! Loud praying members!
Sing to the Lord a new song! Refrain

Ending
I too sing praises with a new song!

Herbert F. Brokering, b. 1926 © 1968 Augsburg Fortress

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[1] Thanks Matt Skinner, New Testament professor at Luther Seminary.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1197

[2] Skinner, ibid.

[3] In Psalm 98: 4 and 6, “Joyful noise” is the translation of the NRSV and King James Versions of the Bible (among others). The psalmody in the worship bulletin today translates it as “shouts of joy.”  Matt Skinner is also the source of that whole “full-throated” descriptor in the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Good word!

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Luke 21:5-19  When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.