We are nearing the end of our series of sermons on the simple truths that help us through life. These truths are all rooted and grounded in Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. They are all lessons that we kind of already know, but we somehow tend to forget and we find them difficult to live out even though we know them.
Today we’re going to concentrate on the question what constitutes winning or losing in the game of life. And once again I want to invite you to pull out of your bulletin your insert. At the top you find a Scripture memory verse I want to encourage you to memorize. There is an outline of the message and space for you to jot down some notes. On the back there are several scriptures and some questions for your own study and reflection.
Now there are several components to this particular truth today and the first one we’re going to look at is one that you learned as a kid growing up. Let’s see how well you remember it:
It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.
It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. You say, “That’s not the Bible.” Well actually, it is all over in the Bible and it is one of the major themes of the entire Scriptures even though it might not be captured in quite the same words. While we know this is true in our heads we don’t actually practice it in our hearts. Some folks really struggle in remembering this.
We sometimes get so intent on winning the game that we forget what the point of the game is anyway. When it comes to playing the Milton Bradley version of the game of life, the point isn’t simply to see who has the most paper money by the time you’re done. The point is to enjoy playing the game with your friends and family. The point is to have fellowship not to drive them away so they never invite you back to play again. And in many ways that’s what we often find in life. We get so focused on what we think winning might be about that we forget the point of the game altogether.
One person who figured out this truth is an author that we know of as “the teacher.” The teacher is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes we looked at last week. I want to briefly revisit his message.
You remember he comes to the end of his life and he looks over all that he has amassed and attained and he realizes that everything he has pursued has been a, “Chasing after the wind.” All the things he had been pursuing throughout his entire life now seem meaningless. He had everything and yet he still felt unsatisfied. This book reminds us that we were made for something else and that winning and losing in life is not about how much you end up with, whether it’s wisdom or pleasure or power or money or fame.
Now in glimpses throughout the book, the disillusioned teacher begins to lay out what he has learned in life and about its meaning and where we find satisfaction. In Ecclesiastes 2:24:
“People can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God.”
Now what he’s saying here is that instead of thinking that your whole life is about pursuing that next big thing, whether it’s a big vacation or a big promotion or a big car or a house of your dreams or a certain kind of retirement, He says, “No. You take every day and you recognize every day is a gift. Every day is a moment where you have an opportunity to experience life to the fullest, knowing that each moment comes from the hand of God. You recognize that each moment is meant to be a gift. Take this moment and fully live into it,” he’s saying.
And I appreciate this bit of wisdom because I struggle with that. I tend to always have my head in the future. I’ve got the rest of my life planned out. I’m thinking about the next project at the church and what we are going to do in the future. I’m thinking about the number of people we want to reach with our missions and ministries. I get excited about something we have planned in the future for my family. I think about that trip we have planned and the fun we will have on the cruise this summer. The writer of Ecclesiastes and the word of God that he speaks to me says this, “Can you just enjoy this day? Instead of always thinking about what is next or what is going to happen in the future, can you accept the gift of the now that God is giving you?”
And I find that’s a challenge for me. And part of what I’ve come to realize, especially in moments in our lives where there’s significant change is you pause and you recognize that fact that you may have missed out on some really important things happening in the moment while you’re focused on the future.
This last week our youngest, Ryan, our “baby” turned 20 years old. We no longer have any teenagers in our household. And he was home this week on a break between his January term and the spring semester. And you know the reality is that while we had him and his brothers in our home for 18 years, except for these nice little breaks, he’s gone. And part of what I recognize is that for those 18 years he lived in our home and how many nights was I gone to meetings, how many games or concerts or how many times was I not there to help him with his homework because there was something really important happening at the church. And it wasn’t the church’s fault, and some of those things were really important. Some of those meetings I really had to be at, but part of what I find myself haunted by is just wondering, “Did I have to be at all of them? Did I really need to pursue all of those dreams and goals and visions?” And those were kingdom visions, they were really important. But sometimes you forget that part of God’s kingdom is the family that God has entrusted to you, and the people who live in your home. And you can’t ever get that back. You just can’t. You can’t reclaim those days once they’re gone.
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us of this important and simple truth in Ecclesiastes 4:7 and following.
“Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless – a miserable business!”
And then he says this: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If they fall down, they can help each other up. But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up!” (Ecclesiastes 4:7-10)
So are you focused so much on your career or your future or your dreams that you fail to spend time in the now, cultivating relationships with people; taking time with people?
And our second simple rule; the first was that, it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. The second simple rule is this: That people come before possessions or positions.
People should come before possessions and positions. Otherwise you might find yourself someday moving towards the end of the game and realizing that you have no one left to share it. People before possessions or positions.
As we look at this truth, we move from the teacher in Ecclesiastes to the Master, Jesus Christ. In Matthew 16 where we find our memory verse for the week, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the fact of His imminent death. And you see the disciples weren’t really prepared for that; that wasn’t what they had in mind when they signed up to follow Jesus. They left their fishing business and their tax collecting business to follow Jesus because He was the King, the Messiah. And when He came into His power, man they would be in. This was a great career path. They would be on His right and left when He claimed authority as the Messiah in Jerusalem. This was a good deal for them.
Except now Jesus turned to them and said, “We are heading into Jerusalem and there the Son of Man will suffer. He will be despised and rejected and put to death.” And the disciples are like, “No way. That is not how it works Jesus. Uh ah. That is not what we signed up for!”
Peter even says to Him, “Lord, may it never be so!” Do you remember what Jesus said to Peter? He said, “Get behind me Satan, because this is the path that I am traveling.”
And part of what He’s reminding us here is that when we’re pursing life; real life; when we seek to win at life, sometimes it’s hard. There are two paths in life, He says. One that’s broad and wide and it leads to destruction and the other is narrow and difficult but it leads to life. And most people take the broad and wide path because they want the easy way. And Jesus says it’s not always easy following after me. It’s sometimes hard. And then he gives them this passage of scripture that we have before us today in Matthew 16.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? (Matthew 16:24-26)
Now if you have looked at the sermon insert you’ll recognize that last line is our scripture memory verse, although the way we’re memorizing it, it says, “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world and lose their soul.” Which is it, life or soul? It’s actually both. That Greek word is “psyche” from which you have the word psychology. The psyche is the soul. It is sometimes considered the heart or the mind; it is one’s very life. It’s not the physical body. He’s not saying you can gain the whole world and lose your body. He’s saying you can gain the whole world and you lose life; lose your soul.
And you know how this works. It’s when we’re so focused on all those things. This is exactly the message Ecclesiastes was about. You can be focused on attaining all of these things and all of your big dreams in life and then one day you wake up and find out there is nothing left inside here.
I remember some years ago a woman came to me to talk about her husband. And she said, “You know I don’t know what happened to him. He was very successful.” And it’s interesting; success has a way of actually wounding our soul. I mean if you’re not careful. Success – what happens is – it’s addictive. You get the taste of victory and it doesn’t satisfy for very long and then you’ve got to go after something else and taste it again. And then something else so you taste it again. And you’re never really satisfied with the present victory for long; you’ve got to go after something else. And you become addicted to success. And all the sudden nothing else seems to matter. And you do things that are just stupid, like you’re a drug addict and you’re taking risks with your family and your friendships because you’ve got to have the victory; you’ve got to have the success. And so you can gain the whole world and lose your soul in the process.
This woman was telling me how her husband, she said, “I don’t know what happened to him. The more successful he became, the less I liked him. He used to be so nice and funny and make me laugh. And now he doesn’t even smile anymore.” What happened to him? Well in the process of gaining the whole world he began to lose his soul.
Sometimes, when we’re in the process of gaining the whole world, we get so busy there is no time left for anything else. That’s what I find sometimes in my own life if I’m not careful. So you’re so busy there’s no time to read the Bible anymore. Right? It would take 5 minutes and you don’t have 5 minutes to give away to read the Bible. And you find yourself so busy you don’t really have time to pray anymore like you used to. And going to a small group study, you know, “Yeah, I can’t really commit to a group study anymore because I’m too busy.”
And then pretty soon, the only time you have left to get more work done, to achieve your goals in life is Sunday morning. And so church is lost and pretty soon God is a distant reality. No longer is God restoring your soul as the shepherd of your soul; and you’ve lost our soul in the process of gaining the world.
That’s part of the reason why this memory verse is so important this week. I would like to invite you to say these words together out loud as we reflect on these questions that Jesus asks us. They’re good to always remember.
Say it with me: “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
So how do we not lose our soul? Jesus asks us these great questions and they can haunt us, so how do we not lose our soul? Well Jesus gives us the answer in this passage of Scripture. He says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.”
Deny yourself: That means, “You know what, my life is not going to be focused on having everything I want; it’s not going to be focused on bringing as much pleasure into my life as possible. I’m not going to focus on me anymore. But I’m going to deny myself and I’m going to focus first on God’s will, and then on living that out towards other people. I’m going to really be more interested in how can I bless you than what can you do for me. I’m going to be more interested in how I can serve rather than being served.”
And Jesus repeats this over and over again. He says, “The one who would be great among you must be your servant.” He says to us, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” Or in this particular case he says that the one who would gain their life should be willing to lose it. And the one who loses their life will find life. So it’s in the process of giving life away.
Even the people who made the Milton Bradley game of Life understood this. So when you’re playing the Game of Life, it’s interesting, there are places you land on here, they’re called, “life spaces.” And the Life Spaces are different from anything else. The rest are either about earning money or paying money out for things like taxes or lawsuits or hospital bills or whatever it may be. But the Life Spaces, well here’s one:
- Volunteer at the Soup Kitchen.
- Learn CPR (so you can save someone else’s life).
- Donate to African Orphans pay $40,000 (By the way if you’d like to do something like that this morning, see me after the service, we’d love to help find a way to do that.)
But I find it fascinating that in this game which is all about gaining property and money that even the makers of this game recognize that Life Spaces, where life is really found is not in taking but rather in giving back. So deny yourself.
And then Jesus says, “Take up your cross…” which is a willingness to sacrifice. It’s a willingness to give up of yourself for someone else. Which is what we’ve just talked about.
And then finally following Jesus. That is knowing Him personally, talking with Him in life, seeking to live your life for Him. Following Him means opening up the scriptures and reading what He actually had to say and then trying to live the path of life that He lived. And it’s in these three things that we find that our soul, that our psyche, our life is restored and not destroyed. It’s where we find life.
Seeking to live your life for Christ and being the presence of Christ in the world changes you and brings life. Here in this church we talk about being the hands and feet and voice of Christ and how that happens in multiple ways, but there are four of them I want to remind you of today.
We become more like Christ and follow him more closely as we connect through worship and being in a Bible study or other small group. We need each other to find this life and we need time with God.
We open up the Scriptures and learn new things about God as we grow and this is part of following Jesus. We try to live the path that he lived and we grow into his likeness as we do that and as we study the Scriptures.
We serve others and in doing so find our soul.
We share the good news that we’ve learned and that brings us hope because we want to bring hope to others. We want to be a river in life and not a reservoir which turns into a stinky pond over time.
Our soul, our psyche and our life is restored when we seek to be the presence of Christ in the world and follow him by connecting to God and growing in our faith and serving others and sharing hope. This is where we find life.
John Ortberg wrote a book a number of years ago which is where I got the title of this sermon from, When the Game is Over It All Goes Back in the Box. It’s a great little book and in it he tells many stories, one of which really struck me as we think about what constitutes winning at the game of life.
It’s the story of Armand Hammer, not the baking soda, but the multi-billionaire who was the president and CEO of Occidental Petroleum for many years. USA Today called him a “giant of capitalism” and “confidant of world leaders.” He was a towering figure on the world scene. But after his death at the age of 92 the true story came out about this man.
He got his start laundering money for the Soviets. After he had made some money he paid writers to write fictitious autobiographies of his life to impress other people. When he was a young man, almost ready to graduate from medical school, he performed an abortion on a young woman and she died during the procedure. His father took the blame for this and spent two years in prison while his son never spoke up to say that it was really him who had done this thing.
He neglected his only son and he never claimed responsibility for a young woman he conceived out of wedlock. He never claimed her as his daughter. He had no friends at his company where he freely fired the executives. When his brother died, he sued his brother’s estate for $677,000 of the $700,000 estate, keeping that money from his brother’s wife who was in a nursing home and his brother’s children. When he died, his own son didn’t attend his funeral and the only people who would carry his casket were the folks who were paid to take care of him in his home. So here’s the question: Hammer was a multibillionaire tycoon, world-renowned leader. Did he win or lose at the game of life?
Now there is another contrasting picture that was in the news a few years ago. It’s the story of a young woman named Sara Tucholsky. Sara was playing in the Division II softball championship. She played for Western Oregon and they were playing Central Washington. She stepped to the plate for her turn at bat and she hit her first ever home run in college softball. Very exciting! She takes off running to first base and as she approaches the bag she heard a pop in her knee and fell to the ground, unable to even walk. The trainers rushed out onto the field and the umpire gently stopped them and told them with pain in his voice, “Officially, this run won’t count unless she physically touches the bases.”
And so her teammates want to come out and they want to carry her around the bases, but the umpire had to stop them and once again painfully explained, “It doesn’t work that way. The rules say that if any of your teammates help you the run does not count and you would have to forfeit the game.”
And so spontaneously, the young women from the opposing team run over to her and pick her up and begin to carry their opponent around the bases. I have a picture of that on the screen.
And there are the women from Central carrying the player from Western around the bases until she scored her first home run in college softball. Now the girls from Central who carried her around the bases lost the game, but I’m just curious, which one’s do you think really won at the game of life? Why do you think people still remember this now nearly 6 years later? Do they remember the team that won the game or the girls who carried their opponent around the bases even though they lost?
Let me ask you this question. Are you winning or losing at the game of life?
As we wrap this up I want to talk about eulogies for a moment. And leads me back to the title of Ortberg’s book. He’s right, when the game is over; it all goes back in the box.
For you, your box may be a pine box, brushed aluminum, or if you have the money, hand rubbed cherry. If you choose, it could be a small box, 7” x 3” x 12” deep. But for all of us, it is all going to go back in the box. Then the question really becomes pertinent.
What did it all mean?
To help sort that out, we pastors show up at your family member’s home and we sit down together in the living room with the closest family and friends. I say, “Tell me about your loved one.” And I take pages of notes. “Where were they born? What were their growing up years like? Did they have a career? If you could summarize and use a single word to describe them, which word would it be? What were they really like?”
And I listen as people begin to tell stories. And in the process, what we’re doing - I’m not writing their eulogy, I’m listening for their eulogy. I’m listening for their life message. Do you realize that all of us have a life message that we are preaching, whether you realize it or not. Your eulogy is being written right now in how you live your life. I just try to summarize what I hear, but I’m not the one who makes it up when it comes time to preach the message as part of the funeral.
And so part of the question I would ask you is this, “Do like the message that you are preaching right now?”
Is the sermon going well for you? If I sat down with your family and closest friends in your living room, what would they say about you? Now you can spend too much time asking that question and then it becomes really narcissistic, but every once in a while it’s good for you to pause and say, “Do I really like this sermon I am preaching with my life right now?”
Today is an opportunity for you to ask that question. It’s also an opportunity to make a change?” You are writing your own eulogy right now with your life. What will they say about you?
Why do you think there were so many people here to pay tribute to a man like Bob Cummins? It’s because his years even though they were far shorter than any of us would have ever hoped, his years were spent denying himself, taking up his cross, and following Jesus. He was a winner at the game of life!
What about you? Are you winning or losing at the game of life?
Do you remember that people are more important and possessions or positions?
Once last little epilogue to this message. You remember an epilogue is that tiny little chapter at the end of a novel where you finally say, “Now after the novel ends, here’s what happened after that.
And I was thinking about the Game of Life, and we’re coming to the end of the game of life, but here’s the cool part; this game of life is just the qualifying round; just the qualifying round for the great game which goes on forever in the Kingdom of Heaven.
You’ve heard me mention before the The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. You get to the last book in the series and you’ve heard the stories of these children who have gone back and forth to Narnia. And then at the end of the last book they die in a tragic train accident.
And then the children wake up in the Kingdom of Heaven. And this is the epilogue for The Chronicles of Narnia: C.S. Lewis writes these words:
“The things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us, this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them, it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page. Now at last they were beginning chapter 1 of the great story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever and which every chapter is better than the one before.”
Ecclesiastes ends with these words. The teacher says,
“Here’s the conclusion of the matter; revere God and keep His commandments for this is the duty of every human being.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
Jesus said it this way: “If any would be my disciples they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
It’s not whether you win or lose, at least not as measured by the world of money or pleasure or power, but its how you play the game. I invite you to follow the One who is the Way the Truth and the Life.
Would you bow your head and pray with me?
With your heads bowed and your eyes closed, I would like to invite you to simply say something like this…
God, there are times in life where I have really blown it…
I’ve been too focused on the future and not lived in the present…
I’ve cared more about success or power or positions or wealth or pleasure then people…
Too many times I have lived for myself…
Forgive me Lord…
Help me to honor you and live for you…
Help me to deny myself…
To take up my cross…
And to follow you…
May my life message be one that’s pleasing to you…
In your holy name I pray, Amen.