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The Gospel According to Lombardi
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"Winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing!!” Every good sports fan knows where those seven unforgettable words come from: the late, great football coach Vincent Lombardi. This hot-blooded Italian tyrant screamed that philosophy into the ears and minds of his world champion Green Bay Packers every single day during the preseason, the season, and the postseason. And there was a lot of postseason for the Lombardi teams during the heyday of the green-and-gold men from Wisconsin. He let his Packers know in no uncertain terms that he wouldn't put up with losing. Winning—and the efforts associated with winning—were the only thing to hard-driving, loud-screaming, apoplectic red-in-the-face Vince Lombardi.

Right guard Jerry Kramer, part of the 1967 championship Packer team's offensive unit, wrote in his memoirs entitled Instant Replay how Lombardi would yell at the team about outside interests. "You guys are into too many of your own things!" he would scream at them during practice. "You want to go off hunting on your day off; you want to play cards; you own too many restaurants and scuba-diving stores; you're off making commercials and selling franchises and trying to get yourselves on television. What we want to do is play football and WIN! Winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing!” Lombardi wanted his players to cast aside everything that didn't contribute to victory.

Kramer recalled one shouting match where Coach Lombardi flatly declared that he would not be part of a second-place team. He would sell players, he would trade players, he might even shoot players. But he wouldn't be a second-place coach. "I've been in second place," he hollered at his cringing players as plaster fell down from off the ceiling and the windows in the locker room vibrated. "Second place is being a hinky-dinky team playing in a hinky-dinky town in front of hinky-dinky fans. That's all second-place is: hinky-dinky. And I'm never going to do it again."

Kramer observed later that only Lombardi could use an expression like "hinky-dinky" in front of 270-pound football players and get away with it.

Well, perhaps you’re wondering what the point is to my rather colorful football memory. I’ve always been thankful that, as Sabbath-keeping Christians, this church doesn’t have to compete with NFL games each weekend. But can we who are believers learn something from what happens in stadiums Sunday afternoon?

I want to spend the next few weeks inviting you to join me for something I’m going to simply call this: Your Biggest Decision. We all have to make choices each day: what to wear, where to work or go to school, what kind of mate we would like to have in life. How are we going to vote in the next election? What kind of education are we going to seek for our children? These are major choices, and they carry a lot of weight as they impact our future and the future of people we love. But there’s something much bigger for us to weigh, and that’s what I want to have the Holy Spirit lead us into considering.

Here’s that bigger thing: knowing God. Coming into a real and personal and concrete relationship with God our Father, and Jesus Christ His Son. Being God’s friend and also being totally committed men and women for Him.

Now, you may immediately react: "Pastor, we already know that stuff. We were raised on it.” Well, perhaps so. On the other hand, you know, I'm not sure we DO know "that stuff.” The business of salvation and having a REAL relationship with Jesus Christ is sometimes desperately elusive even to people who have been sitting in Christian churches for 30 years. People can attend church, read their Bibles, attend prayer meeting, and even watch It Is Written each weekend and still not truly understand the rock-bottom nuts and bolts of the Christian faith.

An Adventist pastor once went to one of our summer camp meetings, where he was assigned to speak to the earliteens. One evening he asked them straight out: "What is grace? Can you define it for me?” There was a long pause as the children stared blankly at him. Finally, one of them timidly asked if it was the prayer we said before dinner. Another kid had the idea that it was being elegant and fancy when you set the table for dinner, as in “She was graceful.” But when it came to “Amazing Grace” and what the Bible teaches regarding this crucial element in our salvation, they didn't know. Not ONE of them. Kids raised in Christian homes and going to Christian schools and churches—and this vital fundamental definition was something they didn’t know.

So this is where we want to begin together. These aren’t going to be very complicated sermons; I’m committed to nothing but plain, straightforward talk during these next few weeks. How do we get to know God? Really KNOW Him? Starting now, we want to keep peeling away the layers until you and I can say with absolute assurance: "Praise God, I understand the gospel message. At this very moment, I know that I'm in a saved relationship with Jesus."

So, you see, this is where my Vince Lombardi football story fits in. "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing!" he used to say. That slogan was hanging on the wall at all times. Now, you and I might not agree with his philosophy; we might remember instead, "It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” Or the more common expression: "Winning isn't everything . . . period."

But the singleness of purpose, the focus, the all-out commitment contained in Lombardi's philosophy is what I want you to hang onto today. Is it possible to say to ourselves right now, "Knowing God isn't everything, it's the only thing"? Is it possible that knowing what God is like and then actually knowing God Himself is the entire basis of the Christian faith?

I'd like to suggest that this is actually the case. And the Bible states as much in the book of John chapter 17, verse three: "Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent."

That's it. There’s nothing complicated about this. There’s nothing real baffling about it. Twenty-one very plain English words. Let's say them again. "Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent."

One of the really exceptional books  you can read on this subject is entitled The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer. If you want your mind to be expanded during this sermon series, get yourself a copy of that book. He suggests that understanding what God is like, knowing about God, is the paramount challenge of the Christian. In fact, let me express this in two ways. First, misunderstanding the nature of God is deadly. On the other hand, knowing Him is vital. Listen to this: "The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is" (foreword, page 8).

Then just one page later, he adds this plain statement: "What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us" (page 1).

Think of the many Bible stories where people didn’t understand the nature of God—and it brought them difficulties. Cain didn’t comprehend what God was like or what He wanted. The Children of Israel misunderstood what their heavenly Father demanded of them. The Pharisees were in confusion about God. The disciples spent three-and-a-half years with Jesus, and still had many questions about the nature of God and His dealings with the human race. They assumed that Jesus would want to discriminate against the Samaritans just like they had always done.

You know, there's a New Testament Bible parable that corroborates this idea that knowing God isn't everything, it's the only thing. Do you recall the story of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25? They were all ready to go to the wedding feast, but only the five wise young ladies had extra oil for their lamps. When the wedding party was delayed, all ten fell asleep, you remember. Then at the midnight hour, when the bridegroom finally showed up, the five foolish virgins had to head into town, trying to find a 24-hour lamp-oil store still open. And they missed the wedding.

But the cruncher of the evening, the sound bite we want to notice, is this one. When the foolish virgins knocked on the door, the bridegroom said to them four gut-wrenching words: "I . . . DON'T . . . KNOW . . . YOU."

Now, we could discuss for a month the nuances of this story. What does the oil represent? Is it significant that the bridegroom came at midnight? What made the bridegroom disavow knowledge of these five girls? What does it mean to be prepared all the time for the Lord's coming? Those are great questions. But the bottom line is those four words: "I don’t know you.” Jesus very clearly states that to know God is vital. It's not everything, it's the only thing.

There are world religions where your behavior or performance are the all-important ingredient. It's what you do that counts for eternity. Life is a quest for “merit,” for balancing the scales, for making sure there are more good deeds than evil ones. Buddhism is an endless search for a positive karma, for acts of kindness which outweigh a person’s dark thoughts.

There are other religions where it matters WHAT you know. Having a certain body of knowledge is critical; you learn certain principles or facts. You need a seminary education.

There are even religious systems where simply being born into the right circumstances or the right family can be enough. If you come into the world in the right place and from the right set of parents, you're basically accepted as being IN. Many of us with long family histories in the Adventist faith find it too easy to fall prey to this kind of mentality. 

But here is the inescapable fact. Only in the Christian faith can we really say: "It's not WHAT you know, it's WHO you know.” Christianity has to do with knowing God and knowing His Son, Jesus Christ. Christianity, more than any other faith or system or religion, is built upon a relationship. I remember hearing a praise song years ago where God Himself puts it in these stark terms: “What have you done with My Son?”

Let me make two points here before we close today. There's a difference, certainly, between knowing about God and knowing God Himself. Some of God's worst enemies in the universe—one of them named Lucifer, for example—know all ABOUT God better than we do. The Bible tells us that the demons believe . . . and tremble. But our challenge, our Super Bowl focus, is to know God Himself. And then to commit ourselves to trusting in Him because we know Him.

As Tozer would say, though, the best way to get to know God is to first get to know about Him. What kind of character does He have? What's He like? What are His intentions and attitudes and emotions toward us? Getting to know about Him is one of the key ways to get to know Him. It works that way in all of our friendships, our relationships, even our marriage commitments. And it works that way here.

All of us can think of those first magical days when we fell in love with that special person. And what filled our days and evenings with pleasant and growing love? To spend time with each other, to get to know their mind and their character and their likes and dislikes and secret ambitions. To come to be familiar with the wonderful things which make them tick. To embrace and share their value system.

With that in mind, let's be aware of the greatest challenge and pitfall that faces any man or woman living in this I-Pod-driven 21st century. IF knowing God is the most important thing in the world, IF it is indeed not just everything, but the only thing . . . it makes absolute sense that our enemy, Satan, will bend every ounce of his energies toward preventing that very thing from happening. The devil will do all he can, to keep you from knowing God. He'll sidetrack you any way he can.

Do you go to church each week? Fine, the devil says, as long as you don't really know God. He will try to keep your time at church a social time, a gossiping time, a drowsy time, a frantic time of making sure your kids are in the right Sabbath School division and that you have your casserole for the potluck. He will flood your mind with distractions during every portion of the service that might help you to know God a little bit better.

Are you obedient to the Ten Commandments? Are you a good citizen? No problem, says our enemy, as long as you don't know God. The Pharisees were scrupulous and punctilious about keeping the Ten Commandments, and especially the fourth one. But they didn’t know God very well; they didn’t recognize Him when He arrived at the synagogue. Their busy spiritual lives had precluded the one thing that should have been their highest priority. 

Are you the kind who packs your head full of religious thoughts and details and creeds until you're a walking, breathing, CD-ROM encyclopedia? I have met faithful believers who could argue any doctrine over a potluck dinner until they were read in the face. They had compilations of quotations and CDs from their favorite fringe ministry; they had mastered the intricacies of this theory or that. And I sometimes wonder if Satan doesn’t even mind these debate projects, as long as your head full of knowledge doesn't lead you to know God.

Are you harassed and beset by sin? Wonderful, the devil says. Lying and laziness and lust and liquor-store looting can keep you from knowing God. He certainly worked on King David and Judas that way.

As we examine the pitfalls before us, can we conclude that the devil will try anything, suggest anything, promote anything that will keep you from entering into a relationship where you know and love God? He's like an oily-haired salesman standing outside the wire fence of the Green Bay Packers training field. “Psssst! Over here! I’ve got something to show you! Come check out these discount Rolexes.” He'll offer you any distraction that will keep you from focusing on that ONE THING you and I are committing to during this special time of Bible study. He'll interrupt your life a thousand times. But friend, our training camp is happening right here. Every Sabbath morning right here. We're going for Super Bowl rings. Shall we pray?

Father in heaven, we realize that to know You and to love You and to trust You is our highest priority. We want our faith in You to grow as a result of our faithfulness in seeking Your face and Your friendship. Please nurture and expand our efforts to become Your friends and Your children. Send Your angels to guard our pathways and to keep us from straying away. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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