Many moons ago I had the opportunity to play some college soccer for four years at a small Christian college in Portland, OR. We had a few unremarkable seasons until my senior year when we won the whole ball of wax, but that is a story for another time. I believe it was during my second season, we had an unfortunate set of circumstances with illnesses and ineligibilities that left us with eight eligible, available players for one game. Our coach made a pre-game agreement with the opposing coach to play the game 8 on 8…we would forfeit, so it wouldn’t matter. Well, as it turned out, the opposing team came out with 11 players against us. Our coach encouraged us to give it our best, and we played most of the game on our half of the field. At the end of the half, we were only down 3-0, and we felt like we were actually winning…and they were feeling defeated – perspective is an interesting thing. They wore us down in the second half, and we ended up losing 10-0. We believed that we played fairly well, and that it could have been much worse. It was only a game, but it is a game I still remember, because I believe we handled ourselves as good Christian citizens, even if the other team may not have done so.
Let’s fast forward about 15 years, and I am coaching a high school girls JV soccer team in SE Washington. We had a number of good players that were talented, and I believe our record was about .500 when we came up against a perennial power in our conference. Due to certain circumstances beyond our control, we had a number of players succumb to illness and two who were declared academically ineligible. Stop me if you have heard this before, but we had eight players who were able to suit up. I contacted the JV head coach from the other team and we had an agreement to play them, 8 on 8. We would forfeit to them and play the game anyway. When we showed up to the field, the Varsity head coach from that team was there and he directed his JV coach to…you guessed it…put 11 players on the field. I could tell that the JV coach felt bad about breaking the agreement, but the head coach was kind of smug about it…they were going to take us to the woodshed and give us a beating. I told the girls that I had been down this road before, and so we lined up much like our college team did, with a 3-3-1 line up, as opposed to the usual 4-3-3. I was exceedingly proud of my girls, as they played hard and defended well, and at the end of the half the score was? Yes – 3-0. The feelings were much the same as our college team…we felt like we had actually won the half, while the opponents looked defeated. We had a good half-time session and our girls came out with some good energy. I was just hoping to keep it within about 10-0, like our college team. Well…a funny thing happened. My center midfielder was able to thread a pass to our forward who was able to get a fast break. She beat the defenders and the goalie and scored! We couldn’t believe it – we scored and it was 3-1. Now, I would like to believe that I am a faithful person, but I had not seen too many miracles in my life…but, there was a small part of me that said – could the improbable happen? Could we actually make some sort of a comeback down three? Or girls were pumped, and the other team’s players were on their heels. Our girls exhibited the best control of the ball that I had ever seen them exhibit that half and we were able to run the play to our forward again, and she was able split the defense for a another goal, making it 3-2. Finally, we were able to put together a really good cross, redirect play down the field and score our third goal to make it 3-3 – true story! I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The coaches on the other sideline were screaming, but I was feeling mighty good…in a Christian sort of way. With about five minutes left in the half, one of my midfielders was able to get a break and she had a really makeable shot on goal, but put it just wide to the right, so we just missed on the go-ahead goal. Nonetheless, we held them the last few minutes to end the game in a 3-3 tie. Let me tell you…we had a victory celebration! And they looked entirely defeated. They were good sports, as we all shook hands at the end of the game, and the JV coach was congratulatory of our efforts. The disgusted head coach of the other team wouldn’t come out on the field to show any sportsmanship…and I had all I could not to yell – How do you like them apples?! But, I didn’t…I was good sport…and just smiled (grinned) and walked back to our sideline. I thanked the Lord for a fulfilling result from the game…and even a positive fulfillment for the memory from 15 years before…as well as a story I can now share more than a decade later.
Why do I share these stories? I want you to know, as you have probably heard, that preparation, perseverance and faithfulness can bring about good results. Do not ever give up! It is easy to do, I know. I have been on the winning and losing side of many games as a player and a coach in a number of sports. But, it was almost like the Lord afforded us a reward for hard work, good attitudes, good play and we were very grateful. Do I believe God plays team favorites? No, but I do believe that he rewards the faithfulness of individuals…and that can affect an entire team. For our team, it was a real bonding time. We finished the season a little over .500 for the season, but we all had a memory that would last a lifetime from that one game.
In Matthew 17:14ff, Jesus and three of his disciples (Peter, James and John) come down from “the mount of transfiguration” to “the valley of need,” where they meet up with a distraught father of a sick child. There is a lot going on in this situation. The father has appealed to the nine remaining disciples to help heal his son…which they were not able to do. Not helping were opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, who are always looking to try to catch, trap Jesus or the disciples to seek to cause them to stumble. (There are occasionally opponents in life…some good, some bad). The scribes are accusing them…and while the disciples are defending themselves, nothing is going well. The father in the situation sees Jesus and rushes to Him. The Lord’s first response is one of sorrow, as He sees the embarrassed disciples, the arguing Scribes, as well as the needy father and son -- what a circus! Jesus expresses some frustration with their unbelief. He heals the boy and gives him to his father…all while the crowds marvel and give glory to God. Somehow, during the Lord’s absence, the nine disciples had become lazy, selfish, distracted – they lost their focus! Their faith weakened when the crisis came, because they were unprepared. From this experience, we see the importance of staying spiritually faithful and healthy. Jesus concludes the experience by talking with them about “faith the size of a mustard seed,” which suggests not only size (a small seed that can turn into a large plant), but also life and growth (that God will honor even a little faith -- there are great possibilities!) “Faith like a mustard seed” is a “living faith” that is nurtured and caused to grow…and this makes moving mountains possible.
Faithfulness can and will lead to great things! But, it must be cultivated in order to do even greater things for God…and the kingdom of God. It doesn’t take much faith to move mountains…only a mustard seed sized faith. Jesus is calling His disciples, calling us to something far beyond this. The Lord may admonish us, as he did the disciples, if we continue to make the same mistakes and are not striving for genuine spiritual growth. The Lord does expect us to learn, grow and depend upon Him for our spiritual strength and sustenance.