So much has happened in our world and in our nation this past week, that on a much lighter note it seems much longer ago than just eleven days when something else happened that had not happened for 108 years and caused over forty million people to watch it on television. Even people who don’t care all that much about Major League Baseball may have been at least a little interested in the fact that after decades and decades of frustration the Chicago Cubs were Winners at Last. On November 2 the Cubs won the World Series of Baseball 108 years after they won their last one. When the third baseman aimed toward the first baseman and made that straight and final throw to end that seventh and final game, euphoria erupted as baseball players of Italian heritage and German heritage and Latin American heritage and African heritage jumped up and down on that field, hugging each other and yelling at the top of their lungs, screaming for joy to know that all the hard work was over and that they were no longer the “loveable losers” that even their own fans had sometimes called them for 108 years, with many of them – players and fans alike — perhaps wondering many a time during all that time if this time would ever come.
You may be wondering the same thing. You may be wondering the same thing not about a sports team but about your life, your joy, your purpose, your attitude — about your work, your school, your spouse, your friend. Am I even a loveable loser, or is that thinking of myself more highly than I ought? Will there ever be victory at last? Can I ever see myself jumping up and down with joy with a heart that is light and free because all the hard work, all the bitter tears, all the foolish mistakes, all the selfish sins are finally over? If you right now are having any thoughts even similar to those – or when you do – listen to the prayer and blessing of the apostle Paul in verses 16-17 of our lesson in the second paragraph in the middle, words which I pray will be at the center of everything I say during the rest of this message: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” Dear friends, right now in your life, may that be so.
Many of us have been part of games where the captains picked sides. That’s the picture that comes to mind when he hear St. Paul’s opening words: But we ought always to thank God for you brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you (God selected you – God picked you) to be saved…” If you got picked early on in one of those games, you could feel pretty good. If you got picked later – or last – it could hurt – maybe even make you feel like a loser. St. Paul says that spiritually speaking there is no room for feeling boastful or feeling despondent, because when you look at one another in this building, whom do you see? You certainly see people loaded with all kinds of worries, and you certainly see people loaded with all kinds of sins, but in that opening verse St. Paul says you can say this above everything else about everyone else: The almighty Creator God is the only captain that counts, and he picked you – and him and her and them. And he picked you – he chose you — to be saved. That means that you are a winner, and that means everyone whom God has chosen to believe that message is someone to thank God for.
But it’s certainly not because of your or me, is it? God reminds us in these words that we have been “saved through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and by belief in the truth.” One of the toughest lessons of life – and one of the most important lessons of life – and one of the most wonderful lessons of life — is to understand the reality that the only way to know that we are winners before God is because God has made us that. Imagine God saying, “I’m going to pick the team that gets to live in heaven after you die. Raise your hand if you want to be on my team. Okay. No one on my team can ever have said something they shouldn’t have said. No one on my team can ever have done something they shouldn’t have done. No one on my team can ever have even thought one little thing they shouldn’t have thought…. I don’t see any more hands up!” Fellow believers in Jesus, that is why the Bible calls it grace that God chose us – love we don’t deserve – and that is why we needed that St. Paul here calls the “sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit” to be the way God got us on his team. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is referring to everything God the Holy Spirit did to take us from someone who did not believe in Jesus when they were born and who could not believe in Jesus on their own at any age of their life – and has made us someone who now looks at Jesus Christ and says, “That is the God-Man who died for my sins. That is my Savior; that is my Lord; that is my All.” The Holy Spirit did that sanctifying work of taking us from people who did not believe the gospel of Jesus to people who do believe the gospel of Jesus through getting us to hear the gospel message of Jesus itself. It was that gospel message of what Jesus did to forgive us – given to us in our baptism – given to us when we hear God’s Word – given to us when we partake of the Lord’s Supper that the Holy Spirit used to set us apart from what we once were and keeps us set us apart from what we once were to make us what we now are — winners through Christ, chosen to be saved.
But God also reminds us that there are many people who don’t want us to stay winners. In the last paragraph of our lesson, St. Paul asks that we pray for him and therefore for one another “that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men, for not everyone has faith.”If you have been on this earth for more than five seconds, this is no big shock. There are people who don’t care one bit about Jesus, and there are people who don’t care one bit about people who believe in Jesus and live for Jesus. But even though it’s not a big shock to know that, it is a big deal in day by day life to deal with it. Sometimes we may find ourselves going along to get along, not wanting to offer a contrary thought to the sinful things they say about marriage or money or God. Sometimes we may even find ourselves not just acting like we’re going along, but actually going along – showing all the more why we need the work of the Holy Spirit, and providing no example whatsoever to those who are the very people who need the example of a child of God to help them see the beauty of a life that is centered in the Son of God.
But all is not lost, even though we have failed so often. In verses 3-4 at the end, St. Paul reminds us that as we keep hearing the gospel message about Jesus’ forgiveness of our sins which the Holy Spirit used to get us to believe it, and which we uses right now to keep us believing it, that “The Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord that you are doing and will continue to do the things we command.” That person who has lied about you, talked bad about you, made your life hard and difficult — forget about it. You have made life difficult, too, but you are a winner in Christ. That person who is someone who is so hard to love — Love him. Love her. You are a hard to love person, too, but you are a winner in Christ. That person who doesn’t think knowing anything about Jesus is important or meaningful at all — Be patient with him. Get to know him. Talk to him. Pray for him. Speak about Jesus to him. Except for the grace of God, you would think the very same thing, but you are a winner in Christ – a winner in Christ who wants to be able to see many more people know the victory of Jesus, which will lead you to be able to say about them what the apostle Paul has said about you, “I ought always to thank God for you, brother and sister, loved by the Lord, because God chose you to be saved — and there is a victory celebration which we are going to get to enjoy together forever.”
Did you hear how many people were estimated to have taken part in the victory parade for the Chicago Cubs two days after they ended their 108 year victory drought? Five million. I read somewhere that if that number is accurate, it was the seventh largest gathering of humanity in one place in the history of the world, even though I have no idea how that person made that determination. If it is true, that is more people than the entire population of more than twenty-five of our states. Whatever the number, that’s a lot of people to be happy about the very same thing at one and the same time.
Did you hear what the apostle John said in the book of Revelation about the number of people who will rejoice about a totally different very same thing when they are in heaven? It’s from Revelation 7: “I looked there before me was a great multitude that no one could count” – and they just weren’t of a few different cultural heritages like the players on that baseball field. St. John says that they were “from every tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing (not pin-striped baseball uniforms but) white robes… And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”
In heaven I don’t know if we will be hugging each other and yelling at the top of our lungs and screaming for all the world to hear, but, to say the least, we will be happy. We will be happy because, despite our sins that should have kept us away from Jesus and despite in our self-pity feeling that sometimes that Jesus was away from us, by God’s grace we were chosen to be saved. By God’s grace we were picked to be on the winning team. By God’s grace, no matter what has gone on before to bring us down and no matter what is going on in your life right now, we will be winners at last – Saints Triumphant. And because you know that, you don’t have to wait until then to celebrate. Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are winners now. Enjoy the victory of eternal life that God will give you later by living the victory every day of your life that God gives you right now. What else can you do when it is God himself who chose you to be saved for now and for ever! Amen.