Crossroads Presbyterian Church
The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004

Unexpected Olympians of Faith
Year C - 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 12:18-29

The Decathlon

His mom is Japanese and his father, Afro-American. He grew up in Hawaii, a state that has produced only one Olympian. He was expelled from kindergarten because he could not play with the other kids. Later in grade school, he would get into fights with other children and bite them on the check. His anger prevented him from participating in league sports. To release some of his energy he turned to track and field. No one expected, Brian Clay to become a great athlete.

After high school, he enrolled in a small NAIA division Christian university, Azusa Pacific. It produced one Olympic decathlete; Dave Johnson but that may have been a fluke. No one expected a 5’ 11” and 174 pounds athlete to become great.1

When the Olympic trials began Brian Clay had been two-time US Outdoor, decathlon champion, runner up in the 2004 Heptathlon but few people expected to win the decathlon. The odds on favorite was 6’ 4” 235 lbs, Tom Pappas, the decathlon star from the University of Tennessee whose Greek ancestry would have made a great storyline for the Athens Games. But a not so strange thing happened on the way to Greece, on the second and last day of competition Brian Clay turned in three personal bests in the discus, pole vault, and javelin to better Pappas by 43 points. The headlines to the story on MSNBC read, “Clay surprisingly wins trials decathlon.”2 What no one else expected, Brian Clay accomplished. In our Scripture passage today we have a list of people who were never expected to do great things for God, yet each in his or her own small way became an unexpected Olympian of faith. Their stories remind us that even when no one else expects much from us, God can still accomplish great things in our lives.

Hebraic Characters

To any reader of the Old Testament the names and stories should be very familiar. That may cause a small problem. We tend to elevate our heroes and endow them with special God-given attributes and skills that are vastly superior to us mere mortals. While that may be true with athletics, it is not true in matters of faith. Actually, when we consider the character of the characters listed in the book of Hebrews we discover that these people were not always shining role models. Most of them almost ruined their lives at one point. Their deeds were not absent-minded miscues or procrastinating indecision. Their transgressions shower a blatant disregard for others. The list contains an exhibitionist, two murderers, a prostitute, a war criminal, a child abuser, and an adulterer. What a grand assortment of characters? Can you match the person and the crime?

Isaiah is not referred to by name but tradition claims that he was sawed in two. However, before his execution he once walked around the city of Jerusalem stark naked telling the people that the city was about to be destroyed. The remaining survivors would not be making a guest appearance on the next reality TV series, either. Instead, they would be dragged into captivity naked. Before Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through the sea that destroyed the Egyptians, he killed an Egyptian in a moment of rage. He had to flee into the land of Midian to avoid arrest. The other murderer was David. He conspired to have his best army commander killed in battle to conceal his act of adultery with the officer’s wife; former President Clinton’s crimes pale in comparison to this Jewish monarch.

After the death of Moses, Joshua leads the people into the Promised Land in conquest. When they come to the city of Jericho, he sends a group of soldiers ahead to serve as spies. Their presence is discovered and the governor of Jericho puts a price on their heads. With the city gates are closed and they have to hide, so they turn to a prostitute named Rahab. The narrative implies that they may have turned to her for more than a secretive closet but that story is for another sermon. Rahab not only hides the men but also helps them escape on the condition that they spare her life when the city is destroyed.

After his defeat of the Midianites, Gideon orders two military leaders dragged before him. After a very brief interrogation, he runs a sword through killing them in retaliation for the death of his brothers in an earlier battle. The army commander did not order a military tribunal so that the rights of the accused would be protected; Gideon served as judge, jury, and executioner. Latter before a battle, Jephthah vowed to sacrifice the first thing that came through his door if the Lord would give him victory. Upon his triumphant return home, his daughter was the first person to run out of the house and greet him. While some scholars doubt that he actually did sacrified the young maiden, the book of Judges implies that Jephtah fulfilled his vow.

These are the men and women of faith that the author of Hebrew holds up as testimonies of sainthood. Some even became ancestors of Jesus. Matthew list both David and Rahab in the genealogy of our Lord. And you think your relatives are an embarrassment, how would you like to explain to people that you are a direct descendant of a hooker and a murder.

The history of God’s people is not a story about how good, respectable, religious people do great things. It is a story about how God uses misfits, liars, thieves, murderers, prostitutes, and even a coward to accomplish his plans. Allow me to ask you too very personal questions. What dastardly deed have you done that could possible exempt you from being used by God? What blatant act of evil could you have committed that would so tarnish your reputation that God would never think to call you into service? Unless you are hiding a very dark, and very sinister past, I would like to suggest that no one in this room could compete in a game of ‘Can You Top This!’ with the saints from the book of Hebrews.

We do not know who wrote this but in these chapters, the author displays a very Pauline theology. He knows what it means to be saved by grace. He knew the stories from the Law, the Writings and the Prophets, the books we call the Old Testament. He knew what each person had done. They were not secrets. They were not contained in hidden documents that had been discovered only recently. They were told over and over again by the Rabbis in the synagogue on Sabbath. Parents told their daughters and sons the stories. Any child could retell the accounts. They had committed the legends to memory. The people of God did great things, not because of their skills, or their religious righteousness but because of their faith.

We should ask ourselves, do we have their type of faith?

The Past is Past

As we consider their lives, I see several common themes in the lives of these unexpected Olympians. First, they put the past in the past and lived exclusively in the present. Each person had committed serious crimes against God. They had trampled upon the edicts of the Law, some more severe than others, but God still called them and used them to accomplish his plan.

People live in the past for many reasons. Some use it to garner attention from others. By the repeated lamenting of past misdeeds, they receive sympathy and affirmation. We usually offer words of encouragement to former prodigals. We want them to know that they made the right decision to admit the mistakes of their past and turn to Christ. Unfortunately, some people enjoy the attention so much that they never move on. Others use the past to prevent taking responsibility in the present. The fear of failure haunts us. A lazy spirit may just not want to put in the work and effort that the present requires. By regurgitating past misconduct we can prevent others from expecting anything from us now.

But the time comes when God expects us to live in the present by faith. At first Moses balked, even after 40 years he could not forget the taking of a human life. He feared that someone in Egypt would remember his notorious crime. It was a struggle but he finally laid aside the haunting memories and responded to God’s present call. Rahab was a woman with a reputation but after the conquest of Jericho she became the wife of Salmon and bore a son named Boaz who married Ruth. They bore a son named Obed who fathered a son named Jesse whose youngest son, David became King of Israel.

By faith, these people lived in the present and served God?

Will we be people who live in the past or by faith live the present?

Faith in God to Work in You

Not only were the saints of the OT able to put the past behind but they also knew that the source of their strength was not in themselves but in the God who had called them.

Jericho appears to have been a small but very prominent city in the ancient world, strategically located near an oasis. The book of Joshua uses it as a reference point to note the movement of Israel in the desert. It was one of the few places that Moses was allowed to see from Mt Nebo on the other side of the Jordon. It was also a heavily fortified city. Even to a well-equipped, well-trained, well-seasoned army, it posed a formidable challenge. But God wanted to show his people that their strength did not lie in their military might soGod sent an angel to Joshua with a very unorthodox 7-day strategy. The army was not to storm the walls but instead they were to walk around the city. The next day, seven priests were to circle the city blowing their horns. The were to repeat this routine for the next five days. Then on the seventh day, the priest were to walk around the city six times blowing their horn but on the seventh trip the people were to join their voices to the noise of the trumpets. With the blasts of the trumpets and the shouts of the people, the walls of Jericho came crashing to the ground and the people conquered the city.

The account of Joshua’s triumphant victory had left an indelible mark on the memory of the people. Centuries later the people of Israel again faced an enemy that was stronger and protected by heavily fortified walls in the city of Caspis. Their leader, Judas Maccabes, gathered the people together and they called upon “the Lord of the world who without any rams or engines of war did cast down Jericho in the time of Joshua3” Relying on the success of their ancestors, they placed their faith in God and miraculous triumphant over another enemy. These two victories were accomplished by people who thought more about what God could do through them and less about what they could not do. The people were willing to believe that God could make their obvious weakness able for the incredible task.

The challenges we face in our ministry together is trivial compared to the challenges of Jericho or Caspis but to us they seem overwhelming. The needs of the Lakes area community are far greater than one small church can meet unless its membership believes in a powerful God. One needy family can quickly drain are available funds The Building and Grounds Ministry Team will be submitting their report to Session on the renovation of the manse. In addition to the manse, we have another pressing need in this that we have been ignoring for too long. Each winter we wastes hundreds of dollars because the windows in this sanctuary are nothing more than a thin sheet of plastic. They should have been replaced a decade ago with double paned glass. All these projects will be expensive. But will we focus on our limited resources or the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.

By faith, Israel believed that God could accomplished his plans through them and he did. By faith, the leaders of Israel believed that even in their frailty, God could display his strength; even in their scarcity of resources, God could abundantly provide and he did.

Will we be people who limit our ministry because we just a small church, with only a few people and only meager resources? Or will we be people who serve by faith the God whose power is display through our weakness?

Faith Beyond Facts

The third characteristic of the saints from the book of Hebrews is that they were people who believed in a promise despite the facts of reality. How could Moses know that the water would divide with the raising of his arms? What facts could Joshua use to convince the people of Israel that the walls of Jericho would fall down with the blast of a triumph and the sound of their voice? Gideon, Jephtah, and David did not have any military intelligence that indicated that their badly outnumbered soldiers could defeat a vastly superior army. Yet, each man went into battle and by faith triumphed.

Some of you may still remember the 1995 Big Ten football season. It was a season to remember because that year Northwestern University shocked the sports world by going to the Rose Bowl. No one believed that the most academically demanding and smallest school could compete on the football field against the behemoths from Columbus OH and those two other schools in Michigan except one man, the coach. He ordered a Tournament of Roses flag for the football building and kept a silk rose on his desk to remind everyone where the team was going. At the very first meeting of the season, he told the players that the only thing that they needed was to believe without evidence.4

Will we be people who believe without any evidence?

The unexpected Olympian Brian Clay is now getting ready to compete for a gold medal. It did not happen without hours of training. It required dedication and commitment but Brian would not have been able to devote his entire life to pursuing his dream unless he believed, unless he believed by faith that his dream could become a realty.


What dream do you have for this church? Would you like to see us accomplish great things for God? Have you ever dreamed that this church could have a major impact on the drug traffic in the Walled Lake schools? Have you ever dreamed that this church could relieve the anguish of women and children who suffer from domestic violence? Have you ever dreamed that this church could play a significant role in mending broken marriages? Have you ever dreamed that we could be a community of healing for people suffering from chronic illness or terminal cancer?

We could be all these things but it is going to take people who are able to put the past behind them and walk in the present by faith. Those dreams will require people who are able to believe in a God who can work through their weakness. Those dreams will require us to begin and believe even without any evidence.

Are you ready to be an unexpected Olympian of faith?

1 John Weyler, “An Overlooked Star” The Los Angeles Times, [on-line] available,1,4860447.story, 13-August-2004.

2 “Clay surprisingly wins trials decathlon” [on-line] available, 12-August-2004.

3The Letter to the Hebrews. Edited by Barclay, William, lecturer in the University of Glasgow. The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975.

4 Sherman L. Burford Fairmont, West Virginia cited in Leadership Journal. Summer, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Page 64.

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390