A great coach named Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. An all-time thing.” His words transcended football, it seems. There are grander themes of victories on many larger playing fields, of life and circumstances. Of every clinching moment when the odds are long, and time is short.
Lombardi, for all his absorption, did mention time. It is not clear whether he meant the timing of winning. Writers, singers, athletes, and every player on life’s playing field know about it. Were generals mentioned? This great leader was a five-star, hovering with his advisors around weather maps, looking for the right “time” to determine the fate of the world. The goal and the only alternative would be victory, at the great price of spilled blood. There would be no second chances. A window came, a break in the weather. There would not be another opportunity for his waiting hordes of invaders, for it was a secret too difficult to keep any longer. He gave the thumbs up. That was General Eisenhower and the day was “D”, June 6, 1944.
There are many sports analogies on victory’s timing, too numerous to list – Hail Mary’s, desperation miracle heaves, puncher’s chance swings; long, undulating putts for the win (a memorable Ryder cup one, as I recall), final kicks (track and soccer). Always, always, with so much at stake in the contest…
…or lives. Captain Sully Sullenburger, of Flight 1549 had just departed New York with his 155 passengers and crew. Sully found his plane engines failing (from birds, of all things), and saw that he had precious few minutes to spare not only the lives of his passengers but also those in the most densely populated area of the planet where his plane might go down. He made a decision and calmly found a way to guide his craft into the Hudson River. Today, every year, those passengers commemorate Captain Sully’s last-hour saving of their lives, when he averted disaster for all on board.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to free all slaves during the Civil War had to come at just the right time – after a decisive Union victory and after months and months of Lincoln studying the political climate and wrangling and debating with his advisors. Historians know that It simply wouldn’t have worked had the proclamation been made even six months earlier.
Heroes, “butterfly effects”, and whole religions are born during last hours and moments of decision. In a part of the Christmas story often overlooked, Jesus’ father Joseph was spoken to by an angel in a dream, and told to get out NOW, to save the baby Jesus’ life. Matthew 2:13-14 makes it clear that Joseph got up at that point – “during the night” - and fled to Egypt. Hesitation of even a few hours was not an option, and he obeyed the angel’s words. If “winning” – saving Jesus’ life – was the goal, he achieved it with obedient and prompt timing.
A man of Cana, a wedding banquet master, let the smooth juices of a fine wine trickle over his palate, unaware that a young man had earlier said to his mother, “My time has not yet come.” But mothers, as we all know, have impeccably – shall we say it, “bad” – timing, while they mean well. It seems Jesus complied in a rather “OK, Mom, if you insist” way. The water became wine, and later the wedding master declared to the surely bewildered bridegroom, “You have saved the best till now.” Little did the master or the bridegroom know who the magician was, or that the Great Fermenter would once again save his best for last, at the cross, at the most important moment in all history, when expectations were high but defeat was lurking.
Director Francis Coppola had a real problem in 1972. Production had begun on what would become the most famous film ever, but he was missing the one actor he sought the most, though no one else agreed. The actor was an unknown who was signed on to another film. Studio brass had said no, but Coppola was insistent:
“Get him on this film at all costs, whatever it takes.”
Coppola won out on this one – almost beyond the last hour. Two weeks after filming had begun, that actor broke his other filming contract and joined the set of The Godfather. For small money ($35,000), and the enduring of ridicule from his own colleagues and even the camera men the first few months, the actor quietly went about his work. Many still thought he was the wrong man until he stuck it - one of the movie’s famous scenes. All the critics shut up from that point on. He turned out to be masterfully what was needed, the perfect fit, at just the right time, for this particular film. In this, his inaugural film role, he launched a legendary career. He was the right man, at just the right moment, brought in at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute – Al Pacino.
Jesus cornered the market on delivering, spiritually, at just the right time. One day he got news of a man, a friend of his, who died. Rather than act immediately, he waited “for three more days” before going and raising that man, Lazarus, from the dead, to the astonishment of all. This was to display God’s glory. Playing the situation for a little drama, he timed it well!
There was never any drama like the last hours of the cross, Jesus’ calculated but gruesome sacrifice to save humanity from sin. Who would have thought that the casual but pointed observation of a wedding manager at a wedding party way back at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry would come to fruition in a different form on this day, when Jesus saved humanity from its worst enemy - sin? :
“You saved the best for now.”
Jesus always gave his best, but it was the last hours when it seems to have counted most.
Compressed into the last pages of the book of Matthew, we learn in great detail how he closed the deal. His friend, the betrayer, came, even as the disciples arose from a stupor of weariness and emotional fatigue. They were spent. Jesus harbored no resentment towards his friend the betrayer or the disciples. The religious leaders made many false charges against him but he remained silent to the charges – to the astonishment of the governor. When he recognized the possibility of another route, or could have traded away his suffering for a more comfortable path, he finally said, “Not my will but yours, be done.”
The Matthew account depicts a perfect tempest, when all evil and sin seemed to convene, in opposition to Jesus. Profoundly, all of us were part of that storm. They – we - spat at him and ridiculed him with a ridiculous head dressing. They traded away a murderer and allowed Jesus to be condemned in his place, all after a mock trial that wouldn’t pass muster in the worst judicial systems on the planet today. There was no evidence, not even to a single charge. To all this he threw the ultimate, fifteenth round haymaker, the Cross. In the ultimate reversal, he floored Satan and released sins’ shackles, if we would choose it. After the authorities and opposition had made a spectacle of him, he made a spectacle of them:
“having cancelled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us, and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” Colossians 2:14-15
It sounds like a famous photograph, of Mohammed Ali, fist clinched in triumph over a fallen foe. But it is Jesus throwing the haymaker, heart clinched in triumph over sin. Thrown in the fifteenth round, at Satan and sin’s grip on us all. Game, match, and contest – OVER. He did all this at “just the right time” and not a moment too soon, when there were no more chances. It was a little Sully, a little Lombard and Lincoln, a little D-Day, and much, much more.
“At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom 5:6)
The church of Jesus abounds with stories of those who were headed for certain spiritual or even physical death. Whether we realized it or not, this was our plight. The Greenville church teems with new disciples, the restored, and all who would come and see what God is doing. In response to the question,
“What does it mean that at ‘just the right time, Christ died for you?’”, one new disciple stated,
“I was not open to God when I was in a rebellious stage, and it was as if God waited on me. After a period, my heart was better, and that is when I was reached out to and converted. God knew the best time.”
These and many others in Greenville reflect an overall trend in all the southeastern churches. For all of these disciples, God acted at just the right time, “while we were still powerless” (Rom 5:6). Not only in history did God act at just the right time, giving us the solution to sin, but he has acted so in our individual lives. Now that we know the truth, we should not hold back, but pray for God to “enable (us) to speak with great boldness” (Acts 4:29). This requires but to open our mouths and befriend many with the message.
When it comes to God’s working in the souls of men, timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. An all-time thing.