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The Theology of Baseball


Growing up in my father's house, it was not possible to be indifferent to the American League pennant race. My father loved baseball. He was a Detroit Tigers fan, and he passed on the addiction to all of his children. From early spring to mid-October, it was part of the air we breathed. Whatever we were doing during the weekends, the voice of Van Patrick reporting the Tiger games was a part of it. Even now when I hear the sounds of a baseball game on the radio, I still hearken to it.

No matter who the teams are or what's happening in the game, there's something about the sound of baseball reporting that is different from anything else. There's something about the world of baseball that gets into one's blood. It's a world that intertwines with our daily lives. Once you have spent a summer immersed in league standings and batting averages, once you have agonized through a tough pennant race with a team, you never quite recover from it.

Baseball is about perfection

The world of baseball is a dramatic presentation of some of life's most important and universal lessons. I'm not saying that Abner Doubleday intended to make a theological statement about the meaning of life when he invented the game of baseball. But he did invent a game that dramatizes the very human predicament of trying to measure up to a standard of perfection and always falling short.

The apostle Paul talked a lot about standards of perfection that are impossible to meet. To Paul, those standards were the Hebrew law. Paul said the law is a curse, always reminding us of how inadequate we really are. The law, he says, is set up to show us that we cannot do right; we can never be good enough because we cannot live up to its standards. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," Paul says in his letter to the Romans.

Baseball is a lot like that. Baseball is a game of measuring things against impossible standards—a game of numbers. Everything is added up and written down somewhere. In any good Sunday paper you can find hundreds of numbers that refer to different teams and players. You can find the batting averages of all the players in the major leagues. You can read about RBIs and ERAs and fielding percentages compared against every other player in the league. A player's batting average is printed in the paper. It's announced over the radio and flashed in bright lights on the stadium scoreboard—all carried out to the three decimal points. Nobody says, "He's hitting pretty well." They say, "He's hitting .276." It's all about very precise measurements. There is no way to pretend success. There is no way to hide failure. The numbers are right there in the book.

The interesting thing about it is that nobody does very well. The very best hitters get about three hits in every ten tries. That's not a very good percentage for most jobs. But if you get three out of ten in baseball, they give you a million-dollar salary. If you do it several years in a row, they put you in the Hall of Fame.
Take Mickey Mantle, for instance. Mantle is one of the all-time greats of the game. He hit towering home runs from either side of the plate. Yet Mickey Mantle struck out 1,710 times in his career. That's a lot of strikeouts, but he's one of the all-time great stars.

Nobody is very good when measured against that absolute batting standard of 1000. That's a tough standard to fall short of with the whole world watching. Everyone falls short of it. No one has even come halfway to perfection over the course of the season. All have fallen short.

The apostle Paul would appreciate the similarities in the batting average standard and the inability of anyone to come anywhere near living up to it. Baseball is a hard, judging master of anyone who sets out to be good at it. And life is a lot like that, too.

Baseball is about grace

But there's another side to baseball—a side that is more like the gift of grace. In baseball, everyone gets a chance to bat. Everyone gets the same number of balls and strikes. Each team gets the same number of outs. And what makes baseball more fair than some other sports is that it has no clock. Maybe this makes the game even more fair than life itself, because in baseball you don't run out of time. Unless it rains, every one gets their innings—as many as it takes to decide who wins and who loses. As that great baseball theologian, Yogi Berra, said, "It ain't over till it's over." In baseball there is always the possibility that the unexpected will happen. There is always time for redemption.

Take the case of Bob Brenly. In 1986 he was playing third base for the San Francisco Giants. In the fourth inning of a game against the Atlanta Braves, Brenly made an error on a routine ground ball. Four batters later he kicked away another grounder. And then while he was scrambling after the ball, he threw wildly past home plate trying to get the runner there. He made two errors on the same play. A few minutes later, he muffed yet another play to become the first player in the twentieth century to make four errors in one inning. Now, those of us who have made very public errors in one situation or another can easily imagine how he felt during that long walk off the field at the end of that inning. But then in the bottom of the fifth, Brenly hit a home run. Then in the seventh, he hit a bases-loaded single, driving in two runs and tying the game. Then in the bottom of the ninth, Brenly came up to bat again with two outs. He ran the count to three and two and then hit a massive home run into the left field seats to win the game for the Giants. Brenly's score card for that day came to three hits in five at bats, two home runs, four errors, four runs allowed, four runs driven in, including the game-winner.

Certainly life is a lot like that—a mixture of hits and errors. And there is grace in that. Grace means that you'll always have another chance. Grace won't exactly erase your errors, but it will give you a chance to make up for them. If we are just .200, God will hit .850 to more than fill in the gaps. It's not over till it's over. There are still more surprises waiting. Paul puts it like this: "Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. … Because in his divine forbearance, Jesus had passed over former sins."

Even the apostle himself made a lot of errors in his life. He was a Pharisee, the ultimate enemy of Jesus, the feared and hated persecutor of the early disciples; he had systematically attempted to destroy the church by annihilating its members. But Jesus found him and turned him around and set him on a new course, building a church in which the forgiveness of Christ was offered to everyone—no membership tests, no lines of birth or race or accomplishment, a church for people who had made errors.

In fact, Jesus spent most of his time with people who had made a lot of errors—people who had gone 0 for 4 in life, people who had often dropped the ball. "Losers" we might call them: uneducated fishermen, prostitutes, people afflicted with unpleasant diseases and mental disorders, tax collectors, adulteresses, the outcasts, the poor, the unacceptable, and the lost. Jesus came to seek and save the lost.


In Christ, the scorekeeper cancels the errors, gives the losers another chance, a new start, a new beginning. Jesus looks past the errors to the possibilities of the future. With God it's not over till it's over. Nothing is finished until God is finished with it. No one is finished until God has completed them. One of the chances that we all get in life is the chance to make errors, and all of us do that to some extent, some more than others. But with Christ, we always have another chance. We always have the possibility of a comeback. God's love is always seeking us, always following us, always overlooking the errors and giving us still another inning, still another chance at bat.

It ain't over till it's over.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

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Sermon Outline:


I. Baseball is about perfection

II. Baseball is about grace