Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Don't Run Off Tackle Left"

Psalm 81

Jeremiah 2: 4-13

      The 81st Psalm we’re about to read is called a “festival song.”  It was written with the intent that

it be chanted or sung at the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, when the grapes were in the presses, and

when the worshipers hearts were brimming over with thanksgiving for the gathered harvest.

      Yet you’ll notice that there is an abrupt change halfway through verse 5 of this festival song. 

While the first five verses comprise a hymn-like call to worship, the remainder of the Psalm shifts to

a divine oracle; more prophetic than priestly.  God inspires the words of the author – words of

remembrance; words of warning; words of lament, and finally, words of promise.

      (Read Psalm 81)

      It’s football season.  Imagine we’re in the Anytown Antelopes locker room just minutes before

the kickoff for game one of the playoffs.  The air is filled with the pungent aroma of analgesic balm.

Pieces of athletic tape littering the floor add to each step a sequential squishing and rasping sound.

In one corner, a lineman bangs with his fists on the shoulder pads of the running back he’ll soon be

protecting.  The team is salty as they’ve already been through a grueling ten game schedule.  The

films of the opposing team have been studied.  Playbooks are memorized.  Ankles and wrists are

secured with tape.  All is ready.  Coach Earl has just a few final words for the offensive team, and

especially for his standout quarterback who will be calling his own plays this evening.  “Now don’t

forget, avoid the left side of the Raiders’ defensive line, or they’ll seal our fate. Don’t run off tackle

left.  Don’t play into the left flat unless the right is sealed.  They have too much size and speed over

there.  Instead, keep the ground game moving to the right.  Now, get out there and kick some butt!”

      Well, wouldn’t you know it.  For twenty-four minutes of football, the Antelopes and their stand-

out quarterback take their running game where?  To the left side.  And their fate is indeed being  

sealed, just as Coach Earl had warned:  negative fifteen yards rushing for the half; two interceptions;

a running back and tight end injured.  And the score at halftime – Raiders 17, Antelopes 0.

      Now we’re back in the Antelopes locker room at halftime.  The aroma of analgesic balm is over-

whelmed by the scent of perspiration.  There is considerably less enthusiasm as the boys sit quietly

on hard benches swigging Gatorade.  Coach Earl walks in.  The players eyes are cast downward to

the floor because they know coach is going to go even more ballistic than he has for the last twenty

four minutes on the sideline.  He slowly takes off his cap, runs his fingers through his sweat-

drenched hair, shakes his head, and begins to speak in a low voice:  “Earlier in the season, I told you

to stay away from the left side of the Raider’s defensive line.  You did it, and we won.  Tonight, I tell

you the same thing.  But no, you don’t listen.  Instead, you’re playing to the cameras and the cheer-

leaders, and you’re getting beat up.  If you would do what I tell you, this game would be ours.  You

can still win this.  But it’s up to you.”  With that, he puts his cap back on, turns and leaves the room.

You can almost hear a pin drop.

      In the 81st Psalm, beginning at the 6th verse, God can be likened to a wise coach talking to his

headstrong team at a point of crisis.  God is indeed speaking to the nation of Israel at a crisis point;

reminding them, warning them, lamenting over them, promising them.  He begins by reminding

the squad of their release from slavery in Egypt:  “I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your

hands were freed from the basket.  In distress, you called, and I rescued you.”  God wants the

people to remember what has been done for them.  God instructed them through a standout team

leader named Moses.  Moses and the rest of the squad listened to and followed God’s game plan

faithfully.  And by listening and following, they escaped generations of forced labor and oppression

under the heavy hand of the pharaohs.  Historically, faithfulness to God’s instruction – to God’s

 word – meant liberation and victory.

      On the other hand, to disregard or disobey God’s coaching would lead to certain defeat.  In

Israel’s case, it would lead them into a life of worship before false gods; bondage to counterfeit

religions and cults of personality; acceptance of flawed values and perverted justice; ultimately

slaughter at the hands of nations which would once again force the people of God into the utter

misery of slavery.  And God speaks words of admonition or warning starting at verse 8:  “Hear, O

my people, while I admonish you; O Israel, if you would but listen to me!  There shall be no

strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god.”  In other words: Don’t do this

thing!  Don’t go chasing after that which is false and unwholesome and injurious!  If you would just

listen to my counsel, you wouldn’t find yourselves in the midst of crisis. You wouldn’t find yourselves

getting beaten up by running to the wrong side.

      God laments the headstrong team and its leaders beginning at verse 11:  “But my people did

not listen to my voice; Israel would not submit to me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn

hearts, to follow their own counsels.”  The very heart of God is broken by the actions of God’s

people.  God does, and does again – scouting for God’s people; defining their mission; developing

a playbook which assures victory.  Yet they throw it back in God’s face.  They disobey.  They turn

away to their own devices.  God says, “Run right!”  They in turn run left, playing to all the diversion

on the sidelines.  And they limp and hobble both on and off the field.  And God looks on with a mixture of disgust and sorrow. 

Very much the same sentiment is expressed in our reading from the

prophet Jeremiah.  As they’re heading into exile, Jeremiah is inspired to write  “Be appalled, O

heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed

two evils:  they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  There’s a crack in the cooler, and the Gatorade is running out all over the place.

      Yet even in the midst of rebellion, disobedience, crisis and brokenness, God’s promises – God’s

game plan -- for God’s people remains firm and unchangeable.  The Psalmist continues at verse 13:

“O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways!  Then I would quickly

subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes.  Those who hate the Lord would

cringe before him, and their doom would last forever.  I would feed you with the finest of the

wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”  To God’s people, God says: This game

can still be yours.  It’s up to you.

      For we who play in the game of life on the field as God’s team many seasons later, there is much

spiritual truth running behind the lines of this festival Psalm numbered 81.  We, in our season, are

given God’s word – God’s plan – through the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We can discern which way God

wants us to go when we study the holy Scriptures, illumined by the Spirit of the word incarnate,

who is Jesus Christ.  Each week, we attend worship and hear God’s game plan laid out in hymns,

liturgies and prayers.  We hear God’s playbook read and interpreted.  Yet how often we find ourselves running

plays at odds with that playbook and game plan?  We hear God’s call to be faithful in all things.  But we waver in our faith,

and are sacked behind the line of scrimmage of worldly pressures which challenge and contradict that faith. 

      For instance, God’s plan clearly calls for us to forgive not once, or even seven times, but  

“seventy times seven.”  Yet we often struggle to hit the hole of genuine forgiveness, even once to

someone who has wronged us.  God sends us onto the field to respond to God’s love by being a

 generous people, giving freely as we are able of our time, our talents, our treasures.  Yet we

withhold what we could offer.  We find ourselves too busy for Bible study; too overloaded for a

leadership or service role in the church. Church is too often second or third string in our priorities, or

even benched.  God breaks the huddle and sends us to the line of scrimmage to love our neighbor as

we love ourselves.  Instead, we find ourselves judging our neighbor while seeking from them some

yardage we might gain.  God sends us on a route of showing compassion, but we become too busy

running a different pattern of our own will and for our own benefit. 

      When we act in opposition to God’s plan; when we disobey God’s word; when we run contrary

to God’s perfect example in Christ; when we chase after and worship other gods who are no gods

at all, be they power, money, success, glory; before the final whistle which ends the game, we

suffer the consequences, as individual players and as a team.  Have we not sometimes found ourselves in crisis

because we didn’t listen to the voice of the Coach who knows best, and who cares

infinitely for His team?  Let’s heed the Head Coach’s voice.  Don’t run off tackle left.  Amen.