Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Zambia Has Lifted The African Cup of Nations Trophy!

“I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).

I just had to blog on this! The great day that Zambia has been waiting for in the world of football (what Americans call “soccer”) has finally come. The Zambian national football team went into the 2012 African Cup of Nations as underdogs, having performed below par even in their preparatory matches. However, around midnight Zambian time, on Sunday 12 February, we became the African champions. We beat Ivory Coast 8-7 on post-match penalties after a goalless 120 minutes. The rest is now history.

After the win, the whole nation went crazy with excitement. Due to a pending trip out of the country, I missed watching the match. I was packing and only saw bits of the match as I picked up various items for the trip from the lounge where my household was glued to the TV. I went to bed while the match was still on. However, as the clock struck midnight, there was enough noise to wake the dead. So, I finally got up and decided to spend the time meditating on what all this should mean to me as a Christian in Zambia.

There is no doubt that our national football team has done us proud by winning the African Cup of Nations. Football is big in Zambia and in Africa as a whole. Life in the compounds and the rural areas revolves around kicking home made balls around with bare feet. There is no second or third sport in Zambia, as is the case in so many other nations of the world. For us it is football, football, and football. Hence, when almost our entire football team perished in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon in 1993, it was the biggest funeral this nation had ever experienced. People failed to go to work.

The Zambian football team celebrating a goal
Hence, it is so easy for me to simply join in the mindless frenzy that has gripped the nation. However, it is my Christian duty to ask, “If Jesus were a Zambian, and he was around today, how would he have responded to all this?” In other words, how does the Bible expect us to respond to the kind of good news that we have as a nation today? We are the African football champions; what thoughts should fill our minds and hearts?

I ought to celebrate victory in sport
To begin with, I found a number of Bible passages that suggested that biblical authors recognised the important place that competitive games had in life and thus justified the exhilarating joy of the victors. I noticed that they often referred to this sphere of life as parallels with the spiritual life in order for us to learn vital lessons on how we should live our lives as Christians. Here are a few examples:

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Zambian team captain, Christopher Katongo, in full flight

Paul would not have used the athletic and boxing world to make such an important point about the Christian life if competitive games did not occupy a prominent place in life in his own day. His point is that there is a prize to be won at the end of our Christian lives. We must have the same spirit of discipline and determination that sports men and women have if we are going to reap such a reward from the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ on the final day.

The apostle Paul also wrote, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). It seems that to this godly man nearing the end of his life, the best illustration of what a Christian should expect upon his demise is that which an athlete receives when he wins a competitive match. So, surely it must be reasonable to award a successful sportsman or sportswoman. Congratulations are in order!

The Zambian football team after scoring the decisive goal
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews also used something of the sporting events of his own day to urge Christians to emulate sportsmen in the spiritual realm. He wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Many spectators often surround a person competing in a great arena. This in itself ought to be a spur for him to summon all his energies to win the game according to its rules. A person participating in such an event will only have essential clothing on him because anything else will hinder him from obtaining the prize. As in the case of Jesus, the present “loss” is nothing compared with the exhilarating joy of final victory. 

Herve Renard commanding the troops onto victory
I could go on giving further examples. It seems to me that the theme of disciplined preparation, competing according to rules, determination during the competition, and the awarding of prizes to the victors, were common knowledge for the people in Bible days. Hence, I should not only learn spiritual lessons from this, but I should relate to the world of sport in such a way that I could be used as a point of reference for spiritual truth. In this case, celebrating the winning of the Zambian national team is in order.

I ought to celebrate with godly moderation
However, I also found that a number of biblical truths that pervade Scripture demanded that, in celebrating our victory as Christians, we should do so with godly moderation.

Christopher Katongo, the team captain, with the coveted trophy
Firstly, although we are very proud to be Zambians today (especially with the aroma of victory still in the air), we must remember that we are first-of-all Christians. We are not Zambians who happen to be Christians but Christians who just happen to be Zambians. As important as national boundaries might be for the purpose of our political wellbeing, they are artificial at best. In fact, in dying for us on the cross, Jesus came to break down so many of the boundaries that presently separate us as human beings. In the eyes of God, therefore, the one boundary that truly matters is that between sinners and saints. Hence, even as we feel proud as Zambians today, we must not express this pride to the point where it clouds our primary citizenship, which is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Secondly, this was but a game. As people were running through the streets tonight and shouting at the top of their voices, I was tempted to get a loudspeaker and remind everyone that what we have won is but a game. Yes, it is a big game, an important game, a vital game (due to our previous poor performance), and a very competitive gave; but it is a game nonetheless. We should not give it the aura of the overthrow of an oppressive and corrupt dictator or the saving of a human life from sin and final destruction in hell. That is why the use of competitive games in the Bible passages quoted above are all examples from the lesser to the greater (see also 1 Timothy 4:7-8). Like the angels in heaven (Luke 15:7,10), our greatest excitement as Christians must be when a soul gets saved.

The congested road all the way to the airport with a fan on top of a car
Thirdly, the accolades and awards that the Zambian national football team have already begun to receive will be short-lived. There is no doubt that Christopher Katongo and his team will receive a heroes’ welcome upon their return. (In fact, I almost missed the flight at mid-day later today because of the amount of traffic all the way to the airport). For much of this week, they will be the centre of attention for the whole nation. However, all this euphoria will soon be covered over by the sands of time and we will be back to the realities of life—unemployment and poverty, HIV and AIDS, corruption, etc.

We read earlier that, “ They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:25). There is one celebration that will last eternally. It will take place when Jesus returns as Victor to take his people home—and we will be victors together with him. The awards we will get on that day will be for all eternity. Our present celebrations should show the world around us that we await a more glorious one. Henry Alford (1810-1871) captured this moment magnificently in his hymn when he wrote,

Ten thousand times ten thousand
In sparking raiment bright,
The armies of the ransomed saints
Throng up the steeps of light;
‘Tis finished, all is finished,
Their fight with death and sin;
Fling open wide the golden gates,
And let the victors in!

Some ladies dancing by the roadside in celebration of Zambia's victory
And, finally, to God alone be the glory
So then, let us celebrate. Zambia has lifted the African Cup of Nations trophy. Yet, as we do so, let us remember that it is God who gave us the victory. It was certainly not the spirits of our [football] ancestors who helped us win. It was Mayuka and not Ucar (if you will forgive the pun) who did it! Yes, the Chipololo boys and the technical staff worked very hard. We should not deny that. However, the wise man Solomon once said, “I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). In other words, we won because God had ordained it that this time we would taste the sweetness of victory. Let us, therefore, not forget to return thanks to God for his favour upon us. If we celebrate with godly moderation, we will not be guilty of idolatry—a very common sin in the world of sport!

The Zambian team near the place where their predecessors perished


  1. What a glorious and soul searching message to remind ourselves as we race for eternity and the golden prize.. Thanks for this one Pastor

  2. Right spot on, Pastor Mbewe. Would be nice if the sweet victory could be improved into such a sermon in many a pulpit this week.