Monday, March 28, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Underdog!

Let’s hear it for the underdog! VCU and Butler? Are you kidding me? I know Butler made it all the way to the final game last year, and if not for a missed shot at the buzzer would have won it all. But two years in a row to the Final Four? Give me a break! What are the odds of that? And VCU? They lost eleven games during the regular season to mostly mid-major competition and they knock of King Kong Kansas to get the Final Four? No way. Yes way! And even though these two schools have pretty much busted everybody’s bracket, you can’t help but pull for them (unless, of course, they are playing your team). Too bad they have to play each other in the national semi-finals. Who knows? We could have had an 11-seed and an 8-seed in the championship game. But one of them will be there against a traditional basketball powerhouse: Kentucky or UConn. Whatever happens, it ought to be fun. And I bet that about the only folks who’ll be pulling for the UConn/Kentucky winner in the championship game are their own diehard fans. Most of America will be pulling for the underdog. Most of America always does.

What is it about the underdog that engenders such interest and support? Could it be that most of us feel like underdogs most of the time in our own lives? Could it be that we like to see the little guy win against all odds? Or maybe we just like it when the “script” gets interrupted by an unexpected and better storyline? There's a reason why Cinderella is a timeless story.

This weekend’s games got me to thinking about other underdogs that captured the imagination of sports fans everywhere.

• How about the New York Jets and their mouthy quarterback, Joe Namath, upsetting the Baltimore Colts giving the upstart AFL their first Super Bowl championship in only the third year of that game? Namath guaranteed it would happen. Everybody wrote him off as a nut case. It happened.

• How about the U.S. Hockey Team defeating the U.S.S.R. in the 1980 Olympics. It happened during the height of the Cold War. It happened while we still had a bunch of our citizens held hostage in Iran. It happened when American pride was taking a beating. And it happened against a team of professionals who were the heavy favorites to win the gold. I still remember Al Michaels’ comment as the game wound down, “Do you believe in miracles?” That’s what it felt like.

• And one of my personal favorites: the 1978 Orange Bowl—Oklahoma vs. Arkansas. Texas had lost earlier in the day and if Oklahoma won that game they would be crowned national champions yet again. Both teams had only one loss, but prior to the game Arkansas had suspended three of the top offensive players on the team. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen for the Razorbacks. But the Razorbacks played inspired, a reserve running back named Roland Sales ran for a then record 200+ yards against the vaunted Sooner defense, and the Hogs won 31-6. Let’s hear it for the underdog!

It happens in realms outside of the world of sports too, you know. Who would have believed the sophisticated, well-supplied military machine of the Soviet Union would go to war with a bunch of peasants in Afghanistan only to withdraw with their tail between their legs, limping back to Russia about ten years later? (Well, maybe we Americans would believe it now, huh?) And what about the church in China? When missionaries pulled out around the time of the communist revolution, the church in China was doing pretty well. But how would they fare without Western missionaries to teach and reach and train? How would they fare under a government that was committed to stamping them out by any and every means? Well, when the country opened up about 40 years later, visitors discovered that the Chinese church had grown into the millions. Let’s hear it for the underdog!

All this underdog talk got me to thinking of underdog stories in the Bible. And there are plenty. Most of us are familiar with young small David against Philistine giant Goliath. Talk about a mismatch! The Israelites were holding their collective breath in fear. Goliath and the Philistines were holding their collective sides in laughter. And yet David laid out that giant with a well placed rock from his slingshot right between Goliath’s eyes.

And what about Gideon? God told Gideon to crush the merciless Midianites and their oppressive rule over Israel. Gideon was from the smallest tribe in Israel, and he was the runt of the litter. He was fearful, doubtful, and weak. He did assemble a big army however, but by the time God pared that army down to size Gideon was left with only 300 men to fight a multitude of Midianites. You know the phrase, “to get an omelet you’ve got to break a few eggs”? Gideon’s tiny army broke a few jars and did something akin to the Confederate rebel yell, and those Midianites were so caught off guard that they started killing one another. Mission accomplished for the underdog.

And in the New Testament we bump into a few underdogs as well. You remember the woman with the 12-year hemorrhage who’d spent all her money on doctors and for nothing? She got no better; she only got worse. And she thought maybe if she could get to Jesus, He could heal her. The best she could do was squeeze through the crowd and just get a hand on the hem of His robe. Nobody would have given her a chance of getting better on no more than that … but she got better; she got well.

And then there’s the woman the Pharisees caught in adultery and paraded to Jesus for a ruling on what was an open and shut case. They caught her in the act; the law said to stone her. She didn’t have a prayer. But she had Jesus. And Jesus essentially said, “So stone her already, and whoever has never sinned can throw the first stone.” They threw their stones all right. They threw them down on the ground and walked away. Jesus forgave her sin. And this woman on the edge of death walked away alive and free.

These are all good underdog stories, but I think my favorite might be Jesus vs. Death. We know the story, so it doesn’t catch us by surprise. But had we been eyewitnesses to these events in that day we would have been as shocked, stunned, and amazed as everybody else. Sure, Jesus had raised the dead in His ministry: He took a dead little girl’s hand in His and lifted her back to life. He touched a dead young man being carried out to his grave, and the young man sat up in his casket. Then Jesus called forth Lazarus who had been dead and buried some four long days. Lazarus came forth from his tomb looking something like the mummy. Jesus told the folks to unwrap him and set him free. Lazarus had supper with his sisters that night. So Jesus raised the dead in His ministry. He didn’t do it much, but He did do it some.

And that was the problem. Now that Jesus was dead, who would raise Him? Who would take Him by the hand? Who would touch Him on His way to the grave? Who would call Him forth from His hillside tomb? Who indeed? That’s why the disciples and all who were close to Jesus assumed that when they took His dead body off the cross and put that dead body in the tomb, the story was over. It was nice while it lasted. Jesus did a lot of good. Those who followed Him would have some good memories. But Jesus ended up like everyone ends up—dead as one of the nails they used to pin Him to the cross, and six feet under.

But like I said, we know the story. And early in the morning, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. Nobody saw Him come out of the tomb, but a lot of people saw the empty tomb and later saw the risen Jesus with their own eyes. They saw Him, they touched Him, they heard His voice. It was Jesus. The nail scars gave Him away. It was Jesus and the one who was dead is alive evermore. Something like that had NEVER happened before. Death had always won the day. Rich, poor, every color, every language, every person—didn’t matter. Death played no favorites, cut no one any breaks. You could run from death but you could not hide. Sooner or later, Death would track you down and take you down and that was that! Death caught up to Jesus on a cross. Death took Jesus down. But Death could not keep Jesus down. Jesus rose from the grave—the first-fruits for all who believe. Jesus rose from the grave, and all the power of death is dead.

Yes, of all the great underdog stories I’ve enjoyed, this is my favorite because it didn’t just matter in the moment; it matters forever.

1 comment:

  1. VCU was part of the First Four round. Most "experts" didn't think they belonged in the field of 68. First four to final four. Somebody got it right by saying they belonged. One of the best tournaments to watch in recent memory.