Carlos Wilton, February 5, 2012; 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; Isaiah 40:21-31 “…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength…”
– Isaiah 40:31
Tonight’s the night, football fans: the Super Bowl! It’s a special year for us New Jerseyans, because the New York Giants are in it (a team we all know should really be called the New Jersey Giants, because here’s where they play their home games).
Over 63,000 people will watch the game live, in Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Stadium. Around the world, TV viewership will number in the hundreds of millions – far too many for anyone to count. For some viewers, it’s just a sporting event – or maybe, a good excuse for viewing the alternative Madison Avenue Super Bowl of the TV commercials. For others, the question of which team emerges victorious – the New England Patriots or the New York Giants – is a matter of intense interest.
For those true-believer fans, who follow their favorite team closely and yearn for a good outcome to this game of games, it just may be that prayer is part of their viewing experience. Maybe not a public prayer. You can’t imagine that going off so well down at the sports bar – though if the stakes are high enough, who knows? Certainly, though, the whispered prayer of last resort will be on many lips: “Lord, please – let my team win!”
Multiply that simple, heartfelt prayer by ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million or more, and you’ve got a whole lot of prayin’ goin’ on. Some of those prayers are tagged “Patriots,” others “Giants.” I wonder how it is, up in heaven – is it like one of those TV studios where they count election returns? Do angels record the ever-shifting percentages on a tote board? Do savvy commentators try to call the contest, based on the latest exit polls?
It’s absurd, of course, to even think this way. It reflects a naive view of prayer as little more than wish-fulfillment. And besides, it begs a much larger question: does the Almighty really care about the outcome of football games?
It also begs a further question: what about the prayers made by the other side? If my team wins, does that mean the prayers offered up by the opposition are bogus – or else simply lacking in piety?
This whole subject of prayer and sports has been much in the news in recent months, largely because of a certain Denver Broncos quarterback named Tim Tebow. His performance on the field can be wildly erratic at times – but, more often than not, he and his teammates pull off some bold move in the fourth quarter, snatching victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.
What’s caused even more comment is Tim Tebow’s habit of falling down to one knee, at random intervals during a game, and saying a prayer. “Tebowing,” in fact, has become an Internet sensation, as fans have uploaded smartphone photos of themselves and their friends assuming that stance – down on one knee, fist to their forehead. There are websites composed of nothing but random Tebowing pictures: on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, while mountain climbing, in front of the Taj Mahal, and just about any other place you could name. It’s unclear whether all those Tebowers are doing this because they admire Tim, or because they want to mock him. Likely, it’s a little of both – but either way, Tebowing has become a pop-culture icon.
So, what’s Tim Tebow praying about? Most people assume it’s some variation of a prayer for victory: either “Please, God, let us win,” or “Thank you, God, for letting us win.”
Tim Tebow is an evangelical Christian of fierce personal piety. He’s a lot more sophisticated in his prayer life than some seem to think. I understand that, during one recent game, he agreed to wear a microphone that recorded his prayers. At least during that game, he was praying mostly for protection for himself and his teammates, as well as asking that he bring honor to Jesus. Hardly the vending-machine approach to God that some people assume must be the basic purpose of prayer.
He’s also got a refreshing approach to professional sports in general. He’s often quick to remind his staunchest fans that, to him, football is only a game, and that, to him, there are more important things in life. A case in point are the sick or disabled children he invites to attend each Broncos game – covering, through his foundation, travel and lodging expenses for the children and their parents, and greeting them personally before and after the game. He’s often said that the experience these children are having is more important to him than the outcome of any particular game – and somehow you get the sense he’s telling the truth about that, not just putting on a show of false modesty for the cameras.
But what do the fans make of Tebow’s highly visible personal piety? In a recent poll, 43% of respondents said they believe his successes are due at least in part to divine intervention. That’s quite a large number, and really problematic when you consider the other teams in the contest. Does that mean God has it in for the other team, even as while advancing the fortunes of Tim Tebow and the Broncos? Sticky questions, these.
Tim Tebow also knows that, ultimately, it’s not about him. It’s about the Lord, who is the source of his strength. That’s something the prophet Isaiah knows very well, as he writes these beloved words: “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” [Isaiah 40:31]
Many’s the faithful believer who’s taken comfort in these words, in a time of deep distress. In the lead-up to that line the prophet says “even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” There are some experiences in life that just take it all out of us, that sap our ordinary reserves of energy. Yet, when prayer connects us to the strength the Lord imparts, there’s no telling what we can endure, nor what we can accomplish for the Lord’s sake.
Several years ago, National Public Radio ran a little reminiscence by a man named John W. Fountain. It’s called “The God Who Embraced Me,” and it tells where he has found strength in his own life, even in situations of gravest difficulty. Here’s an excerpt:
I believe in God. Not that cosmic, intangible spirit-in-the-sky that Mama told me as a little boy “always was and always will be.” But the God who embraced me when Daddy disappeared from our lives — from my life at age four — the night police led him away from our front door, down the stairs in handcuffs.
The God who warmed me when we could see our breath inside our freezing apartment, where the gas was disconnected in the dead of another wind-whipped Chicago winter, and there was no food, little hope and no hot water.
The God who held my hand when I witnessed boys in my ‘hood swallowed by the elements, by death and by hopelessness; who claimed me when I felt like “no-man’s son,” amid the absence of any man to wrap his arms around me and tell me, “everything’s going to be okay,” to speak proudly of me, to call me son.
[NPR All Things Considered, November 28, 2005]
Now anyone who looks on prayer as simply a shopping list we present to God would have a hard time finding grace in any of this. A father led away from the house in handcuffs. A freezing Chicago apartment with no heat. Hunger. Hopelessness.
Yet still, in the midst of it all: God. This is a God who doesn’t just come to the rich and powerful. This is a God who moves in and takes up residence in the life of a poor child from the inner city, whom statistics suggest is highly at risk to get sucked into the gang culture, and ultimately die on the streets.
As appealing an image as it may be to some, to think of a Tim Tebow dropping to one knee and assuming that position of prayer, that sort of person is not really what this passage is all about. A professional football player is an image of great strength, perhaps the iconic image of personal strength in our society. These words of Isaiah’s are really about a person who has no strength left, who has tried and tried and failed and failed, until there’s nothing left, no reserves of strength to draw upon.
It’s then that the miracle happens. Those believers who continue to wait patiently and expectantly, trusting in the Lord, find their strength renewed.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a powerful symbol of strength renewed. In life, we know that strength comes from the food we eat. So it is with the Lord’s Supper, for this simple meal is our spiritual food. It’s not the actual elements of bread and wine, of course, but the act of feeding on the Lord, whose body and blood these things become for us, spiritually speaking. This table is the place where you and I wait for the Lord. It is the place where, each time we come, we are offered the miraculous opportunity to renew our strength.
So, what can we say about the question we posed at the outset: “Does God pick winners?”
Sorry, sports fans, but I really don’t think God picks the winners of sporting events. Yes, it’s true that an all-powerful, all-knowing God has a hand in everything that happens on this earth – but that is no more true of picking Super Bowl champions than anything else.
Yet, we can say, with confidence, that God does pick another sort of winner. These are the people who come to this Table, responding to the invitation of Jesus Christ. It’s you and me, my friends. No matter how tough life may have been this week, no matter what setbacks we have experienced, no matter how many times we may have been willing to throw in the towel – or even if we did – after coming to this Table, we leave as winners.
Yes, God does pick winners. God picked us, to become disciples of Jesus Christ. So, let us come to this table and receive the spiritual refreshment our Lord offers.
Copyright © 2012 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.