It might not be the most reverent place to start a sermon. Yet, there is perhaps considerable religious devotion involved, so I’d like to begin this morning by talking about college football. Now, the loss by the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Rose Bowl did take a little steam out of what I had planned for my opening vignette. But the Hawkeyes didn’t quit, so neither will I. Let’s give this a try. At the point in the college football season when Iowa started to look seriously poised to go undefeated, there came to be a lot of angst in the college football world. “What if Iowa were to make the playoff?” people wondered, as if that would somehow spoil the whole thing. One Twitter comment put the overwrought conundrum well. It went something like this: if this were the NCAA basketball tournament, people would be loving Iowa as underdogs, but for some reason with football people are only hating. The comparison is a striking one. I think the difference is that in the men’s basketball tournament, 68 teams have a shot to win the title. For the most part, there’s a basic understanding that the teams who deserve to be in the tournament make it, and then it’s just fun to see how things shake out. But in this new era of the College Football Playoff, only four teams ultimately play for a chance to win a national championship. With so few teams selected, the assumption is that these spots will go to traditional powers, teams we might already think of as potential champions. Generally speaking, when opportunities are perceived to be scarce, we tend to be quick and decisive in our judgments of who “deserves” them, and—no surprise!—the supposed “deserving” are those we already think of as “good.”
We like an underdog. Except when we don’t. It is always a matter of perspective according to what already are our preferences and what we perceive we have to lose or gain. There’s a fine, fine line between whether we will cheer or disparage and undermine an underdog.
The Bible is filled with stories of God’s preference for the underdog, from the exodus from Egypt, to deliverance from the Babylonian captivity, to the Resurrection. There’s a special challenge, then, of reading these stories as white Christians in the most dominant nation on Earth. We risk becoming like those football fans, explaining God and the world in terms that perpetuate the status quo, benefitting the team—or people and nation-states—at the top.
So what do we do? How do we read the Bible to inform our faith and the ways we live in the world, messy and complicated as it is? While I don’t think the Bible can or should function as an oversimplified blueprint for saying, “When X happens, do Y,” taking the Bible seriously attunes our hearts and minds to the good news of God’s love, mercy, and justice and the commission that we be bearers of that love, mercy, and justice in the world.
One of the ways we can do this is to look back at the future. This might sound like an oxymoron (because no, I’m not talking about the movie Back to the Future, which we know has no value since it got wrong the prediction of a Cubs World Series win in 2015). Usually we look forward to the future. But I’m talking about looking back to the ways that the ancestors of our faith imagined the world that should and would come to be. Such future talk has never been about something far off. Rather, speaking of the future has been a way to name what is a problem now and to envision what it will look like to live into a more just, merciful reality.
This is what we find in today’s reading from Isaiah. The Judeans have been conquered by the Babylonias, and the elites from Jerusalem have been taken away to Babylon. Written either toward the end of this exile or early afterward, our passage evokes God’s faithfulness and protection: “Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you” (Isa 60:4–5).
And here’s where we have to be careful. The force of the prophecy is not to glorify the accumulation of wealth or to suggest that it is the prosperous who have received God’s favor. Indeed, the first part of Isaiah is unequivocal in its judgment of Judeans who have sought material gain and relied on religious ritual instead of caring for the poor. The message we read aloud again today is salve to an oppressed people, a people deracinated from their homeland and exploited. It is a word of good news, actively imagining a future in which the exiled Judeans not only return home but enjoy peace, safety, and security under God’s reign. This is not an idle fantasy that matters only down the road when it comes to fruition. Trusting in an alternative future is an act of resistance to the powers that be; it is an expression of the confidence that God will take care of God’s people and so God’s people ought to do the same. In the language of social media hashtags, or catchphrases, we might say that Isaiah boldly proclaims, against worldly forces that say otherwise, Judean Lives Matter.
Likewise, today’s passage from Matthew tells a story of state violence and looks forward to an alternative future. Some wise ones—astrologers or dream interpreters—have come to King Herod asking after the child they have heard has been born king of the Jews. We know what happens when there is the perception that positions of power are limited and people holding those positions feel threatened (of course, the stakes are higher in this case than for the College Football Playoff). Herod responds to his own fear that he might be displaced by systematically murdering an entire class of children. This comes after the wise travelers have been warned in a dream of Herod’s ill intentions and refuse to participate in his ugly efforts to cling to power.
This is but one instance that typifies the oppressive reach of imperial power, and it is in the midst of this strife that an alternative future is imagined. It is a vision that draws on the future of the past, imagining that the promise of God’s reign and the uplifting of God’s people will be realized through this special child, Jesus.
We like this story of God saving the underdogs because it is our story. That is, it is essential to the tradition of our faith. But it also challenges us as we continue to live in a world animated by power struggles. When we see each day the lives of young people like Tamir Rice cut short as a consequence of insidious racialized prejudices, to name just one instance, we might ask how to read the Bible in times such as these.
Thankfully, the Bible, like our own lives, is complex and reflects the messiness of the world. The Word does not come just to a few. As the writer of Ephesians emphasizes in this morning’s reading, the reach of the gospel extends even to the Gentiles. We who are not Judean might breathe a sigh of relief, insisting now that all lives matter. And yes, this is true. The force of the good news is that God’s promises are for all.
But during the Christmas season, when we turn our eyes not to the elite and powerful but to a baby, and not a royal baby but one born into a humble family forced to seek refuge from violence, we are reminded that the content of the gospel’s “all” isn’t simply generic. It is specific. It is for you and you and you. It is for Tamir and Sandra and Miriam and Trayvon and Michelle and Michael. And for you and you and you.
In his teaching, Jesus did not rewrite the core of the biblical story. Jesus’s message is a remembrance of the future declared by the Hebrew prophets. The gospel is a proclamation of an alternative future in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first, where those who now are poor and hungry and weeping are blessed, for theirs is the kin-dom of God (Luke 6:20–21). And as we know, this future matters now. When Jesus tells of the final judgment (Matt 25:31–46), he explains that what ultimately matters is not whether we pray the right way or perform the right rituals but whether we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the imprisoned. Thanks be to God that this is a church with a heart for these kinds of ministries. This matters in a world of immense sufferings.
I must admit that I have, at times lately, become overwhelmed at the extent of the pain, fear, and injustice that so many face today and that we bear collectively. I have found myself thinking a lot of the biblical future, praying, “All right, Jesus, if you’re coming back, now would be a good time!” (I’ll also admit that in moments of levity, I have amused myself by adding, “Really, these are exciting times. The new Adele album is fantastic. TV is the best it’s ever been; you’ll just love the show Jane the Virgin. And you really should see these Hawkeyes, Rose Bowl notwithstanding.”). In seriousness, as racialized tensions are erupting amidst pervasive systemic violence and we hear the proclamation that Black Lives Matter, and as religiously motivated violence proliferates and religious differences are emphasized to exclude and still we hear the proclamation that Muslim Lives Matter, and as gendered assumptions remain a basis for constraining certain bodies and lives and we hear the proclamation that Women’s Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter, and as fear and terror dominate the news cycle and we are faced with questions of whose lives really matter and how, all can feel hopeless.
Yet, I have been reminded this past Advent that these are not new stories. The actors and details may be different, but the brutal realities of inequities, along with the everyday challenges and pains of human life are not suddenly worse than ever, even as we might feel them more acutely in certain moments. These are important moments for remembering the future.
There’s a popular quotation by Fred Rogers, perhaps best known simply as Mr. Rogers, that frequently makes the rounds on social media when certain kinds of largescale atrocities occur. Rogers tells of seeing scary things in the news as a child and his mother saying to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Thank God for the saints who help, whether with gestures of comfort and kindness amidst personal struggles or in brave, selfless responses to broad-scale public tragedies.
We might also add, “When we see injustices all around, look for those who resist. You will always find people who are resisting.”
The Bible is replete with stories of resistance to evil in the world. The Christmas story is one of resistance to evil in the world. And intrinsic to these stories is the imagination of a future in which God’s justice reigns. There are always people all around us—people in this room and this community, people who gather in the streets, people across the globe—crying out for, actively imagining, and living into an alternative future in which each and every life and body is valued and nourished. We are called to listen, to learn, and to respond.
The more I read the Bible, the more I am reminded to listen for the gospel in the streets instead of the halls and cathedrals of power.
The more I look to the past for the future, the more I am reminded that the vision of a time when God will wipe every tear from all faces (Isa 25:8; Rev 21:4) is both a promise and the model that we are called to follow in care for one another. In this new year, may we be renewed by the hope of Christmas and the alternative future embodied in the Christ child. May we be challenged to take seriously, listen to, and learn from the voices and experiences of the underdog—the marginalized, oppressed, and exploited—that we too might embody the gospel in seeking after God’s just, merciful future.