A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 5, 2012
Philippians 3:12-14 GNT
God, it appears, has found a prominent place on the football field. But taking God onto the football field, or at least the blending of religion and football, is not really a new thing at all, is it? Praying before a football game has long been an American tradition. You may have heard about the Super Bowl quarterback’s wife who sent out an email this past week to some of her friends asking that they pray for him in today’s game. The email went viral. And in some American communities, football—whether it be high school, college, or pro-football—can almost become a religion in itself. Anything to which we devote our chief allegiance and/or our deepest passion can become a god to us. And for some, football comes pretty close.
And football players kneeling and bowing their heads to whisper a prayer of thanks after a touchdown certainly is nothing new. But the practice has taken on a whole new life with the success of Denver Broncos quarterback, Tim Tebow.
Now, I realize that Tim Tebow will not be playing in today’s Super Bowl game. However, I thought that since today is Super Bowl Sunday, it would be an appropriate time to think about the Tebow phenomenon that is sweeping the country by storm. The Tebow phenomenon, dubbed “Tebowmania,” causes us to ask why he has become so popular. If you keep up with football in the least, then you have heard the name Tim Tebow. If you don’t keep up with football, allow me to enlighten you just a little. Twenty-four-year-old Tim Tebow is one of the most popular football players in America. He was voted America’s new favorite athlete in an ESPN poll. A Heisman Trophy winner, Tebow is good-natured and polite, known for clean living and genuine goodness. A good, all-around American boy.
But the thing that really sets Tim Tebow apart is his very public Evangelical Christian faith. The son of Christian missionaries, Tebow is using his position as the Bronco’s quarterback to promote his Evangelical faith. Following a touchdown or victory, Tebow genuflects on one knee on the football field, a practice that is being imitated the world over, what Time Magazine calls “Tebowing Round the World”—on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, at the Parthenon in Athens, and various other places around the world where people are photographed posing in the exact same way that Tebow does. Tebow’s Twitter feed spreads his Evangelical message to some 800,000 followers, and his Facebook page reaches about 1.3 million subscribers.1 In an interview aired this week, one news commentator stated that if you Google Tim Tebow, he is more popular than Jesus Christ—on Google, anyway. Again, Time Magazine refers to Tebow as “perhaps the most significant Evangelical Christian in the country.” In one game recently, Tebow threw for exactly 316 yards. Now, 3:16 has long found a place on posters in football stands. John 3:16 is a hallmark of Evangelical Christianity—“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” So when Tebow recently threw 316 yards in one game, it was taken by many to be a divine sign and gave new life to 3:16. Tebow himself etched 3:16 in his eye black during a University of Florida game.
Now, I realize that I need to proceed with caution today. Because it certainly is not my intent to offend anyone with anything I might say. I think Tim Tebow is a great guy. But since most people in America are thinking about football today, and since the Tebow phenomenon is such a hot issue right now, I just thought it would be a good opportunity to raise some questions about the intersection of religion and football, and sports in general. Questions such as:
Does God, the Creator of the universe, have any interest in, take any notice of, or get involved in football? Or in any type of sports event for that matter? The larger question, of course, has to do with how we understand God’s involvement in our lives in general.
Is it appropriate for Tim Tebow to use his position for such a public display of his faith?
Is Tim Tebow being blessed with success in his endeavors because of his outspoken Christian testimony, or is Tebow being successful simply because he is using to the best of his abilities the personal gifts and talents that come naturally to him?
What does it say about Tebow being blessed by God when he fails to play a good game or when his team loses?
Okay, first the question as to whether God has any interest in, or takes notice of, or gets involved in sports, or in our lives in general. The Knoxville News Sentinel picked up a column by Reg Henry, who writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Henry writes (and these are his words, not mine), “Does the Almighty not have better things to do than decide NFL games, even when one of the quarterbacks goes on bended knee?” Referring to how the Broncos had defeated his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Henry quipped, “It puzzles me further that the Almighty, in his wisdom, might favor the Broncos over the Steelers, who have some excellent praying players of their own.” Henry raises some good points. Does God really care who wins on the football field?
Or switching gears (no pun intended), does God really get involved in another one of America’s quasi religions—stockcar racing? I am not a racing fan, but I know they used to have prayer before the race began. And the prayer often included a petition that all the drivers be kept safe from harm. I have always thought that to be a bit odd. That men would purposely drive 200 miles an hour, knowing they are putting their own life and the lives of others in mortal danger, and then pray that they be kept safe. But I digress. The question is, Is it in the nature of God to take sides or get involved in sports and other such affairs of men and women?
Could the tendency of some to pray for God’s favor, perhaps even victory, at sporting events and in other arenas, be a carryover from the ancient days of religion when God was seen to be a tribal deity that accompanied a people into battle? This is sort of the way we want to think of God, isn’t it? As being on our side—whether that side be in a sporting event, in politics, in religious affiliation, on the battlefield, or anywhere else. But anytime battle lines are drawn and God is claimed to be on one side or the other, not-so-good things can happen. Once you claim to have God on your side, you run the risk of feeling justified in doing whatever it takes to accomplish your goal. But if you see God as being equally concerned and loving toward everyone, then that changes not only how you can accomplish your goals, but what those goals might be. It is much more difficult to view God as a universal God, who is on everyone’s side.
Second question, Is it appropriate for Tim Tebow to use his position to promote his faith in such a public manner? Now, as always, there are two sides to the issue. The first is the side of free speech. Some say that Tim is just exercising his right of free speech and freedom of religious expression. But then on the other side, what if Tim Tebow were a Muslim, for instance, and prostrated him as Muslims do when they pray, toward Mecca? Would that be as acceptable? Would Americans be as supportive and enthralled? As a recent article in Sports Illustrated pointed out, Tebow has become “a centerpiece of debate.” “There is a certain unease [among many] with displaying religious beliefs as outwardly as doth Tebow.”2 But perhaps the greater question is, At what point does the display of religious faith become questionable?
Third question, Is Tim Tebow being blessed with success in his endeavors because of his outspoken Christian testimony, or is Tebow being successful simply because he is using to the best of his abilities the personal gifts and talents that come naturally to him? As the Sports Illustrated article points out, a recent poll “inquired of fans far and wide and found that 43% of them believed that ‘divine intervention’ had played a role in Tebow’s triumphs.” In other words, it appears that many believe that Tebow’s game is being blessed because of his faith. But surely there are other football players who are just as dedicated in their faith, maybe not just as public about it. So I lean toward the idea that Tebow is successful because he is using to the best of his abilities the personal gifts he has, and maybe because of his positive, can-do attitude.
And the fourth question, What does it say about Tebow being blessed by God when he fails to play a good game or when his team loses? If God is blessing Tebow because of his public demonstration of faith, then what does it mean when Tebow suffers a loss, as did the Broncos suffer a 45-10 playoff loss to the New England Patriots, who will be playing in today’s Super Bowl instead of the Broncos? The broader question for all of us is, If God is for us, then why do we suffer trouble and defeat in life? How do we deal with that? One wonders if Tim Tebow continues to offer praise, like righteous Job we considered last Sunday, following a defeat as well as a victory. According to an interview aired this weekend, Tebow claims to be the same person whether he wins or loses. If that is so, he is to be commended.
So, the questions surrounding the intersection of sports and religion are many, aren’t they? What I would like to do is draw some conclusions from a broad, religious perspective. For instance, as noted earlier, we do well to stay away from the idea that God is always on our side. Regarding speaking publicly of our faith, all of us, I think, probably could stand to do a little more of that. When I first came here, I was told that one of the mindsets of Oak Ridge is you don’t talk about your faith. You keep it private. Well, that’s no way to grow a church. At the same time, we don’t want to make such a public display of our faith that it makes other people feel pressured or uncomfortable. From Tim Tebow we can learn the lesson of developing and using to the best of our abilities those personal skills and talents we have been given, as well as having faith and faith in ourselves. Finally, I think we can learn that even though God is for us—for all of us, none excluded—we can’t always expect God to intervene in our lives to make everything go the way we want it to. Life just doesn’t work that way. We don’t always “win the game.” What each of us can do, as Paul so eloquently puts it in this letter to the Philippians, is do our best, have faith in ourselves, and run with patience and perseverance toward the goal that we set before us. Amen.
1Time Magazine, Jan. 16, 2012. 2Sports Illustrated, Jan. 23, 2012.