I’ve never been much of an athlete. Yes, I love to run, but that doesn’t require much coordination or skill. I played volleyball for several years, but while my team did well and won our share of games, I wasn’t exactly a standout player. And my softball career, though long in duration, was short on quality. Though I had played since I was five years old, I was never even good enough to make my high school JV team. But hey, that freed me up to go out for track, which fortunately, as I already mentioned, required no coordination or skill.
I’m not much better at following or watching sports. For some reason, my attention span, which allows me to write essays for 12 hours straight, can find 2-hour games hard to watch. If I’m watching in person, it’s a little easier; the crowd’s excitement and energy help me stay engaged. And if it’s a game or team I really care about—like the Oklahoma State Cowboys or the Kansas City Royals—then my attention span and level of interest increase. But even with my favorite teams, I’m terrible at remembering specific facts about games, stats, and trivia. (And as a result, I’m a terrible trash-talker; I don’t even try. Oh well.)
But in this figurative sea of sports-related ignorance floats an itty-bitty island of knowledge about one particular sports moment. Years later, this game-winning play remains etched in my memory, and I don’t think it will ever go away.
It happened during the 2007 Fiesta Bowl matchup between Oklahoma and Boise State. Having just made a touchdown and down by two with only a few seconds left in overtime, Boise State opted for a two-point conversion. But instead of throwing the ball to a receiver in the end zone, the Broncos went with an unexpected “Statue of Liberty” trick play. I’m not a sports writer, so I won’t confuse you by unsuccessfully explaining it. After all, a grainy YouTube video is worth a thousand words:
Even though I’m not a “sports person” and I’m not a Boise State fan (although now, as an Oklahoma State graduate, I’ll gladly root against whoever plays OU), this trick play has stuck with me over the years. When everything was on the wire and victory seemed impossible, these players stepped up and made a huge difference. They didn’t break under pressure, and they didn’t back down. Instead, they fooled their opponents (sorry, Sooners) and turned what looked like an impending “L” into an unforgettable “W”. Their actions changed the outcome, and at least in the miniature universe of bowl games, these players left their mark.
So what does this have to do with Christmas? Great question. I think the Boise State play has much in common with the Christmas story itself. Let me explain.
At the first Christmas, things weren’t looking so great for the Jews and for the world. Israel had endured centuries of foreign oppression by empire after empire, with the Romans acting as the current dictators. Long since destroyed, the extravagant temple built by Solomon was now just the object of nostalgia, a sad testament to Israel’s lost glory. Even the Jewish religion, intended to draw God’s people into relationship with Him, had been distorted and corrupted. Though tasked with shepherding God’s people and teaching them His ways, the religious leaders had fallen into legalism, becoming oppressive and cruel. Nothing was as it should be. And God, who had called Abraham all those years ago and had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, had fallen silent. These were dark and hopeless times.
And yet into the very heart of this darkness and sadness, God did the most unexpected thing: He sent His Son Jesus as a baby. Yes, the Jews were expecting a Messiah, but they were looking for a conquering king, not a helpless infant. Prophecies aside, no one thought Jesus would come from a place as desolate as Bethlehem or grow up in a town as podunk as Nazareth. (Case in point: when first told about Jesus, soon-to-be disciple Nathanael’s initial response was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”) And when God promised in the Old Testament that He would be a Shepherd to His people and make a new covenant with them, no one expected Him to literally become a man and live among us. And yet that is exactly what He did.
In what would become the “trick play” of eternity, God willingly took on human skin to be born as a little baby to an impoverished family in the middle of nowhere. He would then spend the next 30 years living in total obscurity, working as a humble carpenter. When the time was right, He would walk all over Judea, teaching everyone about the Kingdom of God and turning the religious world upside down. And then during the Jewish festival of Passover, He voluntarily sacrificed Himself for the sins of humanity, so that we might be restored to a right relationship with God. But not even death could hold Him, for in yet another “trick play”, He came back to life. He now reigns in heaven, and one day, when the time is right again, He will come again and finish restoring the world, making all things new.
This is the mystery of the Christian faith. Jesus’s presence with us changes everything. Because He came, we can know that God the Father loves us. Because He came, we know that God is involved in and cares about this world. Because Jesus came, we can know that we’re not alone on a “pale blue dot” suspended in the universe. For His very name Emmanuel means “God with us”. Not “God above us”, not “God beyond us”, but God with us. Right here, alongside us in the midst of the mess.
When Jesus was born all those years ago, His birth wasn’t some last-ditch, split-second play at the end of the game. No, His coming to Bethlehem was just the beginning; He was here to stay. Charles Wesley put it well in his classic Christmas hymn:
“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King”
That, my friends, is what Christmas is all about. The God of the universe was born as a little baby and lived among us. “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (John 3:16, The Message)
Merry Christmas, y’all! 🙂