Sermon: No Longer Underdogs
Scripture: I Corinthians 15:51-57
Date: April 15, 2018
Most of us love an underdog. And an underdog that wins is even better. For instance, when the Chicago Loyola Ramblers were given an 11 seed in this year’s NCAA tournament , not many of us took notice. They were just one of several underdogs, long shots to even win a game against the titans of college basketball. But then they won their first game. And suddenly people began to jump on their bandwagon. They became the darlings of the media. The nightly news told the story of their improbable run and the 98 year old nun who sat in the stands encouraging her boys and praying for them. And to the delight of everyone (except the fans of the teams they left in their wakes) they kept winning. And they kept winning. And with every win, they gained more and more fans. Because we love winners, especially when they aren’t supposed to win. And by the time they finally lost in the final four, all of America was pulling for these underdogs and they had taken their places alongside the great underdogs of history. The 1969 New York Mets. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Us against the Internal Revenue Service. The 1970 Templeton Middle School basketball team. And then think about all the underdogs in scripture. David and Goliath. Joseph against his brothers and as a slave in Egypt. Moses against Pharoah. Daniel in the Lion’s den. We love a good underdog story, don’t we? And if the underdog ends up a winner, they become a part of our popular lore. Their story is told over and over again. For the foreseeable future, whenever a team starts an improbable run in the NCAA tournament the story of Chicago Loyola will be told. And there are Underdogs in all walks of life. I remember reading about a congressman from Tennessee who was a huge underdog to a long time incumbent when he decided to challenge him. It was his first campaign for elected office. No one expected him to win. During the campaign he ran on a platform that he wouldn’t pander to lobbyists and big money influences, which was an easy promise to keep since none of the big money people and lobbyists believed that he had a chance to win so they paid little attention to him at all. But the anti- incumbent sentiment took hold of the campaign, and suddenly the underdogs campaign took off, and from out of nowhere he won by the slimmest of margins. And in the aftermath of the election it was hard to find anyone who had not voted for him. Suddenly everyone was wanting to jump on his bandwagon. And he tells of one man who came up to him during a victory celebration in his home town and he slapped him on the back and said: “Congratulations. You’ll do great. Why if I had known you were going to win, I would have voted for you.” People love underdogs, especially when they start winning.
If you think about it, the story of the Resurrection of Jesus, is the ultimate underdog story. Jesus went to Jerusalem and took on the Jewish leaders and priests, the Roman Empire, and sin and evil. On Palm Sunday, there were many who jumped on His underdog band wagon. They even threw Him a parade which then as now was pretty much reserved just for winners. The Emperor. A conquering general. Crazy King Herod. And then on Monday, He won the day over the merchants and money changers in the Temple. And people began to think maybe He can pull off the victory. Slay the Goliaths. Overcome the titans. But by Tuesday things began to take a downward turn. Judas made a deal with the priests to throw the game their way. And by Thursday night they had plotted his defeat. First arrest in the garden – away from the crowds with whom He was so popular – all of those underdog lovers who had jumped on the bandwagon and dared to think that perhaps Jesus could triumph over the cross. And then there was the trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, and then King Herod and finally the Roman Governor who ordered him flogged and crucified and by Friday nobody gave Him a chance for the win. Not even the Disciples who deserted Him, and hid, denied that they had ever supported that underdog. Why I don’t even know who He is. But I know He can’t possibly win against the Jews and Romans and Zeolots. And when they nailed Him to the cross they all thought it was done. He himself had said from the Cross “it is finished.” The Underdog had made His run. He could hold his head high – on the way to the cross . No one really expected Him to win. Betrayed, abandoned, dead. Laid in a tomb. Defeated. In the few days from the triumphal entry to his parade back out of the city carrying a cross, beaten and bloody, he had gone from underdog to favorite but now loser. He didn’t even have a place for them to bury his lifeless body. His friends had to borrow a tomb. And when the stone was rolled over the door, any hope for victory was sealed in the tomb with him. You see it wasn’t just Jesus who died on that Cross, but it was also the death of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love. All that makes for underdogs in this world, that they sealed with Him. And the crowds dissipated. The Disciples scattered. Judas was so distraught over his betrayal that he joined Jesus in defeat at the end of a noose hung from the branch of a dead tree. Despite our early hopes of the triumph of the underdog, in the end it was the world, and evil and despair and death that won the day on Friday. But on Sunday morning, our of nowhere, God turned it all around. The Underdog came back. God raised Jesus back to life. And from sure defeat at the hands of the Jews and the Romans and the world, came the ultimate victory over them all. Against all odds, resurrection. New life. The ultimate victory. One writer, noting that Easter is a true underdog story writes:
How do you back Christ in a secular world that has crowned materialism and greed as its reigning monarchs? How do you cast your lot for the resurrection and the final victory of righteousness in a world saturated with sensuality, whose battle cry is “Just Do It!”? In a world of cynicism and despair, how do you let people know that Christ reigns in your heart this Easter and throughout the year?
It’s the question that all of us underdogs need to wrestle with in the days after Easter. Because resurrection faith turns losers into winners. It turns underdogs like you and me, losers in the eyes of so many in the world into winners. Easter people are those who against all odds win the victory and in doing so turn the world upside down. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale who in the middle of the 20th Century transformed the Marble Collegiate Church in New York into one of the largest churches in America at the time through what he called the power of positive thinking, once said that the Resurrection of Christ brings “an irrepressible sense of victory.” God sent Jesus in as the underdog to triumph over the church and the Romans and the world. And the glorious news is that HE WON.
First, through His resurrection Christ won the victory over hopelessness. Consider the cross. The Romans intended it certainly to be an instrument of death. It was, perhaps the most heinous form of capital punishment that human beings have ever devised. Death on a cross was a prolonged and excruciating way to die. But the Romans did not use the cross simply as a way to bring about physical punishment and death. They also used it as a way to kill the spirit of the people. To keep them oppressed. The cross became a symbol of hopelessness and it is said that all the roads in and out of Jerusalem were lined with crosses, warning the Jews that any transgressions against the Roman oppressors would not be tolerated. With every person that died on a cross, hope of a better life also died. But then came Jesus. When He died on the cross, the Romans and the Jews thought they had won. That the hopes of all of his followers for a better life also died. But on Easter, Jesus not only won the victory over death, but also over hopelessness. And Easter people became people that found hope in all circumstances. Desmond Tutu was the Black Archbishop of South Africa in the late 20th Century, in the midst of Apartheid, which was perhaps the worst form of segregation practiced by man. And in the midst of that dark time Archbishop Tutu was asked if he had any hope for South Africa’s future. And Tutu responded: I am always hopeful. A Christian is a prisoner of hope. What could have looked more hopeless than Good Friday? But then at Easter, God says, from this moment on , no situation is without hope. There is no situation from which God cannot extract good.
Because of resurrection God can take the worst and bring out the best and give life where there had only been death. One writer comments that because of Easter we can “take the most hopeless situations that we face, add God to the equation, and suddenly there is hope.” Because of resurrection, Easter people are hopeful people.
And then secondly, through His resurrection, Jesus defeated sorrow and despair and replaced them with Joy that is never ceasing. James, who is presumed to be the half brother of Jesus, proclaimed the victory over sorrow and despair that was won on Easter morning when He writes: Consider it pure joy, complete joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, and you will receive the Crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him. Because every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father, who chose to give us new life through Christ. Easter people are joyful people, no matter what may come.
Christian writer and speaker Tony Campolo tells about the death of his father in law, who was himself a pastor. He says that Pastor Davidson had been slowly deteriorating in mind and spirit for many years. It hurt to see such a great man becoming diminished by time and age. But through it all he seemed to be joyful and at peace. Campolo wondered how that could be, considering the decline he had been experiencing for so long. Then, Campolo says, one morning very early, his mother in law heard her husband, who hadn’t really spoken for some time, reciting I Corinthians 15: O Death, where is thy sting? O grave where is thy victory? Thanks be to God, who give us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” He repeated those words three times and then he closed his eyes and died rejoicing. Resurrection faith tells us that because of Christ’s victory over death, Easter People find Joy and peace in all things. Even death, because of Easter, death is just the beginning of new life. Only Jesus can go to the cross and cemetery and transform them into places of Joy.
And then finally, because Christ was victorious over death, love won the victory over hate. And so the way we love in all circumstances becomes our testimony to the resurrection. If we really think about it, of all the things that Christ said from the cross, perhaps the most loving words he spoke was when He prayed that God would forgive the soldiers who put Him on the cross, and the people who taunted Him, and the ones who were responsible for Him being nailed to the Cross in the first place. Of all the gifts that Jesus gave us by His resurrection, I think His victory of love over hate is the greatest. When we love one another no matter what, that love becomes our greatest witness to the victory that Christ won on Easter. Easter people love everybody because Christ went to the Cross out of His love for everyone. He humbled Himself, became the greatest underdog of all, so that we might have the victory forever and ever. A preacher by the name of King Duncan puts is this way: When you truly grasp the incredible love of God that caused Him to humble himself, become human, take on our sin and our suffering, and die for us – when you truly grasp how much God must love us, then you can’t help but let that love flow through you to others. It is because Christ defeated hate, that Easter People must love everyone. Hate has been defeated. It is no longer an option for those who believe in Christ. Duncan goes on to say this: This is the message of Easter. We have the joy of knowing the war is won! We don’t have to live in fear or defeat anymore. (We are no longer the underdogs). Because Jesus is the winner. He is alive. God is working in human history and no situation is un-transfigurable” with God’s love and grace.” Can you hear the power behind those words? It’s the power of resurrection faith. He is alive and because of that, because He won the final victory, there is nothing in this world that can not be transfigured through hope, and joy and love.
In the last chapter of God’s word, the John of revelation gives us his take on Easter when he writes that “now the dwelling place of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain, for the old life has passed away.” We’ve won the victory.
Max Lucado in his book about the crucifixion and resurrection called And The Angels Were Silent writes this about what John says:
I think the command which puts an end to the pains of the earth and initiates the joy of heaven is in those two words: No More! The King of kings will raise his pierced hand and proclaim, “no more!” The angels will stand and the Father will speak, “No more”. “Every person who lives and who ever lived will turn toward the sky and hear God announce, “no more! No more loneliness. No more tears. No more death. No more sadness. No more crying. No more pain.” Because the underdog lives and has won the victory over the world. Over death. Over hatred. Over sorrow. Over hopelessness. The victory of Easter is the victory of hope and joy and love. But we need not just claim that victory on Easter Sunday. But because of Easter, because Christ won the victory, we can live our lives in hope and joy and love every day of our lives on earth no matter what the world might throw at us, and every day for all eternity. Isn’t it time Easter people that we claim the victory for ourselves. Stop living us underdogs. The victory is ours. Come this morning and claim it for yourself.