There was a minute remaining on the clock and we were down by two. I was stomping my feet, trying to get the attention of our point guard when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I was hot that someone was interrupting me at that moment, “In the name of Methuselah’s ghost! Are you kidding me?! Who in heck wants to bother me in this moment!! We are down by two in the camp championship game with a minute remaining and someone is trying to get my attention!?” I was ready to whirl around and in a not-so-polite way tell that person to move along. I turned quickly, ready to pounce on my interrupter, when I saw a smiling face with curly hair looking back at me and I was stunned. The gentleman said, “Paul, I just wanted to walk over and tell you how good of a job you are doing.” That man was Tubby Smith. The game did not matter to me anymore.
I am an unapologetic Tubby Smith fan. The man has character, is a phenomenal in-game coach, and has a strong faith. I have followed Coach Smith from the time he was an assistant at UK to where he is now at Texas Tech. And, while following Coach Smith, I have often heard others say that he is best at getting his teams ready for March. March is the holy grail of college basketball because it is tournament season. Strange things happen in March to strong teams and mystical moments take place for teams many do not know exist. March Madness is what college basketball fans live for. March is an important season for Christ-followers as well.
What can March Madness teach us about following Jesus?
Interestingly, Lent begins around the same time the basketball post-season begins. Webster defines Lent as “a period of 40 days before Easter during which many Christians do not eat certain foods or do certain pleasurable activities as a way of remembering the suffering of Jesus Christ.”
“As a way of remembering the suffering of Jesus Christ…”
Lent serves as a reminder of Jesus’ life and death. We celebrate the Resurrection at Easter. For now, during Lent, we pause to reflect on Jesus-in-flesh and the pain he suffered to redeem humanity and creation.
Jesus, like all good coaches, lived his life in preparation for his “March Madness;” the period of time when all his work would culminate during Easter Week. And, like every basketball season, there was a time when Jesus knew it was time to take his “game” to the next level. The time occurred at a place called Caesarea Philippi. Matthew wrote the following during Jesus’ time at Caesarea Philippi, “From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, scribes, be killed, and raised the third day.” Matthew's word indicate that the location of Caesarea Philippi was where Jesus began sharpening his focus towards the Cross. Jesus knew that his metaphorical post-season run was drawing near and that it was going to require suffering, persecution, and death. Yet, he stayed focused and sacrificial to the end.
What can we learn from Jesus’ metaphorical post-season run towards the Cross?
1. Jesus kept his focus on the Cross. We, too, are to keep our focus on the Cross. Hebrews 12.2 encourages us to keep our eyes “on the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him, endured the Cross.” Why keep our focus on the Cross? Because the Cross is the very center of the Christian faith. If there is no Cross, there is no hope. But, there was a Cross, so there is unlimited hope.
2. Like March Madness, Jesus’ journey towards the Cross was full of highs and lows. The high of Palm Sunday was replaced by the low of Good Friday. Peter’s insistence that he would never leave Jesus was gutted by his multiple denials of Jesus. Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble and he also said that he came to give life to the full. As we follow Christ, there will be days we feel like a 15 seed upsetting a 2 seed. However, there will be days when we feel like the 2 seed that has been upset. (I remember the first time I watched an upset in the NCAA Tournament. It was 1993 and Santa Clara, a 15 seed, upset Arizona, a 2 seed. I remember the excitement and enthusiasm displayed on the television from the fans, players, coaches, and even announcers. Everyone was excited except for anyone associated with Arizona.)
3. God loves a great comeback! In case you do not know the story, Jesus’ death does not end in a tomb. If we put our faith and trust in Christ, our grief, our losses, and ultimately our death will not end in a tomb.
Back to Coach Smith…Tubby Smith’s Kentucky team won the 1998 National Championship and along the way, that team was nicknamed, “The Comeback Cats.” Why? They overcame three double-digit deficits during their last three tournament games which ended with a 78-69 victory over Utah. The Comeback Cats reminded the world that comebacks are exhilarating to watch. Wait until Easter.
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Harrodsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.