We’re in the middle of the NBA playoffs—which never seem to end—and the conventional wisdom is that the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, will walk away with the championship. At the tender age of 24, James is already being mentioned among the all-time greats—and the statistics back that up. He is a phenomenal player, a dazzling mix of quicksilver point guard and thunder-dunking power forward. Betting on the Cavs is a pretty good bet.
Around Cleveland, however, the talk is not so much about basketball, as it is about the psychological, emotional and civic impact a championship will bring to the area. Cleveland has long been the focus of disparaging remarks about decaying urban areas, and it has been years since any pro team there won a championship. Many in the area have a deep hunger to be seen as a winner—and for them, LeBron is the ticket, a “one man urban renewal program”.
Now the one shadow in this bright land is the fact that James will be a free agent after this year, and the fear is that he will go to a team in a larger media market, like New York or Chicago. That has some fans feeling alternately theological and apocalyptic about James. Listen to their language from a recent episode of ESPN’s Outside the Lines:
+ the narrator began with this statement: “Every sports town needs a savior.”
+ The long-time voice of the Cavs, Joe Tait, said, “here’s a guy coming out of our neck of the woods who has a chance to lead us to the Promised Land.”
+ One pastor said, “I think I can say, unequivocally, as a pastor, that after Jesus Christ, then comes LeBron…to take a team that desperately needs a champion, a city…oh my goodness, I would have to be careful as a pastor, because people might start praising him, like he is God.”
I know all the stories about how basketball is the religion of Kentucky the way football is the religion of Alabama, but this is astonishing. I know he calls himself ”King” James, but people do understand that’s just part of his self-promoting schtick, right?
It gets worse. Here’s the pastor again: “for him to leave, I believe that the spiritual morale would drop, the emotional morale.” The weight of people’s hearts, their identity and their very inner disposition, are resting on a player in a game?
Finally, Nick Costas, who owns a club makes his affirmation of faith: “If he leaves us, it’s gonna take our hearts, like so many before him. But if he stays, it kind of reinforces our belief that, gee, God is good and he gave us LeBron,” I don’t even know where to start responding to that one.
Now here’s the thing. Switch the channel from ESPN to CNN. Now replace Cleveland with America, and LeBron with Obama—and it’s the exact same thing. People in our country are aching for a deliverer. They are longing for a savior. They are scanning the horizon for hope.
But the championships and the trophies, the economic and health care promises and the “yes, we can” cheers – are all misty dreams. They are dreams of the heart for something bigger, something more real and substantive. And like all dreams, they fade into forgetfulness in the bright light of day.
As big as they seem for moments when our hearts swell and we get chills for the joy, those things are simply not big enough to fill the caverns of our collective hearts. The emptiness goes God-deep. The something we long for must be God-sized, and no man—no matter how talented, charismatic, smart or compelling — can fill it.
Those who seem larger-than-life never are. Life is always larger.
No matter what name we put on it, the hope we seek and the longing we have is for God, who shows up in Jesus,
who alone is Savior
who leads us to the Promised Land
who is God
and proves He is good.