The following sermon, entitled “First Time at Daytona”, was delivered at First Christian Church of Winston-Salem, NC, on Sunday, February 26th, 2012. The Gospel lesson for the day was Mark 1:9-15.
As we all know, the church liturgical year starts in late November or early December, with the first Sunday in Advent. From there, we move on to Christmas, Epiphany, Lent – the season that we’re five days into – Easter, Pentecost, and “common time”, before we start all over again. However, for millions of people across the country, we’ve been sitting in a sort of “common time” for the last three weeks. You see, the season of the Blessed Football ended three weeks ago, with the final horn of Superbowl 46, and the season of the Holy Stock Car will begin in just a few hours, when the green flag drops at the 54th running of the Daytona 500.
Today’s Daytona 500 will open the 64th annual NASCAR Cup Series. For between three and a half and four hours – depending on wrecks, cautions, weather, and the patience of my girlfriend – my behind will be parked on my couch, eyes locked on my TV, tuned to FOX. God willing, NASCAR’s changes to end the ugly, heretical style of bump-draft racing that dominated last year’s restrictor-plate races will be effective, and it will be a legitimate RACE again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’d like to talk for a moment about the fifty-THIRD running of the Daytona 500. A little over a year ago, on February 20th, 2011, the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 featured 16 cautions, 74 lead changes, 22 lead drivers, and of course, one big wreck that managed to take out seventeen cars in one fell swoop, including NASCAR superstars Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. This paved the way for a little piece of NASCAR history to occur.
Starting the race WAY back in the field, in position #32, was a VERY young man by the name of Trevor Bayne. Having just turned 20 the day before the Daytona 500, he was driving a car with a GREAT deal of history behind it – the Wood Brothers’ #21 car, which had previously been driven to victory lane by legendary drivers such as AJ Foyt, Kyle Petty, and Dale Jarrett. In other words, he had HUGE shoes to fill.
Nobody expected Bayne to make a big showing. He was only scheduled to race part-time in the Sprint Cup Series, because Wood Brothers Racing had not seen success in quite some time, and could only afford him for part of the year. Bayne’s primary schedule was to be in the Nationwide Series, driving for Roush-Fenway Racing. He was only driving at Daytona in an attempt to finish in a decent place and attempt to garner better sponsorships for Wood Brothers.
It’s safe to say that nobody expected him to cruise under the checkered flag a full car length ahead of second place finisher Carl Edwards.
Yes, at the age of twenty years and one day, Trevor Bayne had driven the Wood Brothers’ #21 Ford to his very first Sprint Cup victory, at the Daytona 500. It was a story as improbable as an undrafted point guard from Harvard University rocketing to instant stardom as the indispensable anchor of the New York Knicks, or a 31 year-old veteran Los Angeles Dodger, beset by injury and illness, dragging himself to home plate and rocketing a pinch-hit home run to win a World Series game.
It was a story as improbable as an unknown carpenter from Nazareth being baptized in the Jordan and having the Holy Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove.
But, you could say, there’s a first time for everything – even the most improbable stories.
The baptism of Jesus was just the beginning of a rather remarkable story that we believe took place over about three years. We know very little about what happened in His life prior to this point – there is the story of the pre-teen Jesus at the temple in the gospel of Luke, but otherwise, His life is a mystery.
In the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospel of Matthew, when He arrives at the Jordan River, John the Baptist is initially hesitant to baptize Jesus, because he thought himself unworthy. And if anybody was going to know Jesus well enough to think himself unworthy, it was John the Baptist – after all, he and Jesus were second cousins, and besides, John was the last of the “Old Testament style” prophets. He probably knew more about Jesus than anybody else in Israel at the time.
But this is far from the last time that Jesus interacts with people who feel themselves unworthy. Zacchaeus, the “wee little” tax collector who climbed up a tree in order to see Jesus – and who then found himself playing dinner host to Jesus. The anonymous adulterous woman in John chapter 8, who Jesus not only did not condemn, but forgave and set free. Simon Peter, who initially refused to let Jesus wash his feet, feeling that the man he had just recently proclaimed Messiah should not debase Himself to touch Peter’s filthy feet.
But before Jesus could do any of that, he had to gain some experience. First up was a trip into the desert to be tempted for forty days – and you might say that young Trevor Bayne had a similar experience. You see, not long after his Daytona 500 victory, he was bitten by a deer tick, and ended up hospitalized for five weeks with lyme disease.
But even after the trials that Jesus went through in the desert, He still had to get His name out there before He could actually start His ministry.
So there’s this guy, you might have heard of him. His name is Jeremy Lin. He’s 23 years old, of Chinese descent. He graduated from Harvard University in 2010 with a B.S. in economics, carrying a 3.1 GPA – and anybody who has graduated from Harvard will tell you that so doing is no easy task.
However, economics wasn’t why he went to college – it was basketball. He was regularly an all-state player in California in high school, but received no scholarship offers. So, he figured if he could get into Harvard, he might as well go there.
During his time at Harvard, he wasn’t exactly a stand-out player, but the compliments he got for his court presence from basketball luminaries like U-Conn coach Jim Calhoun made an impact, enough so that the Golden State Warriors signed him to a contract in the fall of 2010. He played very little over the course of the season, and was eventually cut at the end of the season. He then bounced around from team to team on waivers until the New York Knicks picked him up on December 27th.
Over the next few weeks, Lin did very little, mostly staying on the bench behind Mike Bibby, serving as an insurance policy until Baron Davis was healthy enough to join the team. However, on February 3rd, Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni gave Lin a chance to play in a loss to the Celtics – and what he saw impressed him.
Lin was given another chance the next night against the New Jersey Nets – and that is when what we are now calling “Linsanity” began. Before the end of the next week, both D’Antoni and Knicks forward Amare Stoudemire were comparing Lin to Phoenix Suns point guard and future hall-of-famer Steve Nash – and given that they have respectively coached and played with Nash, the two know that of which they speak. Seemingly overnight, Jeremy Lin has become a national sensation and one of the most electrifying players in the NBA.
Hard to imagine that just a month ago, very few people knew who he was.
Similarly, not many people actually knew who Jesus was until a little incident at Nazareth.
In the fourth chapter of Luke, we see a story. Jesus has just completed the forty days trial in the desert, and has begun his Galilean ministry. First stop, his hometown – Nazareth. On Saturday, he goes to the synagogue for Shabbat services, and reads from the sixty-first chapter of the book of Isaiah. Then, he puts away the scroll and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Given that the Scripture he had just read said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” you might imagine that the good people of Nazareth were a bit astonished. This guy, this KID who they had all seen grow up in their midst, saying that HE was the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah?!
Well, they didn’t take too kindly to that, and he ended up getting run out of town. But from that point forward, you better believe that people knew who He was.
But there were miles and miles to go before Christ could proclaim victory.
Last week, Mike talked about Orel Hershiser, how he was the hero of the 1988 World Series, leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to victory over the Oakland A’s. I will PARTLY agree with Mike on this. Hershiser was ONE of the heroes of the ’88 World Series, but if you ask just about any baseball fan what one moment from that World Series stands out more than anything else, I would be willing to bet that the majority of them are going to say, “Kirk Gibson’s home run.”
Now, I’m not just trumpeting Kirk Gibson because last year he took my Arizona Diamondbacks out of the cellar to a 94-68 record and won the NL Manager of the Year in his first full year as a manager. Yeah, that’s a pretty nice feather in his cap. But let’s think about this for a moment. In 1988, he had been severely beaten up by the New York Mets in the NLCS. He could barely walk at the beginning of Game 1 of the World Series. He had the flu! But in the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Dodgers trailing the A’s 4-3, Tommy Lasorda sent Gibson to the plate with a man on.
Gibson limped out to the plate, and a few pitches later, had a full count against Dennis Eckersley. Then Eckersley threw a slider, Gibson twisted his upper body as hard as he possibly could, and the ball left Dodger Stadium with remarkable alacrity. Gibson’s home run made the Dodgers victorious, and began their run to winning that World Series.
In a sense, Lent for us is all about where we begin, how we come to know Christ, and most of all, how Christ makes us victorious over the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune which the world sends our way. Jesus Christ arrived triumphantly in Jerusalem, was beaten down and crucified by the Roman government, and yet emerged victorious from the tomb on Easter Sunday, his home run delivered in spite of his wounds.
But we have a long way to go yet before we get there. Lent has only just begun.
This afternoon, Trevor Bayne will start even further back at Daytona than he did last year – at position 40. Sometimes, that’s how we feel about Lent – we’re no better in life, and sometimes we’re worse, than we were a year before.
Eleven spots ahead of him, however, is another new rookie sensation, out to capture headlines. This rookie is no stranger to racing, but has never before run the Daytona 500. And what’s more, this particular Sprint Cup rookie has more to prove than Trevor Bayne did – because this rookie is Danica Patrick. She’s out to be the first woman to win a top-circuit NASCAR race, and her journey is beginning on the biggest stage NASCAR has to offer.
Jesus went on to have what we could call a relatively successful career following his baptism at the Jordan River. For Trevor Bayne, Jeremy Lin, and Danica Patrick, the jury is still out. But one thing that they all knew for sure:
There’s a first time for everything.