Pictured to your left: the much revered Peyton Manning, the best QB of all-time and Tennessee Volunteer faithful.
If you are familiar with Christian parlance at all, you know that evangelical Christians often note that they have accepted Jesus into their heart as Lord and Savior.
If you are familiar with the South, and East Tennessee in particular, folks will also say that they have accepted Peyton Manning into their heart. Maybe not as Lord and Savior, but definitely as favored son. You'll find more Indianapolis Colts fans in East Tennessee than you will Titans fans. I am one of those Colts fans.
That little illustration is one example of how strong our allegiances can be to sports teams. In an entertainment culture shaped by the television, major sports drive much of our time and interests and money. My biggest hobby outside of reading in general is reading about Tennessee football and basketball.
On the day (today) of Tennessee's historic biggest rivalry in a game we probably won't win (Alabama) in a year that isn't so good, I would like to submit that this love is a double-edged sword.
First, the bad. Sports teams absolutely are an idol in our culture. We worship those players and teams we follow so avidly. Stiff and traditional people in church on Sunday morning are often the same people who scream and cheer at a television screen when their favorite NFL team is playing. Even worse, tons of Christians in the Denver area skip church to watch the Broncos play. Since we believe God Himself indwells Christians, why on earth would we skip church to care as much about a game with little-to-zero life consequence? But we do, and sports thus become an idol. But there's a redeeming value to sports as well.
That's because most rooting interests are arbitrary. Notice this: I never made the choice to become a Tennessee fan. I have always been a Tennessee fan. Ever since I can remember, my favorite color has been orange. My rooting interests were and are essentially arbitrary: I was born into a family that went to the school and lived in the town where the school was. Now you say, "how can an arbitrary interest be a good thing? Doesn't it make us all sectarian and unnecessarily divisive?" Well, yes and no. If an arbitrary interest means others will actually hate people of the other team or region, then that's another manifestation of the idolatry in sports. But many people don't actually hate individuals or fans of the other team.
Here's the issue: the beauty of the arbitrary love is that it's constant. For no reason, I love Tennessee. I cannot not love Tennessee. I will love Tennessee no matter what. We are 2-4 in football this year and will probably get mauled by Alabama tonight, but I do not care. I will watch Tennessee this week and next. My love cannot and will not be taken away, no matter what Tennessee does. They have not earned my love.
And in that way, rooting for your team is a small mirror of the way God loves his people. Why does God love us? The Bible often gives a very simple answer: simply because he chooses to and out of no good thing in ourselves. God explains his love to Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6-8 (which Christians also believe apply to them as well now):
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, the faith beliefs of my church, says it this way in chapter 3.5:
Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto: and all to the praise of His glorious grace. (emphasis mine)
It's not an easy truth to realize- this idea that there is nothing inherently lovable in us and yet God loves us anyways. And despite what I insinuate above, I'm not saying that God's love for us is arbitrary or capricious. What I'm saying is that God's love for us isn't based on anything in us. Believe me, there's nothing to love about my team this year, and yet I love them. I will always be a fan. And maybe God put that love in me so that he could teach me a little something about His love.