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Underdogs and Earthen Vessels
(Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

A few years ago I was in Kansas City for a couple of weeks to teach classes at a seminary.  As a guest in Kansas City for a few days, I felt some kind of obligation to participate in the ritual of watching a football game as the Kansas City Chiefs played Miami. I figured the better part of diplomacy, especially since I watched part of the game with some diehard Chiefs fans, would be to root for the Chiefs. And I enjoyed the game.

Actually, though, I am not much of a sports fanatic. I'm not the kind of fan who has a favorite team that I follow through the season. I usually just happen onto a game and become interested. I stumbled onto the Peach Bowl from Atlanta some time ago.When I tuned in, Auburn was thoroughly dominating Indiana and the score showed it.

Now here is where you'll find out why I could never be a true sports fan. In a matter of minutes I had started vicariously playing the game on the side of Indiana. Why Indiana? Simply because they were behind. You see, that's how I choose teams. I root for the underdog.

I'm not sure whether it's an odd quirk in my personality or whether it's something from my rural western Oklahoma heritage, but I have great sympathy for the underdog. The person who really doesn't have much going for them. The person who might have made it but just doesn't have enough going for them to win.

The Biblical Perspective

As I have studied the Bible, I have noticed that perhaps my tendency to cheer the underdog is not so strange after all. I have gradually come to the realization that most of the people who play key roles in the Bible could be described as underdogs. People who really didn't have much going for them. People who really didn't have it together enough to come out on top.

Childless women. Old men. The youngest sons. Cowards. Stutterers. Daydreamers. Shepherds. Murderers. Slaves. Prostitutes. In fact, I have realized that here is one of the central truths of the entire Bible, what I call the "theology of the underdog."

The Bible presents this "theology of the underdog" from a variety of perspectives. Let's look at just one of those perspectives, presented in the form of a warning. The passage is from the Book of Deuteronomy (8:11-18). This book is a sort of condensation of the theological pilgrimage of the Israelite people.

8:11 Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 8:12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 8:13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 8:14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 8:15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 8:16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 8:17 Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." 8:18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. 8:19 If you do forget the LORD your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish.

After the Israelites left the harsh life of the desert, they settled down in the more stable environment of Canaan. There they faced new and more subtle dangers. As the ragged band of slaves had fled the tyranny of Pharaoh, God Himself had fought for them because they could not fight for themselves. But as they settled in the land they had less and less need for God to fight battles for them.

They had wandered homeless in the desert for 40 years and God had taken care of all their needs. But after settling in the land they could build their own houses and raise their own food. The people who had earlier depended on God's cloud and pillar of fire for guidance and God's manna for daily survival now had military overlords, fortresses, and storage cities. The people had once looked to Yahweh, the God of the Fathers, the God of the Mountain, the God of the Desert, the great warrior God for help and deliverance. But now, settled comfortably in the land, they sacrificed to Baal, the Canaanite god of rain and fertility, and to Ashtoroth, the earth goddess, so the crops would grow and the livestock would produce.

You see, their temptation was that the further in time the people got from the harsh realities of Egyptian tyranny, the less they thought they needed God. The more self sufficient they became, the more they forgot about the role of God in the creation of their nation. They could almost remember that it was their great army that had defeated Pharaoh. They could almost remember that they had conquered the walls of Jericho. They could almost remember that they had earned a right to the land and could handle their own destiny. It was to this kind of dangerous self-sufficiency that the warning of Deuteronomy is addressed.

Deuteronomy begins with a quick survey of how God had worked in the past. That was a primary way the Old testament community dealt with problems: by looking at the traditions of the past to learn the lessons of history. One feature that stood out in those traditions was that God's presence could be seen in the most powerful and dynamic ways working through the most unlikely people in the most adverse circumstances in the face of the most overwhelming odds. In fact, the Israelites' very existence as a people had depended on God working through the most unlikely persons, the underdogs, to effect deliverance for His people.

Who would have given Abraham two cents for his promise of being the father of a great nation when he was 99 years old and his wife could no longer have children? We would have bought stock in Ishmael's company. But Sarah bore the child of laughter according to the promise of God.

What odds would we have given Joseph that his dream of leadership would come to pass as he was sold into slavery in Egypt, and spent years forgotten in prison? But God used Joseph to save Israel's sons from starvation.

Who would have foreseen that a group of slaves in Egypt could be led from bondage to freedom by a man so ungifted in leadership, speaking ability, diplomacy, and plain common sense, as Moses? And who would have given that scraggly bunch of slaves much of a chance of even making it to the Red Sea, let alone getting across?

Such stories do not stop when the Israelites settle in the land.

Who would have thought that a young widow from an enemy people living in a foreign country would be a factor in the royal lineage of Israel's greatest kings? Yet Ruth appears in the Royal Judean line leading to David.

And who would have chosen David to be king? Anyone with a little common sense would know that a shepherd kid, the youngest of the family, who daydreams while playing the lyre and singing to a bunch of sheep would not make a good national leader. But God chose him!

Jeremiah should never have been called as a prophet. Prophets are supposed to be rugged men like Elijah, who can call down fire from heaven at the drop of a hat. Jeremiah was practically a basket case of emotions. But God used him!

And we could go on through the entire Bible. What emerges here, if we listen carefully to the biblical texts, is an understanding of how God works with humanity. The writer of Deuteronomy looked back at the traditions and the path that Israel had traveled and applied the lessons of history to his own day.

What he saw was that Israel owed her existence, not to her power or skill or righteousness, but solely to the grace and power of God working in the lives of the least likely people, the underdogs. The writer understands that the difficulties, the trials, the problems, the total unlikeliness of it all, demonstrated that it could only be from God!

The truth that Deuteronomy communicates is that God wants us never to forget that it is not by our power and our strength that we exist as servants of God, but by his grace extended to the least among us.

How else could we believe that a man who was born to a poor, unmarried Jewish peasant girl in a backwoods province of an ancient empire, a man who was executed by a civil court for sedition against the state, was the son of God?!

Paul is perhaps the most eloquent proponent of this "theology of the underdog." In 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 he writes:

27 God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 God has chosen what is low and despised in the world, things that are not to reduce to nothing the things that are, 29 so that no person might boast before God.

Probably the most powerful statement of this perspective in the entire Bible is in 2 Corinthians 4:7:

7 We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves!

Are we as Christians really underdogs? In a very real sense, yes, because we possess no strength within ourselves. Earthen vessels? Yes! Fragile! Not always pretty! But useful.

Powerless? On our own, yes. With God, by no means!

Application

One of the greatest dangers that we face as Christians, especially those who feel led into some kind of special ministry, is that we are tempted to forget where our strength lies.

We must study and prepare to fulfill our call as ministers, to be the best servants of God that we can possibly be. That is part of our calling in the modern world. But the danger is that the more we study, the more we learn the techniques of sermon building, church growth, evangelism; the more we learn how to speak, to run board meetings, to counsel people; the more we practice the nitty-gritty details of ministry, the greater is the danger of depending more and more on our own abilities. If we are not careful, we can easily develop a false confidence in our ability to get people to come to an altar, or in our expertise to raise money, or in our leadership skills in increasing attendance.

We can almost remember that it was our capability that built the church, or our faithfulness and prayer that brought revival, or our great sermon delivery that led to that movement of the Spirit in a service. And the warning of Deuteronomy rings out:

Beware lest you forget the Lord your God; . . .Lest you say in your heart, My power and the strength of my hand has done this.

And the words of Paul sound clear:

We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves!

Every time I enter a classroom, every time I stand before a congregation, every time I sit down to talk to someone about the struggle of their life, I feel a deep and profound sense of inadequacy. I feel like Moses as he responded to God's call, "Who am I that I should do this?"

But I also have a confidence. It is not a self-confidence that rests upon my abilities, my schooling, my preparation, my charisma, my personality, or on anything else that I possess. I have worked hard at all these things, yet I know my limitations and inadequacies.

When I realize the magnitude of the task that faces me in ministry, I feel very much the underdog, very much like a fragile earthen vessel. Yet I am still confident, in God. Because I know what GOD has done with underdogs and earthen vessels!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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