There are a few ways this year's Super Bowl could be better from God's point of view.
1. After years of frustration as perhaps the best NFL quarterback in history to never play in a Superbowl, the big empty place in the heart shared by Archie Manning and the city of New Orleans could finally be filled if Peyton Manning were a Saint.
2. The best zero-to-hero story of the individual athlete in history, that of Kurt Warner, could combine with the Saints march from 40 years of frustration to fulfillment if Warner were their quarterback.
3. The young man who grew up as a Saints fan in nearby Mississippi could have been playing for New Orleans instead of against them in the Superdome last Sunday, and perhaps Brett Favre would have won his second Super Bowl ring after all.
Short of any of those three unlikely scenarios, there is no possible way to have a better Super Bowl contender, in God's eyes, than the New Orleans Saints, just as they are with Drew Brees (or, as some are now calling him, Breesus) at the helm. Eh—and maybe Head Coach Sean Payton has something to do with it also—a tiny bit at least.
God's interest in this year's Saints team began long before Katrina, though it certainly was piqued by that disaster, and obviously grew as time elapsed beyond the event to the anti-Katrina event that occurred in the Superdome last Sunday. More on that in a minute.
First of all, you don't name a team the "Saints" in one of America's most Catholic states and cities without making a few brownie points with Jehovah.
Second, God's time is not our time. When you look at the Old Testament, for instance, most of the "Chosen People" didn't live long enough to witness the end point of God's plan. Moses never made it to the promised land, for instance. David never lived to see the Temple he dreamed of building.
So when we think about God showing favoritism, in sports or otherwise, we have to think in terms of generations, not seasons.
There is one number that comes up a lot in the Bible. It's the number 40. For instance, we hear of 40 days and 40 nights at various times.
But the number is most significant where the New Orleans Saints are concerned when you consider the fact that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years before getting to the promised land.
Now, I shouldn't have to tell any real football fan that the Saints' franchise has been in existence exactly 40 years. And I shouldn't have to tell you that you could classify every single year of that history as being in the wilderness.
Yes, they got to the Conference Championships once, but their hopes were mercilessly dashed in that fiasco, and it only made the futility of their fate even more of a wilderness experience.
Like the Children of Israel, the Saints have had many disappointments in the leadership department.
For the Isrealites, there was King Saul who was supposed to lead the nation to greatness but became as corrupt as a New Orleans politician (we won't mention any names).
And then came King David who was supposed to build the Temple but ended up with blood on his hands from killing the husband of the woman he wanted to hook up with (sound like current events?) and so David ended up disappointed and a disappointment.
Then Solomon came along, and eventually did build a glorious Temple, but it was ransacked and ruined eventually, and had to be rebuilt.
So now, here we are, with the Saints finishing their 40th year in the Bayou wilderness, and finally, after some disappointments in the leadership department, Archie, Ditka, Haslett to name a few, and after living through the desecration and sacking of their temple (Superdome during Katrina) and the plagues and floods that caused it, it appears that God's time has finally come to fulfillment.
But not so fast.
If there was theme for the Children of Israel, despite their long slog toward Destiny, it was that they kept forgetting how they had gotten out of Egypt. They started believing it was of their own doing. And then, God had to bring them down a few pegs, setting Destiny back a few more years.
It didn't happen all at once. In fact, for the first ten games or so, Saints fans held their breath with each consecutive victory, afraid that the other shoe was about to drop. It always did. It certainly would. But after a while, after a few times when when they found themselves down by two scores late in the game, the team and their fans began to believe they were unstoppable.
As their margin of victory grew narrower, and the minutes to spare before gaining or regaining the lead turned to seconds, they still began to believe they were finally unbeatable! What is it the Bible says about that, "Be careful when ye think ye stand, less ye fall!"
Finally, those Philistines from Dallas left the Saints camp in ruins. It seemed as if God had turned her back on the Crescent City, yet again.
So after the Dallas Debacle, life in New Orleans was unbearable, and getting worse. They lost the next week, and again the third week, and there was weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth of Biblical proportions.
But then, as often happened in the Old Testament, God's chosen people tore their clothes, prostrated themselves face down in the dirt, and begged for mercy. And the cries of the humble were heard in Heaven.
It was not in the cards for the New Orleans Saints to march all the way to the Promised Land this year without diversion. Despite their 40 years of wandering, they had to humble themselves yet again lest they believe they had won it all on their own strength. They had to be in a position where any victory would be attributed to God, not to human striving.
It reminds me of the story of Gideon.The Israelites were in one of those phases in which they began to believe they could do anything on their own power. God allowed them to be humbled by the Midianites, who ran up a string of punishing victories as the Israelites tried to advance to the Promised Land.
Eventually the people got it, humbled themselves and called upon God for mercy. God raised up a general named Gideon to take them into battle against their nemesis. But they had to do it God's way.
Gideon was told to send most of the army home, to keep just around 22 men or so, and to carry nothing into battle but lamps, clay pitchers, and trumpets.
Now the trumpet is the perfect symbol for New Orleans, isn't it? Think of old Al Hurt leading the Mardi Gras parade, playing his horn. But I digress.
The Israelites found the Midianites hung over and asleep, one night. The 22 or so men followed Gideon into a surprise attack. As they approached the camp, they smashed their pitchers, blew their trumpets, and shouted with a blood curdling yell, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon."
The Midianites, thinking they were completely out-gunned and out-manned, tucked tail and ran for their lives.
Fast forward to Jericho. The Iraelites continued to advance. The walled city of Jericho was all that separated them from the Promised Land. Instead of trying to crash the city gates, or hurl arrows over the wall, the Israelite army, led by Joshua, simply marched around and around, until the walls came tumbling down. And finally, after 40 years, the Israelites marched in unobstructed, and took possession of the land their ancestors had only dreamed of.
Could we call Sean Payton Gideon? Could we call Drew Brees Joshua? Could we call the Vikings the Midianites? Could we call Indianapolis Jericho?
You get the drift.
A totally undefeated Saints team rolling into Miami unscathed and unshaken was not meant to be. Such a team would have undoubtedly felt the cold shoulder of God in their hubris, in their assumed perfection. On the other hand, a post-Katrina, post win-streak New Orleans team, ragged, scarred, more Ninth Ward than Garden Quarter, has destiny and Divinity on its side.
And the Colts have had it much too easy, have led the league all season long. Their perfect quarterback Peyton Manning is just too pretty. His people follow him with too much arrogance. Their accomplishments—a two-season string of unbroken wins before they finally beat themselves more than anything, and past world conquest—set them up to be just the kind of team that God's team will take down, not with power or finesse but with smashed pitchers, oil lanterns, and Mardi Gras trumpets.
Those walls are gonna tumble!
John Wingspread Howell is a speaker, writer, theologian and consultant. He publishes the e-zine Underdog Sports www.underdog.sports.officelive.com. He is available to speak to your organization or event by contacting him at www.johnwingspreadhowell.com/scheduleanappearance.aspx