by Will Searcy

March Madness is my favorite sporting event each year. As Christians, we are meant to hope, and nothing breeds hope quite like the opening long weekend of the college basketball tournament. About three-quarters of the field of 68 teams is comprised of the best teams in the nation, but then another quarter or so only makes it in by winning their conference tournaments. These are the teams that no one thinks are worthy of competing, and every year, to the shock of all, at least one of these teams’ hopes are realized. In the end, though, one of the top teams who was “supposed” to be there always seems to win, and the teams who were not supposed to be there quietly exit after an unlikely victory or two.


So, with Virginia as the number one overall seed, and the Final Four taking place in San Antonio, where my in-laws live, I had a serious talk with my wife before the Tournament began about whether or not we would spend Easter weekend in San Antonio with her mother if Virginia made it that far. My desire to see my team win and the seemingly perfect opportunity for them to do so was so great that before a single horn sounded, we had decided that we would make the trip if UVA did. And, unless you live under a rock, you know those plans came nowhere near fruition. The only solace in the historic loss my team suffered was in the way Coach Tony Bennett and his team, particularly Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, handled themselves with grace and composure in the face of it. But, needless to say, my favorite sporting event of the year felt ruined.


On the other side of the bracket, something surprising and wonderful was occurring. One of those teams that wasn’t “supposed” to be in the tournament won a game in dramatic fashion with a buzzer-beating three-pointer that sunk a very good University of Miami team. The Jesuit school, Loyola-Chicago, with their unofficial spokeswoman, chaplain Sister Jean, had burst onto the national scene. While these unexpected early-round victories had come to be expected in this tournament and were part of its appeal, their shelf life came with an early expiration date. Usually the next game, things would go back to normal, and the “Cinderella” team would lose, leaving only the teams who were “supposed” to be playing to compete for the championship.


But, Loyola-Chicago did not lose its next game. It won another dramatic game with a buzzer-beater over Tennessee. In fact, Loyola-Chicago won its first three games in the NCAA Tournament by a combined four points. Sister Jean, with her infectious smile and charming post-game interviews, became a star, and the nation became fans of the “Ramblers.” Then, Saturday, Loyola-Chicago left no doubt with a blowout victory over Kansas State to advance to the Final Four. It will be one of only four teams to travel to San Antonio to play for the National Championship and the only team that is not “supposed” to be there.


As I watched in wonder as Loyola-Chicago played the game in the most beautiful way possible – highly efficient offense in which the players and the ball moved fluidly until a player got a shot with a high probability success and tenacious team defense in which every player helped each other and forced his opponent to face five instead of one whenever he caught the ball – I realized that had my plans worked out, I would be watching Virginia in this game with one eye looking at potential flights. While I obviously still wish my team could have made a run and I could have seen them play for a championship, I realized that this plan, the Loyola-Chicago plan, was far better for far more people. After the Ramblers’ highly improbable victory to go the Final Four, Sister Jean said, “it just makes me so happy that we’ve brought joy into this nation that needs so much joy.”


Sister Jean’s words could not be truer. Joy is hope realized. For fans of March Madness, the hope is to see the seemingly impossible, and Loyola-Chicago has spent this month delivering joy with each win. For Christians, our joy comes from an impossible hope realized. Jesus, who gave himself up as a sacrifice to cleanse humanity of its sin, conquered death and gave birth to eternal life for all.


Since it is Holy Week, I wanted to share this story because most of us have made plans that were dashed. In times like this, we feel our joy is being taken from us and we wonder why God would allow that to happen. Why wouldn’t God fight for us and our plans? The reason is that sometimes when we ask God for something, he simply says, “no.” But, if we can keep an open mind and heart, we can see how every “no” God says to our plans is because He has something greater in store.


Around 30 B.C., the Israelites asked God for a Messiah that would conquer the world and remove them from under the thumb of Roman rule. They wanted a great military conqueror that would smite all their enemies. Instead, they received a baby in a manger who grew to a man who let himself be crucified without so much as raising a finger in his own defense. Jesus was not the Messiah the world had asked for, but thank God for His greater plan!

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