Ray Lewis, The Baltimore Ravens, and Isaiah 54:17

I am not much of an NFL fan these days.  I don’t have anything against the NFL – it’s just that over the last decade I have lived in three states, five cities, and lost touch with the NFL.  I am a fan without a team, which makes me not much of a fan.

Until the 2013 playoffs.  When I heard Ray Lewis was retiring at the end of these playoffs, I just knew I had to watch.  This guy is a football legend, and once upon a time he was coached by my favorite defensive player in NFL history – Mike Singletary.  The two play a lot alike, which is why I have to watch these last few games.  For January, 2013, I now have a favorite team – the Baltimore Ravens.

The AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos on Saturday, January 12, was an unbelievable game.  I will not re-hash the highlights in totality, but I have to mention some.  First, nobody expected to see Baltimore win this game.  I thought this would be the last game I would get to see Ray Lewis play.  Then Baltimore finds a way to overcome a punt return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, Peyton Manning, and the altitude in Denver to complete one of the great comebacks I have ever seen in football.  Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones (which went about 60 yards on the fly, in the swirling 8 degree wind of Mile HIgh Stadium) put the game in overtime.  Then, just when I thought Baltimore’s defense had nothing more to give, they stopped Denver from scoring for another whole quarter, intercepted Peyton Manning, and won the game.  Remarkable.

This led to Ray Lewis’ emotional post-game interviews.  CBS sideline reporter Solomon Wilcots was able to corral an emotional Ray Lewis, and got this response (http://youtu.be/tG0rkzdb_qw).

I love this guy.  I wish Ray Lewis could play forever – he is that much fun to watch, even now, with an injured triceps muscle, and age obviously not on his side.  His emotion is palpable.  I wish I could be his teammate when I hear him talk with that kind of emotion.  I hope they win the AFC Championship so we can see him play in the Super Bowl.  What a great way to finish a career.  I just want to see Lewis play in two more games – one is not enough.

Here is what caught me when Ray Lewis spoke.  He said “No weapon.  No weapon formed shall prosper.”  He gave the same quote when interviewed on the field by ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio (http://youtu.be/1SX-aTyBjPQ) as well.  What did he mean?

The quote comes from the Old Testament of the Bible, Isaiah 54:17 to be exact.  Here is how the complete verse reads: “‘No weapon that is formed against you will prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.  This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their vindication is from Me,’ declares the Lord.”

I will start by saying I am not a theologian.  I am married to one, however, and I have spent my whole life reading the Bible.  I also have a history degree, which means I have learned to read things within the context they were written or said.  All that being said, I am still a novice to this, I will not pretend to be anything else.

My first question when I heard this quote by Ray Lewis was “why did he pick this verse over all others?”  I can’t get into Lewis’ head, but I do wonder why he didn’t quote Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”  This is a verse often quoted by athletes as a verse to show that God is on their side, although it too is taken out of context.  Lewis chose, “No weapon formed against me shall prevail.”  What was the weapon?  The Denver Broncos? Peyton Manning?  The Denver community?  Are these people working against God?  That’s scary ground to tread indeed, but I don’t think that is what Ray Lewis meant.

I do think (without any first-hand knowledge) Lewis feels his current quest has divine intervention on the side of the Baltimore Ravens, or at least for Ray Lewis.  His words tell me that he feels his team has a date with destiny, and that involves the Super Bowl.  Do they?  I don’t know.  What if the Ravens do win the AFC Championship?  Is that proof this team is destined?  No.  Is God a football fan?  I can’t answer that one, but I do know God loves God’s creation, and within that, God loves people more than anything.

The question for me then is can Ray Lewis read this verse and conclude that nothing will stand in his way to get to another Super Bowl before he retires?  It at least appears he is, but is that OK?  This particular verse was written around 700 BCE to Israelites in exile from their homeland.  Was it intended for Ray Lewis, on a football field in America over 2,700 years later?

Our smart theologians out there will want us to use ‘exegesis’ at this point.  Simply put, exegesis is placing the text in the context with which it was written, and intended, by the author.  In other words – what did the author mean when these words were put to paper?  It’s obvious in reading the 54th chapter of Isaiah that football was not the subject of the author.  What was?  In the simplest terms I can describe, the Kingdom of God, when the earth would be renewed, peace and justice would reign, and no weapon which has been formed to stop the work of God would be able to stand against the plan, design and will of God.  This is my rough paraphrase, but I give it to help clarify the subject.

How come Ray Lewis applied this verse to the football struggle between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos?  I think it is this: when this verse is pulled out of its context, it is a very inspiring verse to consider.  Who doesn’t want to believe that those who are walking the right path will not be harmed by any weapon which has been formed to stop them?

How come we willingly take 2,700 year old verses and apply them to our particular moments?  The truth is, we always have.  Isaiah 54 follows the 53rd chapter (shocking, right?), which is a very familiar chapter to Christianity, because it is one of the key Old Testament chapters we as Christians use to state that it was foretold that the Messiah would be killed for the sake of the world.  Starting in verse 4, we read these familiar words: “Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed.”

For generations Jews have been stating that Christians take these words out of context, along with numerous others, because these verses were written about Israel, the suffering servant of God in 700 BCE.  Christians have responded that when you read the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, it is obvious that these verses were written as a double meaning, applying both to Israel, and 700 years later to Jesus.  Who is right?  Well, that is matter of faith.

Now, let’s bring it to the present.  Can we really say that this verse could apply to a football game in 2013?  If I am being honest, I do not think it does.  I will also state that I do think these verses could be reapplied to today in regards to the working of God in the world, as God continues to bring about the establishment of the Kingdom in this world.

So what do I think of the ‘miracle’ applied in the Ravens win, and Ray Lewis use of Isaiah 54:17 to help inspire his team?  I think Lewis is a great motivator of people.  He knows what will get his teammates fired up, and behind him.  I also think Ray Lewis has a very deep Christian faith, which he draws upon on a daily basis.  Because of his age, experience, stature, and maturity, Ray Lewis is looked up to by many people, not just his own teammates.  I think he has led many football players to deepen their own faith, and make better decisions in their lives.  Ray Lewis draws upon his faith to help lead people.  It works.  Ray Lewis is being exactly who he is.

Let’s also make no mistake about it – the Baltimore Ravens are a good football team.  They are about to play in their third AFC Championship game in five years.  They started this season off red-hot, before injuries brought them back to earth.  They still made the playoffs, and are still a formidable force.  Are they inspired?  Yes.  They play to win, and they have a little extra boost because they are playing for their leader.  Is this verse helping to propel this team forward?  When their leader speaks it, it does.

I want to be careful in stressing that I don’t think this verse applies to football.  I am certain that this verse will be applied again, however.  It will be applied appropriately, in the context within which it was written over 2,700 years ago – when God’s Kingdom is established on earth for eternity.  And there is no weapon on earth formed, or yet to be formed, which will stop that from happening.