Seabiscuit & Bethlehem

Christmas 2004

“In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini. It wasn’t Pope Pius XI, nor was it Lou Gehrig, Howard Hughes, or Clark Gable. The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged race-horse named Seabiscuit.”

So begins the Preface of Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. I saw the movie before I read the book and, as I was leaving the theater, couldn’t initially understand why I had been so deeply moved by the story. The more I reflected, however, the clearer it became.

Charles Howard was a former bicycle repairman who made his fortune introducing the automobile to the American West and, subsequently, purchased a small, knobbly-kneed horse named Seabiscuit. Red Pollard was a tragic-faced young man who had been abandoned as a boy at a makeshift racetrack cut through a Montana hay field. He came to his partnership with Seabiscuit after years as a part-time prize-fighter and failing jockey. And Tom Smith, a mysterious, virtually mute mustang breaker and Wild West performer, became the horse’s trainer. Howard teamed up with Pollard and Smith, three seemingly insignificant and ordinary men, and captured the hearts of millions with the record-breaking Seabiscuit.

Why did this story, nominated for 7 Academy Awards, capture the imagination of so many people? I believe there are two primary reasons. The first is that most people love to hear and tell stories of the underdog, the disadvantaged challenger, who becomes successful or victorious. It’s exhilarating to cheer on any potential come-from-behind winner.

Second, in stories like these, we are able to acknowledge that no one can perfectly see the “really real.” Everyone’s vision is limited. We simply miss things. The best trainers of the day passed Seabiscuit off to Howard for a mere $8,000 and watched him break a dozen track records. We all love the story of Michael Jordan, whose high school coach dismissed him from the team and, years later, watched his meteoric ascent to become the premier athlete in the world. He simply did not have eyes to “see” Jordan’s talent.

I believe these are also the reasons why Micah’s prophecy about the birthplace of Jesus Christ is so fascinating and compelling at Christmas. It is an “underdog village” which is catapulted to world fame, and scant few would have ever considered Bethlehem as anything more than an agricultural center for growing barley, wheat, olives, and fruit. Unless they had studied and believed Micah’s revelation, they would not have been able to “see.”

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times (Micah 5:2).

Bethlehem, you are small among the clans of Judah. You are just an ordinary and insignificant little village, humble and lowly. Even when the twelve tribes of Israel were divided into sections called clans, you were too small to have a place among them. When Joshua mentioned more than 100 cities that had been assigned to Judah, you were not even mentioned (Josh. 15:21-63).

Yet behind the veil of insignificance, God was preparing a grand story for you. You may have been little and insignificant, but “out of you will come for me (for Yahweh) one who will be ruler over Israel.” Deliverance will come from you, the least expected place, even though there is nothing about you that makes you worthy of the honor that will be put upon you.

The One to come from you comes forth for the service of God and has great plans for His people. His “origins are from old, from ancient times.” Jesus comes reigning (His reigning does not commence when He arrives in the manger), and He reigns with authority, exercising dominion over all the earth.

The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart (I Sam. 16:7).

It seems from Scripture that the Lord takes delight in transforming people, places, and things that are small, ordinary, and insignificant. Goliath is killed by young David’s small sling and only one of the five smooth stones available in his primitive arsenal. Jesus feeds 5,000 men with the little boy’s meager loaves and fish. He trains twelve men and they turn the known world upside down.

The message of Bethlehem is one of triumph and victory. God Incarnate comes above thy deep and dreamless sleep as the silent stars go by. The Everlasting Light visits the darkness and opens the eyes of the blind to see Him in all of His radiant glory. Those who believe on Him have everlasting life.

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