What we learn about ourselves when the King returns

The King has returned. This was the message that all the world of basketball and Cleveland sports fans in particular were eagerly awaiting this past week. After several delays, around noon on Friday, LeBron James announced in an emotionally charged letter that he will be returning to play for his hometown.

The question on my mind when rumors of King James’s return began circulating was How will Clevelanders react? The images and sounds of the reaction when he announced his departure remain vivid four years later—a giant banner with James’s likeness being ripped down from its hanging place near the basketball arena, local fans burning their #23 jerseys in their back yards, a flurry of spiteful words on Facebook and Cleveland.com, and a now infamous letter written by Cavs owner Dan Gilbert denouncing James as “narcissistic,” “heartless,” and “cowardly.”

On that day four years ago the people of Cleveland felt hurt and betrayed. In a town that has been long deprived of athletic glory, many believed that LeBron James represented their greatest hope for sports salvation. They raised him up before all the world, praised his every reverse dunk and fade-away jumper, and reveled in the greatness his presence seemed to cast upon the city. And then one day he was gone, and Cleveland was left without the championship its people so coveted. Cleveland is a town that knows how to endure suffering. They have had a lot of practice. But what was so difficult in this case was that salvation seemed so near. That is why, when LeBron left, Clevelanders’ reaction was violent.

In spite of the events of 2010, Cleveland has welcomed James back with open arms. A quick perusal of Facebook and Twitter proves as much. For most, it is as if all the “betrayal” never happened. Gilbert and James have made amends, people are praising LeBron’s gracious words in Sports Illustrated, and Clevelanders of all ages will surely be running out to replace the jerseys they burned four years ago. I think it’s safe to say I have an answer to my question: the people of Cleveland are as happy that their King is returning as they were when he first arrived.

I find the whole LeBron saga interesting, not because of what it reveals about the intensity of sports fervor in one rustbelt town, but because of what it reveals about our common human nature – something that emerged even more dramatically 2,000 years ago on the opposite side of the globe.

For two millennia Christians around the world have exalted Jesus of Nazareth as the “King of Glory,” the Son of the almighty God. Every Sunday we commemorate the saving work he accomplished for us, and on a daily basis we bless ourselves in his name. Removed by so many years and immersed in these rituals of praise, we can easily forget the ups and downs of Jesus’ story – how he was betrayed by one of his closest friends; how the rest abandoned him in his hour of need; how his religious leaders heaped insults upon him and beat him; how the same people who had once praised him looked on approvingly as he was nailed, naked and bleeding, to an instrument of death among common criminals.

As LeBron James now knows well, people don’t like being disappointed, particularly by the ones in whom they have placed their greatest hopes. For centuries the Jewish people had awaited God’s salvation, and, after three years of hearing Jesus’ preaching, witnessing his miracles, and experiencing his love, the disciples were certain that God’s salvation had finally come. But when Jesus was arrested that night in the garden, his disciples watched on as all their hopes began to unravel. When he emerged the next morning, bound and beaten, his closest followers were nowhere in sight and many others who had called themselves disciples turned on him with previously unimaginable rancor.

It’s easy for those of us sitting at a safe distance to look down our noses at the people of Jerusalem just as we might at the people of Cleveland. How could Jesus’ friends turn on him like that? How could Clevelanders act so spitefully toward a person for whom they had previously expressed so much love? However, I think when we are honest with ourselves, we recognize the same susceptibility within ourselves. It is precisely the people we love the most who are capable of hurting us the most deeply, and for that reason it is precisely against them that we can act most violently. If someone you thought was a friend has ever betrayed your trust or if you’ve ever been dumped by a person you loved or abandoned by a family member, then you know just what I mean. When we are hurt by those to whom we have given our hearts, we protect ourselves by going on the attack, by convincing ourselves that that person is no good and we never liked them anyway.

But when the estranged loved one returns and with them the possibility of love and happiness, our true colors are revealed once again. In Cleveland, the same people who filled their Facebook statuses with insults are now gushing with joy over LeBron’s return. In Judea and Galilee, many who had cried out “Crucify him!” in Pilate’s court were surely among the most fervent in preaching the Good News after Jesus emerged from the tomb. In retrospect it becomes clear that it was never really LeBron or Jesus they hated – it was the disappointment and the emptiness inside themselves that their beloved’s departure exposed.

Again, for anyone living outside of northeast Ohio or 2,000 years after the events of Holy Week, it is easy to wag fingers. We think, How could those people be so fickle? But the truth of the matter is that this is a hard lesson to learn. I know that I, for one, struggle to respect the freedom of others, most of all the ones I hold dearest. Because I have invested so much of myself in these people, I can tend to feel entitled to their loyalty, by which I mean (if I’m honest with myself) their submission to my will – my desire to be affirmed, to have my wishes fulfilled, to have my plans executed. It is far harder to love people as autonomous beings with their own needs, desires, and plans, and it is far harder to love them for their own sake rather than for what I might get out of the relationship and to accept their love as a gift rather than demand it as my right.

The people of Cleveland are rejoicing that their King has returned, and I rejoice with them. (I am a native Clevelander myself, after all.) However, we would be misguided to put too much faith in LeBron James. He may very well deliver an NBA championship someday, but he will never fulfill the greatest hopes of the human heart. For that we must await the return of another, greater King – one who will never disappoint so long as we are willing to receive salvation on his terms rather than our own. Indeed, Jesus told us often to be ready for when the King returns. What will he find when he does? Will he find us impatiently awaiting a reward we believe to be our due, or will he find us with open hearts ready to receive with gratitude whatever he may bring?