Today, March 17, is a very special day.  Yes, I know it’s celebrated as “St. Patrick’s Day” by a lot of green people.  It’s also “Evacuation Day” in Boston (the British troops evacuated from Boston Harbor on March 17, 1776) and “Submarine Day” for naval enthusiasts (John Philip Holland demonstrated his submarine to U.S. Navy officials on March 17, 1898).  But the most special thing about today to red-blooded American males is that it’s the beginning of “March Madness,” the NCAA basketball playoffs. This is a frantic annual tournament among the top 68 college teams in the country, involving 34 games played in 18 cities, culminating in the championship game on April 6.

“Bracketology” is a rutting ritual among American men that is one of the symptoms of March Madness.  It involves predicting the winners of all 34 games in advance of the tournament.  I visited Clayton Smith yesterday and found that he had just finished filling out his brackets, and that inspired me.  This morning I filled out my own brackets as a challenge to him.  I plan to call him every day or so to see which of us has been the best prognosticator. Maybe one of us will get all our predictions right.  What are the chances of that happening?  A Duke University math professor has calculated that, after taking into consideration the seedings of the various teams, the odds against perfectly selecting all brackets are about 2.4 trillion to one.  I feel lucky.

A person’s life can be seen as a series of brackets that describe many small decisions that, as they accumulate, define the shape, direction and ultimate meaning of that person’s existence.  A baby decides how much discomfort – hunger, wet diaper, etc. – can be tolerated before he starts crying.  Based on the care he gets, he decides whether to bond and with whom.  As the months and years add up, the numbers of decision brackets seem to multiply.  By the time the person becomes aware of how these decision brackets effect the course of his life, things are almost beyond his control.

The Book of Job is about one man’s significant success followed by severe misfortune.  The lengthy conversation between Job and his friends is like a kind of high-stakes bracketology, as the three friends take turns analyzing key decisions Job had made in his life and the cause-and-effect relationships between them and the sorry state he has come to.  Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar are full of macho bluster as they try to outdo each other in their absolute pronouncements about the inevitable course of Job’s life, and Job is nearly as pompous in his self defense.

But in the end, God speaks: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” (38:1).  In a series of thunderous pronouncements, God makes it clear that all the brackets of Job’s life are, always have been and always will be subject to God’s control.  He is the Author and Finisher of all things.  He alone gives meaning to Job’s life.  Job suddenly sees that all his bracket choices have been based on ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3).  Having come to this moment of insight, Job was ready for God’s version of bracketology.  He stopped trying to outthink and outguess God and yielded himself to God’s choices for him.  To the surprise of his friends, this ended  with Job holding the winner’s trophy: “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job, and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (42:10).

I’m going to try to just kick back and enjoy some good basketball the next few weeks, rather than being preoccupied with bracketology.  (But I’ll probably call Clayton once in a while, especially if I successfully predict an upset.)

— Pastor George Van Alstine