The Reformers, specifically Martin Luther, often talked about God working in unexpected ways. Luther called this work of God sub contrario, that is, “under the opposite.” God, in other words, is most often found working in the thing that looks the opposite of what we would expect. As evidence, we can look to Biblical stories of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, forgiving thieves on crosses (okay, one thief on one cross), and resurrecting the dead. Jesus’ modus operandi seems to have continually confounded those among whom he lived. This idea of God working sub contrario perhaps finds its most concrete Biblical warrant in the account of the calling of the disciple Nathanael. Philip comes to Nathanael and tells him that the Messiah has come, and is from Nazareth. “Nazareth!” Nathanael exclaims, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46) Two thousand years later, the billions of Christians who have lived would, no doubt, say yes.
In fact, we say that this is precisely the kind of place from which good comes. God brings Jesus from Nazareth in order to bring life out of death. We hold tight to this “Nazareth Principle” because we feel that we are from Nazareth; we are not special; we are dying, and we hope and pray that God can bring something good out of us.
Which brings us, of course, as everything these days must, to Jeremy Lin. A major factor in Lin’s having become the current hot cultural story (totally overflowing the bounds of a simple sports story) is that his rise to prominence in the NBA has been so unexpected. He is said to have come “from nowhere.” He is Asian-American, he was totally unrecruited out of high school and undrafted out of college, and he went to…Harvard. This is the extent to which God works sub contrario: he has made Harvard into Nazareth! A commentator on one of the many talking-head sports punditry shows I watch (they are all the same…I just can’t stop myself) made the point that coming from Harvard is in no other context seen as a detriment. Professional athletics may be the only arena (get it?) in which a Harvard pedigree causes an opponent to doubt your skill.
God is always working under the opposite. He always brings life out of death. He chose Peter, the often-faithless friend who denied him three times, to be the rock upon which he would found his church. He chose Harvard (the ivory tower of ivory towers) to be Nazareth when he needed it to be. God works under the opposite, bringing the savior of the Knicks and the Savior of the World from the places least likely, to show that he is God, capable of anything, even the salvation of sinners such as us.