In the classic film Talladega Nights: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, we meet a man with two first names who lives by the ethos “If you ain’t first, your last.” He was born in the back of a Camaro driving 116 in a 45, and his first words were “I wanna go fast.”
As luck would have it Ricky Bobby ends up a racecar driver and he quickly climbs the Nascar ranks acquiring sponsors like Wonderbread, Powerade, and Big Red chewing gum.
Before you know it he and his best friend have both found fortune and fame. He’s married to a woman he describes as his “smokin’ hot wife,” and together they have two boys who they named Walker and Texas Ranger.
One classic scene (which I can’t legally show you) is set around the Bobby family dinner table. On the table is a buffet of fast food which Mrs. Bobby says she’s been “slavin’ over for hours.”
There, gathered around the family table, Ricky Bobby begins to pray.
“Dear Lord Baby Jesus. We thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to thank you for my family: my two beautiful, beautiful, handsome striking sons, and my smokin’ hot wife. Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the $21.2 million dollars that I have accrued over this past season. We thank you for your power and your Grace, dear baby God.’
Mrs. Bobby interrupts mid-prayer with a theological controversy.
“Hey, sweetie, you know Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby.”
“Well, look, I like the Christmas Jesus best,” Ricky says. “When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-up Jesus, or Teenage Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”
Ricky’s best friend Cal says “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo T-shirt ‘cuz it’s like I wanna be formal, but I like to party. I like to party so I like my Jesus to party too.” Walker says he likes to imagine Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai, and Cal comes back with visions of Jesus sporting angel wings, “singing lead vocals for Lynard Skinnard.”
Finally Mrs. Bobby shuts it down, “You know what I want?” she says, “I want you to do this grace good so that God will let us win tomorrow.”
Jesus and his disciples were in Caesarea Philippi, a city with two first names, one for Caesar Augustus, the emperor, and the other for Phillip II, the Jewish son of Herod the Great, the king of Judea. The two names signified an alliance Herod and Phillip made with the emperor which was an embarrassment to the Jews.
It was a place of many gods. The rock face of the mountain has little cubbies carved out for idols, and there were temples everywhere. Phillip and Herod built a temple to the Emperor there (breaking multiple commandments). You could pray there to the Roman gods, the Greek gods, the emperor as a god. You could pray to whatever god you like!
There, surrounded by a fast food buffet of gods, Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Who are people saying that I am?”
They reply, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah or one of the prophets.”
“Who do you say that I am?”
Peter boldly declares, “You are the Messiah.”
“Shh!” says Jesus. Ordering them not to tell anyone.
It wasn’t that unheard of to call someone the messiah in those days. Messiahs showed up in every revolutionary ready to stand up to the empire in ways Herod and Phillip wouldn’t. People were growing weary of being last. They wanted a messiah to come and make them great again, make them first in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the world.
So they had their swords at the ready to go fast until they and their messiah stood victorious in the winner’s circle.
“Shh!” says Jesus. But then he declares quite clearly, “The Messiah must undergo great suffering, he must be rejected by his own people, and be killed, and after three days he will rise again.”
To which Peter says, “Shh!”
After “Bobby family prayer time” ends, Ricky Bobby goes on a winning spree.
Everything is going great, until he meets a new foe, a Frenchman who has come to America to challenge him.
Ricky Bobby loves the challenge, but come race day his “first or last” ethos gets the best of him. Ricky pushes the car too far and he crashes spectacularly. It’s a long enough crash that NASCAR takes an Applebee’s commercial break in the middle of it. By the time they get back to the race it’s clear the crash, the loss, has broken something in Ricky Bobby and he’s left flailing around the race track in his underwear on National television. It’s hilarious.
The failure and losses keep coming as all Ricky’s “first or last” friends abandon him. His wife, his sponsors, even Cal. He’s left suffering under the rejection and the death of not just his career but his identity.
“Shh” says Peter, “That is not what I meant when I said you are the Messiah.”
Jesus whips back at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! Listen! If you want to follow me you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. Anyone who spends their life racing to win, racing to get out of life alive will have wasted their life. Those who want to keep their life will lose it. But those who loose their life for my sake, will find it. If you want life, then pick up your cross and follow me.”
It’s not hard to see Ricky Bobby as a reflection of today’s Western culture. Our increasingly fast-paced modern life is run by and runs on the ethos of “if you ain’t first you’re last.” Practical theologian and youth minister Andy Root observes that our fast-paced competitive culture has ironically resulted in the parental impulse to slow down childhood and adolescence.
We want to protect our children from the risks of fast-paced life, from crashing and burning, so we helicopter over them. Or, we want so badly for them to have a happy life that we bulldoze for them, clearing the inside track to slingshot them to happiness.
This slow-down-to-speed-up impulse according to Root means that the church has felt a need to compete with other cultural goods to maintain any influence. In the process, Root says, we’ve become just one more product on the fast food buffet of an unbalanced diet, one of many cultural goods which try to stay relevant by promising and projecting happiness, trying to keep pace, and race forward to hook people into coming back for more.
Our intentions have always been good, but at worst Root says that the church, which is called to take up the cross and follow Christ, has gotten stuck in the happiness business, which… we stink at, and that has left the church suffering rejection, and, some say, dying.
The Messiah who shows up in Jesus is not the Messiah people expected. People expected the Messiah to take up the sword, and lead them to victory, to get them to first place, and fast! Instead, shockingly, when the Messiah comes, he comes not for political or military victory, not even for happiness. He comes to suffer. He is rejected. He dies. He takes up not the sword, but the cross.
On the night in which he gave himself up for us Jesus looked at his disciples again and said, “Tonight’s the night that I will suffer rejection and die. And you will all reject me too.”
“Shh!” says Peter, “They might reject you, but not I.”
“No,” says Jesus, “You won’t just reject me, Peter, you’ll three times deny that you even know me, the one you once called your Messiah.”
“Even if I die with you,” says Peter, “I will not deny you.” But he does. He watches from afar as Jesus suffers, is rejected, and dies. And he weeps. He denied Jesus to save his own life, but now he’s left flailing around, weeping like a baby, because he knows it has profited him nothing.
“It is necessary,” Jesus says, “It is necessary that the Messiah does this.”
And he’s right, because there is no inside track to happiness. Ricky Bobby was wrong. Happiness can’t come from winning alone because no one wins forever. Happiness only goes so far. No matter how fast we drive we cannot escape the reality of crashing and burning, suffering, rejection, death.
After the death of Ricky Bobby’s career and life’s work, when he’s lost it all, it’s his mother who takes him in. She starts making him and his sons go to church. It’s while she is in charge that things start to move in a different direction, and he gains a new perspective on himself, a new self. He finds a way to deny his “if you ain’t first you’re last” self, and then he gets back into racing.
In the final race of the film, he loses. He’s disqualified (in a most hilarious way). At the end of the race someone else stands atop the podium with a trophy in his hand. But the movie ends out in the parking lot where Ricky Bobby meets up with his family after the race, and they decide to go for a fancy meal at the Applebee’s.
I’m not going to pretend that one of my all-time favorite rated R comedies is a Christian allegory. Nevertheless, the Ballad of Ricky Bobby illustrates an important truth, that in this life we will have not been given an inside track to lasting happiness. Such a thing does not exist. Not for us, not for Ricky Bobby.
Instead, what we have been given is a Messiah. We’ve been given God, revealed in the One who was willing to be born in last place. We have a Messiah who took on suffering, and rejection, and the cross, for us. We have a Messiah who is willing to die for us even when we reject and deny him, and race right past his ways. It is this Messiah who was raised on the third day, proving that in his name even the Way of the Cross has become a way to Life.
Neither I nor Christ’s Body the church can promise you or your children or grandchildren any lasting happiness. But what we can give you is Christ, who has graciously given himself for us, and invites us to get behind him, to follow him, and take up his cross with our own in faith. Spend your life, lose your life by doing this, he says, and you will save it.