It is 1956, and Bobby Fischer is a just a barely teenage kid who is good at chess. In May of that year, his rating is more than nine hundred points below the best players. Even so, in October, Bobby is invited to participate in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City.[i] The tournament is reserved for the top twelve players in the United States, of which Bobby is not. His invitation is a kind of novelty.
In the tournament, Bobby draws the short straw to play against International Master Donald Byrne, a classic chess player in thick-rimmed glasses and bow-tie, with a cigarette dangling between two fingers. Bobby is dressed in a t-shirt.
As the match begins, Bobby seems nervous. (Who wouldn’t be? This is his first time ever to compete with adults, and he’s playing against the United States chess champion!) Bobby, a child, makes a series of child’s errors. He moves his knight to the edge of the board, where it is boxed in and vulnerable. Within a few moves, it’s clear that Bobby is losing. In the seventeenth move, Bobby seems to throw in the towel. He exposes his queen to Donald Byrne like a lamb to slaughter. The chess elite gathered around harrumph and smugly smile. This ending was, after all, inevitable.
In the year 597 B.C., after a period of faithlessness in Judah, the military machine of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon rolls in and devastates the tiny Jewish nation. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Jewish resistance will be impossible if the Jews are scattered across the vast Babylonian Empire, far from Jerusalem. And so, their king deposed, their temple destroyed, the Jews are exiled. It seems to all the world that God has abandoned the Jewish people, that God has thrown in the towel, leaving them to their fate. Their hope sapped, separated from one another and from God, the Jews are ready, finally, to give up.
It is then that the Prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the scattered Jewish communities across Babylon, giving them what appears to be advice detached from all evidence of reality. Jeremiah says to God’s people today, “Build houses; plant gardens; celebrate marriages for your sons and daughters; make good in the cities in which you find yourselves.” Live, in other words, not as defeated, despairing people, but in the knowledge of goodness and in hope.
To both the Jews and the looming Babylonians, Jeremiah is delusional. The ending to the Jewish story is inevitable, and for the Jews the only conceivable outcome is despair and death. It’s as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script. He sees an alternate ending to the story, even when no one else can see it. In the chapter just after today’s reading, Jeremiah claims that God has spoken through him, saying, “The days are surely coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah…[and again] you will be my people, and I will be your God.”[ii]
Jeremiah knows that God’s promises are unbreakable, God’s victory assured. And, he knows that it is often at the very bottom, the nadir of human experience —and only then—that we become vulnerable enough to perceive God at work. It is then that we find ourselves willing to be changed, transformed, and to begin participating in new ways with God’s very work to redeem us. When things are most dire, either due to our own lack of fidelity to God’s goodness or due to circumstances beyond us—or, as is usually the case, some combination of the two—when things are most dire we realize we can either trust in the promise of God’s presence and grace or lapse into true hopelessness. Trusting in God allows us to listen for God, which empowers us to work with God, newly participating in our own redemption. That is the meaning behind the Prophet’s encouragement of the Jews in exile. Now, at the moment of seeming despair, is when they can begin to cooperate with God in the very work of moving them from darkness to light. But that requires the Jews to trust and live in hope.
The struggle is nowhere near over. Not until sixty years after Jeremiah’s letter does the Persian Empire defeat the Babylonians and grant the Jews permission to go home. But when that happens, because they listened to Jeremiah and lived in hope, the Jewish people are ready to rebuild their temple and their nation, and live again into God’s great story for them.
Back in New York City, October 1956, at the Marshall Chess Club, young Bobby Fischer has thrown in the towel. He’s a kid, outmatched, loomed over by the greatest chess players in the world. He sacrifices his queen to bow-tied Donald Byrne. The world spins on.
But then, in just a few moves later, Bobby captures Donald Byrne’s rook…and then both bishops…and then a pawn. The gathered crowd gets confused. Someone seems to have revised the script. On move twenty-five, Bobby takes Donald Byrne’s queen. Ten moves after that, Bobby Fischer checkmates Byrne’s king. The ending has been rewritten. The thirteen-year-old boy triumphs. The chess world is stunned. And the match becomes known as the “Game of the Century.”
Reviewing the match, analysts soon realized that Bobby Fischer had actually won at what appeared to be his moment of defeat. The moment his queen was sacrificed, Bobby saw the way, move upon move, to victory. When it appeared the game was lost, it was, in fact, won. The kid in the t-shirt saw an alternative ending when no one else did. And the vision of that ultimate victory, sure and certain, propelled Bobby forward in hope and purpose.
No matter what defeat, despair, or darkness we encounter, no matter how surely the ending to the story appears to be written, God’s promises are unbreakable. Though the contest may not be over, God’s victory over all darkness, in our lives and in our world, is assured. Living in that knowledge and hope, cooperating with God’s good for us, makes all the difference now. “I will restore you, in the end,” says the God of grace and love, “for I am your God, and you are my people.”
[ii] Jeremiah 30:3 & 22