February 22, 2015 Matthew 4: 1-11 Psalm 25: 1-10
Rev. Catherine Purves
During Andrew’s recent eye trouble he was unable to read or to drive. Being separated from his beloved books and his precious Audi was particularly painful. He was reduced to audio books and trolling through channels on the television. After the first day of this torture, he greeted me with a big smile when I came home from church and announced that he had found a new sports channel. We already have a soccer channel, a golf channel, and a cricket channel, so I was a little less enthusiastic than he was. This new channel that he’d found was devoted to international rugby.
Rugby always looks to me like American football, but with no rules and no time-outs for advertisements. The field is much bigger, and all of the players are on the field all of the time, playing both offense and defense. It looks like there are no rules, but though it resembles a backroom brawl, it is actually quite closely controlled by the referee. But let me tell you, you have never seen tackling until you’ve seen a rugby tackle.
They all pile on the person who has the ball, and then both teams try to push that great mass of oversized brutes up or down the field. Pity the person on the bottom. He will either be completely flattened or he will be walked over, or both. Even if someone is injured, which happens quite frequently since they don’t even wear much in the way of padding, even with dead and dying bodies on the field, the play goes on with the trainers and undertakers ministering to the fallen. It is a brutal game. Andrew was quite delighted with his new rugby channel.
I think we are dangerously mistaken if we assume that our struggles with the tempter will look like a refined game of chess, rather than an all-out, no holds barred rugby match. The tempter doesn’t believe in taking turns. You are not given a prescribed amount of time to make your moves. This is not a board game; it is played across the whole of your life. Don’t expect the tempter to use predictable moves, or to play by the rules. Intellect alone will not defeat him. Simply knowing that you will be tested by the tempter isn’t enough. You should anticipate carnage. It’s not just a question of putting him in checkmate. You have to tackle him with every ounce of your God given strength, every bit of your Spirit-enhanced will. There will be no time-outs, no injury stoppages. It will be a ‘take no prisoners’ kind of confrontation. This isn’t chess; it’s rugby.
It appears that when Jesus had his run-in with the devil in the wilderness he managed to get the better of the tempter rather easily. I think that is a rather unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, misrepresentation. Maybe Matthew and the other Gospel writers were just giving us the game highlights. After all, Jesus was up on that mountain for forty days and forty nights. We don’t know when the tempter first showed up, but it looks like this was a long, hard struggle with a determined and a ruthless opponent. We can assume that the Spirit was refereeing this match, but that doesn’t mean it was any less brutal. Even the rather sanitized account that we have shows us that the tempter was quite willing to hit below the belt by attacking Jesus in his humanness, by playing to his fears, and by using the words of Scripture as unlikely weapons intended to confound Jesus. The attacks just kept coming from all directions until Jesus himself called the game by saying, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” It was only then that the tempter left him, and angels rushed onto the field with bandages and water bottles to minister to Jesus.
How do you train to be battered like that? How can you be ready when the tempter shows up? You can count on the fact that he won’t appear until you’re good and hungry, or having second thoughts about your faith, or recognizing the power of your own fears. He will undoubtedly wait until you have been battered about the field a bit before he piles on. But what if waiting for him to pounce is the wrong strategy? What if the best defense really is a strong offense? Maybe, we should take the game to him. Maybe we should think about tackling the tempter.
If we look at the game plan that Jesus used, it seems clear that he didn’t overlook the need for training. Fasting for forty days and forty nights was fairly intense spiritual preparation. We can assume that this was time spent in prayer and an active grappling with the position he was called to play in God’s game of salvation. His humanness made him vulnerable, just as our humanness makes us vulnerable. He had to accept that part of himself, and trust that God would sustain him in his human weakness. The words of Scripture had to be learned, because with them he could wield the power of God. And even the Son of God needed to guard against anything else taking the place of God. This intense spiritual training prepared him to tackle the tempter. Why on earth would we think that we could take the field with that same ruthless adversary without proper training?
No one in his right mind would venture onto a rugby field without first bulking up, learning some offensive and defensive moves, practicing with your teammates, and studying the rules of the game. Even though that’s obvious, many of us don’t pray diligently, or read and learn Scripture devotedly, or rely upon the support of our fellow Christians untilwe find that we have been soundly tackled by the tempter and half of his team of devils are stomping on our heads. Now is the time to get in training. Once you’re on the field and all hell is unleashed against you it’s a little late to be working up a play book.
The Psalms were like David’s training manual, and we can use them too as we prepare to tackle the tempter. Lesson one: Keep your eye on the ball. Keep your focus fixed on God. Jesus trained himself to do this, and so he wasn’t tempted to turn a stone into bread, or to test God’s faithful love, or to worship anything other than God. In our Psalm for today David wrote, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust.” We need to train for that kind of intensity of focus that is always looking to God and trusting in God and communicating with God. When that bond of constant prayer is strong, then we are ready to tackle the tempter.
Lesson two: Learn the rules. Once you’re on the field, it may not look like there are any rules. It seems like anything could happen; people are bleeding, and people are dying. It looks like the forces of evil are winning. But Jesus was led into that wilderness by the Spirit, and he knew who was really in charge of that bewildering game. There were rules, and God’s truth and God’s way would ultimately triumph. So, David wrote, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.” The real rules of the game and the ultimate outcome of the game are to be found in Scripture. When we learn how to live by God’s rules and trust in God’s promises, we won’t have to fear the tempter.
Lesson three: Acknowledge your mistakes and move on. You are most vulnerable to the tempter’s tactics when you fixate on your past sins and failures. This is a fast-moving game. You can’t stop and lament incessantly your pathetic mistakes. If you do, the game is as good as lost. We all drop the ball sometimes. And the tempter will tackle you at the point of your weakness. But we know, just as Jesus knew, that God’s faithfulness was stronger than our human weakness. And we know that God forgives our sins and failures, so that we can get back up on our feet and keep on playing. David wrote, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” God is willing to forgive you and forget your past sins, so you don’t have to carry that burden onto the playing field when you face the tempter.
Lent is a time of training. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness preparing for and engaging in his confrontation with the tempter. We now have forty days of Lenten training ourselves. There are lessons to be learned. 1) Keep your eye on the ball; keep your focus on God. 2) Learn and play by the rules; study God’s word and believe God’s promises. 3) Admit your mistakes, but keep on playing; confess your sins, and trust in God’s forgiveness. Let’s make a commitment to practice every day: to pray, to read Scripture, to repent and accept forgiveness. You never know when you will find yourself in the wilderness. That’s when the tempter will try to tackle you. Now is the time to get in training. Then, like Jesus, let the Spirit lead you onto the field, and prepare to tackle the tempter.