Monday, February 27, 2023

Sermon, First Sunday in Lent

'It’s fanciful, perhaps, to imagine the encounter between Jesus and Satan as a heavyweight title fight, but truth be told, it’s not too bad of an analogy.'

If it had been a boxing match,

Don King would have had his head shaved

for the opportunity to promote it.

He would have called it

‘The War in the Wilderness,’

or, ‘The Duel in the Desert.’


In one corner,

the challenger,

a decided underdog,

the up-and-comer from Galilee.

He had been training with John the Baptist

before striking out on his own,

with all the confidence of youth.

And yet he already had a nickname,

‘The Anointed One.’

Jesus of Nazareth.


In the opposite corner,

the wily veteran of a million battles,

the first of which had been in the Garden so many years ago.

He could overwhelm his opponents with brute force,

but he really preferred the subtler approach,

taking his time, taunting his adversary, getting under the skin.

And then, suddenly he would strike,

and one-two-three, the fight would be over

seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Undefeated against human beings,

the undisputed champion of the world,

also known as ‘Lucifer,’ and ‘The Serpent,’

from the Nether Region, Satan.


This one was slated for fifteen rounds –

and ended up going for forty days and forty nights.


I feel like we need the theme from ‘Rocky’ now.

No, I promised I wasn’t going to sing today.


It’s fanciful, perhaps,

to imagine the encounter between Jesus and Satan

as a heavyweight title fight,

but truth be told,

it’s not too bad of an analogy.

After his baptism by John,

when he hears the word of the Father,

‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased;’

Jesus leaps into action,

impelled by the Holy Spirit,

in this case, a Warrior Spirit of Anointing,

to challenge the one who had reigned supreme

over humanity for all time.

For every fighter knows any title, even if given, must also be won.


After forty days and forty nights of battle,

the evil one comes to Jesus with three temptations.

Each invites Jesus to sacrifice his relationship with the Father

in order to get for himself what he needs.

He is invited to create what he needs on his own

rather than wait upon the Father’s provision,

to live as he wishes and presume upon the Father’s favor and protection,

and to gain earthly power to rule and command

without enduring the cross prepared for him by the Father.


The devil had had many first-round knockouts in his career.

But he had some tough battles, too.

He had fought many opponents who were fresh,

at the beginning of a fight,

who could say ‘no’ to temptation.

But he knew that at the end of a pitched battle,

after standing toe-to-toe for a seeming eternity with this irresistible force,

parched, sweating, exhausted,

a human being would lose focus, lose perspective, lose faith,

and it was then that the evil one had always had his victories.

But this one counter-punched.

He had a secret weapon - the word of God.

And he stood up to every blow and parried every assault

and in the end the devil had to leave him standing.

It was not a knockout – but notice had been served.

Jesus was not going to go away quietly.

There would be a rematch.

And the rematch would be for all the marbles.

We might pause at this point

and ask what Jesus’ battle against the devil

can teach us about our own struggle with temptation.

The first thing we need to consider

is that while Jesus sought out the battle,

we ought to pray that we are not led into temptation.

For the devil never fights fair.


And yet we cannot always avoid temptation.

Even those ancient monks who fled the cities

for the desert,

thinking that in that way they could escape temptation,

found that it followed them wherever they went.

When we ourselves meet with temptation,

we too have a weapon – God’s word.


We are apt to see the commandments of God

as a set of rules for right living,

but what if we were to view them as weapons?

What if when the tempter was inciting us to anger,

we reminded him of God’s good and gracious word

You shall not kill?

What if, when we felt jealousy over someone else’s good fortune,

we could remind both ourselves and the one who incites jealousy,

You shall not covet?

God’s word is given not simply to keep us down,

but to lift us up out of the mire of all-too-human living.

Imagine a life free from the desire to dominate others and possess things.

This is the life God desires for us,

and in which he instructs us in the word.


It is not, indeed, that God doesn’t want us to have anything.

It’s just that the most important thing to have

is our relationship of trust with God.

Inside of that relationship, everything else finds its meaning

and outside of it, things actually lose their vitality.

Isn’t it amazing that in a world of plenty,

people can be so unhappy,

and often those who have little

can be content, satisfied, at peace?



Food and drink, sex and relationships,

possessions and responsibilities, rest and recreation,

all of these are gifts of God,

and yet the devil would use these good things

to take us away from relationship with God.

It was the relationship with God that was at stake

when Eve and Adam took the fruit of the tree in the garden.

In destroying their trust in God,

the serpent destroyed their trust in each other,

In this story we find the explanation for our lack of trust,

our desire to dominate others rather than live in relationship with them,

our desire to take rather than to receive.


Because we are heirs of mistrustful humanity,

and because the evil one doesn’t fight fair,

when we go into the ring one-on-one with the tempter,

we will certainly end up biting the dust,

hitting the canvas eventually.

And so we don’t want to go in alone.

Instead, we rely on the one who fights for us

and whose warrior Spirit indwells us.

For there was indeed a rematch.

It was fought many, many years ago

on a stony hill outside Jerusalem,

where three crosses had been erected;

and it was there that the evil one

threw everything he had against Jesus;

including his last, best weapon, death.

And yet Jesus took that hit and rose up again,

and in the end it was the devil who was counted out.


And so, in faith in what Jesus has done for us,

and empowered by the Spirit to face our temptations,

to ask for forgiveness when we fall,

that we may stand again,

we go into battle side-by-side with our Lord.

For the one who would share in the king’s victory

must go with him into combat.