The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
First Sunday in Lent
February 14, 2016
There are a few types of sports fans in the world. You go to a baseball game or a football game, and you see them all. There are the casual fans, who might be there because they got free tickets and aren’t really paying attention to the game. They’re more concerned with eating hot dogs and watching the mascot. Do any of you go as casual fans?
Then there are the sports enthusiasts. That’s where I fit in. At Astros games I wear my jersey, I wear my hat, and I follow just about every pitch and play. Are any of you fans like that?
But then, there’s a third type of sports fan. This is the sports fan that is way into it. You know, the kind of fan that paints their chest or dresses up in some weird costume. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you might remember that episode in which Elaine’s dopey boyfriend David Puddy paints his face like a devil for a hockey game. Yeah, the fans that go way too into it. Don’t worry, I won’t ask of any of you do that, because I really don’t know that image in my head.
But what I want to do this morning, is to invite you to get really into this story about Jesus and the devil. See, what the crazy sports fan does so well, is that they inhabit the team, and the game. It’s like they put themselves right there into the game. And that’s how I want us to imagine the gospel lesson this morning.
For you church nerds out there, this is called “Ignatian Spirituality,” named for St. Ignatius of Loyola. He taught a specific way of bible study in which you imagine that you are in the bible story. You take on the role of one of the characters in whatever story you’re reading, you get really into it, and see what it feels like. Like painting your face for the big game, you put on the camel hair shirt that John the Baptist wears, you imagine what it’s like to have your feet washed by Jesus at the last supper.
This morning we have Jesus, right after his baptism full of the Holy Spirit and he’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days to be tempted by the devil. And then we have this little war of words between Jesus and the devil. The devil says, “if you are the Son of God, if you will worship me, if you throw yourself down from here.” If, if, if.
Now, I tell you, your first instinct will be to take on the character of Jesus. When you read this text, you will say, “that’s just like me!” And it helps that it’s on the First Sunday in Lent, the beginning of these forty days of fasting and self-denial. We put ourselves into the shoes of Jesus and think about all the ways we are tempted. But when we read the story closely, we’ll see that we can’t possibly put ourselves into the role of Jesus. It just doesn’t work that way.
What’s spooky, is that this text is subtly putting us into the character of the devil. Kind of creepy, right? But read it closely and think about your own lives. Get into this reading. Imagine who is speaking those words. How many times have you said to God, “if, if, if?” If you cure my father of cancer, then I’ll go to church every Sunday. If you help me out of this jam, then I’ll never sin again. If you just give me a sign, then I’ll know that you’re there. If I win the lottery, then I’ll give some of it to charity. It’s not so much that we are acting like the devil, it’s that the devil is acting like us. If, if, if.
But God is not a God of ifs. Jesus does not work on a system of ifs. When we try to put some sort of parameters on how Jesus works it’s not bad for Jesus, it’s bad for us. Because we are missing out on what it really means to have a relationship with Jesus. When you try to put God in a bind by saying “if,” you are walking into a path of great spiritual danger.
First of all, you are assuming that you have some sort of power over God. Like you are the game show host and Jesus is the contestant, and you can work with Jesus to make a deal. If, then. The problem here is that you have just created God in your own image. That god is a tool for you to use to get out of trouble, to help you out in a pinch. In this way, you’re approaching God the same way you approach a lifeboat. You only use the lifeboat when you need it. The rest of the time, you completely ignore it. The spiritual danger here is that when we tell God “if,” we have totally lost sense of who Jesus is. And that is Jesus that is ever present.
And beyond that, we will never grow. Our life will never flourish when all we do is wait for some chance circumstance to occur. Our relationship with God will be paltry and stale. We’ll never do anything bold for Jesus because we’ll be so crippled by our lack of courage. Rather than waiting to see if Jesus will cure your family member of cancer, I encourage you to prepare for your loved one’s death. Pray with them, and tell them that you love them no matter what, just as Jesus loves them no matter what. And when you are waiting for Jesus to send you a lifeboat to get out of a jam, and when you saying, “if you help me, I’ll never do this again,” what you ought to do is first truly confess what you have done. Be honest with yourself, be honest with God, for God is full of mercy and abounding in steadfast love. And rather than waiting to win the lottery to give money away, try giving away some money now. A thousand dollars today is worth far more to Jesus than ten million that you’ll never actually have. And instead of waiting for a sign from God, waiting to see if Jesus is really there, I ask you to open your eyes. To see the work of God that is already in the midst of your life. Because I promise you, the Holy Spirit is already at work in your life. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
I know, I know it’s jarring to think of ourselves in the role of the devil in the temptation of Jesus, but there is some deep truth there. And Jesus never promised that the truth would make us happy. Sometimes, the truth hurts. When we put ourselves into this story, we discover a disturbing truth about ourselves; we hardly ever trust God. The words Jesus has at the end of the story for the devil are the same words that Jesus has for us, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
And please, do not think that I am saying all of you are devils or demons. I am mainly offering a reflection my own life. Far too many times, I have put God to the test. I have decided what God should or should not do. I have waited for Jesus when all along, Jesus was waiting for me. I truly came to know Jesus in my own life, when I stopped saying if, and started saying thank you.
And this is where I would like to end. Gratitude is antidote to our fears. Gratitude. “If” is completely future oriented, and as we all know, the future is unknown. What is known, is the past. When we turn from our future fears and reflect on God’s saving grace in the past, our lives are changed. I believe that our spiritual lives are most often stunted and small because we have not given enough room for gratitude.
During these forty days of Lent, do not put the Lord your God to the test. Rather, return to the Lord your God with thanksgiving, with a grateful heart, with gratitude for all that God has already accomplished in your life. And from that place of gratitude you will have the courage to do the work that God has set before you. To love the Lord your God, and to follow Jesus.