Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lent 2 Sermon: "the Devil Made Me Do It"

Hebrews 13: 1-3
Luke 4: 1-13

I stared down at the black marks on the pavement left there by the worn black tires of busses that every day rounded this culd-e-sack before lining up in front of the doors of Happy Hollow Elementary. A long string of 5th grade boys had their toes on the edge of a spray painted line in the cracked asphalt on this balmy early March morning.
It was try-out day for the inter-school track meet, and I was determined. I wasn’t determined to win—I didn’t have the illusion that I was a great runner. In fact, I had been told year after year by this after that PE teacher that I “didn’t run right.” Instead of the graceful movement of tucking your leg under your body as you pushed it forward to take the next step in a running motion, I tended to flail my legs out as I’d churn across the pavement.
No, I wasn’t determined to win the race, I was simply determined not to lose. There were at least 10 or 15 boys lined up on that spray-painted line, so I should at least be able to beat one of them. The PE teacher standing at the line bent over with the silver whistle pinched between her lips as if Arnold Swartzenegger himself couldn’t pull it out of her mouth, and then let out a sudden and short trill.
Off we went, and I saw the majority of the pack lurch out in front of my vision. Every muscle in my body was tense, I was willing my scrawny body to somehow channel the soul of a Cheetah, and then I noticed I wasn’t alone! Right beside me, in a dead heat for last place, was Clint.
If it weren’t for Clint, this would just be one more race in my life that I would lose and then forget as my self-perception began to be bolstered and defined by other things than “running funny” or being a “class clown” or “nerd” or “gay.” (I suppose some of my classmates thought that I was gay because I wore glasses and tie-died shirts—that perhaps made a little more sense to a fifth grader). But, because Clint was there beside me, this would become a race that I would never forget. I wouldn’t lose this race, but I would lose it in a way that I had never lost before.
Those legs flailing out that I had worked on and practiced to correct would this day come in quite handy. It would just look like, or so I imagined, that because of my funny style of running, Clint had just run into my leg flailing. I continued running on after I felt Clint’s shoe hit my leg and then get tied up. I heard him hit the ground, but I didn’t turn around until I had crossed the finish line, second to last!
My forth grade teacher, Mrs. Guinn, came running over to me. I remember the feeling of her fingernails in my cheeks as she squeezed my face to look up at her. “What on earth did you do that for!” she said, voice quivering with disgust and rage. I suppose it didn’t look like one of my legs had just flailed out after all, I suppose it looked like I just blatantly tripped him.
I looked back at Clint, crying and rolling around on the pavement clutching his forearm, the PE teacher huddled over him. I looked around the pavement. All was still and quiet. There were no basketballs bouncing, no sounds of feet or laughter from the Big Toy. Everyone was staring at me, Second to Last place.
I didn’t know what to say. “The Devil made me do it,” I shrugged. Mrs. Guinn swallowed, perhaps not knowing what to say to this response. By the way that she had treated me in the fourth grade, I now think that she had probably believed me, being that I was the closest thing she had in her mind to Satan’s little Demon.
She pulled me by my ear into the school office, and plopped me down on an orange plastic chair right by the hallway. I remember wanting to move, because as the kids all filed in after recess was over, I was right there on display. I remember the judgment and puzzlement in their eyes as they passed.
It turned out that Clint had a hairline fracture in his arm. I had a compound fracture in my heart—I wasn’t quite sure why I had done what I had very intentionally done. Clint never forgave me for tripping him. I moved away from Fayetteville, but ran into him before my senior year at Boy’s state. I was standing in line waiting for lunch when I felt someone staring at me. I turned around and knew it was him, he was glaring at me. I said, “Clint, right. I’m Nathan Mattox. Do you remember/” “Yes,” he interrupted. I don’t remember the conversation after that, I’m sure that I told him that I had thought about that a lot since then, but you probably get the sense that we didn’t become fast friends there at boy’s state.
Temptation is, by nature, seductive. We are seldom tempted by “bad” things, but – as Jesus’ temptations reveal – “good” things that stand in the way of realizing our true vocation. In that race, I wasn’t tempted to trip Clint, I had been tempted to not lose the race. When you heard the story and the things that went into that moment for me, I’m sure you can identify with the complexity of temptation.
When Jesus is shown the kingdoms of the world and was offered them, the price to pay was to bow down and worship the Imposter. Not losing the race was my “kingdoms of the world,” and the repulsive price I paid was sticking my foot out to trip another boy.
Evil makes it easy on us you see. Sticking with God, for some reason, is more difficult. We probably find it hard to picture Jesus bowing down and worshipping the Devil—but we no doubt find it pretty easy to picture him ruling over the Kingdoms of the Earth! We may find it difficult to imagine ourselves behaving in certain ways, but often times in our pursuit of some goal or desire, we act in unusual ways to get there.
This is why we see Jesus being tempted by some seemingly harmless things on his sojourn in the wilderness. The text tells us that Jesus has completed his 40 day fast and is famished. The Greek is not just “hungry,” it is “famished” or “ravenous.” Certainly a state of mind when we would all perfectly understand if Jesus were to zap a rock or two and turn them into bread. Why not? The fast is complete, right?
And the ability to have power over nations? Imagine all the good that could have come from that! Jesus displacing the cruel dictators, ensuring that the hungry were fed, the oppressed lifted up, the slaves freed. Imagine how life would be different right now!
And jumping off of the temple and letting the angels catch him—that would have accomplished two things—first, the Temple authorities would have witnessed and probably had the proof they needed to get in line behind the Messiah, and secondly Jesus would have been assured in the confidence that God was always right there, ready to save him. After all, the Devil himself knows its right there in Psalm 91, “9Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
10no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
11For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
12On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
13You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.
14Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
There is nothing inherently wrong with security, power, and comfort, except when we put our trust in these things, when we make them our ultimate goal, they tend to alienate us from others and from God’s vision for our lives. Jesus, we are shown here, struggled with what he felt called to do and what he saw the scriptures saying about God’s protection.
Jesus, no doubt, desired the security of knowing that that promise would be kept. Our own quest for security in this country has compelled us to distrust anyone who doesn’t look, worship, eat, or pray like we do. Security has become an obsession, and it has distracted us from our heritage and faith that walls should be torn down, not erected.
Power infects us personally and collectively. It is no doubt preferable to have power rather than being powerless, but we know in our hearts and souls that power must be handled with care. It must be shared as quickly as it is received. If power is not used to clothe the naked and feed the starving and build up the weak and free the oppressed, then it is usually dangerous to the soul of the one who possesses it.
And lastly, if we make comfort our ultimate goal, we tend to insulate ourselves from the world and from God’s call on our lives. The picture in my mind is me laying on our nice bed with God standing at the foot trying to wake me up, but I’m content enough to put my head between the pillows and muffle his voice. Being comfortable is good, no doubt, but it can also be a trap.
Indeed, facing temptation can strengthen our spiritual lives if we, following the example of Jesus, place our temptations prayerfully before God. I chose the first scripture passage from today because I thought it was a funny parallel to the story I had to tell, but I also knew it would help us put our goals in perspective. The author of Hebrews speaks of running the race and keeping our eyes on “Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The miraculous thing about Jesus is that he is standing there at the finish line, waiting to welcome us to the throne of God, the Kingdom of God, but he is also setting the pace for us, he’s also leading us along the path. We hear about what he endured on that race in Luke’s witness today and in Paul’s witness today. But what we are assured of is that Christ is the goal and Christ is a running partner. We may be second to last or we may be second to first, but we know that Christ is in first place, and that he shares his victory with all of us!

1 comment:

  1. Without a doubt, even Clint would welcome you as his pastor/friend/mentor. You can let go of any regret you might have. God is THAT good!