The Wrestling Match

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | February 26, 2023

Genesis 3:1-7 & Matthew 4:1-11

At the start of high school, we were bombarded with positive messages – Get involved! Try new things! Make new friends!

So what’s a 15-year-old boy to do? Grant High was a big school. It had a long record of sporting excellence. There were plenty of opportunities for athletic achievement. Sports! That’s the ticket.

The first sport I went out for was Cross Country. Cross country was running. Just running; running long distances and usually through parks of one kind or another. I never won a race, or even scored for the team. But I finished every race I started.

The second sport I went out for was wrestling. Wrestling is a team sport, but it’s one on one contest. I weighed in at 105lbs. What I learned from wrestling is that there are some incredibly tough 105 pounders. I was not amongst their ranks. But I stayed the season and wrestled every match set before me.

For guys like me there were sayings such as, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.” Sure, but there’s still a scoreboard. At the end of the match only one guy gets his hand raised in victory.

I learned some valuable lessons from my brief athletic endeavors. The most valuable lesson was that I was not an athlete. I could live with that.

One writer whose thoughts made it into the bible said that life is like a race and we should run it to the best of our ability (St. Paul). That image doesn’t work for me. If life is like a race, then I would rather take it at a stroll, not feel rushed, not get all out of breath over it. I hope to someday cross the finish line, but just not yet.

Some of the storytellers liken life to a wrestling match. There’s an image easier to grasp:  Life as a struggle; which it often is in one form or another. We go through seasons during which it’s as if we are wrestling with different possible outcomes, hoping for good outcomes and that for this one time our hand might be the one raised in victory.

The book of Genesis is a collection of stories about the meaning of life. The characters in Genesis wrestle with life and death issues. Storytelling is a bridge to understanding.

The ancient philosophers said that people act the way they do because humanity is a fallen race. It is our nature to act a certain way; a certain way that can be called evil or sinful or bad, because that is the way we are born. We can’t help it.

But why are we born that way? Why can’t we just be born good? As the story goes, we were once. There was a time when we were good; good to the very core of our being. As the story goes –

Once upon a time there was a garden, a beautiful garden called Eden. There were two people who lived in the garden. Their names were Adam and Eve. God created Adam out of the dust and breathed life into him. Then God took a rib from Adam and made a woman from it called Eve. God put these people in the garden and gave them free reign over everything.

Everything, that is except for one thing; just one lone tree. They could have everything else except for the fruit of this one tree. It was called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As long as they didn’t eat that fruit, then they would always be good. As long as they didn’t eat that fruit, they would live in paradise.

Ah paradise; that was just fine with Adam and Eve. They were perfectly content to spend their days running around naked, naming the animals and eating all the other fruits and vegetables. They had everything they needed in paradise.

But, and when it comes to paradise there’s always a “but.” One of the common themes in stories of paradise is that it can’t last. Paradise is an illusion. Paradise is a myth. Perhaps saying that it can’t last is also a way of asking the question, “Why would you want it to?”

If, as the story is told, God created the heavens and the earth, then God created things to be interesting. It wasn’t all just fluffy bunnies and colorful butterflies. Even in paradise you had to watch yourself. Some flowers have thorns and some creatures if you get too close might give you a good nip.

One day in paradise Eve met the serpent. The serpent was more clever than other animals in the garden. The serpent didn’t try to win Eve over with a convincing argument. The serpent merely started asking a lot of awkward questions. What is the point of living in paradise if your choices are limited? Eve decided that it would be just fine if she ate some of that forbidden fruit. She offered some to Adam, and he at some as well.  

Once they had a taste of the forbidden fruit, they could never go back to the way things were. It wasn’t as if the fruit held a magic potion that changed them. It was just plain fruit like any other in the garden. It was their decision to rebel against God that caused them to see the world and themselves in a new light. They were in a sense disillusioned of paradise.

God came down to the garden that day and found Adam and Eve hiding because they were naked. God knew right away that they had been into the forbidden fruit and that that wily serpent was to blame. But so were Adam and Eve. God threw them out of the garden and gave everybody a suitable curse. The serpent would henceforth crawl on his belly. Eve would henceforth suffer the pain of childbirth. Adam would have to get a job and work for the rest of his life.

This story of Adam and Eve’s departure from the garden is mythology offered as a way of touching upon a simple fact of life.  Adam and Eve living in that perfect garden were like children. God provided everything they needed just like parents are supposed to do. Like children of a certain age, they lacked self-awareness. They didn’t care if they were naked. They had no reason to care.

But we can’t remain children forever. We have to grow up; we have to start making our own choices and put our own hand to the plow and take responsibility. At some time in our lives, we take a bite of that forbidden fruit and we realize life is too complex to be contained within paradise.

Like a good parent, God moved the children out of the comforts of home and set them on the course of their own lives. You can call it our sinful nature, or you can call it simply being human. Either way the story of Eden is about taking responsibility for the choices we make. And that’s a big part of what it means to be human.

Jesus went through his own wrestling match. When he was baptized, Jesus heard within himself God’s essential message to all of humanity. “You are my beloved child; in you I am well pleased.” The thrust of the message was simple and straightforward. I love you because you belong to me. You are my child.

As long as Jesus remembered and held onto that, he would be fine. Everything he did and everything he told people was a reflection of that simple truth. As if the essence of Jesus could be described as, “I am God’s child and so are you.”

He went into the wilderness to be tested. The wilderness could be just the opposite of paradise. In the wilderness you have to make your own resources. Without anything else to rely upon, you have to find reliance somewhere within yourself. The superficial setting of the story might be one person’s struggle against nature, but the real setting is one person’s struggle within his own nature.

The temptation Jesus faced centered around one question – “If you are the Son of God…?”

So you say, but prove it. Turn these stones to bread. You’re hungry enough, what’s to stop you? Just think how famished the people of the world are at this time. You are God’s beloved children and here’s the bread to prove it!

Can we prove God’s love? No more than we can prove anything relating to God. And so the life God offers must be found on the basis of faith, a kind of mysterious hope and trust in what God has spoken – God’s Word.

If God has said this – that you are God’s beloved child – then God will hold up his end of the promise, won’t he? If you jumped off the roof of the Temple, God wouldn’t let any harm come to you, would he? Tell us Jesus, what does all the suffering in the world say to us about God’s care and concern? Wouldn’t it be a good thing to provide a sign?

In essence Jesus responded to the temptation to provide a sign by saying, “God doesn’t sit for our exams.”

“If you are the Son of God …” then I will give you all the kingdoms of the world. If you want to influence the power brokers, then you need power. If you want to convince the people that matter, then you need status. If you want to do some serious good in the world, then you need some serious money.

Jesus decided it was more important, truer to his calling as God’s beloved Son, to worship God and not the trappings of materialism.

When Jesus was finished with his wrestling match, he left the wilderness and went back to the world. But he always carried something of that wilderness within him – his core identity as God’s beloved Son. He showed how wrestling with temptation is not so much about resisting the urge to do some bad thing; it’s more about finding the courage and strength to hold onto an essential truth: that all of us and each of us are God’s beloved children. Amen.

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