Stretching out for the season

Published 2:28 pm Wednesday, March 4, 2020

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By Charles Qualls

We began a new series of sermons this week called “Spring Training.” These are lectionary-driven texts that have a serious intent. They guide us in the Lenten journey toward the arrest, crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ.

We’ll take a purposeful journey through these days of preparation, readying our spirits. Hopefully seeing Jesus in fresh ways that are transformative in our lives. Letting these texts challenge our lives. I am excited about this, and not because I chose a baseball theme.

Right now, I am excited that my beloved Atlanta Braves spring training has begun! But my team wasn’t always good. Back in the ’70s, we were the perennial doormat of the National League. A series with the Braves was where struggling teams went to get better.

Spring training these days probably runs too long in baseball. These professionals are simply year-round, finely tuned machines. They show up now pretty much ready to go. There was a time, though, when athletes used it to stretch out. To get their arms strengthened or their legs back underneath them. Or to generally play their way back into shape.

The season of Lent gives us a similar opportunity. Now, that won’t matter much to you if Easter only means bunnies, baskets, eggs and candies at your house. I like those traditions, too. But if it means something deeper, like the things of a resurrected Christ, then the season of Lent is our time.

The story we hear this week in Matthew 4: 1-11 reminds us about the power of temptation. Let me ask you an honest question: What tempts you? If we are each honest and self-aware, our lists might be long. It’s actually too easy, because we know where we are most vulnerable. Given a little longer, we can even dig down to those things that might slip up on us, but are also vulnerable points at which it’s not too hard to tempt us.

People of all ages have temptations. It’s not just a thing for the relatively young. Temptation has a power over us, a gravitational pull at our weakest points. A tug where you or I might like to take a shortcut now and then. It can overtake us at the point of our greatest wants and can do us wrong where we are most needy. Temptation can also sneak in, now and then, through the life door that we didn’t even realize we’d left open.

The Houston Astros cheating scandal is probably the big cautionary tale of our day. Their misdeeds will no doubt be supplanted by the next headline of someone, or some company, taking a shortcut. Whatever that may end up being.

God had set the world up to work one way. We humans were living quite another way, for the most part. Just as in Jesus’ time, if we can find a way to tip off the pitch to each other, we will. If what God asks us to do seems a little too costly, inconvenient, counter-intuitive or otherwise uncomfortable, we’ll just look for someone to bang on a garbage can and steal some signs for us.

Food … status … great power. That’s what Jesus was offered. Those are just the things that made the list in Matthew’s gospel. We don’t know what other temptations Jesus may have filtered through His mind and spirit. We don’t even know for how long all this went on.

This story stretches us out a little this spring if we engage it properly. If we hold it at arm’s length, then it can’t get to us. It’s Jesus’ story, and we just cheer Him on and marvel that He was so strong. “Go Jesus, go!”

If we let this story become our story, then we have to ask ourselves what we might have done. And why. Because, this is our story. It’s not hypothetical. What Jesus offered us was a model for taking on the shortcuts and the worst impulses life offers. He made room for the guidance of the Holy Spirit to speak into his living. He had God’s words written on his heart from which to draw. He recognized the bigger picture of how one moment might affect future moments. Then he did the difficult thing and said, “No.”

This story stretches me out during our Lenten season. It challenges me in all the ways I need to be challenged. If I allow Jesus’ humanity to shine through, then these temptations must have been real for him. Then, and only then, can his story have power for my life, too.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.