Training Makes a Difference

First Sunday in the Midst of Lent

TEXT: Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. (Matthew 4:1-2)

The year 2002 was a great one. Trust me, it was! Can you think of something great that happened in 2002?


Well, for one thing, there was the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Do you remember that? Mostly, those Olympic Games were great. But one thing happened that was not so great. In Salt Lake City, Canadian figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were almost cheated out of a gold medal.

You see, the French figure-skating judge—whose name was Marie-Reine Le Gougne—succumbed to pressure to cast her vote in favor of the Russian skaters as part of a back-room deal to give the ice-dancing gold medal to the French ice dance team. Le Gougne finally admitted giving lower scores to the Canadian skaters, and the IOC eventually granted the Canadians a gold medal along with the Russians.

Why would a respected Olympic judge go along with such a deceitful plan? The head of the French Olympic team explained it this way: he said, “Marie-Reine cracked and was under extremely negative influence for several days, and this person, normally solid, was emotionally destroyed. I am convinced that things have been done to her in the days leading to the pairs competition.”

“Things have been done to her.” But why was Madame Le Gougne so fragile, regardless of the pressure? How did she come to that high responsibility—the apex of a judge’s career—without having proved herself resistant to temptation?

Hers was a sad and unfaithful act. After all, the Olympic athletes Madam Le Gougne was judging deserved better. They had spent many hundreds of training days preparing for the Olympic games. Some succeeded because of their training. Some failed in spite of it. We cannot say that training is foolproof or fail-safe, but who would argue that training does not matter? Part of the reason the Olympic scandal came to light was that the Canadian skaters’ performances were obviously superior—even to spectators and the television audience. Their training paid off, in the end. Training makes a difference.

This was true for Jesus, as well. He had a job to do for God—a mission to carry out, a destiny to fulfill—just as each one of us does. Now, perhaps we think of Jesus as being totally different from us, he being the Son of God and all. But you know, he was a human being. And he endured the severest of spiritual training. He had to. He had to, in order to resist the temptations that would distract him or turn him from the path his Father had given him to walk.

During Lent, Christians are encouraged to devote more time to spiritual training. Some people fast. Some people give up something they enjoy. Some put coins in a donation box. Hopefully, all of us make an extra-special effort during Lent to begin each day with prayer and Bible reading.

These are “training days”—days of strength-training that will shore up our fragile souls for the mission God has for us in the world. We begin today—on this first Sunday of Lent—by moving into the wilderness with Jesus and considering how he resisted temptation in order to be faithful to his calling.

Immediately after his baptism by John in the Jordan River, Matthew says the Spirit of God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This was part of his training program. He had to be worked out—and worked over—for forty days and forty nights; worked out by God, and worked over by the devil.

Now you might think this is very strange—that God and the devil should be complicit in Jesus’ training days. But there’s a subtle truth packed into the passage, and it’s put there for us! The trials we face—in training for what God wants us to accomplish—are at once both God’s tests and the devil’s temptations. The same word in the Greek text—peirazo—can be translated either as “to test” or as “to tempt.”

The Bible is clear that God does not tempt us with evil; but the Bible is also clear that God tests us for the purpose of making us stronger for the tasks to which we are called. Ironically, God sometimes employs the devil as a fitness trainer, allowing him to have a go at us. It sounds rough, I know, but it’s necessary. Why? Because … well, you know the saying: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Jesus knows this is true. So he goes along with the plan. He willingly enters the training program. Why? Because he has a sense of duty. He has a calling—a claim he discerned early in his life, and which was confirmed in his baptism.

What will he do? Is he prepared? These are the kinds of questions that must have run through Jesus’ mind. And how did he go about answering them? He went into training with deliberate intention. He got alone with his thoughts and prayers in a place of deprivation. He knew something many of us need to learn—that success in the public world for God depends upon prior success in the private world of self.

There are no shortcuts to spiritual fitness. You can’t take a pill to adjust your spiritual chemistry. You can’t lose forty pounds of ego fat in forty minutes a day for forty days by buying a video. It’s more like the earnest martial art student who went to the teacher and said, “I am devoted to studying your martial art system. How long will it take to master it?”

The teacher casually replied, “Ten years.”

Impatiently, the student persisted: “But I want to master it sooner than that. I will work very hard. I will practice every day—ten or more hours a day, if I have to. How long will it take then?”

The teacher paused long, as if to calculate in his head. “Twenty years, then,” he said.

“Forty days and forty nights” is a biblical way of saying, “a good long time.” And that’s why we have forty days and forty nights in the season of Lent. Along with Jesus, we are preparing for the big stuff that lies ahead. Jesus had to prepare to carry the cross for us. We have to prepare to carry our crosses for his name’s sake.

As I said before, during Lent we are encouraged to take part in spiritual training. Sometimes, people give up something for the forty days of Lent—and they do it in order to learn how to depend on God. Sometimes people start doing something new as a positive act of preparation for service. For example, some might give up television and take up spiritual reading for this period. Some might seek out a friend to pray with for forty days.

All of these are disciplines that match the spirit of Jesus’ own training in the desert.

Many of us will not accomplish great things with our lives because we are unwilling to pay the smaller prices of preparation that lead to greatness. We want to be famous singers, but we don’t want to take voice lessons. We want to be wealthy, but we don’t want to risk any of our own money to do it. We want to be happily married someday, but we give ourselves away too easily and too cheaply when we are young—or, afraid of being hurt, we don’t give ourselves at all. Either way, we lose the capacity to discern love when it does come knocking.

Meditating on a story like this one about Jesus gives us a chance to practice in private for the tests and temptations we will face in our lives. It will make or break us in fulfilling our callings. It’s like rehearsing your testimony with your attorney before going to court. She tells you that the other lawyer is going to attack you in this way or that. In order to be ready in public, you need to feel the pressure in private. You need to imagine possible turns of events and surprises that may come up. That way, you will be ready when your moment of truth arrives.

God gives us these opportunities every day, if we would only listen and pay attention. Scripture is one such opportunity, but it’s not just Scripture and prayer that give us this practice. All around us are resources for reflection if we would only open our eyes and ears to them.

Week by week preachers announce the good news: that God is for you, that nothing you do can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We tell you that it is not what you do that matters most; it’s what God has done for you in Christ. But what God in Christ has done for us is not only to give us eternal life, but to show us a better way to live.

Jesus endured the severest of tests, yet still resisted temptation; and the power that helped him do that is also available to you and me. The Spirit of God aided him in overcoming the devil, and this same Spirit lives in us, ready to help. While the devil whispers in our ears, the Spirit speaks to our hearts. We have to learn to recognize the voice of each, and follow the Word of God that wants to dwell in our hearts.

At the beginning of this sermon, I mentioned one name—the name of Marie-Reine Le Gougne, the corrupt French figure-skating judge. Now I’m going to mention another name—the name of someone whose legacy is quite different. Maybe you’ve heard of him. His name was Mattie Stepanek, and he died in 2004 at the age of 13.

Mattie Stepanek suffered from a rare form of muscular dystrophy, called dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy. It sounds terrible, and it is. Mattie’s sister and two brothers also died from the disease during early childhood.

At the age of three, Mattie began to write poetry to cope with the death of his older brother. By the time he died 10 years later, this courageous boy had authored five books of heart-felt poetry that touched millions of adults as well as children. One such collection of poems— called “Heartsongs”—even made the New York Times bestseller list.

By all rights, Mattie could have been a bitter and lonely young boy. But he chose a different path.

He knew he was going to die, but he was determined to live until he did. He believed God had something special to do with his life. Despite his diagnosis, despite having a tracheal tube in his throat all the time—and a ventilator and oxygen always handy—his goals in life were to become a daddy, a writer, a public speaker, and above all, a peacemaker. He succeeded in most of those goals, even lobbying on Capitol Hill in Washington on behalf of peace, people with disabilities, and children with life-threatening conditions.

Mattie appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Larry King Live, and Good Morning America. In one of his poems—entitled “Heartsongs”—Mattie Stepanek wrote:

I have a song

deep in my heart

and only I can hear it.

If I close my eyes and sit very still,

it is so easy to listen to my song.

When my eyes are open

and I am so busy and moving and busy,

If I take time and listen very hard,

I can hear my heartsong.

It makes me feel very happy.

Feeling happy is the result of passing God’s tests. It’s not the alternative to passing God’s tests. Happiness comes from enduring our trials, not from avoiding them.

Friends, each one of you has a “heartsong”—one that’s unique to you. Have you heard it? Listen for it. This Lent, listen very hard.

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