Sermon audio here.
If you’re overconfident, it doesn’t matter how strong or skillful you are or how lopsided the score is. The one who’s overconfident always loses. Solomon says pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall. In any and every situation, overconfidence is the surest way to lose.
You remember the tortoise and the hare. In any universe the hare should have won. He had every advantage. He could have run a few marathons in the time it took the tortoise to make it around the block. That’s what makes the tortoise’s victory so great. The race was the hare’s to lose, and sure enough, his overconfidence was his undoing.
Now I watch so little football they’ve taken my man card away. But I remember watching Superbowl XXVII in 1993 between the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. By the 4th quarter, the score was lopsided, 52-17 Cowboys. The game was over. At that point, the commercials were the only reason not to change the channel.
But then one of the most memorable moments in SuperBowl history took place, courtesy of one player’s overconfidence in his team’s assured victory. Leon Lett had just recovered a fumble and looked to be heading for a 64-yard touchdown return, running up the Cowboy’s score into the 60s.
But sure enough, Lett started to showboat before the goal line, giving just enough time for Bills wide receiver Don Beebe to catch up and smack the ball right out of his hand.
There’s a very real danger of being on the winning team. As Christians, we can relate. We’re on Christ’s team and not even death could keep Him down. And while we’re right to boast in Christ, our victory in Him can easily go to our head and we start thinking we’re better than we are, forgetting that apart from Him, we’re as hopeless as a reluctant rabbit against a tenacious tortoise.
God’s love for Israel went to their head, too. They were God’s chosen nation and life was good for them in the 8th century. The prophet Amos describes their complacency. He says they are those who
…lie on beds of ivory, sprawling upon their couches, eating lambs from the flock and calves from the stall, living a life of ease and luxury, spending their days improvising music on the lyre, drinking from sacred bowls and anointing themselves with the finest of oils.[i]
This foremost of the nations, Amos says, will indeed be first—when it comes to outpouring of the Lord’s wrath. Of all the nations, they will be the first to go into exile.
The crowds came to John for baptism with a similar false confidence. But John cuts through their false piety, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”[ii] And before they could inform John that he’d made a terrible mistake, that they were God’s chosen people, the very offspring of Abraham, John cuts them off and says,
Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”[iii]
The Israelites took their eyes off of Christ, became overconfident in their own goodness, and forgot that they were engaged in constant, deadly spiritual warfare. We sing about this in the hymn:
I walk in danger all the way.
The thought shall never leave me
That Satan, who has marked his prey,
Is plotting to deceive me.
This foe with hidden snares
May seize me unawares
If I should fail to watch and pray.
I walk in danger all the way.
Today’s epistle described the hidden battle in which we fight and urges us to prepare ourselves for the devil’s assaults. St. Paul implores us to put on the armor of God that we might stand against the schemes of the devil.
When we go up against Satan, there is no hope for victory: on earth is not his equal. The best we can hope for is to merely stand. And when we stand on Christ, we stand on a sure foundation. But there is no room for boasting of our own abilities, not even for a second.
Luther ends his Large Catechism by warning us about the devil’s murderous rage, that he has aimed at us innumerable “knives, darts, and arrows” every moment. Because of this, Luther says, we should be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible, since there is no better way to extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one than by the Body and Blood of our Risen, Victorious Lord.
But you say, “I’ve never seen the devil shoot a flaming dart!” “I’ve never been lacerated by Satan’s sword!” Haven’t you? Have you never experienced profound pain? Sometimes it’s caused by circumstances, but often, it comes at the hands of other people, even other Christians. The all-consuming rage you’ve felt against them is less about whatever rotten thing they did to you and more about the fact that you’ve been hit by the evil one’s fiery dart.
Think about it: the things people say and do can be extremely painful, not unlike the pain you’d suffer if a burning arrow pierced through your flesh. Then you catch fire and your own anger ignites, and you want nothing more than to get revenge, put that person in their place, or maybe avoid them altogether.
This is one of Satan’s favorite ways to assault you. He would use your anger, you response to the provocations of others, to take your eyes off Christ and rob you of your salvation. Instead of responding to evil as a Christian, you’ve acted like a pagan and become fixated on the things that upset you. Rather than love your enemies as Christ loves you, you’ve plotted and held grudges. Repent.
The personal disdain and ugliness we sometimes feel for others was on full display at the last presidential debate. At one point, Secretary Clinton quipped, “It’s awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” As if to finish the thought, Trump shot back, “because you’d be in jail.”
Both comments were obviously motivated by politics and personal disdain. The Secretary’s remark exaggerated the president’s power, suggesting that the President is “in charge of the law.” And as for Mr. Trump, it wasn’t so long ago that he was singing the praise of the Clintons, saying they are “good people” and that Hillary would make a great president.
The audience, of course, ate it all up. Who needs the ugliness of reality TV when you have Survivor: the Oval Office Edition? But when we indulge this ugliness, whether it’s hatred for a political candidate or someone much closer to us, we do the devil’s work for him.
So how should we deal with our enemies? Peter and our Lord demonstrate two very different approaches in the Garden of Gethsemane. You will recall that Jesus’ enemies had come in the night with swords and clubs to arrest Him on false charges and on a tip from one of His own disciples. Taking their cue from betrayer’s kiss, they laid hands on Jesus and seized Him.
So what did Peter do? He became blind with rage and set about making Malchus into mincemeat. But he only was only able to chop off his ear before our Lord intervened to do the last thing anybody would have expected. He healed His enemy and then rebuked His before proceeding to the cross to die for the whole lot of them: for Malchus and Peter, for Hillary and Donald, for you and your worst enemy.
As Christians, we take our cue from Christ, who, from the cross, prayed that His Father might forgive His enemies. We take our cue from Christ, who said,
“But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[iv]
Don’t give in to the devil’s temptation to indulge your anger and hold grudges or seek revenge. Satan would have loved it if Christ had succumbed to the mocking, if He’d have responded to His accusers’ taunts by coming down from the cross and putting them in their place. Instead, He looked to His Heavenly Father for vindication. St. Paul instructs us to do likewise:
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.[v]
Being on Christ’s side gives you an even more certain victory over Satan and the forces of hell than the Cowboys had over the Bills in the fourth quarter of the 1993 SuperBowl. You are a baptized child of God and nothing can change that. But whatever you do, don’t take your salvation for granted. As St. Paul says, work out your salvation with fear and trembling.[vi] Defend against Satan’s assaults, lest he come up and smack your salvation right out of your hand.
Again, in the words of the Apostle:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.[vii]
And from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.[viii]
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.[ix]
Again and again Scripture warns us about overconfidence, lest we get bogged down in our own hatred and sin and fail to finish the race. But it’s a dangerous and difficult race, so we need to run it in the armor of God if we are to make it across the finish line. As St. Paul says,
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.[x]
Notice how almost everything St. Paul mentioned was defense-oriented: fastening on the belt of truth and breastplate of righteousness, that you might stand; wearing the shoes of the Gospel, that you might be ready; being girded by the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, by which you can extinguish the flaming darts of the evil one.
None of this is offense-oriented, save the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Christ is the one who wards off the devil, and He does it by means of His healing, saving, forgiving Word.
The same Word which brought light into the darkness and healing to the official’s son continues to bring healing and light to you today, declaring the damnation of Satan, the forgiveness and freedom you have in Christ for those times you’ve been like Peter, slashing at the ears of your enemies, and healing you by means of His Holy Word and Sacrament.
Christ has redeemed you that you might be His own and live under Him in His Kindgom, serving faithfully and steadfastly, loving and praying for your enemies, leaving vindication into the hands of your Heavenly Father. Christ is coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.[xi]
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Paraphrase of Amos 6; translation by R. Lessing, Amos (St. Louis: CPH, 2009), 388.
[ii] St. Luke 3:7
[iii] St. Luke 3:8–9
[iv] Matthew 5:39–48
[v] Romans 12:17–21
[vi] Philippians 2:12
[vii] 1 Corinthians 9:24–27
[viii] Hebrews 4:1
[ix] Hebrews 12:1–3
[x] Ephesians 6:13–18
[xi] Revelation 3:11