When I was in first grade my family got a Nintendo Entertainment System at Christmas. That year most of the kids in my class, if they did not already have one, got it at the same time. I grew up playing video games. Over the years the system I have played on has changed, the type of games I have played has changed, and the amount of time I spend playing video games has fluctuated. Since we first got that Nintendo to this very day, I have fun playing a variety of video games, but there are some genres I like more than others. For those who were last week, I realize there is a lot of irony in telling you this, but one of my absolute favorite genres of video games are fighting games. In these games players pick a fighter and then try to knock out their opponent with a variety of combos and special moves. My absolute hands down favorite way to play video games are people crammed on a couch, playing a fighting game, passing the controllers back and forth.
Now I have a lot of fun playing those kind of games, but I am not terribly good at them. I like mashing buttons and seeing what cool stuff happens, but these games are designed so that if someone knows what they are doing they can get really, really good at them. Expert level players are able to string attacks together and use combo linkers to create truly impressive displays, likes this:
Pulling off that ultra-combo required dozens and dozens of button sequences all imputed quickly one, right after the other, from memory, with no mistakes. At high level tournament play, all of the players can do those kind of combos. However, they can also perform a combo breaker. In the clip we watched there were multiple points where a skilled player could enter their own button sequence at the right moment and break up the combo. Fighting game tournaments are a big deal. For instance last year a man from Japan won the world championships in Street Fighter V and he was awarded over $31,000. At that level the players continually try to position one another to set up the big combo and break the other player’s big combo.
Now I realize it is probably because I grew up playing video games, but when I read this morning’s scripture I cannot help but think of the back and forth, offense/defense found in fighting games. Satan keeps trying to set Jesus up for an ultra-combo, and Jesus keeps blocking it. We can learn from the example of our savior, and by following Jesus when we are tempted we can perform our own combo breaker.
This morning’s scripture overall is a challenging one, because it is one where we can easily get lost in the weeds. There are very few places in scripture where Satan actually makes an appearance, and so because of that we can get a bit fixated on that fact. There are some who read this morning’s scripture and see it all as an allegory. This is the view that some scholars take such as T.J. Wray and Greg Moberly. In their book The Birth of Satan, they argue that Satan is little more than a myth that was created to represent evil. Proponents of this view look to this scripture to explain how the cultural understanding of Satan evolved in the first century. Yet there are other commentators who will respond to this modernist interpretation by quoting the movie The Usual Suspects and counter with “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This viewpoint argues, despite what contemporary scholarship states, Satan is a real being. Proponents of this viewpoint will look to this morning’s scripture for glimpses of how Satan operates in the world. Regardless of one’s personal viewpoint on the devil, the trap is the same. The focus is in the wrong place. This point was really driven home for me this past week. By happenchance I stumbled across an old personal bible study book that I went through maybe sixteen years ago. It happened to have a chapter that was over this morning’s very scripture. The chapter was entitled “knowing our enemy.” The focus of the study and nearly every question focused on Satan. If our study of the bible brings us to a deeper understanding of the devil and not of Jesus, then I would submit we are getting it wrong. The focus of our hearts and minds should be on our Savior and our heavenly Creator. When we read this scripture with a focus on Jesus, then it really gets us out of the weeds. It gets our focus on where it should be, and it shows us how to resist temptations in our own lives.
I am going to guess none of us have ever been tempted by being offered power over all the kingdoms in the world, but we all face temptation in our everyday life. The details are different but we face the same type of temptations that Jesus faced. The story begins with Jesus in the wilderness for forty days, where he fasted for forty days. The details are not recorded, but it is likely that Jesus was fasting at the direction of God the Father, otherwise breaking the fast would not have been much of a temptation. Here Jesus is tempted to act selfishly. He had made a commitment to God and he was tempted to break it for his own benefit. Next Jesus was taken to a high point and challenged to prove himself. He had the power to do what Satan asked, but it was not yet time to display that power. Here Jesus was tempted to act in pride. Finally, Jesus is offered the literal keys to all earthly kingdoms. This was a temptation of greed.
We do not face the exact temptations that Jesus faced but we face the same kinds of temptations. If you think about all of the wrong in the world. All of the ways that people are mean and unkind to one another can trace back to selfishness, pride, or greed. These are temptations that all of us face. The particulars might look different for each of us, but we are tempted to put ourselves first above all else. We are tempted to act as if we are the center of our own little universe. We are tempted to give into pride, which is an open door to all kind of sinful behavior that does not love God or neighbor. We desire more than we need, and like Gordon Gecko from the film Wall Street we twist ourselves to be able to justify why our greed is good. We all face temptations to do what we know is not best or even right, we all face temptations to go down a path we know is crooked and veers into the shadows.
Oscar Wilde once quipped “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation.” While said in jest, there might be some truth in that for each of us. We face temptations daily, and these pulls to do what is evil in God’s sight are like being set up for an ultra-combo. Temptations have a nasty way of turning into bad habits which can become lifestyle choices or crippling addictions. It can feel like we are bombarded by cultural messages, peer pressure, and our own personal demons to give into temptations. A lot of times we can feel like the poor fighter who got nailed with that 160+ hit combo in the video. Jesus being fully God and fully man, knows the temptations we face and Jesus showed us how to deal with them.
It is worth noting just how little Jesus engages with Satan in this morning’s scripture. Satan is attempting to tempt Jesus, and Jesus barely gives him the time of day. We do not see Jesus arguing with Satan, we do not see him trying to put the devil in his place, or fighting in anyway. In fact, the only thing that Jesus says to the devil other than quote the bible is “Away from me Satan.” What happens next cannot be overstated, the devil leaves him alone. We can make the mistake of dwelling too much on our sin and that what tempts us. We leave the door open, we engage with the ideas, and then we are shocked when we inevitably give in to them. The easiest way not to get blindsided by a temptation ultra-combo, in fact the surefire way to break the combo up, is not to be part of the fight. When it comes to temptation the way we win that game is not to play. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus and say “away from me.”
Now I am sympathetic to the fact that it is easier said than done. However, Jesus gives us more guidance in saying no to temptation. Every time Jesus is tempted in this morning’s scripture, he does the same thing he focuses on the right thing. He quotes scripture, but notice the scripture that Jesus quotes. Each one connects to his relationship with the Father. Jesus resist temptation by leaning into his relationship with God. Jesus says no to the darkness by clinging to the light. This is an example we should follow. When it comes to the temptations we face we tend to overcomplicate it. We constantly are thinking of ways to justify our behavior. We are constantly looking for reasons why this time it is OK, because it is an exception, or we tell ourselves that we did not as much as we could have so it is just a small sin. Following the example of Jesus though cuts right through all of that. Instead of making how we wrestle with our temptation complex, we can make it simple. Every time we are tempted we face a choice, and we can boil that choice down to the most common denominator. The choice is to say yes to temptation and take a step away from God or we say no to temptation and take a step closer to God. We either say yes to what tempts us or we say yes to God, we can not do both. So let’s follow the example of Jesus and lean into our relationship with God.
Even if we deeply desire to get it right, does that mean we will? No, not always. Jesus did, but we are not yet like Jesus. There will still be times where we fall short where we say yes to something else other than God. When that happens we also face a choice. We can fall into guilt, we can allow temptation to gain a stronger foothold as we continue to give in. We can allow that multi-hit combo knock us down and we can allow ourselves to be chained back to the sinful behaviors and wrong choices that we thought we left in our past, or we can turn back to God, we can confess or sins, we can repent, and we can be forgiven again. The blood of Christ is strong enough to break every chain. Even if we have wandered down a dark path, God the Father will always accept us back with open arms.
All of us face the choice today and every day to say yes to God or to say yes to something else. If you know that you have said yes to something else for too many days in a row, then may you know that you can break the power of sin in your life. May you know that in a few moments when we proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that applies to you as well. May you know that in the name of Jesus Christ it is YOUR sins that are forgiven. We all face temptation daily, may we break that combo of sin and guilt and may we instead follow the example of Jesus. May we lean into our relationship with our Father in heaven, and may that be where our focus remains.