The late Dr. Thomas Gillespie was the former President of Princeton Theological Seminary. At my graduation in 2004, he preached a riveting sermon that I remember to this day. In his office workroom hung a framed piece of art enclosed in glass. He began, “A medieval castle appears in the background. A dragon lies on its back in the foreground, slouching up against a tree. The dragon is using a lance as an after-dinner tooth pick…” “…Scattered all around are pieces of a knight’s armor-breastplate, helmet, shield, and all the rest. Beneath this scene a caption reads:
No matter how hard you work,
No matter how right you are,
Sometimes the dragon wins.”
But you know something? It does not have to win! The dragon-the devil-the wild beasts-Satan do not have to win. Because on the other side stands the angels-the saints-the Spirit who minister to us as they ministered to Jesus in the desert.
St. Mark is the only evangelist who uses the name Satan at the temptations. St. Matthew and St. Luke change it to the devil. As we read the Jewish Scriptures we come to understand that “Satan” means “adversary.” In the Book of Job he is one of many archangels who approach the throne of God. Satan is the one who snitches to God. It is the one who tells God to touch Job’s person and everything he loves. If/when he does sin and turns away from God, Satan will return to heaven and say, “I told you so.”
Satan joins Jesus in the desert so that he could return to the Father’s presence and say, “I told you so.” It would be so easy to give in as he spends forty days and forty nights in the desert. A wild place, that desert. Arid, hot during the day, freezing during the night, filled with wild animals and creatures of the night. Who would not give in for safety? Who would not give up for a piece of bread, or some soup or even a glass of wine? Physically forced by the Spirit to go to the desert to prepare himself for the ministry of the Gospel, Jesus gives Satan no reason to accuse him before God. Instead, Jesus relies on the angels, heavenly messengers, who serve him as he remains in the desert.
As the Spirit pushes us into the desert of Lent for forty days, we have the ark. When times get tough, when it seems as if we are being tested like Noah, we always have the ark of God. Despite wicked neighbors and the cynical populace, Noah obeys God as the rains fall on the earth. Because of his obedience he saves not only his family, but also all of creation. I am reminded of a cartoon entitled “What really happened to the Dinosaurs.” Two dinosaurs sit on a rock watching Noah’s ark float away. And one says to the other, “Oh, was that today?”
Brothers and sisters, the ark of God stands for the Church, the supportive Christian community. We all need Christ and his Church to keep the dragon from winning. Because, in the words of Dr. Gillespie, “there be dragons waiting” for us this Lent. Sometimes,
“Priests are terminated.
“The point is that sometimes the dragon wins,” because we allow Satan to give reason for him to accuse us before God. Our sins empower Satan to report back to God and say, “I told you so!”
So, what do we do? Give up? “Perhaps, but not necessarily,” says Dr. Gillespie. Noah beat the dragon. Jesus beat the dragon. The dragon does not win if, in the words of St. Paul, we appeal to God with a clear conscience. To illustrate, again in the words of Dr. Gillespie: the Scottish preacher “James S. Stewart tells of an oil painting depicting Faust engaged in a chess game with the devil. Faust, you will recall, was the man who gambles his life with the devil and lost. The look on Faust’s face in the painting is one of abject despair. He has been reduced to a few pawns, a knight, and his king. From across the board the devil leers at him in anticipation of his expected victory. According to Stewart, chess players from around the world came to the gallery to study the board situation, and all agreed that the position of Faust was hopeless. Indeed, the painting was entitled “Checkmate,” by Goethe (Gur-ta). One day, however, a chess master stood before the painting in deep contemplation. Other viewers came and went, but still he pondered the position of the pieces on the board. People in the gallery were startled when this chess master shouted out, ‘It’s a lie. The king and the knight have another move.’” And when Faust makes his move he will win.
The victory of Jesus Christ gives us another move this Lenten season. With Christ’s victory and our consciences clean, the dragon does not win! We may be dust but you know something else, we are also Soul and Spirit! Communion with Christ confirms our confidence, brothers and sisters, that while the desert is scary, God’s ark protects us. May we be an ark, a bow in the sky, a rainbow for one another these next forty days as we learn to never give Satan another chance to say, “I told you so.”
The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.
The First Sunday of Lent