Golf is infuriating.
If you disagree, you should know that I don’t make this statement out of ignorance. I grew up in Florida, the state of golf and tennis; I don’t think it’s possible to spend eighteen residential years in the Sunshine State and not at least know how to swing a club. More importantly, though, is the fact that my dad is an avid golfer. At a young age my brothers started golf lessons. To this day, our family vacation plans are made with golf course proximity as a top consideration. This all prepared me well to play on the golf team in high school. I’m not bragging when I say this – I was mainly there to get out of class early and spend time with boys – but I want you to know that I know what I’m talking about when I say:
Golf is infuriating.
When I play, my drives curve off to the left or the right without warning. My putts never find the hole in the ideal first attempt. And the worst: my chips. At least 75% of those short shots sail right over the green; the other 25% fall comically short. It’s enough to make even a pastor want to throw her clubs.
But there is one thing about golf that is not infuriating: mulligans.
Mulligans are AWESOME. For you non-golfers, they are basically like a do-over; after a poorly-hit shot, you can drop a ball and hit again without counting a stroke. They aren’t match-legal but traditionally used once per nine holes as a courtesy among friends. So that time your drive hit the highway instead of the fairway? Mulligan. Or that chip that flew right over the green and hit the club house, as evidenced by the screams coming from that direction? No worries – mulligan.
Golf is infuriating; but mulligans, mulligans are genius.
We should have mulligans in life, don’t you think? Think of the last time you put your foot into your mouth. Call a mulligan and restate that statement. Or how about that important appointment you completely forgot about? Let them know you’re using your mulligan. That one thing you did – that big mistake, from years ago, that you still sometimes think about when you can’t sleep at night? Imagine if you could’ve used a mulligan for that one.
Shoot, why stop there? We human beings can mess up pretty well individually, but collectively we make epic blunders. We could really use some historical mulligans. In the 20th century: the Holocaust. In the 18th century: slavery. In the 10th century: the Crusades.
And certainly we’d want to go back to the first mistake, Adam and Eve in the garden staring at that fruit tree. What if we could do that over again?
What if someone did?
Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is so brief, I almost didn’t preach on it. There’s like two lines here, completely omitting the conversation between Jesus and Satan that Matthew and Luke include.
At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by Satan. Wild animals were his companions, and angels took care of him (Mark 1:12-13).
And then I read a commentary by Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, who point out that there are some important details in the sparse description: Jesus is hanging out peacefully with the wild animals; Satan shows up; Satan tempts Jesus.
These are the basic elements of another story.
Think back to Genesis chapter three: Adam and Eve are hanging out peacefully with the wild animals (and all nature); Satan shows up (as a snake); Satan tempted Eve (who then tempted Adam). A similar setting to Jesus’ wilderness experience, right? I think there’s a chance – and this is what Craddock and Boring say – that this is more than coincidence. This is a way to tell us that the temptation story is being done over.
A mulligan is happening.
If this connection seems like a stretch, Craddock and Boring are not the first ones to draw a line between Adam and Jesus. Paul did this, too, in his letters written shortly after Jesus lived and died and lived again. Listen for it in 1 Corinthians 15:45-50:
The First Adam received life, the Last Adam is a life-giving Spirit… The First Man was made out of earth, and people since then are earthy; the Second Man was made out of heaven, and people now can be heavenly. In the same way that we’ve worked from our earthy origins, let’s embrace our heavenly ends.
Jesus is finishing what was started in Adam. And here, in Romans 5, Paul makes an even stronger connection to the “do-over” we’re talking about today:
You know the story of how Adam landed us in the dilemma we’re in—first sin, then death, and no one exempt from either sin or death… But Adam, who got us into this, also points ahead to the One who will get us out of it… Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right.
Mark’s version of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness might be brief – but when we look at it this way, it’s powerful. It’s telling us that the mother of all mistakes – literally – is being redone.
This tells us how awesome Jesus is. Jesus is stronger than Satan. Jesus is able to redo what the first human beings did. And from this knowledge we might hope that Jesus is offering a similar kind of forgiveness-based mulligan opportunity for us.
And Jesus is doing that, but not just that… because as awesome as mulligans are, they’re still inadequate.
In golf, a mulligan eliminates one mistake, one bad shot. What a mulligan doesn’t do is to prevent that shot from happening again.
I hit one of my trademark terrible chips, and use a mulligan. That shot never happened – fantastic! But then I drop a ball and I’m faced with the same shot again. I still have that terrible club in my hand and the mulligan offers no promise to improve the chips I take in the future. Given my golf game, I’m very likely to make yet another bad shot any time I pull out that cursed club.
In life, too, we need more than just a mulligan. Evidence of this lies in how we feel after our biggest mistakes. Speaking for myself, when I really mess up I take great comfort in asking God for forgiveness. I believe in God’s forgiveness. And yet, I sometimes still feel all sorts of bad things – guilt, regret, worry – in the aftermath of a major error.
This is because, even with the gift of forgiveness, I still have to live with the consequences of my actions: broken trust or a tarnished reputation or a missed opportunity. What I want, in addition to forgiveness, is to not repeat this same mistake ever again.
And Jesus wants to do that for us.
Listen to Paul write about it in Romans 6:
Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That’s what Jesus did.
That’s what Jesus did: He has given us the ultimate mulligan, one that not only frees us from the past but changes the way we can live in future.
To go back to the golf analogy, we might think back to the beginnings of golf in 15th century Scotland, to the unknown first golfer ever, and the first mulligan-necessitating bad shot he ever took (which surely happened almost immediately). Say thousands of years later a golfer came along who recreated that shot and hit it perfectly, but then played the game in a way that made everyone else, from then on, capable of playing golf better. That’s kind of like what Jesus has done.
Jesus does this for us because he is more than an awesome guy – he is the Son of God. He didn’t just die on the cross to pay for our sins – he rose from the dead so that death was nothing for us to fear. He didn’t just leave us – he left us with the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who gave him the strength to resist temptation in the wilderness.
If the idea of Christ not just forgiving you but helping you make better decisions in the future is foreign to you, Lent is a perfect time to experiment. This is the season of fasting and self-denial, prayer and meditation, self-examination and repentance, reading and meditating on God’s word. When we take something on or give something up for the purpose of growing closer to God, we invite God to shape us and mold us into people who are moving onward toward Christian perfection.
Strangely enough, sometimes in life we do get mulligans. We might make one mistake, but then, some time later, we are faced with a very similar situation. We have a chance for a redo, a chance to do it right.
May the Holy Spirit be at work in you, so that each time life offers you a mulligan, your second shot is executed beautifully.