In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
It is the decade of afros and disco. Prior to his 1974 match in Zaire, Africa, Muhammad Ali came on TV with Howard Cosell and announced the tactic he was going to take against the bruising George Foreman. “How do you plan to fight the fight, Champ?”
“Well I plan to fight a new style Howard. I want to announce the new style about laying in the ropes some time, and letting a man punch himself out. It is called the Rope a Dope.”
“The Rope a Dope? Who does the word dope honor?”
“It honors whoever chases me into the ropes.”
This is the tactic he took with Foreman. Foreman was able to have the feeling of giving Ali everything he had. He could punch him as hard as he wanted, as often as he wanted, and Ali would let him as long as they were up against the ropes. The ropes allowed Ali to utilize the elasticity to absorb the punishment instead of Ali’s body. One writer described the look of the style as “a man leaning out his window trying to see something on his roof.”
Foreman did not see this coming. Ali would lean back and Foreman would swing, right, left, right, and then Ali would counter with one or two punches of his own causing Foreman to back away to escape the blows. Then Ali would allow himself to be backed into the ropes again and Foreman would commence the beating.
But the longer Foreman punched, the slower his hands went. Round after round this went on, until the 8th round, Foreman’s punches have reached the rate of the checkout lanes at Walmart, when Ali found his opening. This time, Ali had Foreman’s back to the ropes, and with 22 seconds left, he catches him with “a sneaky right hand” followed by another. Foreman, exhausted from his constant barrage against Ali, tries to rush Ali, all while the fresher legs of Ali danced around while laying blow after blow to Foreman’s exposed face. And then it happened. Foreman went down with 11 seconds left in the round, never to get back up. The ref stopped the fight. Foreman, who had never been knocked out, lay beaten, looking up at Ali’s victorious arms stretched forth to the heavens.
While this strategy was coined by Ali, it has been around forever. We see it today in our OT lesson. David, the great king of Israel, the most powerful man around, during the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, stayed home and committed a bad dead with another man’s wife. And then, as most colleges find out, the cover up was worse than the sin itself, for David caused the husband of the woman to be killed in battle—the place where David, the king, should have been.
A perfect crime, David thought. Now he gets the girl, whom he had impregnated, and gets to ride off into the sunset with no one the wiser. But God knew.
The Lord sent Nathan, the crafty prophet who was one of the only people who could have confronted David about such a deed, sizes up his king in an attempt to give David some heavenly perspective. So he tells David a parable about a poor man who had nothing in the world except this little ewe lamb—the family pet. He used to feed it from the table and even allowed it to drink from his own cup. At night the lamb would lay with him in bed. This little ewe lamb was so dear to the man that he thought of her like his own daughter. And then some mean brute comes in and takes this little lamb and even though he has his own, he brutally slaughtered it and fed it to a passerby who stopped at his home for the night.
This got David’s blood boiling, and then the fight was on. David stood up, had he been sitting in a plastic chair on the back porch, he would have flipped the chair as he stood—a gesture than lets everyone know how upset you are—especially the object of your raging ire. He stood up and declared as only a king can, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Can you see it now? There is the straw man that Nathan has created, in the white trunks with the black trim standing against the ropes allowing the much more powerful king David to punch himself out. And as David’s arms are growing weary from the constant haymakers he sends at the man against the ropes, the straw man strikes back in Nathan’s voice: “You are the man!”
And crowd goes wild as the champ hits the ground. And after an 8 count, the ref waves his arms and the announcer shouts, “That’s it. The fight is stopped. The Prophet Nathan with the 8th round knockout!”
When we sin, our pride clouds our vision. No one saw it. This was between me and this person, but no one knows what happens. I control the narrative and I say nothing happened. No one can touch me. And then a wall starts to form around the sin. If anyone confronts you about it: “Nope. That’s not what happened.” You have seemingly gotten away with it. But the walls that we build are walls of pride that will eventually be our downfall.
Take Simon the Pharisee in the Gospel lesson. Simon invited Jesus into his home and sees Jesus take his place at the table. And during the meal a sinful woman comes and washes his feet with her tears and anoint his feet. When Simon confronts Jesus about his association with this known sinner, Jesus stands there and takes his very public rebuke. But Jesus, like Nathan before him, and Muhammed Ali after him, is simply setting him up with the Rope a Dope.
In each case, the man with the seeming advantage swells with pride. “I am going to beat this person into submission.” They then commence hitting them with everything they have, yet in their pride-fueled blindness, they fail to notice that they have done no damage at all, but merely set themselves up for a spectacular fall.
In his preparation for the Rumble in the Jungle, Muhammad Ali brought in all sorts of sparring partners and allowed them to just beat him up in preparation for the power that he would have to contend with in Foreman. Some of the commentators on this fight said that Ali looked less than himself during this time of practice. But this is because he was not working on his strengths, but rather on his weaknesses. This is like the person who regularly examines their own conscience. If we are constantly aware of how many times we fall, it is hard to get a big head about ourselves.
In the public eye, it is easy to control the narrative of our own sins. We know them they do not. However, one does know our sins, great and small—God. We can build certainly wall ourselves in to protect ourselves from feeling the pain of our many sins. However, this is simply hitting a man who is standing against the ropes, able to take every single punch we throw. When we finally do tire, our fall will indeed be great, because we will not have seen it coming.
Years later in our story, but only two days ago, George Foreman was interviewed about his good friend Muhammad Ali. When asked about the Rumble in the Jungle, George got a grin on his face. He was definitely taught humility that day. “I was definitely the dope that day.”
Beloved, tonight, as you lay down in your bed after the day is finished, reflect on your day. Reflect on all the good that has been accomplished, but do not neglect to look to your faults as well. It is only when we are able to honestly look at our faults that we are able to correct them. And when you finish with this, make your confession to God.
Learn from David, Simon, and George—it is only when we approach in humility that we can achieve greatness.
In the name of the F, S, and Hs. Amen.