The First Sunday in Lent

February 22, 2015

“Our Victory Over the Devil”

St. Matthew 4:1-11


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, after­ward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, "If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread."  But He answered and said, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "  Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, "If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: `He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, `In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'"  Jesus said to Him, "It is written again, `You shall not tempt the LORD your God.' "  Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  And he said to Him, "All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me."  Then Jesus said to Him, "Away with you, Satan! For it is written, `You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.' "  Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him. St. Matthew 4:1-11


The temptation of Christ is one of the most wonderful events in all of human history.  In the cosmic battle between God and the devil, this event displays God’s victory.  The cunning of the father of lies is no match for the power of God’s word.  But Jesus does more than show us how to do battle against the devil.  He fights for us and wins for us the victory of humanity against the powers of darkness. 


To understand the wonder of this event we need to know who Christ is.  It is obvious that he is a man.  Look at him.  He is hungry.  He is thirsty.  His body craves nourishment.  When the body goes without food it burns fat for nourishment.  When it can no longer do so, starvation is imminent.  This was his condition.  He was hungry.  He was thirsty.  His body needed nourishment that it was not receiving.  The humanity of Jesus is starkly revealed in the weakness of severe hunger.  Surely, no man ever hungered for food more than he.


Jesus is a man with all of the characteristics common to humanity.  And, as the Bible tells us, he was in all points tempted as we are except that he was without sin.  But he is more than a holy and sinless man.  Just before Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil, he was baptized by John in the Jordan River and was there identified by God the Father with these words: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Jesus is not just a man.  He is the eternal Son of God.  The hungry man whose body cries out for food is the Creator and Sustainer of the world, the giver of all good gifts that our bodies need to live.  The man who goes up against the tempter in the desert is the God who made us in his image to be holy, innocent, and blessed, to know him perfectly and to enjoy that perfect knowledge.


The temptation of Jesus is more than Christ’s personal victory over temptation.  It is our victory as well.  Just as surely as we inherited Adam’s sin, so we also inherit Christ’s righteousness.  St. Paul put in this way in his Epistle to the Romans:


For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)


The devil won the victory against Adam.  He came to him through his dear wife.  God gave Eve to Adam for him to care for.  He owed her spiritual care.  God had made him her spiritual head.  He was to care for her as a man should care for his woman by protecting her with the word of God.  Instead, he abdicated his office as pastor of his own home and elected Eve to be his pastor and immediately submitted to her spiritual oversight.  The devil gained mastery over Adam through his wife.  But while Eve ate the forbidden fruit before Adam did, the Bible blames Adam.  It is Adam’s sin that is reckoned to the world.  So it is that Jesus, the second Adam, comes to do what Adam failed to do.  Whereas the first Adam disobeyed, the second Adam obeyed. 


When reading the Gospels and learning of the life of Jesus we must always keep in mind this precious truth.  He is our God who has become our brother to take our place under God’s law and to offer up the obedience that we owed to God.  The temptations of Jesus stand as a wonderful example for us in how to apply God’s word to Satan’s lies.  But Jesus is always more than an example for us.  He is our substitute.  His obedience is our righteousness.  His victory is ours.


There are three temptations.  The first is the temptation to value the need of the body for food more than the need of the soul for God’s word.  The second is the temptation to separate faith from God’s word.  The third is the temptation to trade the treasures of heaven for the treasures of this world.  Let us consider each of them.


When the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread to prove that he was the Son of God, he was presuming.  That’s what the devil does.  He presumes.  He claims rights he doesn’t have.  Every time he tempts us he presumes.  We are not answerable to him.  He has no right to call on Jesus to prove anything at all.  Jesus proves he is the Son of God by many infallible proofs documented in the Gospels. 


Underneath the presumption is the temptation.  Your body needs food.  This is your greatest need.  You’re hungry.  The desire for what your body needs should override everything else.  That’s what the devil says.  And he lies.  He lies and Jesus reveals his lie.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus was quoting the words that Moses spoke to Israel when he explained to them why God fed them manna from heaven during their forty years of wandering through the Sinai wilderness.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sums up the comparable importance of our bodily needs and our spiritual needs with the words, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”  God will give you everything you need for your body.  You need the word of God more than you need the food you eat.  That’s what Jesus told the father of lies to refute him.


That’s what we tell him, too.  It’s a con.  Jesus knew it.  We need to know it.  The spiritual con artist tells us that if we can earn another dollar by skipping church God will understand.  After all, we need the money.  But who takes care of our bodies?  Not the devil!  God does.  He is the One who feeds us with every word that comes out of his mouth.  He has things to say to us and he wants us to listen.  Are our dying bodies more valuable than our immortal souls?  By what power will our dead bodies be raised to eternal life on the last day?  By the power of the food we ate, the cars we drove, the houses in which we lived, and the money we left in the bank?  Or by the almighty power of God’s word that lives and abides forever?


The first temptation is to neglect God’s word in favor of bodily needs.  The second temptation is to disconnect faith from God’s word.  Here the devil shows he’s a whole lot more clever than we are.  He quotes the Bible to tempt Jesus to ignore what the Bible says.  He tells Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple.  Then he quotes the Psalm:


He shall give His angels charge over you,' and, `In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.'" 


The devil left out some words.  After the words, “He shall give His angels charge over you” are the words, “to keep you in all your ways.”  And what ways would that be?  The ways that God, through his word, leads us to go.   Faith trusts in what God promises.  It doesn’t trust in what God doesn’t promise.  God not only binds us to his word, promising us that if we place our need for his word above our need for daily bread he will provide for both body and soul, he also binds himself to his word.  This is what faith understands.


Lynn Anderson popularized Joe South’s song, “I never promised you a rose garden.”  It became a big hit.  Nice tune and a sensible message.  Don’t hold folks to promises they never made.  If that’s how to deal with people who often break their promises, how much more it is true when it comes to God whose word cannot be broken?  If he says he will do it he will do it.  If he doesn’t, you have no right to claim it.


“Name it and claim it,” say the prosperity preachers who teach us to put God to the test.  But faith can claim nothing that God hasn’t promised and God has not given you the right to put him to the test.  He binds himself to his word.  Consider the Lord’s Prayer.  He will hallow his name and bring his kingdom and do his good and gracious will among us.  He will give us our daily bread, forgive us all our sins, preserve us from temptation and deliver us from evil.  But he will not be put on trial.  When it comes to our relationship with God, it’s not a partnership.  He’s in charge.


The third temptation is the most brazen and powerful.  “Look at what I can give you!”  So promises the tempter.  He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  The price is that Jesus worships the devil.


The glory of Christ and his church are hidden from sight.  The devil showed Jesus what we can see with our eyes.  But the devil – bound by malice, blinded by hatred, and trapped by his deceit – cannot be redeemed.  He cannot love.  He cannot appreciate the treasure of the forgiveness of sins.  This is why he works so hard to deprive us of it. 


But we don’t belong to him who led Adam into sin.  We belong to him whose obedience has undone Adam’s sin.  This means we know what true glory is all about.  True glory is hidden under the suffering of Jesus.  This obedient Man is our God and brother.  He offered his life of obedience to God as the life of all humanity.  His victory over the devil’s lies led him all the way to the cross where he, the Seed of the woman, bruised the serpent’s head and by taking away our sins took away from the devil his power to accuse us or claim us.  His obedience is our righteousness before God.


How do we know this?  How do we know that he forgives us all our sins and empowers us to stand against the devil himself?  “It is written.”  That’s how we know.  The incarnate Word defeated the father of lies with the written word.  He is the valiant One who fights for us.  He holds the field and gives us his victory.  Amen