March 10, 2019
Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia
Dearly beloved, it’s so easy to forget that we are just that: God’s dearly beloved. Worse than forgetting is the horrible thought that God does not love us. That’s the root of temptation – no longer seeing that what God says is true, no longer trusting that God has our best interest at heart.
So our first parents were led by the devil to doubt God’s Word: “‘You will not surely die.’ God is a liar. He is holding out on you.”
And there’s an insidious alternate form: “I will not surely die; I can ask for forgiveness later.” That is taking advantage of God’s grace. Do you think you can continue playing Him for the fool?
God is no fool – and neither is the devil. He knows he just needs a foothold, an opportunity to find some weakness in you. That’s happened again and again throughout human history: Adam was given a paradise, but he would not keep himself from the one thing denied him; Israel followed Moses out of Egypt, delivered from slavery, the pursuing army destroyed. Still they grumbled against God and Moses. Again and again this pattern repeats.
So after Jesus is baptized, He is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Jesus is led into the wilderness, recalling the wilderness where Israel did not trust God to provide them with food. Because of their rebellion, they had to wander the desert for forty years. By fasting for forty days—which is the basis of the forty-day season of Lent—Jesus is redoing, reliving, recapitulating the testing of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus suffers everything they suffered, but does not sin.
That’s why the Son of God took on human flesh; that's why the Son of God assumed our human nature – so He could suffer as a man, hunger as a man, be lonely as a man, be tempted as a man. In all of this, He does not exercise the powers of His divinity. (We call this the State of Humiliation.) He hungers just like us, He thirsts just like us, He grows weak just like us.
Weakened after an impossible-to-imagine forty-day fast, the devil comes to Jesus. He tries to make Him doubt His identity, doubt the Father’s love for Him. He begins right where He began with our first parents – with food. “Eating gets to the heart of our dependency—a dependency we try to deny” (Hauerwas). We cannot exist without food; we are dependent on the supply of food, and without it, we panic. This shows our dependence on God. The need for food reveals our intrinsic weakness, our dependency on something outside ourselves to sustain our life. So that’s where the devil begins.
The appetite for food is simply our most basic bodily appetite. God made us as embodied creatures. He made us to enjoy the taste of food, to delight in good music, or a pleasant smell, or a soothing touch. God created the material world to give us joy and delight. It is a sign of the sickness of our nature, that we misuse and abuse God’s gifts, ignoring the Creator’s will. In so doing we end up destroying ourselves – both in body and in soul. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it this way: “Our sin drives us mad because our very ability to revolt against our creator is dependent on the gifts we have been given by him.”
But revolt we do; the desire to be god, the desire to control, our turned-inwardness is at the heart of all our sin, and it manifests itself in lust, appetite, desire. St. James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (1.14). And St. John says,
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.
What we see in the account of Jesus’ temptation is the One Man who does not succumb to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. He is the One Man who does the will of the Father. And He does it under the harshest conditions. Jesus redoes, relives, recapitulates the whole history of Israel, and passes every test they failed.
And this means that He has endured every suffering that you know, and has resisted and overcome every temptation you experience. How does He overcome temptation? By means of the Word. Jesus is confident that the Father will be faithful to Him, that He will not go back on His Word, that He will not break His promise.
So Jesus refuses to turn stones into bread. Certainly He could; but He has come not to serve Himself by means of His divine nature, but to wait patiently on the Father’s gift of food for His body. Then He is challenged to fling Himself off the pinnacle of the temple, and here we see the devil using Scripture to his own ends: “Surely the angels will catch you, Jesus, as it is written in Ps. 91.” To combat a devil who quotes Scripture, one must know the whole message of Scripture and see the deception the devil employs. What Jesus is being tempted to do is again to take His destiny into His own hands, to carry out His own will instead of the will of the Father.
Finally, Jesus is offered the deal men dream of – to be offered everything we desire, if we just make one small compromise. We are surrounded by messages offering us our dreams. Everything can be yours if you simply do this.
The devil offers Jesus even more – the opportunity to bypass the cross. All the kingdoms of the world at the smallest price. “Just bow the knee to me, Jesus, and all this can be yours. What’s the harm?” It’s the history of Israel. Seeking to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but also blending it with the worship of the surrounding culture. What’s the harm? Who takes worship all that seriously anyway?
But genuflecting is no small thing, worship is no small thing. It’s serious, eternal life-and-death serious.
Jesus is faithful, responding yet again with the Word of God: “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”
What does all this mean for us? Since we are baptized, we are in Christ. What He accomplished, His obedience and faithfulness is credited to the baptized. It also means we embark on a new life, a life of following Jesus, imitating Him, being conformed to Him, resisting temptation with the Word of God. We are learning not to trust in bread alone, but find our life in the words that come from the mouth of God. We are learning to trust God patiently. We are learning to genuflect only at God’s altar, and to bow not only our knees but our hearts.
This week I want you to think about where you are weakest, what temptations are the hardest for you to face. What are you going to do to fight it? We are too weak on our own. So we say a simple prayer, “Jesus, help!” and take up Scripture that disarms the tempter.
God doesn’t promise to remove your heavy burdens right away. What He promises is to provide you with an escape from the temptation that comes. The Word of God is your recourse. If you do one thing this Lent, take up a passage from your Bible and speak it aloud. This engages not only your mind but your mouth and ears, and so the whole body is engaging with the Word. Then make that Word—perhaps a passage from the Psalms, or one of the commandments, or a saying of Jesus from John’s Gospel—and repeat it out loud regularly. By the Spirit, working through the Word of God, temptation is resisted and the devil turned away.
Never forget this: you are in Christ. Although you are weak, and have fallen many times, He is not weak and did not falter. You are in Him. His victory is yours. In Jesus is forgiveness, in Jesus is life, in Jesus is victory over your sins. +INJ+