Welcome to Lent, everyone! Lent can be a productive time for spiritual renewal and growth in faith, if you approach it in the right way. Hint: the right way does not involve working enough tears up in yourself over your sin, or general gloominess, or bewailing Jesus’ suffering. We don’t minimize it, but rather we understand why He did it: from love for you. When it comes to Lent, “My song is love unknown” is a worthy motto (not just a beautiful hymn.) Use this time to get back into Scripture, to deepen your understanding and appreciation of Christ’s passion from history and prophecy, and maybe even to give fasting a try (see the sermon for a brief discussion of fasting.) You might be surprised at how beneficial it is.
There were several things I wanted to hammer home with this sermon. One is the reality of the devil. Most people nowadays, even if they believe in God, often act as if they don’t believe in the devil. That’s unfortunate, to put it lightly, because he wants to destroy us. He is a roaring lion looking to tear us apart with his lies, and he will stop at nothing. This text should teach us that, if nothing else. Beware!
Along with the reality of the devil, I wanted to really drive home the danger of apathy towards God’s Word. A yawning attitude is the precursor to a potentially fatal attack by Satan, as sure as shooting. The Word is the only thing we have to defend ourselves with, and if we lay down our weapon, what else do we have? Nothing. I wanted to wake people up a little by reminding them of the danger of being a spiritually sleepy Christian. The devil tests people severely and drives them to despair at times — what makes you think he’ll leave you alone? What makes you think you’re stronger than he is? Only God’s Word is able to stop the devil. Remember that!
I also wanted to teach a little from the pulpit about fasting in connection with Lent. A lot of people that I’ve talked to lately wonder if they should be fasting, or if they’re missing something they should be doing but aren’t. The answer is no, you’re not missing something you should be doing — but you could be missing out on something potentially beneficial for you. As in many other traditional things, the Roman Catholic church has done a lot of us a huge disservice by putting everything on a personal merit & law-based footing. (Keep rules! Do this or else!) In the process they’ve given the Reformed a lot of ammunition with which to take tear away at the Christian faith (okay, I”m mixing my metaphors, but you get the picture.) Fasting was originally done for a pious purpose: in imitation of Christ’s fast, and to help people prepare themselves spiritually. Eating just a little less (it doesn’t have to be a total fast, like the doctors make you do before surgery or procedures) can do wonders to sharpen the mind and focus you so you can concentrate more on God and His Word. In a culture that builds a McDonald’s on every corner and wrings its cheeto-cheeze-covered hands at the child obesity epidemic (without a clue how to fix it), fasting is surely out of place, counter-cultural, a non sequitur to most people — which perhaps increases its value for us. Many people who are undergoing severe personal or emotional stress often fast spontaneously — there are just times when you don’t feel like eating. This helps them focus and the little gnawing of hunger in the stomach is a reminder that God gives life to both body and soul. Fasting can help lift your mind above ordinary, fleshly concerns (that persistent question “what’s for supper?”) and might be useful to re-direct your thoughts more toward God. I recommend giving it a try, if you never have. It’s helped me at various points in the past, and of course there’s absolutely no necessity for it now. God loves you just the same, whether you eat certain foods or don’t. We all have the same Lord, but maybe fasting can help you focus on Him a little bit better. Besides, the Christian church has always encouraged it for Lent, and I always figure that I’m not necessarily smarter than the people who went before me. Maybe they knew something I don’t yet.
Whether you fast or not, may Jesus, the Bread of Life, grant you a blessed Lententide. Peace be with you.
Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[a]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[b]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[c]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[d]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (matt 4.1-11 niv)
It started out innocently enough. The young man challenged his buddy to a game of one-on-one in the driveway, and the buddy accepted. They started playing. The first one knocked the ball out of bounds, or threw a quick elbow when the other one wasn’t expecting it or hooked him with a knee, and first he was taken by surprise. “So that’s how it’s going to be!” Pretty soon they’re hustling harder, running into each other, hacking and grunting. They’re sweating and yelling and calling each other names. A few minutes ago they were loafing along, having a good time, but now they’re in a battle. The first one to ten wins. If you want to win, you’ve got to play like it.
Today Jesus is in a battle, and it’s a lot more serious than two young men playing ball in the driveway. Christ will face our worst enemy, the evil one, and He will stop everything he throws at Him. We’re the ones who benefit. In the process, we’ll learn a lot more about how our enemy the devil operates. Let’s watch as Christ and the devil Fight for Our Life.
Just prior to this, Jesus had been baptized in the Jordan River. The heavens had opened above Him, and the Father’s voice of love was heard: “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” The Spirit had descended on Jesus in the form of a dove. He was destined, dedicated, and willing. He was ready to begin His ministry. So right away the first thing He does is He’s led into the wilderness by the Spirit. It doesn’t say that it was His idea to go; the Spirit is the one who led Him. Jesus went willingly into harm’s way. He knows what’s going to happen out there, He knows what Satan will try to do to Him, and He still goes. Jesus’ role is to put Himself in the line of fire, to expose Himself to the assaults of the devil, and to endure them all. Jesus does this for you. He’s making up for all the times you willingly wander away from God – all the times you go looking for something to suit your sinful desires. He will succeed where you have failed: He will be tempted in every way, just as we are, yet He will not sin. His forty days in the wilderness will be part of undoing sin’s curse that held you down. In order to liberate you, Jesus had to open Himself up to the devil’s worst attacks – so He goes where He knows the devil will come after Him, out in the desert by Himself.
He doesn’t have long to wait. The three temptations in our text were probably not the only ones Jesus underwent out in the desert. The devil was harassing Him and coming after Him the entire time He was out there. Jesus needed all of His concentration and His alertness to be on guard. That’s part of why He was fasting. Jesus uses fasting as a weapon. By not eating, He helps focus His mind and soul on spiritual things. He’s expressing His reliance on God and gathering Himself for the struggle to come. Fasting can be a way of clearing your head and freeing up your resources to focus on what is unseen, which is what Jesus is doing here. Fasting in and of itself isn’t wrong, but it can be wrong if you do it for the wrong reasons. It doesn’t earn God’s favor. It doesn’t have the promise of God backing it up, like He does with the Word and the Sacraments. There is no law in the New Testament saying that Christians must fast, like God commanded His people to in the Old Testament. We are free to fast during Lent, or we are free to eat cheeseburgers and fries if we want. It can be helpful for sharpening your mind so you can focus on God’s Word better and pray better, and you can use the time and money you would have spent on preparing and eating your food on helping others, but there’s no obligation to do it for us now. Originally Christians would fast on certain days during Lent in imitation of Christ’s fast here, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. We’re not used to being hungry, which Jesus certainly was after forty days.
God was sustaining Him the whole time, but He still got hungry. The devil sees this and tries to use it as an opening. “If You’re the Son of God,” Satan says – and this really means “since you’re the Son of God”, because Satan was never allowed to forget that Christ had control over him – “since you’re the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” This seems like a pretty obvious temptation, doesn’t it? Jesus hasn’t eaten in forty days. Of course He’s hungry! If the devil wants Him to change the stones into bread, then that has to be wrong, doesn’t it? Where’s the temptation here?
Like a lot of Satan’s temptations, this one has more going on under the surface. It seems obvious to get a hungry man to make bread, but Satan is angling for a bigger trap. He wants Jesus to think only about physical things and less about spiritual things. He wants Jesus to focus more on the hunger gnawing in His stomach, and quit being so conscious of God. When you’re a child of God, you live your whole life with God in view. You make every action, every word, every thought obedient to God. You take every thought captive to Christ, as it says in 2 Corinthians. That’s the mindset of faith – it always looks to God first and trusts in Him at all times. We fail at that many times each day, although we still do it more often than not. Jesus never failed. He lived His entire life as an expression of fear, love, and trust for God. He confessed that God’s Word, not physical food, is what keeps us alive. If we trust in God’s Word and don’t have bread, we’ll always live, but if we have bread and not God’s Word, when the bread’s gone you’re done. God’s Word keeps us alive and sustains us. It’s more important than food for our bodies. By the Word of God we were created, and His Word still gives us life. We still need food – Jesus says we don’t live on bread alone, not that we don’t live on bread at all. But the deeper truth is that God keeps us alive through His Word, physically and spiritually.
The Scripture from Deuteronomy chapter 8 that Jesus quotes says the same thing. Moses tells the children of Israel that God humbled them, causing them to hunger and then feeding them with manna, which neither they nor their fathers had ever known, to teach them that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. God is the one who gives and keeps life through His Word.
That didn’t work. The devil changes venues and takes Jesus to the holy city, Jerusalem – and not only that, he takes Him to the temple, the holiest spot in the holy city. He does not shrink back from going straight to God’s house, in fact he makes a beeline for it. It’s his destination. That’s a good reminder for us, that the devil won’t leave us alone just because we’re Christians or we’re in God’s house. In fact the opposite is true. He won’t be afraid to come here among us. He might come here expressly for the purposes of tempting you to despise God’s Word in this sacred place. Think about it.
The wind is whistling past Jesus’ ears and the people below look like ants, they’re so small. Given the valley that ran alongside the temple mount, the total drop was 450 feet. That’s a long way to fall just to prove that God will catch you. Why on earth would Satan think this would work with Jesus? The trick is in the way Satan frames it. He makes it sound like this is a chance to prove God’s faithfulness. Throw yourself down and God will be glorified, Satan implies. To back up his lie, Satan makes lying use of a truth from Scripture. He takes a true, comforting passage and uses it for a false, deceitful end. He leaves out part of the passage, “in all your ways” — the part that would have told Jesus that jumping was not God’s will. This is probably the most destructive, dangerous temptation of the three. If Satan can get us to go against God’s Word, there’s no telling what harm he can lead us into. He could literally destroy us – body as well as soul. That’s what he wants to do. He wants to kill us. He wants to murder us forever in hell. That’s why he’s trying so hard with Jesus here.
He got Adam and Eve that way. He managed to get them to go against God’s Word that forbade them to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They would have been destroyed forever had God not forgiven them and promised them a Savior. Satan knows God’s Word too. I’d wager he knows it better than we do, because he’s been around it longer. He hates God’s Word, and we always remember and obsess over what we hate. It’s a bad idea to try and out-reason the devil, even from the Scriptures, because he’ll use any truth from Scripture in a lying way against us.
So how do we protect ourselves from a lying use of God’s Word? Know God’s Word inside and out. Familiarize yourself with it. Soak your thoughts in it. Fill your mind and soul with it. Constantly be taking it in and meditating on it, thinking about it, applying it to yourself and those around you, because in this way you become mature. Grow up in your faith and by constant use of the Word train yourself to distinguish good from evil, as the writer to the Hebrews says. If you don’t have a good grasp of what God’s Word says, the devil can come along and rip it out of your hands and strike you down with it before you realize it. You need to know God’s Word and hang onto it so tightly that the devil cannot take it from you. Just going through confirmation ten or twenty or thirty years ago isn’t enough. It’s a start, but it’s not the whole thing. You need to make God’s Word such a part of your heart and mind that you can more readily spot the devil’s traps and avoid them. He wants to take God’s life-giving Word away from you and destroy you. He’s not fooling around – he wants you in hell forever. Don’t give him a chance.
Also pray for discernment and wisdom. Pray that Jesus would send His Holy Spirit into your heart to lead you into all truth, so you can have greater insight into His holy Word. Then you’ll do better at spotting the devil’s traps and avoiding them, because we’re not unaware of his schemes.
Notice how Jesus stops the devil this time. He says, “It is also written.” God’s Word still is powerful to save us, even when it’s misused, abused, twisted, chopped up, and put back together wrongly by Satan or those who are working for him. It never loses its power. The sword of the Spirit is still strong to save, even when it’s misused by the enemy. Nothing else works.
The third temptation. Satan tells an ever bigger lie this time, if that’s possible: Bow down, worship me, and you’ll get all this. He acts like everything in the world is his to give away! That’s some chutzpah. When Satan tells a lie, he tells it big. Here we see another of his favorite tricks: making big, empty promises. He makes what we’re not supposed to have seem so sparkling and alluring, so tantalizing, that we think we’re getting a good deal. Too late we find out that he’s lied to us again, the check is not in the mail, we’ve lost the good things we already had and took for granted, and we’ve bought the spiritual equivalent of beachfront property in Arizona. Jesus cuts him off: “Away from me, Satan! Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only!” Once again God’s Word drives the devil away. True riches come when you worship God and love Him above everything else. Satan still tries this bargain with us today. He wants us to buy into what he’s selling, and give up what God teaches us should be first. With God’s help we will see through his traps, put all our trust in His Word, and defeat the devil, because Christ has already won the Fight for Our Life. Amen.