This sermon was preached at St Matthew's Lutheran Church, Maryborough, 8.15am, and Grace Lutheran Church, Childers, 10.30am.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and angels were ministering to him.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today we are celebrating the First Sunday of Lent. And for many centuries, it has always been a custom of the church to read about Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness. Our Gospel reading today is from the Gospel of Mark. Mark actually doesn’t tell us very much about Jesus’ temptation. He simply says: The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and angels were ministering to him. That’s it. In the Gospel of Matthew and Luke we find much more detail of the exact conversations that Satan and Jesus, and what the specific temptations were. So in our sermon today we’re also going to look into those passages in Matthew and Luke.
Jesus temptation happened immediately after his baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove. Even though Jesus was true God and always lived in unity with the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit now comes upon Jesus for a special purpose: to show that Jesus is the true Son of God, and to anoint Jesus for his work of preaching, healing, comforting, suffering and dying. We read that this same Holy Spirit then immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness. John says in his first letter that the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. As soon as Jesus is baptised, he is driven by the Holy Spirit to confront the devil, and destroy him, and to show us for all time how he is defeated.
In Hebrews 4 we read that Jesus has been tempted as we are in every respect, yet without sin. Today we see Jesus being tempted, and tempted just as we are. However, Jesus does not fall into sin, but fights off the temptation, and overcomes it. Jesus has a real fight with Satan—the temptations were real and sharp and cruel. And yet there is no doubt who is going to win. Sometimes, people think that if Jesus were a real human, it must have been possible for him to fall. But that’s not true, because Jesus is not just a human being like us, but also true God. And yet, the temptation was real. The devil can only fight battles that he is going to lose, and yet he fights them anyway.
Now during these 40 days, Jesus fasted and ate nothing. During the season of Lent, Christians have often fasted too: maybe they eat less, or give up some favourite food, or some habit. But the fasting of Jesus is a miracle. When the bible speaks about fasting for us, we don’t need to copy Jesus here! Jesus performs a special miracle in his fasting, and shows us his power as true God. Moses and Elijah also fasted for 40 days, being strengthened by God’s special supernatural power. However, after Jesus shows his divine power and fasted for 40 days, then we read he was hungry. He is true God, but also wants to sympathise with us. He has a special task, and he shows us that he feels the same kinds of normal pains as us.
The amazing thing about this is that Jesus didn’t have to suffer, or feel weakness, or hunger, or experience temptation, if he didn’t want to. When he was arrested Jesus said to Peter: Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? Jesus also said: No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. And so, even though Jesus is true God, he experiences hunger, feels pain and endures temptation because he wants to encourage us and sympathise with us. He wants us to trust him, not just as our God above us, but as our brother alongside us.
And so, this reading teaches us something very confronting: you are not immune to Satan’s attacks. The devil didn’t hold back from seducing Adam and Eve, even though they were sinless, and we are not. After the last Supper, Jesus said to Peter that Satan wanted to have him to sift him like wheat. The apostles weren’t immune to Satan, and he destroyed Judas. Even at Jesus himself—who is both man and God—the devil didn’t hold back from firing his darts. And so, this reading today is very important, because if want to get the devil off our back and win, we can’t do it by ourselves. We need to have Jesus our army General on our side, and we need his weapons. Then we can win, because we are saved by the winner.
So let’s now read about the first temptation of Jesus, and how Jesus fights this temptation off.
I. The first temptation.
So we read: [Jesus] was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan wants Jesus to prove himself. But Jesus doesn’t need to prove himself to him! And you too never have to prove to Satan that you are true Christian. The devil wants to sow doubt: If you are the Son of God. If you are really God’s Son, then do what I tell you. Jesus is hungry, and Satan tempts him to eat. But instead of Jesus just going home and eating some bread, Satan wants him to use magic powers, to change many stones into a banquet of bread, so that Jesus will not just eat, but pig out and make a proper fool of himself.
Now here’s what’s amazing: Jesus doesn’t silence the devil with supernatural power. He fights him off with something that all of us have access to: the clear word of God, a simple little bible verse. He says: It is written, Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3. And one little bible verse like this skewers the devil in his tracks. You see, God’s word has power. It has divine authority, and the bible requires the same obedience as we would give to God himself, because this is God’s word. Jesus says: If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples. And so Jesus shows us that all the power against Satan is contained in God’s Word.
Jesus says: It is written. Jesus shows us here just how highly He views the Scripture, the bible, God’s Word. Even though Deuteronomy was written by Moses long before this event, it was not simply Moses that Jesus was quoting, but the Holy Spirit himself, because the Holy Spirit inspired Moses. 2 Timothy 3:16 says: All Scripture is inspired by God. It could also be translated: breathed out by God, or breathed out by God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus also said once that the Scripture cannot be broken. When Jesus was praying to his Father, he prayed for his disciples and said: Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. And so, because the Scripture has all this power behind it, Jesus doesn’t need to use supernatural power against Satan—all he needs is the Word.
Now it has always been a practice in the church until recently for Christians to learn bible quotes from memory. In Deuteronomy 6, it says: These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You can see from our reading today how useful it is for us to learn bible verses and to commit them to memory, not just to be intellectual, but to be equipped and armed and to have weapons against the devil in our hearts and minds. Jesus doesn’t have a theological argument with Satan; he just quotes the Scripture. He says: It is written.
Jesus quotes the words: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This passage from Deuteronomy talks about when God sent manna—heavenly bread—to the Israelites in the desert. God wanted to teach them that their daily bread comes from him. But God also provides us with bakers, and with flour, and wheat, and so on. But when those means are taken away, and there is no one to make bread, then we can start to think: God has abandoned me! Now I need to use the devil’s tricks—and lie and cheat—to get bread and money and stuff. No—God provides for us, his word says it, and we can ask him for what we need. He is faithful and will provide everything.
Now, let’s come to the second temptation, and how Jesus fights off this one.
II. The second temptation.
We read: Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple. Sometimes we look back on something that happened to us and we think that the devil must have orchestrated the whole thing. Notice here in our reading that the devil takes Jesus up on the top of the temple. The devil seems to have even physical power over people’s bodies. But we learn also from the book of Job that Satan only causes mischief as God allows it, and if God allows it, then it is not for evil, but for good. At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph says to his brothers: You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. In the same way, Satan takes Jesus up on top of the temple for evil, but God allows it for good, to win a victory over Satan.
Now also it says that the devil set him on the pinnacle of the temple. The temple was the holy place which God had told his people to build so that they could have access into his sacred presence. But Satan doesn’t take him inside where the holy ceremonies and sacrifices are going on, but puts him on top. The temple may as well be a big-top or a circus tent, and devil turns this holy building and this holy place into a play-thing, into a jungle-gym, into a trapeze-show. This is a temptation that the devil often sends: to get people to despise and profane holy things from God, and treat them like they are nothing.
Now what does Satan say to Jesus? He says: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “’He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “’On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Satan wants Jesus to give up his mission to save the world from sin by dying on the cross and to go “splat” on the pavement below. Then everyone would say, not “Behold, the Lamb of God”, but, “Tsk, tsk. What a tragic, silly early death of a promising young life!” Or Satan wants Jesus to prove just how powerful his prayers have been, so that when he jumps, the angels will catch him and provide a safety net. If Jesus is the Son of God, then surely the angels must come.
Now to add to the temptation, Satan quotes the bible. Just like Jesus before, Satan says: It is written. And he quotes from Psalm 91: He will command his angels concerning you. Actually, this is a misquote. Satan leaves out some words. The psalm says: He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. Now, Jesus has been anointed by the Holy Spirit to be our Saviour. That is the way he is to follow. And as long as he continues in that path, God will send his mighty armies of angels for his protection. And the same for us: God doesn’t promise angelic protection whatever we do, but he does promise to send the angels to guard us in all our ways, as we walk with God.
Sometimes people think the bible isn’t reliable, because even “Satan can quote the bible”. The devil only twists the bible, and turns thing around to make it says what it doesn’t say. Jesus doesn’t argue with the devil, but just quotes the Scripture: Again it is written, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” God gave Jesus a calling: to be the Saviour of the world. And God has called you to follow Jesus wherever you are in life: to be a faithful spouse, or a parent or grandparent, or a child, or a citizen, or whatever. God sends angels to protect you daily as you trust and follow him wherever he has called you. He won’t prove that he looks after you by you jumping off buildings; He has promised it.
Now, let’s come to
III. The third temptation.
We read: Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” Now the devil pulls out a particularly nasty trick. He pretends to be God, he pretends to be an angel of light. St Paul says that Satan even manifests himself as an angel of light. He shows Jesus a beautiful view, the wonder of God’s creation, great forests and lakes, great cities and beautiful things. And Satan makes himself into an inspirational speaker. He says: All these I will give you. Do you like it? You can have it! You can have it all: riches, fame, glory. Ask what you want and it’s yours.
But there’s always a catch with old Nick… He says: All these I will give you, if… He’s like one of those slick salesmen who says: “Absolutely free!” But then in the footnote there’s this fee, and that fee, and every other fee. When the devil gives something to someone it always comes at the expense of their soul. He says: All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me. Every false God demands a sacrifice. Jesus says: What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? And even in the church, the devil always tries to make falling away from the faith into the most holy Christian work. He makes apostacy and denying Christ into a beautiful work of Christian piety and worship.
And so Jesus once again quotes the Scripture. He says: Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Here the devil comes straight out, and tempts Jesus to worship him. But Jesus also shows us here that worship belongs to God and to him alone. Many people won’t go all out and worship Satan, and become Satanists. But then they’ll pray to angels or people who have died or even saints or their ancestors. And because they’re not worshipping the devil, they think it’s OK. But behind anything that is not the worship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the devil is hiding. And so Jesus calls us all back to the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods.
Now Jesus also says: Begone, Satan! Somewhere else Jesus also says: Get behind me, Satan! You don’t argue with the devil. Sometimes we can sit around for hours, days, weeks, months, being harassed by Satan. We didn’t need to argue with him, we didn’t need to reason with him, we didn’t need to think everything through. All we needed was to tell him to rack off! (Or whatever colourful language you prefer!) Jesus says: Be gone, Satan! Clear out, get out of my face, hit the road! This is a very important thing in what we call “spiritual warfare”. James says: Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Here Jesus takes the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, like a fly-swat, and smacks him. The job is done. That’s all it takes.
At the end of our reading, it says that Jesus was…being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. In Luke it says: When the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time. This opportune time was when Satan put it into the minds of different people to work to have Jesus crucified. But Jesus’ death was not Satan’s victory, but Jesus’ victory over Satan. And so Jesus was out in the wilderness there with wild animals. Since the devil had been silenced, the wild animals couldn’t be used by the devil to attack Jesus. So they were silenced too. Even a den of lions couldn’t harm the prophet Daniel, and Jesus could quietly sit with any wild animal that came along.
Also, it says: And the angels were ministering to him. There are only two places where the angels come and help or assist Jesus: here, and when Jesus sweat blood during his bitter prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. It seems as though the devil’s attacks “took it out of” Jesus, and took its toll. Sometimes the devil attacks us as Christians, and through Jesus and his word, we are able to win the victory. But it can leave us exhausted. And so we see in our reading that even Jesus was assisted by the angels. Likewise, when we are feeling weak and exhausted and beaten about by the evil one, we can rest in the wonderful truth that Jesus has won the victory, and he surrounds us with the mighty protection of the heavenly hosts.
So let’s thank Jesus for that victory, and sing to him: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts! Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Amen.
Dear Jesus, the old prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none; he’s judged forever undone. One little word can fell him. Amen.