First Sunday in Lent (February 21, 2007)
“Facing Temptation” (Luke 4:1-13)
There’s an old Far Side cartoon that has two deer standing next to each other. One has a huge target painted on his side. The other deer says to him, “Bummer of a birthmark, Hal.”
You might say that there was a target of sorts painted on Jesus after his baptism in the Jordan River. God the Father’s voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son.” The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. It was as if this public display said to Satan, “This is the one. This is the Savior. Try and see what you can do, buddy boy. Neener, neener.” A target was painted on Jesus at his baptism. From that point on, Satan tried to do all he can to avert him from his mission.
You might say that there was a target of sorts painted on you after your baptism. The Triune God marked you with his own Name as water was poured over you “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You were claimed as God’s own child. You were filled with the Holy Spirit. You were given the gift of faith to trust in Christ. A target was painted on you at your baptism. Satan could have cared less about you before. But now that you belong to God, Satan tries to do all he can to cause you to disobey, to push God away, to grieve the Holy Spirit within you, to drive you to the point of unbelief.
Temptation is all about trying to get you to do everything to your own advantage...without any thought about consequences, about how it will affect others, and especially about what God thinks about it.
After 40 days without food in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry. Satan pointed to a presumably loaf-sized rock at Jesus feet and said, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” In other words, Satan was trying to get Jesus to use his divine power to his own selfish advantage. But that’s not what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to use his divine power always for the sake of others. Had he fallen to Satan’s temptation, his mission would have failed.
Next, Satan took Jesus up to a place where he could view “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” This time, Satan’s temptation was for Jesus to worship Satan. If he did so, Satan would give up his claim on the kingdoms of the world and give them to Jesus. But then again, Jesus’ mission would have failed, for now he would be in partnership with Satan, the one whose rule Jesus came to destroy.
The third temptation Luke records takes place on what is called “the pinnacle of the temple.” This is probably a corner of the temple which rose high over a courtyard where people milled around. Satan misuses God’s Word now to tempt Jesus to throw himself down, since, after all, “He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you...On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Perhaps Satan was trying to get Jesus to see how spectacular this would be, floating down from the top of the temple wall, gently alighting in the midst of the courtyard, with the people “ooh-ing” and “aah-ing” all around him. What a glorious sight that would have been. Surely they would worship him as the Messiah after seeing this public display of power. But if Jesus had done this, his mission would have failed. It would have failed, and you and I would still be condemned in our sinful condition. Why? Because Jesus would have bypassed suffering and the cross in order to receive glory and praise.
You certainly don’t have the power to change stones into bread. But Satan, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to do all you can to satisfy yourself, at the expense of others.
You certainly will never rule over the kingdoms of the world. But Satan, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to do all you can to build up your own little empire around you, by taking advantage of people, by manipulating them, by committing emotional blackmail, by taking credit for what someone else has done, among other selfish power-plays.
You would certainly not be silly enough to jump off the pinnacle of the roof of Messiah Lutheran Church. But Satan, the world, and your own sinful flesh will tempt you to wish that you could bypass suffering in order to get to the glory.
And you are tempted daily to do all these things...and more. Just consider the 10 Commandments, and honestly evaluate yourself. How are you doing? Pretty good? Well, think again.
God knew that we would think like this. He knew that we would think that sin is only about doing and not thinking. That’s why he gave us two commandments that specifically deal with attitudes. The seventh commandment may be about stealing, but both commandments 9 and 10 deal with the attitude that may lead to stealing...coveting: not being content with what God has given you, and proving that you think you know better than God about what your needs are.
Likewise, Jesus told us that if you lust after a woman in your heart, you are guilty of committing adultery. And if you are angry with someone to the point of hatred, you are guilty of murder.
How do you avoid temptation? Anne Shirley in the book Anne of Green Gables had an idea. Anne was an orphan girl adopted by Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew on Prince Edward Island off the eastern coast of Canada. At one point in the novel, Anne receives a book which she would dearly love to read, but she knows that it would take her away from her studies...and she can’t be distracted because she is competing to be best in her class. And so she says, “Well, I suppose I must finish up my lessons. I won’t allow myself to open that new book Jane lent me until I’m through. But it’s a terrible temptation, Matthew. Even when I turn my back on it I can see it there just as plain. Jane said she cried herself sick over it. I love a book that makes me cry. But I think I’ll carry that book into the sitting room and lock it in the jam closet and give you the key. And you must not give it to me, Matthew, until my lessons are done, not even if I implore you on my bended knees. It’s all very well to say resist temptation, but it’s ever so much easier to resist it if you can’t get the key.”
If only it were as easy as putting away that which tempts us behind lock and key. But our sinful inclination would be to hide the key somewhere so we could get at it in a moment of weakness. Besides that, even if we “turn our back on” that which tempts us, we can see it in our mind’s eye just as plain.
If only we could resist temptation as easily as Jesus did. Someone might say, “Well, of course Jesus was able to resist temptation. He is God.” The thing is, Jesus faced temptation as a man. He felt the full force of every single one of Satan’s temptations that were thrown at him, and not just out in the wilderness, but throughout his life...even the temptation through those voices at the base of the cross that shouted, “If you are the Son of God, come down...He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” (Mt 27:40, 42)
Remember that when you and I are tempted, it most always leads us to sin. We are so very weak. Even when we don’t outwardly commit a certain sin, it is still sin when we toy with the idea for a little bit. And by that time, it’s too late.
And so Jesus had to face temptation...not as God...but as a MAN...to be our substitute. When he was baptized, Jesus the Righteous One stepped in line with us Unrighteous Ones. The One who had no sin of which to repent received John’s baptism as if he did. The Holy Spirit descended upon him. And then, from those waters, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness because this was all part of God’s plan for Jesus to do battle with Satan for us. Jesus was tempted by Satan to do everything for his own advantage, and he flatly refused. To do so would mean his mission to be the Savior of the world would be a failure. Jesus endured Satan’s temptations for our advantage. Where we fail, Jesus succeeded. Jesus faced Satan’s temptations head on and won.
Now, when you and I do fall to temptation, we can run to the One who withstood temptation for us, all the way to the cross. His shed blood covers our sin. And God sees you as holy and righteous in Christ, as one who has never sinned, because he has promised, “I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Is 43:25)
Likewise, you are full of the Holy Spirit through Baptism. The very same Spirit who descended upon Jesus has descended upon you and dwells within you. You have the same Holy Spirit to help you and to strengthen you when you are tempted. You have the same Holy Spirit who leads you to pray, “And lead us not into temptation,” and God promises to answer you, to be with you in trouble, to rescue you, and to honor you. You have the same Holy Spirit who works through the powerful Word. Notice what Jesus did when faced with temptation. He didn’t use his divine power. He answered each temptation with God’s Word. And you and I can do the same, as St. Paul reminds us, “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes...Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” (Eph 6:11, 17) And finally, you have the same Holy Spirit who leads you through the wilderness of this world to the paradise of this altar where you are fed...not on stones turned to bread...but on bread and wine which deliver to you the precious body and blood of your Savior.
This Lenten season, remember who you are...God’s beloved, forgiven, baptized child. As you fight against temptation, remember that your Savior has already fought for you and won...in the wilderness, at the cross, at the empty tomb. So stand and fight against the devil’s schemes. Your enemy is a defeated one. Your God is a mighty fortress. “This world’s prince may still / Scowl fierce as he will. / He can harm us none. / He’s judged; the deed is done; / One little word can fell him.” (LSB 656)