Sunday, March 1, 2009

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (March 1, 2009)
“In the Desert” (Mark 1:12-15)

The desert is a lonely, dangerous place. I don't mean Phoenix, or Yuma, or Las Vegas, or other places where snowbirds live and where spring training is held.

I’m talking about desert places that are truly lonely and isolated … places far removed from irrigation and electricity and phone lines and shelter.
I’m talking about places without any real source of life and nourishment for a human being … places where a human cannot long survive. In the summer the desert heat is scorching. During the heat of the day, a person would soon die of dehydration and heat stroke. In the winter, the days are much more pleasant. But nights in some deserts can be bone chilling cold, and a person would soon die of exposure and hypothermia.

I’m talking about places of danger and death … places where wild animals lurk and come out at night … hungry coyotes, venomous rattlesnakes, and so on.
The world in which we live is a desert of sorts. It is a place of loneliness and isolation. Even though we are surrounded by all kinds of people at work, at school, and even at church, so many of us still feel lonely and isolated. We have a hard time connecting, becoming truly close friends with anyone.

The world in which we live is a place without any real source of life and nourishment … for one’s soul, that is. People look to all sorts of things to find life and nourishment, but in the end they don’t satisfy. After trying all sorts of things out to find satisfaction, people are still left feeling empty inside.
And this world is also a place of danger and death. There are dangerous people and dangerous situations which may very well take our lives. There are dangerous temptations which seek to harm and destroy our spiritual life.

Although you and I often fall to the temptations that come our way in this desert world, Jesus withstood the temptations that came His way in the desert and conquered the one who threw those temptations at Him.

The Temptation of Jesus follows right on the heels of His Baptism. God the Father had publicly announced that Jesus was His beloved Son and God the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove. We might say that this was like putting a big sign on Jesus, telling Satan, “Hey, this is my Man. Come and get Him!” Mark says that the Holy Spirit “drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” Why would the Spirit send Jesus into such a dangerous situation? He did it because of what 1 John 3:8 says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” Jesus was sent into that lonely place full of wild animals to defang that “roaring lion” named Satan. That was Christ's destiny … to face Satan and to conquer what Satan threw in His way to turn Him from His appointed path, the path to the cross.

You and I were also marked as God’s beloved son or daughter when we were baptized. When you were baptized, your life became a battleground between God and Satan. You are sent into this desert world with all its temptations and allurements. That wild animal Satan comes to you as “a roaring lion” looking to devour you (1 Peter 5:8). Before you became a part of God's kingdom, Satan could care less about you. He already had you. But now that you are one of God's baptized ones, Satan battles for your soul more than ever. He knows he's a defeated enemy, and he wants to drag as many people with him into Hell as he can. And he's a crafty one. He will use any subtle scheme to get you to deny who you are as a baptized child of God. He tries to do all He can to turn us from our appointed path, the path of following Jesus in a life of repentant faith.

We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “And lead us not into temptation.” We pray this, knowing that God does not tempt us to evil. He does test our faith by allowing certain trials to come before us. But He does this only for the purpose of strengthening us, never to tear us down. James 1:2-3 tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Today’s OT lesson is an example of that kind of a test, where Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac. Abraham’s test certainly strengthened his faith in a God who keeps His promises and a God who saves, even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

However, temptations do come which lure us away from God and His ways. The Holy Spirit is not the one who leads us into those temptations. St. James makes it clear for us in today's Epistle: “Let no one say when he is tempted, 'I am being tempted by God,' for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:13-15) Even as God’s baptized children, our old sinful nature still clings to us, and it often leads us to find those temptations ourselves and to fall into them. And remember, “falling to temptation” does not mean simply the act itself. If in our minds we even delight in the suggestion to sin, we have already fallen. And the devil knows our weaknesses and attacks us where and when we are weakest.

Jesus withstood the devil's temptations in the desert for us, so that He could go to the cross as the sinless Son of God and to “deliver us from evil” … to pay for the ways in which you and I have not withstood temptation, to win the battle against Satan, and to give us the strength to stand up when temptation comes our way.

The other Gospels give us more details than Mark does. Mark’s point is simply to tell us that Jesus was tempted by Satan right after passing through the waters of baptism and then spent 40 days in the wilderness. It reminds us of the time when the children of Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea and then spent 40 years in the wilderness. But where they were unfaithful to God in the wilderness, Jesus was faithful.

Matthew and Luke tell us how Jesus withstood Satan’s temptations. He used the Word of God. Jesus is hungry, and so Satan tempts Him to make bread from a rock, and thus save himself. Jesus responds with God’s Word from Deuteronomy 8: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The devil promises “authority” and “glory” to Jesus, just like he tempted Adam and Eve. Jesus responds with God’s Word from Deuteronomy 6: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” and “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Where Adam failed, where all the children of Israel failed, where you and I have failed, Jesus succeeded.

The first of Jesus’ battles with Satan was won in the desert. That battle continued at the cross and was won by Jesus. Just as He could have used His power to turn stones into bread, He could have used His power to come down from the cross. But He knew that the way of victory included the way of suffering and death. There on the cross He was crowned as King … with a crown of thorns and a throne made of two beams of wood. The King was held there on His throne with nails in His hands and feet. But really, it was not the nails that held Him. It was His love that held Him there, as He suffered and died for you.

When Isaac asked his father Abraham, “Where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb.” (Gen. 22:7-8) Abraham thought that his son Isaac was that lamb. But when God stopped Abraham’s hand from slaying his only son and spared Isaac’s life, he did provide a lamb … a ram caught by its horns in the bushes.

God has provided a Lamb for you. It is his Only Son, whose life was not spared, but was freely given up for us and for our sins.

After the desert temptations, Jesus proclaimed the good news of His Kingdom, as Mark records, “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” That call still goes out to us today, to turn away from sin and temptation and to trust the good news of forgiveness through the shed blood of the Lamb. That’s the heartbeat of a relationship with Jesus, because He conquered sin and Satan for us. In Romans 8, St. Paul writes: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will not also with him graciously give us all things? … Who shall separated us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

We are indeed more than conquerors through the victory that Jesus won for us. He now helps us to stand up under those things that come to us in this desert world with its dangers. Heb. 2:18 says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

How does Jesus help us? By being present with us through the very same tool that He used to defeat the powers of hell … the Word of God. With every attack that Satan made against Jesus, He responded with a quotation from the Scriptures. The battle between man and the devil is waging on, and what is the greatest weapon that the Christian has? The Word of God. Heard. Preached. Read. Consumed with your mouth in the Lord's Supper. God’s Word is what gives you the power to fight temptation in your life. As Luther wrote in the hymn, “One little word can fell him.”

So as you travel through this desert world, becoming dirty and soiled when you trudge through the dirt of sin, turn to God daily in repentance and faith, and recall the waters of Baptism where your sins were washed away.

As you travel through this desert world, a place often full of loneliness and isolation, remember that you are never alone. Jesus travels with you and mends the divisions that exist between us and our fellow travelers, and helps us to reach out and serve others with His love.

As you travel through this desert world, with no real source of life and nourishment, come and be filled and refreshed with the water of life and nourished with the bread of life, Jesus Himself. And come aside and rest awhile at the oasis of His Holy Supper, where He refreshes us and nourishes us with His body and blood.

The danger and death of this desert world have been conquered by the death and the life of God’s Son. Jesus travels with you and His holy angels attend you on your journey through this desert on your way to the paradise of heaven.


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