Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (February 21, 2010)

Wordle: Untitled

“Suffering Comes Before Victory” (Luke 4:1-13)

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Here on the west coast, we’ve seen our share of earthquakes. They were a regular occurrence for me growing up in Southern California, not far from the famed San Andreas fault line. Feeling the ground move underneath you and seeing the walls of your home sway from side to side is a terrifying feeling. Probably the worst one to hit near my home was the 1994 Northridge quake. That was during my second year at the seminary in Indiana, so I watched with particular interest the television news reports showing the damage from places with which I was familiar. I saw freeway overpasses collapsed which I had driven under many times. One of my classmates watched with me and shared that his brother lived in one of the apartment complexes that was destroyed. His brother survived. All in all, 72 people died in the quake, over 9,000 were injured, and there was an estimate of $20 billion in damage done.

But all of that fades in comparison to what happened in Haiti last month. The most recent reports say that close to 230,000 people were killed, over 300,000 injured, and and estimated 1 million were left homeless. Images of whole neighborhoods flattened were shown on the news. Probably the most famous image was of the collapsed national palace, the Haitian “White House” as it is called. Aid from all over the world flooded in. Trauma centers and shelters for those left homeless were set up. And it’s still not over. The people will continue to suffer from a loss of property, business, and emotional stess.

In the long run, however, it will be possible for good to come out of all this suffering. New and stronger buildings will be built in place of the old, decrepit ones. The plight of an impoverished nation has been made more public so that they will receive the help they need beyond rebuilding after a devastating earthquake. People will deal with their emotional stress and hopefully come out stronger on the other side, ready to deal with lesser problems in their lives. And as people walk away from the rubble, alive and breathing, perhaps they can come away with a new perspective and a new appreciation for life, even while they deal with their grief.

Suffering often is necessary before growth. Lent is about suffering … taking time to contemplate the suffering, the Passion, of our Lord Jesus. This, in turn, prepares us to celebrate the victory of our Lord Jesus over death and Satan at the empty tomb on Easter morning.

But suffering comes before victory. Remember last week’s scene on the Mount of Transfiguration? We saw Jesus glorified on the mountaintop. But he couldn’t stay there. He had to go down the mountain to face the cross.

The suffering of Jesus didn’t just begin after he came down the mountain. It went on throughout his earthly life through temptation, rejection, and finally crucifixion.

Jesus suffered with hunger after spending 40 days in the wilderness. The devil tempted Jesus to doubt the goodness of God, telling Jesus to use his divine powers to turn a stone into a loaf of bread and satisfy his hunger. Then, the devil tempted Jesus to compromise his principles by worshiping the devil in exchange for all the splendor of the kingdoms of the world. Finally, he tempted Jesus to act presumptuously and to test God by throwing himself down from the top of the temple. In all these temptations, Jesus was tempted to walk down the path of glory rather than the path of suffering on the way to the cross.

Jesus also suffered by rejection. He was rejected by his own people. The very ones who had been given the promises of the coming Messiah … the very ones who were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob … these are the ones who should have known who he was and worshiped him. But tragically, they were the ones who were shouting out “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

And while he was being crucified, Jesus was rejected by his own Father. The sins of the world were placed upon Jesus, and he suffered the agonies of hell while hanging there, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But let’s go back to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus most certainly suffered when he was tempted. As True Man, he felt the full force of the temptations that were thrown at him. Hebrews 4 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:15)

The temptations that Jesus faced are not much different than ours. The difference lies in the fact that you and I fall well before the temptations thrown at us reach their full force.

You and I are tempted to doubt God’s goodness when bad things happen. People who lose loved ones or property in a disaster are tempted to blame God. They wonder where he is in the midst of their suffering. You and I are tempted to do the very same thing when tragedy or trials come into our lives.

We are tempted to compromise our principles. We may be tempted to do something we know is wrong just for the sake of being liked by those around us. We may engage in certain actions for our own advantage, believing that if we want to get ahead in life we may have to step on a few toes along the way. This may even involve a public denial of our Christian confession. But when we do that, we publicly deny our Lord and Savior, too.

We are tempted to put God to the test by engaging in foolish actions. Some of us may be able to remember the foolish actions we engaged in as a youth, taking all kinds of unnecessary risks because we thought we were indestructible. But we adults also engage in foolish behavior, too, that might be described as putting God to the test … making unwise life decisions, poor stewardship of our financeds, excessive gambling, risky investments, overindulging in unhealthy food or drink. These all have to do with temporal matters. But we put God to the test in spiritual matters, too, when we neglect God’s means of grace, his Word and Sacrament, thereby putting our faith at risk.

Whereas you and I fail when we are tempted, Jesus was victorious over Satan when he was tempted. Not once did Jesus fall to temptation. And because Jesus was tempted and was victorious, we can come to him when we are tempted. Hebrews 2, promises, “because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Heb. 2:18)

We can come to Jesus for strength while we are being tempted. St. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10:13, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”

Paul acknowledges that it is possible for us to stand up to temptation. But notice that he doesn’t tell us to do this in our own strength. He doesn’t tell us to rely on our own power. Our faithful God is the one who provides “the way of escape.” We can flee temptation by using the same thing that Jesus used. Jesus had his own divine power at his disposal, but that’s not how he stood up to temptation. Jesus took it like a Man. He endured temptation as a true human being. And he stood up to Satan’s temptations using the Word of God.

Our hearts are strengthened by God’s Word, and we are enabled to stand up under temptation. We speak God’s Word just as Jesus did, and what happens? The devil is sent away. Satan was rebuffed by his every attempt to cause Jesus to fall. He runs away when he is resisted, as the apostle James wrote, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:7)

Jesus draws near to us through his Word. Near to us, we can come to him for strength. And we can come to him for forgiveness when we fail. Paul writes in Romans 5, “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19) Adam was disobedient, and brought condemnation upon us all. Jesus was obedient in every way, and he makes all who trust in him for forgiveness acceptable to God the Father and his obedience is credited to our account.

Jesus secured salvation for us and the forgiveness of sins when we succumb to temptation and fail. But he also left us an example that we should follow in his steps. “For to this you were called,” God tells us through the pen of St. Peter, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.” (1 Pet. 2:21-22)

Can you and I succeed and “commit no sin”? No. We will continually fail and continually need to be forgiven. But what we can do is continue to trust in Christ. That means to come to him for forgiveness and newness of life. That means to come to him so you can be renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. That means to follow in Christ’s steps, who, after suffering for us won for us the great victory over sin, death, and the devil … the victory in which we all have a share because we’ve been baptized into that victory.


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