“The Allure of Temptation” (Luke 4:1-13)
Every year, the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent is the Temptation of Jesus. Jesus has just exited the waters of the Jordan after having been baptized by John. He is full of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit who leads Jesus into the wilderness. This was all part of God’s plan. This meeting with the devil was no surprise ambush. This was all prearranged by God. Nothing catches him off guard.
It was in the wilderness where the children of Israel had so miserably failed to keep their covenant promises to be faithful to Yahweh. So Jesus is thrust back into the wilderness to be the only truly faithful Israelite. Jesus was born into the wilderness of this world to be the only sinless Man. He was born to succeed where Adam failed … where all of Adam’s descendents failed. Adam was kicked out of Paradise because of his sin and was sent into the wilderness. Jesus was faithful in the wilderness so that those who are baptized into his death and resurrection and who trust in him are welcomed back into Paradise.
Jesus was out there for forty days. Forty days in the Bible was typically a time of trial and testing. Think of the flood, when it rained for forty days and forty nights. The Philistines oppressed the people of Israel for forty years before Yahweh sent Samson as their deliverer. After their baptism into Moses at the Red Sea, the children of Israel were tested and tried for forty years in the wilderness. They were on the very borders of the Promised Land when Moses preached today’s words from our Old Testament lesson. Finally, God fulfilled his Word and brought them into the Land of Canaan. But even there, they continued to fall into the sins of the nations around them. God’s own chosen people were unfaithful to him.
St. Luke says that Jesus was tempted by the devil during those forty days he was in the wilderness. What was the nature of those temptations? We’re not told, except for those three temptations at the end of his time in the desert. Whatever they were, you can be sure that Satan brought his A-game. He knew this was no ordinary man. He probably was present at the baptism of Jesus. He saw the Holy Spirit descend on Jesus. He heard the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as the beloved Son of the Father. It was as if a target was painted on Jesus, saying to Satan, “Come on. Hit him with your best shot. Let’s see what you’ve got.” And Satan mustered all his craftiest and deceitful plans to try to derail Jesus from his mission and ministry as the Messiah.
When I was looking for an image for the cover of the service folder this week, I had a hard time finding one that depicted Satan the way I would have expected him to appear to Jesus. Some showed him with the stereotypical horns, forked tail, and cloven feet. One did not show his face, but showed a reptile-like claw emerging from his cloak. Even the one I chose for today does not quite capture the idea in my head. This one is by a Belgian artist from around the time of the Reformation. Notice the bird-like foot and his face which looks like an evil version of Shrek.
I expect Satan appeared in a much more appealing way. Like a handsome, well-dressed salesman, if you will. Trying to cozy up to Jesus, make him comfortable, befriend him, make his suggestions to Jesus seem right … reasonable … even religiously acceptable. In 2 Corinthians 11:14, St. Paul says that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” He makes what is sinful seem good and right. And his usual modus operandi is to not make it obvious that he is at work. He keeps himself hidden and lets your sinful nature go to work. By that time, he’s already defeated you. Before you even get the chance to act on any particular temptation, your sinful mind has already toyed with the idea of acting on it. Boom! Too late. You sinned. Again. And you need to repent. Again.
Tempation comes your way and you say things like this to yourself: “It’s my right” … “I deserve it” … “I need it” … “It’s okay just this once” … “It feels so good” … “It feels so right” … “It’s beautiful” … “It’s the loving thing to do” … “I’m only human” … “God will understand because he knows how weak I am” … “Everyone else does it” … “Times have changed. That part of God’s Word doesn’t apply any longer.” You know. Because you’ve thought those things or said those things. Me, too. Satan is really good at alluring us with temptation. He’s good at it because he takes something God created as good and distorts it or causes us to misuse it in some way.
He also knows exactly when to strike. At the end of those forty days of fasting, Jesus was at his most vulnerable. And so the devil tempts Jesus to turn away from trusting in his Heavenly Father. You can imagine him saying, “You are the Son of God, right? Why not use that power as the Son of God to turn these stones into bread? It’s just bread. Bread is good. It’s a wonderful gift from God. Go on. Do it. What could it hurt? Just look how hungry you are. Don’t you think your Father in heaven would want you to do this?” But Jesus was determined not to use his divine power for his own advantage. Rather, he was determined to continue in his humbled state on the way to the cross. And so, even with a stomach that was screaming out for food, Jesus still fully trusts in his Father’s goodness and answers with a word straight out of Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Next, the devil shows him a vision of all the kingdoms of the world at once. He says in effect, “Hey, Jesus. Whaddya say? How about you and I go into a partnership. Bow down to me, and I’ll give you authority over this whole planet.” Whether or not Satan knew that suffering, crucifixion, and death were ahead for Jesus is unclear. But Jesus certainly knew what was ahead. This would be a sure way out of all that. Skip the suffering. Jump right ahead to glory. But Jesus also had you in mind when he rejected Satan’s offer. He knew that he had to finish his mission of going to the cross to die for your sins. He knew he was sent to die for the sins of the people of all those kingdoms laid out before him in that moment of time. And he told Satan to stuff his offer. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
Lastly, the devil took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. Once again he appeals to Jesus and his relationship to God the Father: “If you are the Son of God…” He also misuses Scripture (like so many false teachers today) to get Jesus to put on a little circus act. “Jesus, throw yourself down from here. Of course God’s angels will protect you. That’s a promise right out of the Bible, right? And just think, once everyone sees you floating down into the courtyard, your place as Messiah among these people will be cemented forever. Everyone will be sure to worship you then.” Once again, Jesus rebuffs Satan with a word of Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” And with that, the devil left Jesus “until an opportune time.” He wasn’t done with Jesus, just yet. There were many more words of temptation left … words that Jesus heard while hanging on the cross: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40) … “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” (Matt. 27:42) … “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (Luke 23:37). In a split second, Jesus could have changed everything. He could have come down from the cross. He could have ended all his suffering. He could have closed up his wounds. But had he done that, then he would have closed heaven to you and me forever. Had he done that, he could never have said, “Father, forgive them.” Because there would be no forgiveness for anyone. Ever. Only the forsakenness of hell because you and I have fallen again and again to temptation and need a Savior.
But as you know, that didn’t happen. Jesus endured the pains of hell and the punishment for your sin to the bitter end. St. Peter wrote, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:23-24).
As soon as you were baptized, you were sent out into the wilderness of a world that is opposed to God. You left the font with a target painted on you. You were marked with the sign of the cross. Since Jesus was tempted, don’t be surprised when you are tempted. And give thanks that Jesus was tempted in your place and remained faithful in your place. Therefore, you can always come to him for forgiveness and righteousness when you fail. He understands how difficult the battle is. You can come to him for mercy and compassion. Hebrews 4:15 teaches us, “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.” And Hebrews 2:18 promises, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations by standing up to him and not falling to those temptations … all the way to the cross. Therefore, Satan is a defeated enemy for you, too. Relying on the strength and power of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, you can stand up when you are tempted. Jesus used God’s Word in battle with Satan. You can use God’s Word, too. It’s as simple as opening up the Bible and reading it. It’s as simple as listening to it read and preached in the Divine Service. The Word of God is the best defensive weapon in the universe. It is the most powerful tool to strengthen your faith and to assure you that Jesus has already won the battle over sin, death, and hell for you. With God’s Word, you can recognize what is good and true and what is sinful and false. With God’s Word, you can rebuke and resist the devil who twists and distorts the good things of God and makes sin seem so alluring. James 4:7 says, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (Jas 4:7).
“Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not overpow’r us.
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 656.3)
Artwork courtesy of the Getty Museum, © 2013 The J. Paul Getty Trust. All rights reserved.