“Stand Your Ground” (Matthew 4:1-11)
To “stand your ground” means to refuse to back down in an argument, to stand up for your rights, or to resist an attack. In the news recently, protestors in Ukraine were said to have “stood their ground” against riot police. They refused to move or relocate in order to get their point across. They wanted to oust their current leaders and put a new government in their place. Here in our country, most states have a law on the books called the “Stand Your Ground” law. This law states that if an attempt on your life is being made, you have the right to defend yourself with deadly force.
Now is the not the time or place to argue about international politics or the appropriateness of self-defense. But what is appropriate is to talk about how Satan makes attempts on your life in Christ with the daily temptations that he places before you. And you and I often fall to those temptations long before we feel their full force. Instead of standing our ground, we slide down the slippery slope of sinful rebellion, which ultimately ends in despair, unbelief, and eternal death. Our sinful hearts are so weak. Our sinful desires are so strong. And the devil knows exactly where to hit you. He knows your weaknesses. He knows what your Achilles’ Heel is. He knows what the chinks in your armor are. That’s where he strikes.
But thanks be to God, you have a Savior who stood his ground for you. That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is all about. Fresh from the waters of his Baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to face the devil’s temptations. This was all part of God’s purpose and plan, of course. Notice that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus out to this confrontation. This was all part of Christ’s work as the Son of God. Last week, we visited the Mount of Transfiguration, where the Father’s voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son” … an echo of the Father’s voice at our Lord’s baptism: “This is my beloved Son.
In light of his baptism, what does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God? What has the Son come to do? Jesus, the Son of God, came to be the faithful son that Israel failed to be. “Out of Egypt I called my son,” the Lord said of Israel through the prophet Hosea (Hos. 11:1). In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was personified as God’s son. They were called to be God’s people, God’s nation, called to be faithful, called to be a light to the Gentiles. Yahweh delivered them from their slavery in Egypt. He brought them through the waters of the Red Sea. He led them into the wilderness where he tested them for 40 years, to see if they would be faithful to him (Ex. 16:4; 20:20; Dt. 8:16).
But their record in the wilderness was not good. It is a history of grumbling against God, complaining, doubting God’s provision and purposes. A history of doubting God’s protection, wondering whether Yahweh would truly care for them. A history of putting God to the test. A history of idolatry, turning from worship of the true God and him alone. While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law, the people were at the base of the mountain worshiping the Golden Calf. When the 40 years of wandering were up, the people of Israel accommodated themselves to the culture of Canaan and worshiped the false gods of the people who remained in the land.
And so, fresh from the waters of his baptism, Jesus’ mission in the wilderness is to prove that he has come to be God’s faithful Son. Satan seeks to find a way to divert Jesus off the path of being God’s faithful Son.
After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus is hungry. There is no manna coming from heaven. So Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt God’s provision. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” He tries to get Jesus to use his own power to serve himself in his time of need rather than relying on his Father’s provision and purposes. But Jesus stands his ground. He fully relies on his Father, on his promises, on every Word that comes from his mouth.
From the top of the temple, Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down and see if God will protect him. Here Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt his Father’s protection, wondering whether the Father will care for him and protect him as his Word promises. This is an interesting tactic. Satan quotes God’s Word, yet twists it, takes it out of context, misquotes it. Psalm 91 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you,” but Satan conveniently leaves out “to guard you in all your ways” … that is, the ways that conform with the will of God. This happens all the time today with false teachers, proving the diabolical origins of their doctrines. They use just enough of God’s Word to make their teaching sound somewhat correct, but either subtract from or add to the Scriptures. This is not unlike the way the serpent deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden. Once again, Jesus stands his ground. He will not put his Father to the test. He will not have his Father prove his promises by doing something foolhardy, like leaping from the top of the temple.
Then, on a high mountain, Satan attempts to turn Jesus away from worshiping God alone and to worship him. What hopeless condition would the world be in if the Savior had bowed his knee to Satan and avoided the cross? What bizarre partnership would that have been with God in the Flesh subservient to the chief of the demons? But Jesus stood his ground. Jesus is True God, but also True Man. As the faithful Son, he humbled himself to live in humble worship of his Father. He will not acknowledge any other God than his Father. As True Man, Jesus often referred to the Father as his God (John 20:17; Mt 27:46; Eph 1:17; 1 Cor. 3:23), and he could certainly say that without diminishing his own full deity. We believe and confess according to Scripture that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … three distinct persons, yet one God, each person sharing the same divine essence.
Fresh from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus goes into the wilderness, does battle with Satan, and wins. Where Israel failed, Jesus is God’s faithful Son. And this is true for you and me, too … for all people. Where you and I fail, Jesus is God’s faithful Son. Or, as St. Paul declares in Romans 5, whereas Adam’s trespass brought condemnation to all men, the obedience of Jesus leads to justification and life for all men (Rom 5:18).
Now, what does this mean in light of your baptism? Fresh from the waters of the font, you are declared a child of God. All that Jesus accomplished in his perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross is yours. Your sins are forgiven. You are made new. You are given faith to trust in your Savior’s saving work on your behalf. In Christ, you are God’s faithful son, God’s faithful daughter.
Once you are baptized, you are also sent into the wilderness of a world that is opposed to God and his will and ways. The devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Satan only means ill will for you. He relentlessly tries to get you off the path of living as God’s child. And you may find yourself veering off that path. When you do, as God’s baptized child, you know to repent of the ways in which you have fallen for the devil’s lies. Then, continue to rely on God’s Word and promises. Trust in God’s care and protection for you and do not put him to the test. Live in his kingdom as a loyal subject and loyal son or daughter. Worship God alone. And recall what true worship is. True worship is not what you do. True worship is receiving what God has done. It is faith. Pure receptivity. Receiving all the good gifts that God has in store for you … life that never ends, sins washed away, peace of heart and mind, joy in the midst of sorrow, the hope of the world to come, and strength ... strength to stand up under temptation, as the author of Hebrews says, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:14-16). When you are tempted, approach God's throne of grace with confidence. Stand your ground as you stand on God’s ground … on holy ground … strengthened in Word and Sacrament.
Jesus stood his ground for you. He conquered Satan for you. The devil is a defeated enemy. He has no claim over you. God has claimed you in your baptism. So “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). That’s what Jesus did. The end of the text says, “Then the devil left him.” But Matthew also gives us this interesting bit of information: “and behold, angels came and ministered to him.” What was that all about? How did they minister to him? We don’t really know. All we know is that angels were present and served him. Perhaps, after this battle with the chief of the fallen angels, God the Father knew his Son need some encouragement from the holy angels.
This wasn’t the last battle, though. Satan kept on attacking. St. Luke tells us that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). You can be sure that Christ’s agony in the Garden was one of those times … and note how another angel appeared there to strengthen him (Luke 22:43). And at the cross, Jesus surely heard Satan through the voices of those who mocked him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matt. 27:40).
Seemingly helpless, Jesus was in complete control. Nailed to the cross for you and for me, Jesus stood his ground. And after all his temptations were over, then angels appeared one more time. But this time, it was not to minister to Jesus. This time it was to announce, “He is risen!”
But I better not say that too loud. You might be tempted to shout out an “Alleluia.” And we’re not supposed to do that during Lent!