Monday, March 7, 2022

Triumph is the temptation. . .

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (C) preached on Sunday, March 6, 2022.

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness where for forty days He was tempted by the devil. And during those days he did not eat and was hungry.  At least that is how St. Luke records it.  It should not have been that way.  After all, the Baptism of our Lord should have been His moment of glory and triumph.  John the Baptist finally agreed to baptize Jesus after first being hesitant.  The voice from heaven declared Jesus to be the beloved Son of God in whom He is well pleased.  With this voice came the command to listen to Him.  And yet before Jesus had a chance to take a breath, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days – all while Jesus was hungry and without others to stand with Him.

Triumph is its own temptation.  Jesus was at the beginning of His public ministry and had been attested to by the Spirit as a dove and the voice of the Father.  But the rush into the wilderness and the temptation that waited for Him there is a stark reminder of the cost of His glory and the price of that triumph.  It is always about the cross.  It always was.

The devil hits Jesus directly at the cross.  You do not have to suffer want or hunger or suffer or pay any price to get what you want.  The devil is a clever one.  He does not put this temptation in his own words but in the very words of God.  The cross can be avoided.  Jesus stands where Eve stood.  Again, in the temptation of Eve it was all about God, all about God’s Word, and all about whether there is an easier path than obedience to God.  In the moment of triumph when creation is complete and all is as God wills, temptation comes to steal away what belongs to the Lord.  The devil saw it work in Eden but he did not see that it would not work with Jesus.

We think our greatest moments of temptation come in defeat, when we are wounded by loss and broken by sorrow.  We presume that the worst temptation is want, the desperation of hearts and desires that long to be filled.  As great as these temptations are, the devil finds a much more willing victim in success.  Heady with our own triumphs, the devil sees an open door through which he can use that success to turn our trust away from the Lord and His cross and onto ourselves, our wants, and our desires.  That is why the glory of our accomplishments must be laid upon our Lord and all our success laid at the feet of Him who gives us everything good and worthy. 

The devil’s works and ways are lies and deception and the greatest lie of all is that we did it our way and the greatest deception is that we are mighty people in charge of our destiny.  The curse against Adam and Eve in the garden was that their very purpose in creation and life would not only extract great cost from them and but also become their great temptation – we did it.  In response to this, you and I begin our baptismal new life with the renouncement of the devil, of the devil’s works, and the devil’s ways.  We do this again when we are confirmed.  Do you renounce the devil, his works, and his ways?  And again when we join the congregation.  It is not the few who speak these words to distance them from the devil, but all of us whose voices become one in saying, “Yes, I renounce him, I renounce them...”

The Lord shows us how this is done.  Not by brave words we speak in the safety of the Lord’s own house but by an appeal to God’s Word and by the acceptance of the cross as the central story of that Word.  Jesus stands in the place of Adam and Eve to change the outcome of the devil’s taunting and tempting lies.  He does not simply show us how to resist but resists for us, standing in our place in flesh and blood, weak before the want of desire, and alone.  As mere flesh, Jesus stands and answers the devil’s lies with the truth that cannot lie, the Word of the Lord that endures forever.  And Jesus shows us that it is not bread for our bodies we need or angels to do our bidding or an easy path to glory.  All we need is the cross and the Savior who is not only strong enough to say no to the devil but yes to the Father’s saving will.  

Adam and Eve fell by eating what was forbidden and Christ stands firm by hunger for the only thing that counts – the Word of God and the cross which is the center of that Word and truth.  Jesus does not simply show us what to say or how to be strong in the face of the devil’s wiles.  Jesus covers us with His own obedient righteousness and with the clear vision of what is true and what is false.  

Our Savior went into the wilderness on our behalf.  He did so as part of His atoning work.  But that does not mean that we learn nothing from what our Lord said and did to undermine the devil’s works and ways.  Jesus is always teaching.  And here He teaches us not to do what we did but to stand in Christ so that Christ may do for us what He already did when He stood alone to meet the devil’s works and ways.

When Jesus taught us to pray, He taught us to say “Lead us not into temptation.”  Of course God does not tempt anyone to evil but faith is tested by every temptation. This is because in every temptation is not simply a test of our wills against the devil’s.  It is a test against trusting in anything but the cross – the world, our flesh, yes, but even more the false idea that we are strong and that our triumphs are examples of how strong we are.  It was in His greatest weakness that Christ won the greatest victory.  From a hungry man alone in the wilderness and hungry comes the triumph of God over the devil’s works and ways.  From a mortal man alone on the cross, Christ’s triumph offered a world the hope of redemption accomplished in His blood.  From simple water with God’s Word come the water of life and the power of the cross.  From ordinary bread and wine come the real food that satisfies hunger and the real drink that quenches thirst – the body and blood of Jesus.

Jesus was alone in temptation but you are not.  You have the Word of God to instruct you when you waver or do not know the right way but you also have the Spirit who lives in you working in you that which is pleasing in God’s sight.  And you have the cross marked upon you in your baptism and through which sin dies and you live as the new person created in Christ Jesus to say no to the devil and yes to God.

St. Paul was afflicted with some sort of thorn in the flesh, a weakness he thought was inhibiting what he could do for God.  It turned out that it was not a weakness at all but that mark to point him to the strength he had in Jesus and to the grace sufficient for his every need.  Temptation is designed for one purpose only – to wrest us from God’s hand with evil.  Testing is designed for a completely other purpose – to drive us into the arms of our Savior in whom we are strong and in whom we are forgiven.  We fear our worst moments are when we are the weakest before the devil but he knows that triumph is when we are most vulnerable.  But Christ has answer both.  In Christ, under the shadow of the cross, no temptation, no weakness, no triumph, no strength, and no failure can steal the kingdom from us.  The message is this.  Remain in Christ, in His Word and within the fellowship of His Table and there is strength in trial and forgiveness to restore us when we fall.  Amen.

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