Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God our Father and Christ Jesus, our Lord,
God has put us in the middle of the world so that we’re exposed to opposites that can bring us inner conflict. We know that life with Jesus is what we most need, while our secular environment encourages us to put worldly things in first place – possessions, money, status. The TV and the papers, for example, always run ads that suggest that the pursuit of earthly well-being is the best activity we can take part in and the only thing that really counts. We know that total concentration on material things is a sin against God, yet we ask how it’s possible to live with him in a materialistic climate. A battle that we hardly ever talk about and never hear discussed in the news can rage in our hearts.
Jesus fought a similar battle, though on a much bigger scale, and his victory over the devil means that we, too, can stick with God. With Christ on our side, we ourselves may overcome the forces that tempt us to surrender our Christian values. In fact, from the point of view of eternity, Jesus has already overcome them, and what we experience now is nothing more than the thrashings of the devil’s tale as he awaits his final defeat. Jesus’ victory over the devil assures that we may walk along a satisfying, God-pleasing path, not undisturbed, but confident that righteous living won’t be taken away from us. The devil may disrupt us, but he doesn’t prevent our walk with God. He cannot bar the gates of heaven.
Jesus puts in our hands the tools we need to defend ourselves against our spiritual enemy – faith in him, right worship, prayer, and the Bible. We notice from this morning’s gospel that these are the same weapons our Lord used. We are safe and sound when we adopt his ways and when we trust in his work on our behalf and lean on his promises and assurances.
Let’s take an imaginary example. A Christian has faith in his heart as he takes a new job and meets a woman he hopes to marry. He attends church faithfully, says his prayers every day, and reads the Bible regularly. His life is filled with blessings. He copes successfully with routine and repetition; he has enough money to live on. He trusts that Jesus will continue to provide for him and that the Savior is training him not to strive and struggle on his own but to receive all good things from heaven’s generous hand. He learns by experience that the Heavenly Father will provide for him richly with family life, friends, leisure time, and intangibles like wisdom, hope, and love. But then, as if God were testing him, rough days come and many of the good things God gave him slip from his grasp. He worries and grows impatient. He hears a voice saying to him: “If you really are a Christian, a faithful child of God, you can get out of your troubles by taking matters into your own hands. Find shortcuts; forget the church; ignore the well-being of your family; you ought to think about money more than anything else. Consider your earthly status.”
This is the sort of thing the devil said to Jesus. “You’re really and truly hungry. Turn these stones into bread.” Jesus could have done so if he’d wanted to, but then he would have obeyed the devil rather than his Heavenly Father, who is the source of all blessings. He trusted the Father and the Father strengthened him. He conquered Satan by, telling him that man doesn’t live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
What a wonderful promise. The deadening pursuit of material things doesn’t conquer us. We dream dreams and think big thoughts. We don’t give up our faith or hand our souls over to the devil. We cling to Christ, not to our own abilities, and claim his victory as ours. He strengthens us so that we don’t sacrifice the spiritual dimension to gain a temporary earthly advantage. We fail at times, of course, but Jesus is on our side. His loving promises break through the cruel taunts of the devil to assure us of heaven’s forgiveness. His mercy never stops flowing. He picks us up and we start over again.
A few words now about the second temptation, wherein Satan showed Jesus the whole world in the flick of an eye. He offered him every known kingdom in exchange for an act of worship. The devil had had so much success tempting every other specimen of humanity, starting with Adam and Eve, that his pride blinded him to the divine strength of Christ, who knew whom to worship and whom to serve. Jesus held up to him the words of Moses, a reminder of the first commandment, “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.” The devil had to step back and think again.
Let’s return to our imaginary example. The man weakened under the pressure of rough times. He took risks; he gambled; he made shady real estate deals and got involved with a crime syndicate. He made millions of dollars and lived a glamorous life for a while. People were in awe of him; he saw no limit to his earthly good fortune. Then everything came crashing down and he was in trouble with the law, worse off than when he began. His family and old friends saw the hand of the devil in his rise and fall. They knew Satan had deluded him into thinking that the whole world was his to conquer. All he had to do was give his soul to the devil, who taught him how to take unacceptable risks and free himself from the restraints of God’s righteousness. He surrendered to the devil, who brought him down to ruin. Fortunately, God’s forgiveness and strengthening were available and in the troubled times that followed his collapse, the man returned to the paths of righteousness and faith. He paid a high price for his follies, but he came to his senses and turned away from worship of material things. Jesus welcomed him home, and the devil left him alone.
Satan tempts us to be discontented with modest situations. We may imagine glamorous earthly existence, but we listen to the Bible’s teaching that glitter is fun for a time but in the long run it’s hollow and we can’t trust it. We need a more stable, deeper way of life that God offers us through worship and prayer and by faith in Christ. Perhaps you know these words of encouragement from Psalm 91: “You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no evils shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” It isn’t Christian to gloat when others stumble and fall, because we’re made of the same flesh, yet we’re right to draw lessons from the calamities that befall the overambitious – that our lowliness is a great blessing from God. He gives us good lives, with a measure of comfort but not enough to imperil our spiritual well-being. He keeps our faith secure. If we happen to find our thoughts chasing after power and glitter and total freedom, we remember the blessings we receive from Jesus’ wise and generous hand and return to him with repentant joy.
Jesus’ conquest of the devil emboldens us to trust that life is much more than material things. Without God, we’d probably think of the world as full of meaningless struggle and ourselves as complicated machines with brains and feelings. The good Lord affirms that we are much more – his children, with immortal souls and bodies, saints through our faith in Christ, kept safe by God for his eternal purposes. We’re made in his image, redeemed by Christ. We don’t live by bread alone. We find fulfillment in worship and service of our maker.
We move on to the third temptation now. None of us would ever jump off the roof of the church to test God’s promise that he’ll look out for us. Nor do we expect him to provide us with a stretch limousine or a TV set the size of our living room wall. If trouble strikes, though we might think he’s not taking care of our needs the way he promised. We might say, like some of the Old Testament Hebrews, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Some Israelites of Old Testament times distrusted God’s intentions and they gave up. Instead of praying to him and waiting for him to help in his own way, they scolded him and challenged him and tempted him. Instead of worship, they offered him the bitter fruit of angry hearts.
The devil thought he’d find the same weakness in Jesus. Our Lord was hungry and under pressure, just at the point where frustration will drive human flesh to make foolhardy gestures. Satan hoped he could push Jesus into doing something thoughtless. How easy it is to act rashly, to strike out, to do something foolish that we later regret. It’s easy to tempt God with a desperate kind of false trust. But Jesus resisted, and in his resistance we gain the victory.
Trust in God and his ways leads to a good life. The devil, however, wants to steer us into false trust. “Cross the road against the light,” he says to us. “Go ahead. You’ll be safe. You’re a Christian.” “Push yourself beyond the point of good sense,” he says. “You’ll be all right. God is watching out for you.” We pay a price if we listen to arguments like that. Fortunately, the Spirit of God teaches us what it really means to trust in Him.
Jesus stood in our place and fought the enemy for us. The author of Hebrews wrote: “We have not 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...draw near to the throne of grace, that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need.”
We deal with temptation by holding firmly on to Jesus who defeated the devil in the desert. Satan vanishes as we fly to the Lord in faith – asking him for strength and courage and the grace to trust that he and his angels battle alongside us with a power that’s much greater than Satan’s.
So, to review. The Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness at the start of his public ministry. The devil tempted him in hopes of making it impossible for him to carry out his work. The Lord turned the experience around. He used it as a test to prove he was fully qualified to be the savior of mankind.
Similar situations occur in our own lives. Satan tempts us to suppose that God won’t bless us, while the Lord uses these temptations as tests. The Christian way to understand the materialism that works to draw us away from God like a magnet is that Jesus uses these temptations as tests he wants us to pass. His power working on our behalf enables us to overcome the devil. He comes to us with sturdy help – the strengthening power of his Word, the invitation to worship and prayer. The same Word that helped the Lord in the wilderness helps us to overcome. Our part is to receive his gifts to us in faith. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.