Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
An old gospel hymn called “Love Lifted Me” begins with these words, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.” A cry from the heart that invites a question: how can a Christian who attends church regularly and faithfully reads the Bible ever fall into such a pit? This morning’s gospel brings us an answer. The devil is forever stirring things up; he never sleeps; he never stops trying to trip us up by putting one temptation or another before us. He’s always busy striking at God’s beloved children.
Now, listen to the next lines of “Love Lifted Me”: “The Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me, now safe am I.” Temptation may strike us, but we trust by faith that our Savior rescues us and lifts us back to safety. Our Lord defeated the devil in the wilderness, not just for himself, but also for us and for all other people. He is our powerful friend who carries us through the perils of temptation. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tell us why: “Because he himself suffered while he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
We begin our Sundays in Lent, then, by spending a few minutes thinking about temptation and Christ’s work of redemption. The purpose of Lent is to make us more aware of our frailties than we usually are and more aware of our need for Christ so that Easter will be a joyous time for us. The spiritual disciplines of Lent – the Scripture readings for the season and any belt-tightening we may take on in our personal lives – are meant to refresh us.
So on to temptation. Matthew’s description of Jesus’ encounter with Satan shows us three different ways that temptation may strike at us. First, in times when we feel deprived and it seems that we don’t have everything we need. Jesus had been fasting for forty days and nights. He was hungry and would surely have succumbed to the devil’s tricks if the power of God hadn’t been on his side. Satan tried to convince him that his Heavenly Father wouldn’t provide for him: “Use your power to turn these stones into bread.” We all may feel deprived at times, especially if something we want very much is missing from our lives. Maybe others have more than we do or somebody treats us unjustly or opportunities we hoped for haven’t come our way. We keep a rein on thoughts and feelings like that because the devil can work on us to make them larger than they are and we are tempted to think and act in ways that don’t please our Lord.
We follow Jesus instead, who looked for refuge in God’s Word, which teaches that no one lives by material things alone. We are not machines. Our souls need the Word of God that brings life and salvation. While the devil tempts us to let go of the best parts of life, God’s Word sustains us as we cope with the miseries and injustices of daily living. “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power,” Paul wrote. “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the powers of the dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Jesus equips us to battle the enemy of our souls, and so we never fear that the devil will overwhelm us.
The first temptation describes how the devil attacks us if we’re needy. The second is the opposite, for Satan also hits at us when every need if fulfilled. He tried to trick Jesus into carrying out a foolish stunt simply to show off that he is God as well as man. Again, Jesus silenced the devil with a verse from Scripture. God’s people do not put him to the test. Satan would love to persuade us that since we are Jesus’ sisters and brothers we may do whatever we want and no trouble will come to us. He would dance in the street if he could coax us to drive a car and read a magazine and talk on a cell phone all at the same time or to believe that we can live well without taking care of daily necessities, because we think that God will look out for us no matter what. The devil would like us to think that the rules of life don’t apply to us. He wants to persuade us that we can sin any way we please because we live under the protection of God’s umbrella of grace and forgiveness. Instead of looking on ourselves as forgiven sinners whom God has invited into his kingdom, we might come to think of ourselves as very special people above the law who can do no wrong. If we ever catch ourselves thinking like that, then we need to confess that corruption has blossomed in our hearts and turn to God for pardon with the hope that he will show us how to chase away the remnants of pride.
We are often at war with temptation, so we stand firm, as Paul wrote, with the belt of truth buckled around our wastes, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with our feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. We are vigilant for God, on our guard so that Satan won’t trick us into spiritual ease and slovenliness.
In the third temptation, old Satan offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for an act of worship. He promised Jesus what he didn’t have the power to give, but he took a risk and hoped that he could deceive the Lord into giving up his ministry, his burden of care for others and a future that included public humiliation and the cross. He wanted Jesus to take the easy way and settle for the glamorous life of a miracle worker. But Christ ordered Satan away, for Scripture commanded him to worship and serve only God. His heart belonged to his Heavenly Father. Satan uses God’s good creation to tempt God’s children away from faith. He wants us to believe that the stuff this world brings us is the only reality. It’s tempting to dream, for example, about life in a warm climate with plenty of comforts and a non-stop supply of money and lots of people to wait on us. The devil tempts us, moreover, to believe that we can get this way of life by adjusting our values. We don’t follow Satan’s lead, however, because we trust that the life we receive from God is much more meaningful than the daydreams the devil sends us. Like Jesus, our hearts belong to the Heavenly Father. We worship and fear him only.
Still, we may worry that our flesh will get the best of us and that we’ll raise ease and comfort to first place. This won’t happen if we keep putting on the armor the Lord gives us. “Take the helmet of salvation,” Paul wrote, “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the work of God.” Paul encourages us to pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” The Lord saves us through our faith in the death and resurrection of Christ to withstand the devil and his temptations. He falls to the ground before faithful people who are equipped with the spiritual armor from Christ.
So – to sum up – the temptations that come to us follow a pattern. We feel a little thrill when they first strike as if the freedom and loveliness we crave are finally within our reach. But the devil’s joys are brief and insubstantial. He loves to mock folks who surrender to them and make them feel miserable with guilt, so we put on the armor of God because we can’t resist temptation by our own strength. If we ever try to do that, we find ourselves tied up in a bitter struggle that could make us crabby and unlovable. Either way, whether we give in or try to resist by our own strength, we end up crying out like the person who wrote “Love Lifted Me”—“sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, sinking to rise no more.”
We cling to Christ in faith. He brings us life and empowers us for our daily battle. Discipline and sacrifice become easier with Jesus as our partner. He is sympathetic to our struggles and come to us with love. He cleanses our hearts and minds; he endows us with hope and strength. His Word that worked against the devil in the wilderness also works on our behalf. It rescues us the way it rescued the Christian who wrote the old gospel hymn: “The Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I.” The God of life is stronger for us than the devil or any temptation that troubles us, so in his name we say AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keeps your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.