Grace, mercy and
peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Don’t kid yourself
for one single minute: The devil is smarter than you. The devil is stronger
than you. And even at your most creative, sinister, manipulative best, the
devil is craftier than you. The devil knows God’s Word better than you and I
could ever hope to, also.
He knows it so
well that he can use it whenever he wishes—often by taking it out of context or
changing it just enough to make it untrue. Sometimes he does this out of the
mouths of unbelievers. Sometimes he does this using pleasant, well-dressed,
and articulate television preachers.
Sometimes he even
does it within the Church, where pastors or other people seek to achieve their
own goals with it, rather than the Lord’s.
It all started
with the twisting and denial of God’s word to Adam and Eve in the garden, and
continues even now. We see it today our Gospel lesson, as Jesus departs from
John’s baptism in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and faces temptation in the
desert. Satan throws everything he has at Jesus: Forty days of relentless
temptation, an overwhelming onslaught of evil that neither you nor I could
withstand for even a moment.
From what we know
from the Scriptures, Satan didn’t make much of a direct effort against Jesus
for the first thirty years of His life. That might seem rather strange to us,
given that we daily face temptation, though usually of a more subtle sort.
Yet other than
Satan’s attempt to destroy the newborn Savior through the evil work of Herod,
and even Mary’s questioning of Jesus’ presence in the temple when He was
twelve, there’s no evidence that the devil paid much attention to Jesus or
tried to deter Him from His mission at all. But we must never forget that
Satan is both a coward and an opportunist.
For the first
thirty years, of course, Satan might not have felt all that threatened by
Jesus. He’d lived quietly with His earthly family, obedient to His mother and to
Joseph. Presumably He worked to help support the family, worshipped regularly
in the synagogue, and didn’t provide Satan any opportunities for others to take
offense at Him. Satan kept his knowledge of Jesus under wraps—if he even knew
Jesus’ true identity at that point. We must remember that, though powerful,
intelligent, and dynamic, Satan does not have God’s attributes of omnipotence,
omniscience, and omnipresence.
At thirty years
old, though, Jesus goes to the Jordan and is baptized by John. The descent of
the Holy Spirit, the words of the Father from above, and the testimony of John
himself leave no doubt as to Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. Even a dolt of
a demon like Wormwood would’ve figured out that trouble was brewing.
Now Jesus is led
by the Spirit into the desert, and the devil takes notice. Often when God
sends His own into the wilderness, it is for their own good—to cleanse and
renew and strengthen them to do His will, though they certainly faced trials
and temptations while there. It was so for Adam and Eve, for Abraham, for
Moses and the people of Israel, and for Elijah.
If this Jesus was
the anointed Christ, it was necessary that He go into the wilderness and become
more fully united with sinful, tempted humanity. Jesus’ temptation was every
bit as much an indicator He was God’s incarnate Son as was His baptism and His
commission from Father and Holy Spirit.
the signs. He saw the danger that Jesus might be the promised New Adam, the
One who would rise up against him and crush his serpent’s head. The Spirit led
Jesus, and Satan followed along, nipping at His heels. For forty days Jesus
ate nothing. He emptied Himself and prepared Himself for the duties and
challenges ahead, facing whatever the devil thought might deter Him from His
appointed mission. We only learn of three specific temptations that took place
at the end of the forty days, but Satan was there all along—nudging, cajoling,
hinting that there was a better deal for Jesus, if only… if only… if only…
And isn’t that
what the devil tries to do to us, too? It’s Satan who constantly presents us
with a glorious and attractive buffet of choices, offering things sure to
please and satisfy us for a time, but which are just as certain to damn us for
Deep down, that’s
what sin always is: The devil offering, and us accepting, some “choice”—a
choice that differs from what God tells us is right and true and loving and
holy. The devil relishes the use of the word “if” on us: If
you do this, then something you’ll like will happen. Don’t worry what God
At the end of the
forty days, just when Jesus was physically the weakest in His human nature,
Satan turns the temptation up a notch. Jesus was in the wilderness to prepare
Himself spiritually, but the devil first attacks His physical limitations. Satan
doesn’t challenge Jesus spiritually; he came at Him from another direction,
trying to catch Him off guard. The devil already should have known that Jesus
was the Son of God, for he, too, heard the words and saw the signs at the Jordan River. As evil and twisted as He is, though, perhaps Satan can’t recognize or
accept the truth that God cannot and will not lie.
So, he wants to
know whether or not this Jesus is truly his archenemy, the One who from
eternity was destined to destroy his power; the One who from of old was
prophesied to redeem the world from his greedy grasp. The devil didn’t want Jesus
to turn a stone into bread simply to satisfy His hunger and break the
discipline of His fast. Not at all—Satan wanted Jesus to do it as proof that
He is God’s own Son, to validate His identity.
But Jesus had come
to the wilderness to more fully connect Himself to the predicament of our
humanity. He was taking His proper place among us there, experiencing all the
temptations we face, not only deflecting and overcoming them, but showing that
He, as Son of God and Son of Man, is truly Immanuel: God with us. He is the God
who had become flesh and blood to stand alongside you and me, each of us in our
own wildernesses of temptation, frustration, weakness, and sin.
The devil was wise
in asking for proof, for then he’d know for sure who he was dealing with. But
Jesus refused. It’s not that doing such a miracle would have been sinful in
and of itself, really. Rather, it would have been doing a miracle at the
insistence of the devil, a miracle to accomplish the devil’s goals. It was the
devil’s spiritual “I dare you” to Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t take
the dare, for dares are always foolish. They are always meant to manipulate
the taker of the dare into doing the will of the one calling for it. Jesus
responded with the Word of God instead: “It is written, one does not
live by bread alone.” In other words, Satan: What happens to me in
the flesh matters; in fact, it matters a great deal. But what is more
important is obedience to the Word and the will of God, not the satisfaction of
the whims of others to impress them or to prove something to them. Certainly
not the satisfaction of my own fleshly desires.
Bent but not
broken, the devil raises the stakes in the next challenge. He tempts Jesus
with worldly power. Satan knew that the Messiah would reclaim the world, and
be the King of all creation. He knew that he couldn’t possibly defeat the
power of God in this battle or any other, even if he didn’t completely
understand the full and eternal implications of the outcome.
But the devil did
know quite well that the Savior’s coming to power would require great suffering;
the Scriptures which the devil knows so well say this plainly. And so, Satan
offers Jesus a short-cut, an easier, less painful path to Lordship.
Jesus could have
it all, at the simple bending of the knee. “Avoid the pain, Jesus,” the devil
whispered. “You don’t need to be the Suffering Servant. I’ve been allowed
control of all this, and I’ll be happy to give it all to you to do as you
please with it. All you have to do, Jesus, is not take it forcibly from me by
going through all that suffering and death.”
“You’ll get what
you want: The world and all those precious souls you desire. I’ll get what I
want, too: You showing respect to me in exchange for giving it up peacefully.”
Jesus doesn’t rise
to Satan’s bait, though. Jesus knows full well, and He would later say
clearly, that Satan is a liar and a murderer. The devil uses temptation, and
false, misleading reasoning—first to cloud the truth, and then to kill. Even
if his offer of the world to Jesus were genuine, Jesus knows he can’t be
Instead, Jesus again
deals with the challenge by applying the Scriptures: “Worship the Lord
your God, and serve only him.” Jesus would indeed become King of kings
and Lord of lords, but it would not come by cutting corners and making
compromises with evil, but by passing through the difficult and painful
gauntlet of suffering and death on a cross.
It would come in
obedience to the will of God the Father in heaven, not to Satan, the master of
the fallen earth. Jesus held fast, and Satan lost the second challenge, as
For his final
challenge, the devil attempted once again to make Jesus demonstrate that He is
the Son of God. From the wilderness, Satan takes the Lord to Jerusalem, to the
very top of the temple. Here, he says “Prove it; I dare you,” once more. “If
you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He
will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’ and ‘On their hands
they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Pretty clever, the
devil was, this time. After twice being defeated by Jesus’ use of God’s Word,
Satan now attempts to use the Scriptures to his own advantage. He quotes what
the prophets had said about the Messiah, and how God would certainly protect
If Satan thought
that quoting Scripture against Jesus would confuse Him—would trip Him up—he was
sorely mistaken. Yes, surely God the Father would protect Him; would send legions
of angels if necessary. But Jesus was the Word of God; He is the Word made
flesh. He not only knows the Scriptures perfectly, He is the
Scriptures. Every prophecy, every promise, every truth. In tempting Jesus, Satan
had endeavored to test the Lord God Himself. Thus Jesus answered: “It is
said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” That not only put an
end to this 40-day period of testing and temptation, it demonstrated once and
for all that temptation itself, especially temptation of God, is an evil and
sinful act. But the devil has no other way.
Deflected but not
yet fully defeated, the devil departs to lick his wounds, to marshal his
powers, to sharpen his claws and fangs, and to practice his cunning on others—at
least for a time, Luke tells us. Satan will be back in full fury, later on.
What do these
temptations of Jesus tell us? First of all, we see and learn that the devil is
wily and wise. He attempts to attack and deter us when we seek to do good and
spiritual things. And, as we enter the season of Lent, we might even convince
ourselves that this year we are going to do something very worthy and good for
ourselves, if not for God.
rebelliousness against Jesus’ words in our Ash Wednesday Gospel lesson, we’ll contort
our faces so that others will see how hard it is for us to give up some
favorite habit or treat for Lent. In a world where hundreds die daily of
malnourishment, we’ll consider it a huge sacrifice to skip one meal a week.
We’ll lament—aloud or silently—what an inconvenience it is to attend midweek
Lenten worship services. Yes, we love to have something we can use to
demonstrate to ourselves or others just how committed we are.
The devil is
always lurking there, tempting us to turn a good work bad. Just show a little
pride. Hope for recognition from others. We do well to guard against the
devil on our Lenten journey, but we must always remember that our battle cannot
be fought—much less won—apart from the Word who comes to us; the Word who
dwells with us and in us.
Sometimes when we
are weak and feeling alone and forsaken in life, our own evil thoughts and
desires do get the better of us. We forget that the Word has been given to us,
and we may be tempted then to test God ourselves. We’ll demand in our prayers
that He prove His existence, and His love, by fulfilling our wishes and
desires; by conforming Himself to our will, rather than we to His will.
In such times,
when we think we have been forgotten or abandoned by God, in the midst of
grief, sickness, anxiety, financial difficulty, or relationship struggles, the
devil knows just how to toy with us. He’ll plant thoughts to increase our pain,
heap up doubts, and turn us away from God and toward dependence upon ourselves
or things of this world.
At such times, it’s
a great danger to think we can do what Jesus did—to fight against temptation,
and win. This might be the most dangerous temptation of all. We hear about
Jesus struggling against the devil and coming out on top by using God’s Word,
and we might start to believe that we, too, can fight this battle and emerge
unscathed, or even victorious.
But the reality of
the situation is that we are often our own greatest enemies. The devil is
certainly of great concern. But he only has fertile ground on which to plant
his own destructive seeds on account of our own propensity for sin, our habit
of reasoning and rationalizing our bad behaviors away, of thinking ourselves
good enough and strong enough and righteous enough.
If nothing else, the
temptations of Jesus ought to make it clear that we are not God. We are not
able to fight Satan off one little bit, much less save ourselves. Only Jesus
was able to fight against temptation and win. Only He can enter into the
wilderness of sin where Adam and Eve and all their children were cast, and
emerge victorious. His obedience, faithfulness and righteousness moistened
that desert of despair with life-giving blood and cleansing water, and restored
Paradise for us.
As we begin this
season of Lent, our first remembrance ought to be that Jesus has come forth as
champion over Satan, sin, and death. He responded to the devil not with power
or glory, but with truth: that God’s Word is truth; that God’s Son came full
of Grace and truth, and that God is God—humanity’s true Good.
We observe Lent
rightly when we do so not just with obedience or commitment to some Lenten
discipline or sacrifice, but when we “worship the Lord your God, and serve only
Him.” You mustn’t make the mistake of thinking you can fight the devil and win.
Place all your faith and hope in Him, as Luther wrote: “Christ Jesus, mighty
Lord; God’s only Son, adored. He holds the field victorious!”
In the name of the
Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.