Temptations. That’s not just the name of a very intriguing and trendy perfume. Nor is it simply the name of a fantastic Motown vocal group. Rather, temptations are your constant companion and nemesis, a collective cloud that hangs over you, no matter where you turn, how fast you run, or how far you go.
Today, we hear the description of Jesus’ temptation by Satan. Unlike the very succinct version given in St. Mark’s gospel, St. Matthew, like St. Luke, gives a lengthier description. Matthew covers the temptation rather thoroughly, even quoting some of the specific temptations Satan offered to Jesus. He tells us exactly how Jesus used the Word of God to deflect and defeat each of them. Yet the essentials are similar, if not the level of detail:
Jesus. Sent out at once, right after His baptism. Sent by the Spirit. Into the desert. For forty days. Being tempted by Satan. Who, when, how, where, how long, and what. We have almost all the factual elements of the story, but there’s something rather important missing from it.
In spite of the thoroughness of the gospel accounts, they neglect to tell us the “Why” of the temptation. What’s the point of it? Why was Jesus sent out into the desert to be tempted? Why tempt God, after all? Isn’t God holy, perfect, able to do anything He wants to? He’s certainly not in need of our help—or Satan’s, for that matter—to do anything He wants to do.
Yes, of course He is. God is holy, and perfect, and all-powerful. If He really wants something to happen, He needs to merely to think of it, or speak it, and it will be done. We see that in creation, and in the many wondrous signs done by God in both the Old Testament and the New.
Moreover, God’s holiness and perfection mean by definition that God can’t sin. His will, His actions, are by necessity perfect. God can’t sin.
Only man can sin. We sin when we give in to the temptations of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.
Now, Jesus didn’t have sinful flesh like the rest of us. He was not conceived in sin like you or me; He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, avoiding the corruption of the human nature which has been passed down, generation to generation, by the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.
The world wouldn’t seem to offer Jesus much temptation, either. It was His creation, after all. The Son worked with Father and Holy Spirit to lay out the foundations of the universe.
That leaves Satan, the devil, as the source of temptation for our God-man, Jesus. Satan does have a degree of autonomy, to the point God allows—but then, only a degree.
One of the greatest errors of religion—a huge heresy, in fact—is that Satan is the negative, opposite, inverse power of God. Even Christians sometimes fall victim to this mistaken notion, which is just fine with Satan. No, the devil is not God’s equal, the evil twin to God’s holy perfection. Not now, not ever.
Martin Luther wrote centuries ago that, while the devil is surely both evil and powerful, he is still God’s devil. He remains subordinate to God in every way, even in his total disobedience. No matter how unruly and badly behaved those you’ve raised are, no matter what horrible evil they might do, and even if they have run away and rejected you and do everything opposite to what you would have them do, they remain yours. Yes, the devil is still God’s devil. And here, the devil’s strong suit, temptation, suits God’s purposes, and God allows Satan to tempt Jesus.
And so Jesus goes out, into the desert. To the “wilderness”—a place that is “wilder”. Dangerous beasts roam out here, and conditions are hostile to all and inhospitable to human life. Yet, in spite of forty days of ceaseless temptation, which reflects the forty-year wanderings of God’s children in the desert of Sinai, Jesus does not sin. Can you imagine it? We’ve just barely begun our forty-day season of Lent, and if you’re brutally honest with yourself and with God, you probably didn’t last for the first few hours past Ash Wednesday without sinning. Heck, I didn’t even make it to the end of either of the services.
But Jesus does not sin. Not before, not during, and not after the forty days.
Satan takes his best shots at Jesus. Like he did to Adam and Eve in the garden, Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt God’s Word. Like he did in the garden, Satan offers Jesus something that appeals to the flesh. And like he did in the garden, Satan offers Jesus what seems to be God-like power, if only Jesus will do what Satan suggests. But Jesus does not give in to the temptation. Jesus does not surrender. Jesus does not fail. Jesus does not sin, then or ever. Not even once.
But we sin, and often. Not only are we sinful in our actions, we are sinful in our corrupted nature. We are so polluted by the sin we do, and the sin we inherited from our earthly parents, that we have no ability within ourselves to resist temptation. And, in giving in to that temptation, time and time again, resist it though we may try on our own, we seal our membership in fallen humanity.
It’s this giving in to temptation that dooms us to employment in company of all sinners. If it were a business venture, we might even call it, “Sin, Incorporated.”
Now, there are some pretty attractive things about this company, Sin, Incorporated. To put together a comfortable, smooth life, the work isn’t real difficult. Compared to what the competition, God, demands of those who think they can somehow work for the life He’s offering, it’s a breeze.
The quality control at Sin is pretty much non-existent, and performance expectations aren’t very high, because the standards are really low and are hardly ever met. In fact, every person at Sin has always fallen short… way short.
The people at Sin, Incorporated don’t really have to go out and beat the bushes to find customers; it seems that the whole world is always interested in everything that Sin can produce. A lot of people will deny any connection with Sin, but there’s not a single one of us who doesn’t have a lot of Sin.
Some wear it openly, others consume it willingly, and some just stash it away in secret places. But everybody’s a customer or a worker at Sin in some way, shape, or form. If we say we have no Sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
The benefits plan at Sin, Incorporated, by and large, seems to be great. Sure, there are some problems with that retirement package, you know, that whole eternal damnation and suffering thing. Still, while you’re actively employed at Sin, well, you don’t really worry too much about those. You enjoy all the best for yourself, and there’s never a deductible or co-pay.
There’s only one real problem most people have with Sin. They usually either don’t find out about it up front, or they forget what the fine print says. The problem they have to face is that, come payday—well, Sin doesn’t pay very well. The salary is pretty bad. After all, the wages of Sin… is death.
Jesus, however, is the ultimate corporate power broker. He’s going to invest a lot, and He’s going to take over Sin, Incorporated. The current management is going to make Him several very tempting offers to become part of the operation: knowledge, power, comfort, glory—but He’s going to refuse them all. Instead, He’s going to make a counter-offer—one which the tempter can’t refuse.
He’s going to make an offer to all those who have invested in Sin, to all those engaged in life-long employment at Sin, who are condemned to the horrors of that retirement packages. He’s going to offer the death of God, in exchange for Sin. And that’s what the current owner of Sin, Incorporated has been waiting for, all these years. The death of God. “No more competition,” he concludes. “I’ll have the monopoly on everything,” he thinks. No more God, no more Law. Sin will control all the world, and beyond. The whole marketplace of creation will be his.
But it seems that Satan, the deceiver, the one who twists God’s Word and lies at every turn, didn’t read the fine print, either. As well as the devil knows the Scriptures, and as much as he uses them in his own way to lead people astray, by manipulating it with half-truths and omissions, he didn’t comprehend all the angles on this deal. The death of God in exchange for Sin is a Great Exchange for the investors and employees, but it’s a horrible deal for the devil. The devil’s crafty bargain turned into his worst nightmare. God’s blessings of Chapter 3 in Genesis and Chapter 5 in Romans will ultimately lead to Chapter 11 bankruptcy for Satan.
“He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
“One act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”
Jesus faced temptation for you and for all mankind—not merely in His God-ness, but in His full humanity, too. By the power of the Holy Spirit, He resisted that temptation and fulfilled the Law for you. In perfection that is totally counter to your corruption, He went to the cross as the unblemished Lamb, sacrificed for you in payment for your sins. Only His perfection can fully absorb your total corruption.
And that is why Jesus had to be tempted. Not to set an example for us, although He does. Not simply to annoy Satan, although Christ and those who bear His name will always be an irritant and an enemy to the Evil One.
No, Jesus was tempted to show that, even in His humanity, His godliness and His righteousness could overcome all of the evil and sin and corruption that even the ultimate evil could dish out.
In His temptation, Jesus stepped into the breach for you. Just as at His incarnation and birth, just as at His baptism, just as in the garden at Gethsemane, and yes, especially at the cross: Jesus stepped in to do what you could not: He stepped in to deal with your sin. Having dealt with it, He took it to the tomb and buried it there. And then He went ahead of you again, to show you the way: He arose from the dead and ascended to the glories of heaven, into an eternal future which awaits all who trust that He has fully atoned for all we could never do.
Jesus made a purchase for you when He took control of Sin, Incorporated. It’s something that no good accountant would advise, that no shrewd portfolio manager would counsel. It’s a deal that both the IRS and the Securities & Exchange Commission would almost certainly frown upon: He willingly took all the liabilities and debts of Sin upon Himself; He freely gave you all of His assets; and He put Sin on notice that not only wasn’t it “business as usual,” but that Sin would be going out of business. It was a costly transaction for Jesus, but He considered it a bargain to ensure He could reclaim you, whom He so deeply loves.
Just as we thank Him for His birth, His life, His miracles, and all His blessings; just as we thank Him for His suffering, death, and resurrection; let us also thank Him for undergoing and enduring His temptation. Let us be ever grateful and amazed that He was able to withstand what you and I so often can not.
For in spite of the worst the devil had to throw at Jesus, His faithfulness and His righteousness remained perfect. In the marvelous, miraculous, and blessed exchange of the cross, this righteousness is applied to all of us and our sin is paid for in full by the Son of God.
The devil, angered at having been hoodwinked in a deal he thought had no downside, will continue to harass us with accusations and temptations. We follow Christ into the wilderness of temptation throughout our lives—facing the wild beasts of sin and evil not just for the forty days of Lent, not even for forty weeks, or months, or even years.
For temptation will exist as long as life goes on, and you are Satan’s special targets, for you have been given a permanent position as part of Christ’s successful takeover and dismantlement of Sin, Incorporated.
Take heart, however. As difficult as all these temptations are to resist, as alluring as the world sometimes seems, Christ has overcome the world. Christ has withstood the temptation. Christ has gone toe to toe with the devil, with sin, and with death. He has resoundingly defeated them all, and by His Holy Spirit, He gives you the power and the strength to do battle with them as well. He will not let you fail.
Adopted as God’s own, we are made brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus through the faith granted us in Holy Baptism and by His Holy Word. He will keep you steadfast in His Word, in His Church, and in your faith, until the last day, when the devil finally leaves you alone, and angels come to attend you, as well.
In the Holy Name of Jesus (+), Amen.