Preached March 13, 2011
2 Corinthians 6:1–10
St. Matthew 4:1–11
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Our Lenten journey to Jerusalem has begun this past Wednesday with Ash Wednesday. We begin a three week cycle today considering, week by week, the temptations of the devil, the flesh, and the world. Thus we begin today with the temptations, or trials, presented by the devil.
Our Gospel lesson presents the temptations of the devil to our Lord Jesus. Notice first of all the circumstances. At the end of Chapter 3, just preceding today’s lesson, we have the baptism of the Lord by St. John Baptist, with the great theophany in the form of the descending dove and Matthew 3:17 And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. This is a time of great exaltation, a time of exhilaration for our Lord, being publicly recognized and proclaimed by God the Father before St. John Baptist and the others present there at the Jordan river that day. Then immediately, at the beginning of our lesson for today, Matthew 4:1 Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. Those times when we are most elated, most excited, are the times when we are most vulnerable to the attacks of the devil, and thus it is that this is the time when the devil chooses to attack our Lord. But notice that the devil does not make his attack there in the crowd at the river Jordan, but rather takes Jesus into the desert. In the wilderness, there the stark conflict between good and evil, between right and wrong, is completely laid bare. There is nothing to confuse the issue, no mitigating circumstances, no secondary issues, nothing at all but the eternal conflict between God and the devil.
Just as Jesus is attacked when He is in a state of spiritual exhilaration, so we likewise should be most on our guard when we think everything is going so very well. Let us not be deceived into thinking that we are in any way less subject to the attacks of the devil than was our Lord, and it is just when we are complacent that the devil will strike.
People sometimes wonder why God allowed the devil to tempt Jesus in the desert. What was this all about? This is actually a matter of critical importance to us, the people of today. It was done for our salvation, that we might know that there is no guilt in temptation itself and that God does provide strength and grace to resist the wiles of the devil. We are prone to think that merely because we have been tempted to sin, we have committed sin. They are not the same thing. They are also inclined to think that if they are tempted, they are powerless to resist. It is important to recognize that sin can be resisted, the devil can be overcome by the grace of God, and Jesus Christ is the prototype of this resistance for us. Let us recognize and appreciate what our Lord has done for us in showing the ability to resist the devil, that we too can do likewise.
As St. John says, John 1:12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: The idea of sons of God occurs repeatedly in the New Testament; it is an important concept there. Jesus Christ came to make us adopted sons of God, and heirs, with Him, of the Kingdom of God. All of the temptations of the devil, both to Christ and to us, is a temptation directed against sonship.
The first test that the devil offered to Jesus was to satisfy His own hunger by turning stones of the desert into bread for his own gratification, Matthew 4:3 And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. The devil is saying to Christ Jesus that He should use His power for His own purposes, rather than to be a Son, dependent on the Father that had so recently recognized Him at His baptism by St. John Baptist. The devil is encouraging Him to show His independence. In precisely the same way, the devil tempts us to show our independence from the Father, to provide for ourselves, rather than to trust in God for all of our needs. If we look around us, is this not one of the most common sins we see? Who wants to admit their dependence on God for anything? We all think of ourselves as independent, self–sufficient people, proud of our ability to provide for ourselves. The very idea that we are dependent on anyone else, much less God, is directly offensive on its face, because the devil has sold his message so very well. And yet, if we are truly adopted sons of God, we have to admit that everything we have, everything we receive day by day, comes directly from the hand of God the Father. Are we willing to be true sons of God?
The first temptation worked against Christ’s weakness, His physical hunger. Failing in that, the devil turns to attack against His strength, His faith in God. Matthew 4:5-6 Then the devil taketh him up into the holy city, and setteth him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone. The devil is tempting Jesus to presume upon His relationship with His Father, to make demands on that relationship. This is exposed in His answer, Matthew 4:7 Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
We presume on God’s mercy anytime we say, “Oh, God really will not object to this sin,” because we know that God hates all sin. God provides us grace to resist sin, and He is merciful in forgiving sin. We err grievously anytime we plan to commit sin with the thought that we will simply confess it and obtain forgiveness later. This is presuming upon the mercy of God in the extreme. This is one reason why the offer of an indulgence before the fact for some occasion of sin, as is given at times in the Roman Church (1), is completely bogus; it presumes upon the mercy of God most grievously. Anytime that we put ourselves in unnecessary spiritual danger, presuming upon God to protect us, we are violating the conditions of sonship. Are we willing to be true sons of God?
The third temptation is to disloyalty. Matthew 4:8-9 Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. The devil has great power on earth, and he can promise much to those who will build their lives around him. We see this everyday with the countless many who fall for this line in our own day. The devil offers riches, power, pleasure, influence, and even what many perceive as the opportunity to do good. This last is perhaps the greatest trap because it ensnares many well intentioned people, people who want to do good things for mankind, but who are intent on doing it their own way, rather than following God’s way. Look around you at all the many people talking about helping others, world peace, feeding the hungry, providing fair wages for everyone, using government to achieve a utopian state on earth. Many of these voices are talking about doing good works, but they are not proposing to do them in God’s name, but rather strictly as the works of man without God at all. As such, the results are never good. Jesus’ answer is the appropriate response, Matthew 4:10 Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. The works we do as sons of God will be blessed by God and will prosper, but those works which we do at the urging of the devil will wither and turn to dust as they must. Are we willing to be true sons of God?
In our Epistle lesson for the day, St. Paul is talking about the grace of God that we have now. This is grace that we received at our baptism, the grace that makes us adopted sons of God. This grace is immediate, it is now, it is not something for which we must wait, but rather it is available to us as soon as we are baptized. It covers past sins, and it is there to help us resist current temptations. As St. Paul says, quoting the words of God the Father from Isaiah 49:8 from the Septuagint, 2 Corinthians 6:2 (For he saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succoured thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.) Now is the day of salvation, now is the accepted time, now is the time when grace is active in our lives. It is not something that comes at the end of our lives, for which we wait, but rather it is something that is with us day by day as we go through our Christian lives.
St. Paul points to the extreme efforts of the early Christian messengers, particularly himself, that they do nothing to interfere with the message that they are carrying. They go do great extremes to make certain that there is nothing about their own behavior or actions that will detract from the message, because of the extreme importance of the message. It is the message that is all important, and the messenger must not get in the way of the message.
As we journey toward Jerusalem, let us beware of those assaults of the devil that attack sonship in its various forms. It is only when we are truly adopted sons of God that we can travel with Jesus up to Jerusalem, to great events of Holy Week, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Let us assure our understanding of our place as sons of God.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
(1) I have seen the offer a plenary indulgence included with the ticket to parish festivals at some Roman Catholic parishes, essentially a pre–paid sin card much like a pre–paid telephone card.