Preached February 26, 2012
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.
Today we begin our Lenten journey with Jesus Christ to Jerusalem. In the season of Pre–Lent, we have laid the preparations for this journey, and now it is time for our travel to actually be underway with this, the first Sunday in Lent.
Our Gospel lesson for today, taken from St. Matthew, describes the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. If we read the Gospel of Mark, which is the probable source document for St. Matthew, we learn more about the chronological setting of the event: Mark 1:9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan. 10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: 11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. 12 And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness. 13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him. So while St. Mark does not dwell on our Gospel story for today, he clearly places it immediately after the baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptist. It says, the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness, meaning simply that the Spirit of God turned Jesus to go straight away into the wilderness, not under compulsion but willingly as the obedient Son of God.
Let us pause at this point to consider the beginning of this whole event. Jesus was baptized by St. John Baptist in the Jordan. There was the magnificent theophany with the dove descending to Jesus and the voice of the Father, speaking from Heaven, announcing Matthew 3:17b This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Jesus Himself has said nothing and done nothing more than to submit to baptism by St. John Baptist, but here He is, proclaimed the Son of God from on high. What an introduction! He is signed and sealed as the Messiah by none other than the Father Himself. Is He ready to immediately begin His public ministry?
No, not really. We may think of it as being, in strictly human terms, a little like new graduates from an ROTC program. They have just graduated from college, received their college degrees and their commissions as military officers, but are they ready to command? Not really. The first thing they need is some serious military education. In some senses, it was this way, even with our Lord, Jesus Christ, as strange as that may seem.
He is taken into the desert to confront His mission, given to Him by His Father, in its most serious dimensions. Why the desert? Because the desert is a place apart, alone, free from distractions. It is a place where we are forced to confront the questions of real importance. We cannot avoid the really big questions, because the small disturbances, the “noise” of everyday life is removed, and nothing is left except the big questions. This is where Jesus was taken, and it is where we must go as well if we would find out how we answer the questions.
Look at the three temptations that the devil places before Jesus Christ. The first is the temptation to assert His independence by using His divine power to satisfy His own needs, rather than relying upon His Father, which is to deny the Father. The second is the temptation to presume upon His relation to the Father, thus to attempt to manipulate the Father through the bond of Love, which is again to deny the Father. The last temptation is to completely deny the Father for the sake of worldly benefits.
The first temptation to independence, comes in the form of hunger, hunger that must have been very real and especially so, knowing that He had the power to solve this problem in a instant. Why go hungry when He could command these stones to be bread and immediately be satisfied? Forty days is a terribly long fast, and the knowledge that the solution is at our finger tips would only make the temptation that much more difficult. It is one thing to endure a hardship when you are powerless to do anything about it, but it is doubly hard when you know that you can solve it with no effort.
But Jesus Christ did not come to earth to do things His own way. He came to do the will of His Father in heaven, and that did not include turning these stones into bread. Obedience to the Father is the hallmark of everything that Christ did, and we see it in his actions here. He reminds the devil that even if He did turn the stones into bread, that would not be enough. Man requires every word that comes from God for his life as well.
Then the devil issues a challenge of a sort. He takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the Temple and says, Show me your power; throw yourself down. I want to see those angels of yours perform. It is an almost juvenile taunt, and yet that is certainly not beyond the scope of the devil. Jesus’ response is to simply respond that Scripture says man must not put God to the test. Jesus is telling the devil that we must not presume upon our relation to the Father; no one has that right, not even the Son.
Finally, the foolish devil takes Christ to a high place from which they can see the entire world and offers to give Him control of all the world if only Christ will fall down and worship the devil. The devil is offering all the power and wealth in this world, and he can in fact deliver on that promise. But Jesus rebukes the devil and tells him to go away saying that Scripture says that we must serve God and only God. Even though the devil, as prince of this world could deliver on his promise, it is the Father that we are to love and serve. Recall the First Commandment: I am the Lord thy God; thou shalt have none other gods but me. But of course, the devil would delight in having Christ break any of the Commandments.
After the devil left, angels came and cared for Christ. Having remained faithful to His heavenly Father through all of the temptations, the Father does indeed provide for all of the physical needs of the Son. We particularly should take heart in these words, because they apply to us as well. The Father who did not desert His Son will not desert us either. If we trust in the providence of God, we will not go wanting. We are rarely willing to do this, almost always yielding to the first temptation to assert our independence and thus try to provide for ourselves. But if we will place our trust in God, He will provide for us. He never fails His people who truly trust in Him.
Why does all of this matter to us? It matters because it was Jesus Christ, the real man, who suffered and died for our sins. Jesus Christ, the real man, who knew temptation, just the same way that we do, except that whereas we give in to temptations, Jesus Christ resisted temptation and thus remained a pure and holy sacrifice to be offered up for our salvation.
One of the ancient heresies that the Church has had to contend with through the ages is the idea that Jesus Christ was not really a man at all, so His dying on the Cross was not the painful death on the Cross of a real man. It is absolutely essential that we recognize that on the one hand Jesus Christ was in fact a real man, while at the same time he was a pure, holy and spotless man, a living sacrifice given for us. If he was not a real man, then He would never have known real temptation and the whole thing would be phony. One of the points of today’s lesson is that Jesus Christ was a real man, and here are real temptations that He underwent in preparation for His sacrifice for us.
It may be useful to compare the temptations of Christ to our own temptations, even though there are obviously very significant differences involved.
The first temptation was to use His power for His own benefit, rather than as it was intended by God the Father. This is actually a temptation that we face every day when we are tempted to misuse the gifts that God has given us for our own ends, rather than to the glory of God. Perhaps it is to misuse our physical strength so that we may rob or injure another person. Perhaps it is to misuse our intellect so as to outsmart a less intelligent person and thereby take advantage of him. Perhaps it is to misuse our acting ability and thereby deceive another person. The list goes on and on, because God our Father has given such a vast array of gifts to his different children, each of which can be used for good, or for evil. When they are used for evil, they are no longer being used according to the will of the Father who placed us here. On the one side, they are being used to serve God, while the other as a denial of God.
And notice what we do not get when we do any of these negative things. We are never rewarded for any of those actions with the words of God – Well done thou good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of thy master – these come to us only when we have done the will of our Father in heaven.
The second temptation is to do something foolish to show how much we trust in the Lord. There are definitely times when each of us will be challenged by some unbeliever to prove your faith or show us what a good Christian you are by doing something foolish to demonstrate that you trust that the Lord will save you. This might come in exactly the form of the devil’s taunt to Jesus, Throw yourself down so that we may see your angels come out to save you or Go pet the alligator and show us how you are protected from harm. The Lord God does not suspend the laws of nature for us, and we are not to tempt Him by doing foolish things. We will suffer for them every time, so we should not be stupid.
The third temptation is remarkably current, and many people are giving in to it every day. This is the temptation to worship the devil in order to be given power in this world. There are a great many people in the world today who are convinced that this life is all that there is; they do not realize that there is a life after death. They recognize that the devil has great power in this world, as we all do. So being practical people, they do the “practical” thing; they give their allegiance to the devil in the hope of obtaining power in this world because this is all that they believe to be real. This is very sad, because these people are dead to God; they do not know Him at all, nor do they know His Son, Jesus Christ. In some cases they have never heard of either, but in the many cases all around us here in America, they have heard often of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but they have made a conscious decision to reject what they have heard. The Word of God has not taken root in their hearts, and they are lost.
Those who do belong to Christ know that the only possible answer to this temptation is the one given by our Lord Himself, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt serve the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. There can be absolutely no compromise on this matter. We cannot worship God most of the time but worship Satan a little bit of the time. It does not work that way. That is why the last phrase is so important, and him only shalt thou serve.
As the Collect said, give us grace to use such abstinence, that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to the honor and glory of God our Father.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.