Sermon preached at Our Savior Lutheran Church for the 1st Sunday in Lent on March 13, 2011. Text: Matthew 4:1-11
I have never put on a military uniform. I’ve never gone through boot camp. I’ve never had to carry a gun into battle. I’ve never been shipped off to a foreign country and wondered if I would be safe while I was gone. I’ve never put my life on the line for my country.
I am not a member of the military, though there are people here that are or have been. Military service in our country is an amazing thing to me. There hasn’t been a draft in many years, so the people serving in the military today are there because they have chosen to do it. Nobody forced them. And when they risk their lives, or they spend months or years away from their family and friends, they’re doing it for me and you. They’re fighting or serving or protecting on my behalf and yours; not for themselves. If there’s a war or a natural disaster or something else that is needed, the government doesn’t look to me; they look to the military.
As we start the season of Lent, we notice something similar. We are in a war against sin, death, and the devil forever. Make no mistake about it; it is a war. One look around will tell you that this war is real. There is violence, wars, destruction, and evil all around us. There is sin in our own lives, as we do not live up to God’s standards. And there is death. Yes, every death, every loss of a loved one that we face, is another casualty in this war against sin, death, and the devil.
But this war is unique. Yes, the battle still rages, but the war has actually already been won. Jesus already won it. He defeated sin, death, and hell forever in his life, in his death, and in his resurrection. And he did it all in our place. He fought for us. He went face to face with the devil himself. He stood up under temptation. He went through death itself. And he won. So when God looks at how we did in this war, it’s not our record that counts, it’s what Jesus did. It’s not our sinful failures; it’s Jesus’ victory that matters.
True, we won’t get to enjoy the true victory of heaven until we leave this world. But in Christ, we can always be confident of the victory. We can always be sure that we have someone who fought and won for us. And he continues to fight for us as he is with us always, as he forgives our sin, strengthens us through temptation, and assures us of eternal life through Word and Sacrament. He won the victory for us! And he’s still on our side! As the hymn we just sang puts it, “For us fights the valiant one.”
Here in Matthew’s Gospel, we’re going back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was just baptized by John the Baptist; his heavenly Father had just proclaimed that Jesus is the Son whom he loves. It marked the official beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And then this happened: Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1)
Jesus’ ministry didn’t exactly start small. He never had it easy as our Savior. Here, right after his baptism, he immediately goes into a one-on-one fight with the devil himself.
Now, something to think about: this fight with the devil was not the first time Jesus was ever tempted. He was most likely 30 years old at the time of our text. And even though Jesus was and is our true God himself, he’s also a true human being. The Bible reminds us that Jesus has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin. (Heb. 4:15) So Jesus had already gone through 30 years of the same kind of temptations we face.
But now the temptations were about to be turned up to a level we can’t even imagine. We face temptations every day, but Jesus had the full force of Satan tempting him. This was beyond any average temptation.
After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” (Matt. 4:2-3) You might wonder if fasting for 40 days and nights was a miracle in itself for Jesus. We’re not totally sure, but the main thing to see here is that Jesus was hungry. He was really, truly, very hungry! And here Satan comes to him and tempts him to do something that doesn’t really seem all that bad: use his power to get some bread.
Jesus wasn’t being forced to fast here, from what we can tell. There wouldn’t have been anything wrong in theory with him eating. And he was the Son of God, so he certainly had the power to turn rocks into bread. So what made this a temptation?
Well, while on earth Jesus had decided not to make full use of his power as God. The times when he did use his power, like at his miracles, were always to help others. He healed, he brought back to life, he fed the hungry. But here, the devil was tempting Jesus to help himself by feeding himself. He was trying to start Jesus down the road of putting himself first.
But Jesus did not come to this world to put himself first. He always put his heavenly Father first by putting our salvation first. That’s why Jesus answered like he did. It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matt. 4:4) Jesus put the stress on God’s Word and refused to put himself first.
Compare that to your life. Where does God and his Word fall on your list of priorities? I’m not saying that we should have the Bible in our hands 100% of the time and that we should quit our jobs and not talk to anyone so we can always be reading the Bible. But seriously, is it a priority? How many things do we let come first in our lives instead of it? Quite honestly, we can very easily let anything and everything take a higher priority in our lives over God’s Word. Jesus did not live that way.
The devil continued his temptations in our text. Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” (Matt. 4:5-6)
In case you ever needed proof that anyone can quote the Bible, remember these verses. The devil himself quotes from the Psalms to make his point. Realize that just because someone quotes a Bible verse after they say something does not make them right or true.
This particular temptation from the devil might not seem like a very good one. Jumping off of a high place doesn’t sound very tempting to me. It’s like that old phrase, “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?” No, of course we wouldn’t want to jump!
But this temptation fits uniquely for Jesus. After all, Jesus trusted his heavenly Father perfectly. It’s not like our trust. We get scared. We panic. We tend to think God has abandoned us when a few things go wrong. Jesus didn’t. He always trusted his heavenly Father perfectly.
So the devil’s temptation was meant to play on this. He quoted from the psalms to show God’s promise of protection. So if Jesus really trusted his Father perfectly, if he really believed that he would be protected no matter what, then he’d almost have to jump. Right? Because if he didn’t it would appear that he didn’t trust God enough to do it.
But Jesus saw through the trap. Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” (Matt. 4:7) Just because you trust God doesn’t mean that you go putting yourself in situations where you expect God to bail you out just for the sake of making him do it.
We don’t pray, “Lead us not into temptation” and then go and put ourselves into the most tempting situation we can possibly imagine. If you’re in school, you don’t ask God to help you take a test but then not study for the test because you trust God to help you. No, if you trust God, you wouldn’t put him to the test, you’d study for your test and ask him to be with you.
But Jesus again shows his true trust of his Father, as well as relying on all parts of God’s Word, not just the one that was mentioned by the devil. Again, when it comes to temptation, Jesus puts us to shame in how he stands up to it.
The final temptation was no exception to this. Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matt. 4:8-9)
Friends, this temptation reminds me how thankful we can be that we don’t always get everything we want. Sometimes we might think that if we had what we wanted we’d be truly happy. “If I would just win the lottery and had more money than I’d ever need, I wouldn’t have to worry about bills, I would give a big chunk to the church and I’d never have a problem again.” This is not true.
Really getting what we want, or getting lots of power, is one of the greatest temptations to pull people away from God. Sometimes I wonder how much it would take for me. If the devil offered me something, what would it take for me to take it and worship him? What would it take for you?
It’s hard to imagine for real. As we sit here in church we can probably say, “Nothing! I’d never worship Satan; I don’t care how much he offered!” But if we were actually in the situation, if we really had the chance…well, let’s just say we can be thankful we don’t have the chance. Because I think a lot of us would be disappointed with the choice we’d make.
Jesus did not disappoint. Jesus said to him, “Away from me Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matt. 4:10-11)
Jesus stood up to the devil’s temptations and came out on top every single time. Not just here in our text, but all throughout his life, Jesus withstood every temptation. He never gave in. He never let up. He never fell short. He was perfect.
Now, if we take this story as primarily an example for us, we’re going to get very discouraged. Yes, we can try to quote the Bible and follow Jesus’ example. In fact, that’s a great thing to do! But we’re going to notice we fall short of Jesus’ example. We don’t live up to it. We fall short. We give in. We sin.
No, Jesus is so much more than an example. He’s a substitute. He withstood this temptation for you! For me! He entered the battle with sin, death, and the devil and he defeated them all in your place! That’s why this story is such a comfort for us. When God looks at us and demands perfection, he won’t see it! He’ll see our failures! But by faith in Jesus he won’t see our failures; he’ll see his Son’s victories. Yes, Jesus’ perfection, demonstrated in this text, counts as your perfection by faith.
Hang on to that! Hold on to what Jesus did for you. Yes, he died for you, and we can never stop thanking him for that! But he also lived for you! Every second of his 33 year or so years walking this earth, Jesus was living for you, obeying God’s law for you, defeating the devil for you. That knowledge will strengthen you in your temptations. That truth will pay for your place in eternal life forever. Jesus did it for you!
Yes, he won the victory. Martin Luther put it well in his famous hymn that we just sang. Listen to some of the words again: “With might of ours can naught be done; soon were our loss effected. But for us fights the valiant one whom God himself elected. You ask, “Who is this?” Jesus Christ it is, the almighty Lord. And there’s no other God; he holds the field forever.” And he holds you forever in his love, too.