Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent, Series B

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 26, 2012 (The First Sunday in Lent, Series B)

What is the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  “And lead us not into temptation.”  What does this mean?  “God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”  Okay, we can see where Luther got that explanation from the section of James that was read as our Epistle lesson for today.  But what it doesn’t explain is what happened to Abraham and Isaac in our Old Testament reading, or for that matter that it was the Spirit which drove Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was God the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus Himself, God the Son, into the wilderness precisely in order to be tempted?  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was He that put a test on Abraham to see if he would obey God or not?  After all, the Greek and Hebrew words for “tempt” and “test” are actually the same word.  Is it really true, as the Catechism and St. James teach us, that “God tempts no one?”  For that matter, isn’t it supposed to be Satan, not God, who does the tempting?  How can God and Satan be involved in the same activity together?

Let’s bring this a little closer to home.  If God is good, and He is almighty, how is it that we are allowed to wander into situations where sin beckons to us and crouches at our doorstep?  Can’t He stop us from being put into situations where someone has left their belongings unguarded?  Or where we know a bit of juicy gossip about someone that we can hardly resist sharing?  Or where someone else besides the one God has joined us to looks more attractive or even like a better fit than our own spouse?  Or when a loved one is dying and we have prayed with all our might that He would heal them, with seemingly no response, and it looks to us like perhaps God doesn’t even exist?  If God is almighty, can’t He simply prevent us from even experiencing the opportunity for “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice,” as Luther puts it?

The fact is, however, if we were outwardly sinless and perfect (because temptation simply never came our way) that itself would be a temptation.  For us, the descendants of Adam and Eve, even keeping the Law is itself a form of temptation.  Look how good I’m doing.  Look how righteous I am.  I thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there.  And instead of praising God, we praise ourselves.  In keeping us completely away from the more obvious temptations, God would then be tempting us with the subtle and most dangerous temptation of all, namely the temptation to put ourselves instead of Him on the throne of our hearts.

The problem of temptation is simply the problem of sin.  It’s not God’s will that sin be in the world in the first place.  It wasn’t His will that Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not His will that we face difficult choices in our lives, in which even though one path is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, the wrong path looks so much easier or more attractive.  It’s not His will that we face those even more difficult choices where both paths involve an element of sin and the only thing we can do is, as Luther put it, “sin boldly.”  None of this was what God created us for.  None of it is what He wanted for us.

But that’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  It is precisely the sin, the brokenness, the hardship, the helplessness, and the hopelessness of living in a sin-filled world with sin-filled hearts, that our Lord became man in order to take into Himself.  He was tempted precisely because we are tempted.  He who knew no sin became sin for us.  And He won the victory over it.  The small victory he won over Satan in the wilderness foreshadows the much greater victory He won by staying on that cross and giving His life as a ransom for many.  The only way to deal with the problem of sin, and therefore the problem of temptation to sin, was to take it upon Himself.  The only way to deal with Satan was to defeat him so thoroughly that even his worst weapons, the temptation to false belief and despair, are now tools that He uses to bring us closer to Him.  Luther was fond of saying that the devil is now “God’s devil.”  The worst he can throw at us is now a tool God uses to drive us to His Word and Sacraments, to draw us closer to Himself.

And so it’s precisely when Satan tempts us that God is testing our faith, not in order to weaken it, but in order to strengthen it.  It’s precisely when we are given the occasion for false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice that we also have the opportunity to further refine and temper the true faith, trust, and righteousness that is now ours in Christ Jesus.  God doesn’t tempt us, but at the same time He does.  He tests us, not in order to knock us down, but as training so that we learn all the more to lean on Him and His righteousness when we know our own is completely worthless.  It is precisely when we are weak, in other words, that He is strong.  He uses testing to teach us that He is the one who is our strength, and we can’t learn that unless we first see how weak we ourselves really are.

God allows us to be knocked down so that He will be able to raise us up.  God puts Abraham in a no-win situation so that Abraham will rely solely on God’s promises that He will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.  It is precisely when Abraham thinks he has no choice but to murder his own son, that God puts faith in him that even so God will still fulfill His promise to provide the true Lamb who will take away the sins of the world.  It’s possible that he thought Isaac was that Lamb, that Messiah.  But the lamb caught in the undergrowth nearby served as the substitute, just as Jesus is our substitute, the one who undergoes temptation, suffering, and even death in our place.  God did provide the Lamb for the burnt offering.  God did take our place in the trackless desert of temptation, where we can’t find our way and it looks like all paths lead nowhere.  In His stead, then, we receive the straight road that leads to eternity, the road marked not by our own fleeting mirage of victory, but by His cross and seeming defeat.  Does God tempt us?  Did He tempt His Son?  In one sense, yes.  But in view of His ultimate purpose of salvation, no.  He only knocks down so that He can raise up.  He only breaks so that He can heal.  He only kills so that He can make alive.  He doesn’t tempt us for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of fixing our eyes on Jesus who won the victory for us all.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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