Sunday, March 9, 2014

Temptation

Sermon on Matthew 4:1-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 9, 2014 (First Sunday in Lent)

“If.”  That word occurs three times in today’s Gospel lesson.  All three times it is Satan who says it.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”  “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”  If, if, if.  Faith doesn’t use that word.  Faith deals in certainties.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.  Not, I will believe in God the Father Almighty, if He shows up and proves that He is God.  That’s not faith.  That’s not trust.  That’s unbelief.  Making God prove Himself is the same thing as making yourself His judge.  He is only God if He does what I say He should do.  It wasn’t only that third time that the devil was telling Jesus to fall down and worship him, though that was the most explicit one.  All three times Satan was asking Jesus to submit to his will.  If you’re God, do what I say.  Making stones into bread may not be sinful in itself, and while throwing yourself down from the temple is a really, really stupid idea, by itself it’s not an act of worship towards Satan, but when done in response to the devil’s questions and “if” statements, it’s the same thing as bowing down to Him.  Prove you are who you say you are, and prove it by doing what I say.  Under those circumstances, doing these things would be just the same as bowing down and worshiping him.

“Did God really say that?”  Eve in the Garden was tempted the same way.  Make God prove that He means what He says.  See how much you can get away with before He comes down in wrath and punishes you.  If He ever will.  The fruit won’t hurt you if you touch it, see?  What else has God lied about?  (Of course, God never did say that touching the fruit was sinful, only eating it.  But Satan wasn’t there to clarify that point, he was there to exploit Eve’s misunderstanding.)  Are you really going to die if you eat it?  Maybe He’s afraid of you, and wants to keep you from discovering what you can become if you just bite into the fruit.  If.  Maybe.  Did God really say?

What doesn’t help, of course, is that the world and our own selves go along with the devil in asking these questions and raising these doubts.  We ourselves are infected with Adam and Eve’s sin, and so is everyone else around us.  If God is really there, why doesn’t He show Himself?  If He really didn’t want us to be selfish and greedy and lustful, why do those things feel so good?  Or, here’s another, more serious type of temptation: If He really cares for us, why did my loved one die of cancer?  How can bad things happen if God is both good and able to do anything?

And since we are sinners, there is another question Satan asks, and this one is the most deadly.  You see, Satan isn’t there primarily to get us to do bad things, although he does do that, and we really do earn God’s wrath when we do them.  But getting us to do bad things isn’t the point.  He tempts us to sin for another reason.  He tempts us to sin so that when we do he can turn around and whisper God’s own Law into our ears.  Yes, when you hear God’s law presented as a temptation to disbelieve the Gospel, it’s Satan quoting it.  His ultimate aim is to make us doubt God’s forgiveness.  His aim is to get us to question His love for us, to cause us to think our sin is bigger than His love.  It’s not just this or that sinful action here or there that lands people in hell; it’s unbelief.  Which means that Satan’s ultimate temptation has less to do with any specific outward sin, but rather goes something like this: “Did God really say you are forgiven?  Would that pastor really be standing there absolving you if he really knew what you’ve done?

Which is why Jesus’ answers here aren’t just good examples for us to follow when we meet and have to resist temptation.  He isn’t just quoting the Bible back at Satan to show us what we should do in the same situation.  Yes, Jesus’ example here is one we do well to follow.  But it’s more than that.  Let’s look at those Scripture passages again, this time keeping in mind just Who it is that is speaking them.  “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of My mouth.”  He wasn’t just countering Satan’s temptation to prove Himself by making bread to fill His human hunger, He was rebuking Satan by reminding him that it is He who created all things and doesn’t need to prove Himself to anyone.  He is the bread of life.  He is the one who feeds His people, not just with bread for this life, but with His own body and blood, crucified and shed for the forgiveness of sin.

“You shall not put Me to the test.”  This is a very direct rebuke of the evil one.  It’s not just a matter of pointing out that testing God is a matter of trying to make Him obey you; it’s a matter of reminding Satan that He, as the creator of heaven and earth, can do anything He wants to, and His Word stands firm, even when what He does do looks completely illogical and foolish to human eyes.  What Satan was trying to do here was very similar to what the soldiers and the passing Jews and even those who were crucified with Him demanded that He do if He were the Son of God on Good Friday.  But the reason He didn’t come down from that cross was precisely because staying on the cross and dying was what He came to do.  He stayed on the cross and died not because He was weak, not because He couldn’t, but out of love for us.  Don’t test Me, Satan, for your defeat is at hand.  I’m here for a specific purpose, namely the salvation and forgiveness of the world, and you’re not going to get in the way.

Again, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve” takes on a different tone when we remember who Jesus is.  “You shall worship Me and serve Me alone.”  And, bizarre as it sounds, serve Jesus is what Satan ends up doing.  Luther once called the devil, “God’s devil.”  There is nothing that the evil one can do that God doesn’t turn out for good.  Even the most hurtful act of betrayal, the kiss Judas gave in the garden, a kiss prompted by Satan who had entered Judas in the upper room, that vile kiss was what God intended.  Satan served God that day.  It was precisely because Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinners that He died on the cross.  It was precisely as the sin-bearer that He went down to the grave.  And because God died, death itself came undone.  We died with Him and we rise with Him through the waters of Holy Baptism.  The old is done away with, the new has come.  Even Satan’s attempts to pry us away from Jesus serve only as exercise that will develop and strengthen the faith which clings to Him and His promises.  Satan serves God.  He serves Him unwillingly, but he serves Him nonetheless.  And if even Satan can be made to serve God, there’s nobody left to accuse us.  All the temptation and accusation has fallen on Jesus, and He took it with Him to His grave.  All that is left for us is to fear, love and trust in Him, to rejoice and thank Him for this wonderful gift, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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