The Rise and Arrival of a New Empire
Edward Gibbon wrote his 6 volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire between 1776 and 1789. Most read the 1963 one volume abridgement. It's history told with a sneer particularly when it comes to Christianity. However, what he has to say about Rome's decline and fall led me to what our text has to say about the rise and arrival of Christ's empire.
I have this story saved under "Temptation." Rome purposely imported the Goths who would eventually destroy them into their empire. With a large fleet of vessels, boats, and canoes. They brought about a million people across the Danube (413). Is that crazy or what?
But we import what will destroy us. Actually, one of our enemies has full time residency in us. In the explanation to the 6th petition we confess that temptation is of 3 kinds: of the sinful flesh, of the world, and of the devil (II, 101). Our sinful flesh is the beachhead of the other two. In the Small Catechism, we specify just how the temptations work: they deceive us into misbelief, despair, and other great shame and vice.
We hear the Devil, the World, or our Flesh say things like if you're a child of God how come this is happening? Or if God really loved you or if you really loved God, then this would be happening. When we give heed to these doubts, we import into our hearts the misbeliefs of our 3 enemies. Then we despair of being children of God and once we conclude we're not children, who cares? And that leads to the great shame and vice of unspeakable thoughts, shameful words, embarrassing deeds.
Our text shows us a new empire on the rise. Here is Jesus having been Baptized, filled with the Holy Spirit as Man, and declared to be the Father's beloved Son. This Jesus was led into the desert under the Spirit in order to be tempted under the Devil. Jesus didn't import the enemy into His camp. No, the Spirit pitched Him across the river into their camp, and then after eating nothing but God's Word for 40 days and nights, the Tempter shows up and the battle is joined.
Well, Jesus is no Commodus. He was Roman emperor from 180-192. He liked to participate in the arena as a gladiator. And though you might think everyone would have cheered him on, the people "were affected with shame and indignation when they beheld their sovereign enter the lists as a gladiator, and glory in a profession which the laws and manners of the Romans had branded with the justest note of infamy" (53).
Wait a minute. Maybe Jesus is a Commodus. Jesus is sovereign of the cosmos, and He is tempted under the Devil. The Devil takes Him to the holy city and perches Him on the temple giving Divinity a time out, or properly a time to jump, and that's not shameful to you? Then the Devil takes Him away to a high mountain and offers God in flesh and blood the chance to Devil worship for all the kingdoms the world would ever know. Doesn't that make you indignant?
But Jesus is not Commodus. He willingly humbled Himself to be tempted under the Devil. His flesh was tempted to make bread to satisfy His hunger. He was tempted by the Devil to prove that the angels would indeed bear Him up in their hands. And Oh how Jesus was tempted by the world to sell His soul. Don't think so? Most men who sell their souls do so for a lot less than all the kingdoms of the world. Faust did it to sleep with Margaret.
The God we saw last week in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration is in the wilderness, in the holy city, on another mountain doing battle in your place with the Devil, the World, and your Flesh. Perhaps here is where Jesus is Commodus. Commodus fought 735 times in the arena. He was armed with a helmet, sword, and shield. His opponents were naked, and armed with a net and trident (Ibid.).
That's how you see the battle in the wilderness, isn't it? God can slay the Devil with just a thought. Jesus is absolutely perfect without spot or blemish. What sort of trial could there really be for Jesus in an arena with a Devil armed with the net of deception and a pitch fork that couldn't pierce the holy flesh of God?
You're forgetting that Jesus isn't only 100% God; He's 100% man. You're forgetting that God Himself says: "Jesus was tempted in all ways we are." You're forgetting that we have a High Priest who can empathize, sympathize, understand, and be touched by our weaknesses. You're forgetting that He, Creator of all food, had a stomach and it was empty. You're forgetting no angel came to minister to the Man Jesus till Satan had left Him. You're forgetting no angel came to strengthen Him as a Man as one will in Gethsemane. You're forgetting no angel stood by the Man Jesus assuring Him as one did by Paul. You're forgetting that to be tempted is not the same as giving into sin or to be sinful. So, all the temptations that make your mouth water, your heart race, your thoughts quicken, Jesus faced.
Virtually every week, I know the first temptation. I want God to prove Himself to me. He must step in by some supernatural means to deliver me from the misbelief or despair I feel. I mean the sick are healed, the unbelieving are converted, and miracles occur all over the Bible. In the words of the Judd's, "Why not me?" And get this. Jesus had the power to do the miracle right then and there, but He does what I don't. He leaves the matter of His hunger and feeding in His Father's hands.
I preach about angels every year, and you don't think I'm tempted by the Devil's suggestion that since there is no scientific proof for supernatural beings they're just stories we tell kids. You don't think I'm tempted to exercise my faith in angels by forcing God's hand. This is the trump card in every time travel show. The guy forces the hand of the ones who are keeping him from his time in order to fix theirs by doing something that will kill him. Every time the superhuman being spare him. Don't you see how great a temptation it would be for Jesus to show the extent angels serve Him? He says go and they go; He says come and they come. But Jesus isn't Commodus. He's in the arena in your place willingly not using His Divine Power as a Man to deliver Himself.
Think of the pain, the sorrow, the sickness, and the death you've known in your life. Think if you could avoid all of it and still have what happiness, what heaven, what health and wealth you have now but without the pain and tears. Think if you could have all the glory of the world or even just a piece of that glory and it cost you no present pain but a mere tip of the hat to the Devil. Most aren't made that offer. Jesus was. The Devil offered to give Him all the kingdoms of the world without the cross. He could have the glory of being redeemer and savior without shedding a drop of blood, without suffering a moment of damnation, without facing what He Himself said "overwhelmed His soul with sorrow to the point of death." But He didn't take it; I would have.
What's going on here is trial by single combat. In the later stages of the Roman Empire this grew popular. It was how the Romans dealt with the barbarians. These warlike people believed that since a brave man didn't deserve to suffer or die and coward deserved both a trial by combat would prove who was brave and who was cowardly (568). John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and James Bond movies teach us the same thing.
This much is true. All the eggs are in the basket Jesus is carrying. He the Second Adam is going up against the Devil who thousands of years earlier had tempted the First Adam to feed on something more and better than every Word proceeding out of the mouth of God. If Jesus fails here, no redemption is possible. Jesus can't be a perfect offering for sin if He fails to be perfectly obedient. Jesus can't suffer for your sins in hell if He must suffer for His own. Jesus can't pay off the great debt of your sinfulness if He has His own to pay.
And Jesus does win. And He wins as a Man. He doesn't use even a little divine power to defeat the Devil. If He had used Divine Power, He wouldn't have defeated him in our place. He would've been a Commodus up against a naked, under-armed man. All Jesus used is God's Word. The Word we have but don't know, don't use, don't care to know or care to use. The Word we don't rely on, don't study, don't live on. Jesus used, and Matthew emphasizes this. Even when Jesus says, "Away from Me Satan!" It's not a divine command. He commands Satan to leave "Because it is written." It's God's Word not Jesus' deity that drives Satan away.
Here's where it gets weird. The popular image of the gladiatorial games is that the emperor decided who lived and died. In fact, it was the audience who did (Oxford Classical Dictionary, "Gladiators", 467). Imagine if Commodus had prevailed in a fair fight, but the crowd called for his blood? Commodus never did lose and even if he had who would dare call for his blood? Jesus didn't lose either, but His blood was called for anyway. He fought fairly, bravely, handicapped by hunger, less angelic protection than you have, and an offer of more glory than you will ever know. Yet, still Jesus goes to the cross. Still Jesus will be bound, beat, slapped, spit upon, crowned with thorns, whipped with lashes, pierced by nails, and then by a spear into His dead side just for good measure.
Having kept the Law in your place, there still was the matter of paying for all the myriad ways we break God's Law. The small ways; the serious ways; the ways we think are no big deal because everybody does them; the ways we think are such a big deal no one could ever pay for them. Jesus the victor in the arena of the Great Temptation nevertheless will be damned and died to pay for them all in full.
Here's the rise of a new empire of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. It arrives on Easter in Jesus' resurrected Body. Commodus was part of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Jesus isn't just a part of the rise and arrival of the heavenly empire. He is the Empire. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Lent (20170305); Matthew 4: 1-11