From Epiphany, to Lent, to Life
A pastor had a member he had baptized, catechized, and ministered to for years. In adulthood she accused the pastor of never having taught her how to live a Christian life in the midst of the world's temptations. She left his church for an evangelical church, then for a Pentecostal church, and then fell away. I would agree; there was a disconnect between the faith she was raised in and her life, but it wasn't reconnected using "how to" Christianity. In fact, the connection between her and Christ was destroyed all together by going that route. So that you might not go that way, let me address the temptation that plays around the edges of your mind too. What use is the faith I'm preaching in your life?
To answer that, we need to go back to where we came from: Epiphany. During Epiphany we see, touch, handle, taste the mystery that Mary's Child is Jehovah. The God, who walked with Adam in the Garden, appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was David's Shepherd, and whom Isaiah saw "seated on a throne, high and exalted" surrounded by six-winged seraphim is Jesus of Nazareth.
Remember how we saw that in Epiphany? As Yahweh called up Israel to Mt. Sinai to reveal Himself to Israel, so Jesus called up His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember how we said that Jesus wasn't standing in the place of Moses receiving the revelation but He was Jehovah giving it? And just last week, on another mountain, remember how Jesus revealed His full power and might in the Transfiguration? Remember how Moses and Elijah were there and we said that the only two people to see Jehovah on a mountain in the Old Testament are shown talking with Him in the New?
The season of Epiphany pounds home the Christmas point that the Baby born of the Virgin Mary, nursed, burped, and changed by her, is your Lord. Epiphany is to bring us to the realization that we see the glory and revelation of God in no other place than in the face of Jesus. Epiphany is to bring forth from us the confession that the true God wishes to be known and approached in no other way than through Jesus. As Jesus said, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father," and, "No one comes to the Father but through Me." Or as St. Paul puts it, "All the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily in Jesus."
I know what you're tempted to believe: Those Epiphany truths don't seem all that useful for my life. I think they are, but my task is to show you that. But first we have to move on to Lent: the season we're now in. The main revelation of this season is that Jesus True Man and True God is a sacrifice for sinners. Our text opens with the words, "Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil." "Led by" is translated in Acts 7:41 as "brought sacrifices." God the Holy Spirit brings God the Son into the desert as a sacrifice.
Jesus is God's sacrificial Lamb to pay for the sins of the world, but before an animal could be sacrificed it had to be shown to be pure, unblemished. That's what Jesus is doing in the desert. Like Adam and Eve, like Israel of old, He's going to be tempted by food. Unlike them Jesus doesn't fall. Like us Jesus is tempted to believe that unless God proves His love and power by doing a miracle when and where He wants it, He's really no Son. Unlike us Jesus doesn't give in to that temptation. And like us, Jesus is tempted by a good end gotten by sinful means. Remember Jesus Himself in Gethsemane will ask the Father if there is some way not to drink the cup of wrath due our sins. Satan here offers a sinful way, and unlike me Jesus doesn't take it.
Jesus is shown to be a perfect, pure, holy Man. Although true God, as we seen in Epiphany, Jesus doesn't use His divine power as a Man to overcome Satan. He stands firm against Satan using the same Word of God available to all men. There is no blemish on this Lamb. There is no reason to cull this Lamb. This is the Father's favorite. His only beloved. Nevertheless, He must die. Not only die but be betrayed by His best friend, deserted by His other friends, rejected by the Church, and executed by the State for crimes He didn't do.
If you've ever punished the wrong kid and found out later, you have a small sense of the pain here. We are the sheep who love to wander, but it's the innocent Lamb Jesus who is beaten for our missteps. We do what no natural sheep can do; we bite the hand that feeds us, but it's the mouth of Jesus that is brutally slapped. O what foul, beastly, shameful things we've done with our hands, but it's the hands of Jesus that are nailed to a cross. What hell we've earned by our sins, and yet Jesus who deserves nothing but heaven suffers it in our place.
The Father was pleased that it should happen this way. He is the One who sent His Son into the world to be an atoning sacrifice. He is the One who placed upon Jesus the iniquity of us all. In Lent the Father doesn't want you to wallow in your guilt but in the blood, sweat, and tears of Jesus that free you. When we torture ourselves for our very real and very disgusting sins, we are not doing the Father or the Son any favors. We, in fact, are saying that what Jesus suffered wasn't enough. Our sufferings have to be added to His before God's wrath is appeased. No, the highest use of Jesus, God's wrath-removing sacrifice, is to revel in the fact that for Jesus' sake God's not angry with us.
From Epiphany, to Lent, to life. From Jesus is Jehovah, to Jesus is sacrifice, to Jesus is example. Right now sirens ought to be going off, and you ought to be hearing: "Warning, warning, warning." Jesus as example is how Jesus is preached in "how to" sermons. Is that what I mean here? Jesus overcame the temptations of the devil and you can too.
No, Jesus is not showing us how to parry the thrusts of Satan using the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. If perfect Adam and Eve, couldn't do it why in the world do you think you can? Eve used the Word of God against Satan and he knocked the Sword out of her hand and stabbed her with it. Surely you watch enough movies to know that when a trembling person is holding a gun on a really bad guy it usually ends with the bad guy getting the gun. So don't leave here thinking in this text Jesus is showing you how to defeat the devil. The text does show you that Jesus as true Man, in your place, withstood the Devil's temptations perfectly. And for our practical use it shows us precisely where the Devil attacks us too.
Our text starts with Matthew 4 verse 1. Matthew 3 ends with the Baptism of Jesus. This is where you might get confused if you were here last week. Last week in the Transfiguration which happens about two years after our text the Father declared Jesus His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased and that we are to listen to Him. Two years earlier, at His Baptism, the Father declared from heaven, "This is My beloved Son in whom I'm well pleased." The important point I want you to note is that those words are the last words of chapter 3 and our text begins, "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit" There is no break, no pause. The Spirit wants you to connect Jesus' Baptism to His temptation. Connect Epiphany to Lent.
What the Accuser accuses, the Tempter tempts, and Satan is adversarial about is precisely God's Word that the Man Jesus is His beloved Son in whom He is well pleased. Haven't you ever thought about this? Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in all ways like we are yet without sin. What temptations come to your mind? Sex, death, greed for money or power probably. But where's are these in the Great Temptation of Jesus?
You think your great temptations are sex, death, and greed, and like the woman in the beginning, you think that's what you need practical help dealing with. If I just gave some practical suggestions, some real life instruction, or as the emerging church says "relevant" preaching, I would be of use to you in dealing with sexual lusts, money, life, or power lusts. But what do I do instead? I put before you a crucified Jesus in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. A lot of good that does, right?
Today is where I make up for letting you down. Today I show you a real life truth in this text. The temptations of sex, greed, power don't come first. No great shame and vice, according to our catechism, are preceded by the despair that comes from a misbelief about what God has said about us. The Devil wants to do to us what he tried to do to Jesus. Make us despair that we really are beloved sons and daughters of God. Make us despair of the Almighty really being our Father. Make us despair over the path of suffering, sighing, bleeding and dying the Father has us on.
Try to put out the flame of lust whether about sex, worry, money, or power by disciplining yourself, by quoting Bible passages at it, and you'll find your pouring gas on it. Try praying and you'll find you get looped into debating with your lust rather than talking to God. Try to flee lusts as Paul says and while that is certainly better than debating, still you can run right into the despair that it is no use fleeing.
So what's the answer? Repent of misbelieving that the hungers, the fears, the struggles in your life mean that you're not God's beloved child. Repent of the misbelief that in Jesus God can somehow not be pleased with you. Embrace the truth that the things that Satan uses to prove you're no son or daughter of God, God in fact says are proof positive you are one. God only chastens the sons and daughters He accepts in His house. Isn't that how we are? I don't go next door and discipline those kids because they aren't mine.
Understand this: Like Jesus you will have hunger because of legitimate needs in life. Like Jesus you will find yourself in the deserts of life even though God has promised to take care of you. And like Jesus you will find Satan knows a way around God's cross in life. But like Jesus you live by the words coming out of God's mouth not the devil's, not the world's, not even your own mouth. Because those words declare God is washing, clothing, and feeding His beloved children for eternity even in the deserts of life. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Lent (20110313); Matthew 4: 1-11