Christ Stays on the Path of the Law for Us

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Sermon for Invocavit – First Sunday in Lent

Genesis 3:1-24  +  2 Corinthians 6:1-10  +  Matthew 4:1-11

The Apostle Paul was pleading with the Corinthians in today’s Epistle, as all ministers of the Gospel plead with their people, not to receive God’s grace in vain. That is, knowing that God, in His grace, sent His Son into our flesh, and that He died for us and has made reconciliation between God and sinners, knowing that He forgives sins and gives His own righteousness to all who believe in Him, don’t turn away from Him in unbelief. Don’t turn back to the devil. Because Christ has come, defeated the devil, and opened a new way for you into the kingdom of God, a way, not of works, but of faith alone in Christ alone. Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation.

This way into the kingdom of God, this path of faith in Christ, was plotted by God before the world’s foundations were laid. But it wouldn’t exist if Christ hadn’t first walked the path of the Law for us, the path on which we all were born, the path of full and complete obedience to God’s Law, the path of humility and humiliation, which is how He merited, how He earned for us this other path, this path of salvation by faith.

Back at Christmastime we considered how Christ, the Son of God first entered onto this path of ours, this path of the Law, by being conceived and born as one of us, with our human flesh. Now we begin the season of Lent, and we see in today’s Gospel how Jesus begins to fight in earnest for us, to remain steadfast on the path of humiliation and obedience in order to open up for us the path of salvation, the path of faith. Jesus had to fight to remain on the path on which His Father had placed Him, because the devil tried his hardest to tempt Jesus, to get Him to stray from the path. Because if Christ strays from that path to the right or to the left, then there is no path of salvation for us.

Matthew tells us that it was the Spirit of God who led Jesus out into the wilderness to fast for forty days without eating anything. God preserved Jesus without the need for food during those forty days, but it says that, at the end of them, He was hungry. There was hunger and want on the path Jesus had to walk. The first temptation is the temptation of want or misfortune.

Along came the devil, the tempter, and said, If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. Now with that question, “If You are the Son of God,” the devil was not trying to get Jesus to doubt who He is or to prove who He is. Scripture tells us that Jesus knew all along who He was and where He came from, that God was His Father, and that had come to earth to do His Father’s will of saving sinful mankind. No, the devil’s temptation was to try to get Jesus to stop trusting that God would do what He had promised in His Word to do: to provide for His children. His temptation was this: “If God were a loving Father, He wouldn’t treat His Son this way, making Him suffer want and hunger and misfortune. You deserve better than this. He isn’t a God worth loving. He isn’t a God worth trusting. Step off the path of love and obedience toward God!”

It’s the same thing he does to God’s children today when we, at times, suffer want and misfortune and hard times, or when the tempter tempts us to think God hasn’t given us enough, blinding our eyes to all the grace and blessings and good things God has given, so that we become afraid we won’t have enough money, or bitter and angry that God should allow us to suffer. That’s the sin that makes us unable to earn our way on the path of the Law.

But Jesus stood strong for us. He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” Moses had said those words to Israel, reminding them how God fed them, not just for forty days, but for forty years, each day, with manna (that miraculous bread from heaven), just enough manna for one day at a time, so that each day they had to rely on the Word of the Lord, “There will be manna there again tomorrow, so don’t gather any more than you need for today.” Israel never did learn that lesson, and we struggle with it, too. But Jesus never once wavered in His trust in God the Father and in His love for God’s Word, and so He earned for us the path of the righteousness of faith.

The second temptation Matthew records is the one where the devil took Jesus up to Jerusalem and set Him on the pinnacle of the Temple. If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, “In their hands they shall bear you up, Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus had defeated the first temptation by citing what was written in Holy Scripture. So Satan comes along, “Oh, you want to play the ‘it is written game.’ I can play that, too.” And then he goes on to take a passage out of context, twist its meaning, and then tries to get Jesus to trust in something that God had never promised to do. Because God’s promise in Psalm 91 is not to float people down from the heights when they jump, but to “guard you in all your ways,” it says. In other words, when you’re on the way or the path that God has placed you on, doing what God has instructed you in His Word to do, then He will guard and protect you for your good.

This is a spiritual temptation, a temptation of error, blindness, and false understanding of Scripture, where the devil uses tricks to get people to understand the Bible wrongly, and then to trust in their own false interpretation. It’s a temptation to go where God’s Word doesn’t direct you and to believe in promises God hasn’t actually made. It’s a very serious temptation, because you only know God through His Word. And if you don’t take God’s every Word seriously, then the devil will be able to fool you so that you walk into his traps. He truly does prowl around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

So the Christian is tempted to say, “Ah, see, I know a Bible passage or two. My faith is strong. I don’t need to know everything the Bible says.” But that’s tempting the Lord. If He had only given you one or two Bible passages to learn, then fine. Be content with that. But if He has given you a whole Bible filled with His words from cover to cover, and the ability to read and the opportunity to learn, and He has warned you against false doctrine and the devil’s tricks, and you say, well, I don’t need to know all that, then you show that you don’t love Him with your whole heart. And the path of the law, the path of your obedience has become useless to you.

But Jesus saw through the devil’s misuse of God’s Word and remained on the path of obedience. It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ Jesus not only knew God’s Word perfectly. He also loved God His Father perfectly, with His whole heart, and had no need to step off the path God gave Him to walk in order to make God prove Himself.

In the final temptation recorded by Matthew, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” We saw the temptation of misfortune on the left. We saw the temptation of spiritual tricks and twisting of God’s Word in the middle. Here on the right we see the temptation of prosperity. The devil promises plenty, fame and fortune, glory, wealth, comfort, friends. He’ll promise you the world. You can even be like God, if you’ll only make a little deal with devil. Worship him once. One quick bow, or the nod of a head.

That’s all Eve did, really, one quick worship of the serpent by believing his words instead of God’s Words and biting the fruit. That’s all Adam did, really, one quick bow to his wife by taking the fruit from her, instead of bowing to God by refusing to sin. They were promised the world. They were promised that they could be like God. The devil lied. As always. Every act of disobedience to God, every compromise of His Word, every decision to do what you want, with no regard for what God wants is a form of worshiping the devil. You don’t have to be a Satanist to participate in devil worship. You just have to be sinner, and we all qualify.

One quick bow to the devil, and Jesus would have become a sinner, too, and ruined the path on which God had placed Him, the path of keeping the Law for us. And that would have kept our path—the path of faith—from ever existing. But again He stood firm. Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” And the path of the Law remained intact.

Then the devil left, and God sent angels to minister to Jesus and to comfort Him, as He comforts all His children after times of testing are over. But Jesus wasn’t done fighting to stay on the path of the Law. The rest of His earthly life would be lived on this path of obedience, until He would become obedient to the point of death, even the death of a cross.  By His victories over the devil, He has won eternal comfort for you. He has shown Himself to be a trustworthy Savior, one who can sympathize with you in your weakness. One who was tempted in every way, just as you are, yet remained without sin. He has shown Himself to be the true Second Adam who obeyed where the first Adam sinned, so that all who are grafted into this Second Adam by faith are granted His victory over the Temper, counted righteous by faith, justified, not by your own victories over the devil, but by His.

This was planned by God in eternity, but it’s not all that was planned. Part of God’s eternal plan of election is that He will defend [those whom He has justified by faith] in their great weakness, against the devil, the world, and the flesh ; govern and lead them in His ways, and, if they should stumble, raise them up again, and comfort and preserve them in trials and temptations. (Formula of Concord, SD:XI)

How does Christ defend, govern and lead you in His ways? How does He raise you up again, if you stumble, and comfort and preserve you in trials and temptations? By the Word of God that is just as powerful against the devil in your mouth as it was in Jesus’ mouth. And by the very Gospel you have heard again today, and by the Sacrament you will receive. It is God’s will that you use His Word to continue to fight against temptation and defeat the devil with it, and it is God’s will to help you in every temptation, so that you can endure it and stand firm in this path of salvation by faith, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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