No little temptations

Sermon for Invocavit – Lent 1

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 + Matthew 4:1-11

There is a lot of evil in the world. Raping and killing, adultery and theft, rage, violence, and injustice. It’s easy, at least for us Christians, to see Satan behind all those things, as the terrible instigator of evil in the world.

But that’s not where we find Satan in the Gospel, is it? We see the devil hard at work trying to get the Son of God to sin, but his temptations seem like nothing so terrible, certainly nothing that would cause great harm to the world. Just some seemingly minor sins directed against…God. Is that so terrible, compared to all the rest of the evil and wickedness we see in the world? Turning stones into bread? Taking a ride—literally—on angels’ wings? Bowing down for a moment before the devil, with no one else even watching? For that matter, go all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Was taking a bite out of a piece of fruit really worthy of death?

But therein lies the deception, the lie propagated from the mouth of the liar since the beginning: That, as long as Satan isn’t tempting you to do the big and terrible things that cause even unbelievers to cringe, it’s no big deal to be tempted. It’s no big deal to fall into sin.

The truth is, those “little sins” committed against God, in secret, are behind all the rest. What’s more, to consider those sins against God, that don’t hurt anyone else, to be “little,” is just more evidence of the utter depravity of our race, and the utter corruption of our flesh, as if a sin against God were a small thing, while a sin against another human being—that’s the really big deal. Do you think of God as being so small? So insignificant? So harmless? The devil wants you to, because, if he succeeds at that, he’s already won.

See how the devil attacked the Son of God in the Gospel, not with the “big” temptations to do “big” sins, but with three little temptations to commit three “little” sins that would have sealed your eternal condemnation in hell, if Jesus had stumbled even a little.

First, remember the context of these temptations. It’s the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He has just been baptized by John the Baptist. The Holy Spirit has just descended on Him, like a dove, and He has just heard those astonishing words spoken from heaven, This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased. Then we’re told that Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

The devil was the one who tried to get Jesus to sin. But God was the one who arranged for the temptations to happen, not unlike the case of Old Testament Job. Jesus had truly humbled Himself when He became man. In that state of humiliation, He set aside the use of His divine knowledge and power. He relied on His Father’s Spirit-inspired Word, and was “led by the Spirit” out into the wilderness, to be tempted for 40 days, even as the people of Israel were tempted in the wilderness for 40 years.

The first temptation had to do with hunger. Jesus had fasted for 40 days. He ate nothing and drank nothing. His survival itself was miraculous, but it does say at the end that He was hungry. Now, maybe you recall that the great prophet and mediator of the first covenant, Moses, also fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, on top of Mt. Sinai. It says that he ate no bread and drank no water for those 40 days. And do you know how much hunger he suffered because of it? None, as far as we know. It appears that the Lord kept His servant Moses from suffering the bitter pangs of hunger.

But here is Jesus, the very Son of God, His “beloved Son,” for whom the Father does not provide any bread and whom the Father does allow to suffer hunger in the wilderness.

The devil tried to capitalize on Jesus’ physical weakness and suffering. If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread. Such a small thing. It wouldn’t have hurt anyone, right? But what’s behind that temptation? The devil wants Jesus to be unhappy with His Father and with what His Father has provided. He wants Jesus to feel miffed that His Father was making Him suffer, to grumble and complain about this unfair treatment, and then, to step out of His state of humiliation for a moment and to pit His own divine power as the Son of God against the divine will of His Father.

Instead, Jesus threw a passage of Scripture back at the devil, It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ Jesus already knew the lesson that Israel never learned. That whatever God speaks—that is right. Whatever God does—that is the definition of goodness and love.

No, Jesus says, I will not complain or grumble against My Father. I won’t call Him evil. I won’t even think it. And I certainly won’t step out of this state of humiliation to provide a meal for Myself, in rebellion against My Father. If I don’t suffer as the rest of men suffer, then I am not tempted as the rest of men are tempted. And if I’m not tempted like them, then I can’t stand against temptation for them or help them when they’re tempted. No, to do this little thing would have big consequences.

The second temptation recorded in Matthew’s Gospel has the devil taking Jesus up to a ledge high up on the temple in Jerusalem. 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.”

So the devil knows the Scriptures! He knows how to cite them, how to use them against people. Remember that when you hear preachers out there in other churches using the Bible and you’re tempted to think, there must not be much difference between their church and ours. They have the Bible! Yes, they have it. It was there in the devil’s foul mouth, too. Having the Word of God and teaching it correctly, in context and in harmony with the rest of the Word of God, are two different things.

Here the devil used the Word of God out of context, to try to convince Jesus, first, that He should forget the sinfulness in putting your life in danger for no good reason, and second, that it would all be fine if He jumped off the ledge, because He had the Lord’s promise to send His angels to catch Him. God will take care of you, no matter what you do.

The devil probably won’t tempt you to “jump off a ledge, it’ll be fine.” He may tempt you in similar ways: Don’t worry about studying too hard in school or working too hard at your job. God will see that you succeed at whatever you do. Go ahead and eat to the point of gluttony and obesity; God will take care of you. Go see the movie with the explicit sex scenes, watch that dirty video, do the drugs, drink too much; it’ll be OK. Stay home from church; move to a place where the Word and Sacrament are not taught purely; God will provide for you. Didn’t Jesus promise that He won’t let anyone snatch you from His Father’s hand?

But Jesus knew better. It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the LORD your God.’ Jesus didn’t fall for the little lie that it’s OK to sin, God will take care of you anyway. Neither should you!

The third temptation had the devil showing Jesus 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.”

I don’t think the devil would have much success if he stood before us and asked us to bow down to him, in return for riches and power and glory. So he doesn’t. What does he say? You can have a better life, if you just set aside God’s commandments once in a while. You can have a prosperous, fun, happy, comfortable earthly life if you just don’t worry so much about what God says. You can have that person for a spouse, if you just don’t worry about the differences in your beliefs. You can have the praise of your teachers, if you just keep nodding your head when they tell you the earth is millions of years old. You can have a big church, if you just compromise a little on doctrine. You can have the support of your community, if you just go along with the culture in its sick praise for the mental and spiritual disorder of transgenderism, if you just concede that gay marriage is fine, sex scenes in movies and TV are fine, abortion is fine.

The devil offers much. But even if he could give you earthly happiness, which he usually doesn’t, the devil would happily take your soul to hell at the end of the day. And then you would realize how not worth it it was to bow down to him for a moment of earthly gain, in whatever way you bowed down to him.

Jesus was offered far more than you could ever be offered, for just a moment on His knees before the devil. But, of course, He knew better. Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only you shall serve.’

Jesus defeated the devil. He defeated Him with perfect faith in His Father, with perfect devotion to His Father’s will, with perfect love for His Father’s Word. Where every other man in history has fallen, Jesus is the Man—the Second Adam—who stood firm against the devil. And He did it in mankind’s place, to earn our salvation. Now we have a Champion, a Hero, the perfect Man to whom we imperfect men can flee at all times for refuge, to hide ourselves in His righteousness.

That’s what we get when we’re baptized. We get credited with the perfect record of Christ against all the devil’s temptations, instead of having to answer for all the times we’ve allowed ourselves to be led astray. And every absolution and preaching of the Gospel and every believing reception of the Holy Sacrament is a reapplication of Christ’s holy victory over the devil.

Now, having been brought into Christ through Holy Baptism, we are not only covered with His victory over the devil, but we are also initiated into the ongoing fight against temptation, both the “little” ones and the “big” ones, knowing that none are really little.

Trust in Christ, both for forgiveness and for the strength to resist temptation. It is your calling as a Christian, as one who is to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who resisted temptation for your salvation. Use and rely on the Word of God, as Jesus did. And as He promises through His apostle: God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Amen.

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