A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Lent – February 29, 2004
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Since the very first days of creation, the devil has found good business in the work of temptation. He’s plied that trade from the Garden of Eden down to this very day, and he’s gotten far better at it than you or I give him credit for. It’s his talent, his true gift to tempt us, and he practices his craft in subtle and clever ways that you and I know nothing about.
That’s because much of the time we never catch him in the act. The tempter is so sly that often we go completely unaware of his work in our lives.
But we can learn from the times he has been caught in the act. And we can learn from Jesus’ own temptation about the tempter’s methods and how they can be turned back.
So let me suggest to you three things that we learn about Satan, the tempter, in the tale of Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness: First, that the devil is patient and clever, the kind who waits for just the right time to strike. Second, even when we expect to be tempted, the devil is able to get under our skin. And finally, the tempter will always use the best things God’s given, but with a twist – the catch is in the twist.
So first let us consider the patience and cleverness of the tempter. Notice how he immediately steps in as soon as Jesus is alone, hungry and vulnerable in the wilderness. These are just the sort of circumstances that the tempter drools over, waiting and waiting until the moment is right to turn things to his advantage. He knows better than to spend much energy tempting Jesus when, for example, he is in the water with John being baptized. Why, Jesus is practically invulnerable then! What would be the sense? Much better to wait, to carefully lay the trap, and then to spring it when the victim is weakest.
I recently took up the game of Scrabble, and I’m sure that Satan would be a fine player. He would have the patience to sit on the high-scoring Q or X until they could be played on double or triple squares, maximizing his points. Lesser players would rush out with the first word they could make, just to get rid of those tiles, but the tempter knows patience, and how to wait for his advantage to become the greatest. He always knows the strongest moment to strike.
Another thing about the devil is that he’s able to get under our skin, even those times when we do see him coming a mile off. Now, make no mistake – usually he’s too clever for us to expect his attacks like that, but there are times when we know we’re vulnerable. Jesus, for example, must have known when the Spirit led him into the wild that Satan would strike hard and repeatedly as long as he was there. No doubt Jesus prepared his heart and mind for the testing with each step further from the tents of civilization. And yet the tempter managed to get at him, so that in each trial the whole plan of salvation hung in the balance.
Jesus was sorely tempted, even though he anticipated the tempter’s attack. It goes the same for us. There are situations in our lives in which we can almost guarantee the devil will be hard at work, laboring into the night in order to tempt us into sin. But this old foe has seen it all, and he knows how to work on us, even when we have set our hearts to resist him.
That’s because of the third thing I mentioned – that the devil always uses the very best things God has given us, if he can, in order to lead us astray. The trick is in the twist he puts on them.
Let’s face it: hardly anyone at all is so evil that he could be tempted by something that’s purely, obviously, terribly wrong. No, God’s put a moral disgust in us that causes our gorge to rise against acts that are out-and-out evil. Satan can’t make much progress dangling those things before us.
So instead he chooses all of God’s good gifts to be his tools. They are, after all, designed to be desirable by God himself! But perhaps they can be twisted into something darker, something more suited to the devil’s purposes.
Think of the things he suggests to Jesus: You’re hungry - make some bread out of this stone here. You were born to be a king – here, bow to me and I’ll anoint you right now. You’re God’s dear Son – show all the world how much he loves you by jumping and letting him save you.
Each time, he tells Jesus something that’s true, and then suggests that Jesus act in a way that at first seems good and natural. It’s his best trick, far and away. And if he was brazen enough to try it on the Son of God, you can bet that he’s plying it to much better effect in your very own life, right at this moment.
Some people he reminds of the healthful benefits of drinking a bit of wine each day. He reassures them that Jesus drank wine – in fact, he produced gallons of it in his first miracle! – and so did almost all of the people you read about in the Bible. The fruit of the vine, he tells them, is one of God’s gifts to humankind…and so he convinces them that in their drunkenness they are actually celebrating God’s goodness!
Other people he reminds of the natural goodness of sex. Why, this is God’s own way of filling the earth! He made all animals with this drive inside of them, and then he made it pleasant and exciting on top of all that. In fact, this is the way that a man and woman are able to become partners with each other and with God in the very act of creation! And so he convinces these people that “free love” – unrestricted, uncommitted sex – is what God intended all along, and you’d find it in the Bible, too, if those religious prudes hadn’t gotten their hands on the scriptures.
You can go down the list. For every good gift of God, there is at least one twist the devil can put on it to turn it into a delicious temptation…and usually there is a lot more than one twist. It’s his best, most reliable, most effective tool for leading you and me astray. It’s also the one he takes the most pleasure in, no doubt, because he can not only tempt us to sin, but cause us to feel as though we’re not sinning at all, but simply enjoying God’s gifts!
Well, now that we’ve learned these three things about how the tempter works, we should be all set, right? Unfortunately, no. Though he may not get us every time, he gets us often enough. You and I have only a few short years – maybe a few score, at most – of experience resisting the devil’s temptations. He, on the other hand, has countless lifetimes of experience in leading people just like you and me astray. Make no mistake: in the game of tempter and tempted, the devil is the favorite to win.
But let’s return to scripture for a moment, because a grim thought like that is no place to end a sermon.
In the story of Jesus’ temptation, we find that the devil, who has always been the odds-on favorite in this game, lost. He did his best to lead Jesus away from the cross, from the sacrifice God had sent him to make on our behalf, but the tempter failed.
Because of that one colossal failure, every success Satan has ever had and ever will have in the game of temptation finally amounts to nothing, for Jesus’ victory has changed the name of the game. Though the devil may yet be able to tempt us into sinning, Jesus has claimed us sinners for himself. However much the tempter may talk us into increasing our sin, Jesus’ grace is always and forever more than enough to forgive our sins and give us a clean slate.
No matter how much pain he causes through his temptations and the evil that comes of them, in the end the devil has lost it all. Not because you or I are able to resist him, but because Jesus did.
And so we come to Jesus when we’re being tempted, asking him for help, trusting that he understands. And we come to Jesus when we’ve failed and given in to our temptation, knowing he will forgive. And one day – our final day – we will come one last time to Jesus, and that from that moment for the rest of eternity, the tempter will never have power over us again. His power, that ancient power of temptation that goes back to the dawn of creation, is finally no match for the power of Jesus Christ’s love. Amen.