Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We are at war. And I am not talking about Iraq or terrorism but against far greater enemies. As we enter into the season of Lent, we enter into a battle against Satan, the whole demonic realm and their temptations. We enter into a battle against our own sinfulness, our own sinful desires and the temptations that come. We enter into a battle against the temptations that are thrown at us by the evil in this world, seductive and alluring temptations. The enemies – Satan, our sinful flesh, the evil world – are powerful, powerful enemies.
I know we don’t talk about the Church or ourselves like this. Perhaps this is a product of our times–a shying away from things military toward a kinder, gentler approach even to church life, leaving “Church Militant” to other radical religious persuasions intent upon taking over the world.
Or perhaps we are feeling a little timid these days about the Church’s standing in this world, increasingly the party out of power. We can easily feel less like an army and more like beleaguered pilgrims. To be sure, we know that things are going to turn out all right in the end, but all this talk about “Christian warfare” may seem a bit over the top.
But in Lent, it is different. You may remember that at the beginning of the service we prayed the Litany where we implored God “to beat down Satan under our feet.” For forty days we remember the real nature of things. We are at war.
If you still don’t believe me, perhaps you can relate to some of these battles: the battle to turn the TV off instead of continuing to surf though the channels and my eyes lingering too long on some show that has too much violence or sex or profanity; the battle to walk away, cool off, counted to ten (something!) instead of saying something out of anger; the battle to pray for those people in the news stories instead of getting so angry or discouraged or worried; the battle to turn the computer off, go to bed and wake up more awake, more alert for work or church; the battle to listen more to my wife and my kids instead of talking and telling; the battle to leave the credit card in the wallet instead of buying those things and having more money to give to the Church or those in need; the battle to read the Bible more instead of spending so much time reading those news magazines or some glossy magazine with the latest technological gadget or gossip; the battle to volunteer at the church or in the community instead of booking my schedule so full that there was no time left to serve others as I should; the battle to say something, to witness about Jesus instead of keeping quiet; the battle to trust in God’s care more and doubt less when I am hurting or grieving or life has slapped me around a bit.
You see, we are at a war here, and we are against powerful enemies – Satan, our own flesh, and the world. But usually these enemies do not come at us in knock down drag out battles to end the war. If you listen to those examples they come at us in everyday temptations. And the temptations just keep coming in like a sneak attack, or a long siege, or when our defenses are weak.
When Martin Luther describes temptation in the Large Catechism, he warns us to expect constant temptation. He says that “when one attack ceases, new ones always arise” (Large Catechism: "Prayer," article vi, paragraph 109). And it is these everyday skirmishes, when we let our guard down, when we are so tired, when we are least expecting it, those sneaky but effective, those subtle but dangerous, those seductive and so alluring temptations, those are the ones that leave us with those little defeats, with the scratches, the nicks, the bruises, the aches.
I know that it may feel like there are just defeats when it comes to temptation; but not all the time. Sometimes there is victory. The skirmish is won; the sneak attack is repelled. The defenses hold. St. Paul said, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
Victories do happen: the television is turned off, the neighbor is served, time is spent with one’s family just listening; the Bible is read; prayers are said; victories happened. But when they happen we need to give credit where credit is dues. God is the one who gives us the victory. He is the one who provides the way of escape.
How so? In just a few minutes, we will sing a great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. And at the end of the third stanza: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us. We tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpower us. Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we'll engage! His might is doomed to fail; God's judgment must prevail! One little word subdues him" (Lutheran Book of Worship, hymn #228).
Now I am not sure what little word Martin Luther had in mind when he wrote that but the little word for me is Jesus. Jesus defeats Satan. He holds the field victorious.
We heard it in the gospel reading. Right after Jesus’ great moment, when His calling was confirmed at His baptism, He had to face the old Satanic foe; and he goes toe to toe. “You are the Son of God… very well,” said Satan. “If you really are God’s son, surely God can’t want to you go hungry when you have the power to get food yourself? (Matthew 4:3) If you really are God’s son, surely you want people to see that you who you are? Why not do something spectacular?” (Matthew 4:6) And then, the sneak attacks are over; Satan brings out the big guns: “Forget your heavenly Father. Just worship me and I will give you power, greatness like no one else ever had. There is no need for you to suffer!” (Matthew 4:8-9)
But Jesus sees through the trap. He answers each time with Scripture and with the Father. He is committed to living off God’s Word; to trusting Him completely, without setting up trick tests to put God on the spot. He is committed to loving and serving God.
Of course, this is not the end of the war. Jesus would meet the tempter again in various disguises: protesting to him, through Peter, his closest associate, that he should change his mind about going to the cross (Matthew 16:21-23); mocking him, through the priest and bystanders, as he hung on the cross: “If you are the Son of God, save yourself!” (Matthew 27:39-43)
And it was there, on the cross where the knockdown, drag out battle took place. For it is there that Jesus takes all those times when we have given in, given up to temptation right with Him on the cross. And His war wounds are going to take him all the way to hell.
But what looks like defeat is actually victory. We see that victory on Easter Sunday. One little word is alive and risen from the dead. Sin, Death Satan all of it is defeated as Christ is raised from the dead and his victory is our victory. And when He wins, we win.
I know that when we leave church today, there are going to be all sorts of temptations that come at us - sneak attacks and skirmishes and battles. We should expect this for there is no victory without conflict. And we do need to leave here with our eyes open; we need to figure out how God is giving us that way of escape; we need to figure out what kind of defenses we need; we need to know when to run and when to stand; we need to store Scripture in our heart and know how to use it; we need to say “no” to the voices that lure us away from God. All of that.
But this morning I want you to leave knowing that if we take that field alone trying to do battle against these enemies by ourselves… well, “we would be lost, rejected.” But when we take that field with Jesus, by the side of Jesus, or - better yet - behind Jesus, then... well “the kingdom is ours forever.”
In Jesus' name. Amen.