Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Still dripping from the waters of his baptism, Jesus goes into the desert – not to have a quiet getaway after a few busy days – but he was led there by the Holy Spirit himself. Driven by God’s Spirit into the place of barren nothingness, Jesus would engage in the most profound battle between good and evil. Heaven and hell were about to go toe to toe, and the devil saw his opportunity to attack. We could spend time elaborating on each of the temptations of Jesus – whether it was the temptation to turn stones into bread; to bow down and worship the devil in exchange for power and glory; or to throw himself down from the temple and test God’s resolve to save. We could take a walk through that very fruitful forest of application, but let’s take a step back and “see the forest for the trees.” What was at the root of every one of the temptations that the devil threw at Jesus? It was a simple thought that worms its way into the brain and the heart, and once it’s there, it spreads like wildfire – Can you really trust what God says?
Remember, this temptation in the wilderness was happening immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. He may have still been dripping with baptismal waters, and in a place of total isolation, his heavenly Father’s words were still ringing in his ears, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” And you can bet that the devil used that. You’re God’s Son…really? You don’t look it! You’re God’s Son …whom he loves?! That’s too far! If he loves you so much, where’s the beef or at least the bread?! Doesn’t your Father provide? If you were his beloved Son, he’d want you to have power over all the kingdoms of the world and, you know what they say, the ends justify the means, so why not bow down and I’ll give it to you! If you are his beloved Son, what Father, who happens to be all-powerful, wouldn’t rescue his only-begotten? Jump! What was at the core of every one of Satan’s temptations? A simple thought that worms its way in, and spreads like a virus – Can you really trust what God says? Does that sound familiar? That’s the same strategy he employed against Eve in the Garden of Eden – Did God really say? – it’s the same strategy the devil uses to tempt you and me today.
What is it about temptation that makes it so, well, tempting? It’s always the same – the devil’s temptations speak to a perceived need, whether I’m thinking it, or it seems clear that everyone else is already getting theirs. He comes at us with a tempting one/two punch of both short term pleasure and long term fulfillment. Have you ever noticed that? Every temptation of the devil promises either immediate gratification or long-term fulfillment but only delivers pain and disappointment. It happens when I can’t seem to un-ogle my eyes from the person who isn’t my spouse; when I think I work hard and deserve to lose myself in my vice of choice for a few hours – just a little bit, you can confess it later; when I know I’m right and everybody else needs to know how badly that person hurt me, no matter what it does to their reputation. Maybe the short term isn’t where the devil attacks you – maybe it’s the temptation for long-term fulfillment. He can speak pretty convincingly – there just isn’t enough to go around! And I start to see how everybody else has more than I do – more money, more love, more fun. So, I’ll convince myself that it’s in my or my family’s best interest that it doesn’t really matter if we’re not super regularly hearing the Word of God – after all, quality family time is hard to come by, and it doesn’t happen in church, does it? I’ll hear the devil teaching me math and showing me how nice my checking balance would look if it wasn’t for that church offering every week. The devil is pretty convincing, and he seems to have good evidence to back up his case. The devil will show me how unsustainable it is to live a life of service to my neighbor who doesn’t seem to want to do anything for me.
Really, all those examples are just symptoms of a much larger problem. With each of those temptations, the devil is putting the question to us: Can you really trust what God says? Our answer is pretty predictable. If we were in the Garden, we would’ve bitten that fruit. If I were in the wilderness, I would’ve zapped those stones and loaded up – because the devil just makes too much sense.
Just before the sermon, we sang Martin Luther’s “Battle Hymn of the Reformation,” A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Some of you might be humming the tune in your head right now…I’d like you to speed up your mental metronome and zip ahead to the final lines of the third stanza: “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none. He’s judged; the deed is done! One little word can fell him.” What is that one little word that will take down the prince of hell? Throughout the years, there have been a lot of guesses – the name of Christ, his proclamation of “Finished!” on the cross – and they’re all true enough. But on at least one occasion, Luther himself identified what his “one little word” was. I’ve shared this with you before, but I think it’s worth retelling. Do you know what the one little word is that can send the devil packing? Liar! Do you see how Jesus did just that in the face of every one of Satan’s temptations? Devil, you’re a liar when you say that God doesn’t love me. Devil, you’re a liar if you want me to believe that God doesn’t care. Devil, you’re a liar about where glory is found – not in bowing down to you, but in being raised up on the cross! In the face of every one of the devil’s temptations, Jesus perfectly pushed back, resisted, and rested his entire confidence in the promises of his Father. Man does not live on bread alone…Worship the Lord your God and serve him only…Do not put the Lord your God to the test. When the devil spews his lies and wants you to wonder whether you can trust what God says, find your rest, your strength, your assurance in the promises of God who cannot lie.
Do you see how this works in the context of one single day of your Christian life? The devil will make a lot of sense, and seem to have good evidence to back up his case. Look at your life. Everybody around you has already figured out that if you want something, you can’t just wait for it…you have to take it, even if it goes against what God says in his precious little book. If God really loved you, you’d be doing a whole lot better than you are – kind of like the family down the street. God has forgotten about you! What will you say to that? One little word. Devil, you’re a liar! My Savior has promised me that he’ll never leave me nor forsake me. You’re too far gone; your sin unforgivable; your mess unredeemable If the people sharing your pew knew what kind of person you really are… What will you say to that? One little word. Devil, you’re a liar! In Christ my God has removed my sins from me as far as the east is from the west. Because of Jesus, the sins I can’t forget God promises never to remember. Yes, I am a sinner, but I have One who was tempted in every way, just as [I am] – yet was without sin. And that One lives every minute into eternity to stand before the holy God and speak in my defense.
The account of the temptation of Jesus is a story about Jesus – which sounds like an obvious and unnecessary thing to say, but a lot of people miss it. The account of the temptation of Jesus isn’t primarily about you and me, it’s about Jesus. So what does God want to tell us about Jesus? This Jesus is your substitute. He left behind the glory, the power, the praise that were rightfully his and he came to earth live a life of perfect humility and obedience…for you. The solution for your sin and the trick to defeating temptation isn’t so much for you to become more like God; it’s for God to become like you – taking on temptation perfectly and paying for your sins with his perfect life. Jesus came to defeat temptation in your place. He came to defeat the devil…for you. Where Adam, Eve, and every other human being in history have failed miserably - your champion, your Savior Jesus is perfectly victorious. And now he gives that perfect victory to you. It’s yours. By God’s undeserved love and the Holy Spirit’s power, it’s yours. Jesus’ temptation wasn’t primarily a battle against the devil; it was a battle for you.
The temptation Jesus and his victory over the devil give us a taste of the fullest defeat of the devil that comes at the cross of Calvary and the empty tomb. So, when the devil doesn’t seem to understand that he’s been defeated and he comes at you, loaded for bear – and he will – what will you do? Where will you go? That’s the question that so many churches out there are asking when they hear about the temptation of Jesus. Give me seven steps to defeat temptation. Instill in me better strategies for spiritual warfare. Those are fine – but do you notice the common denominator? It’s me – my fight, my progress, my commitment. And how does that usually work out? Will you pin your hope on your resolve to leave sin behind? Will you take your stand on your good intentions to set up guard rails in your life to keep you from sin? Those can be fine things, but at the end of the day, if my hope is in myself and what I can do, or think, or intend, the outcome of this temptation is going to be painfully predictable. So how do we overcome the natural-born inclination to run after all the wrong gods and give our praise to gifts instead of the Giver? You’ve probably noticed that it doesn’t really work to say, “I’m going to try harder…I’m going to stop thinking about that,” though that is a fantastic start at listening to Scripture’s encouragement to flee from temptation. But the only way to release your soul from the power of a beautiful, alluring object is to give it a more beautiful object. And there’s nothing more beautiful than God’s love for you in Christ.
When the devil comes to tempt you, don’t run to your self-confidence or your resolve. Run to the empty cross and the empty tomb where the devil’s defeat is declared loud and clear. Run to the baptismal font where God himself made you a promise. In water and word, the Holy Spirit cleansed you from the stain of sin that marked you and put upon you a new mark – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – connecting you to Christ, giving his victory to you. Run to the table, where Jesus gives you himself and lets you see his victory over temptation and lets you taste your forgiveness.
When your flesh trembles in weakness in the face of temptation, dear child of God, turn to your brother Jesus—entrusting yourself completely in the hands of the One who triumphed over temptation. When you do fall into sin and the flesh trembles in fear of God’s judgment, dear child of God, by the Spirit’s power, know that this Jesus who defeated the devil has taken away your sin. Rest your soul in the wounds of Jesus for forgiveness and healing for the times that our weak flesh has fallen! Turn to Jesus in times of temptation – because he’s already won. And his victory is yours. When you face temptation in this sinful world, never forget: Satan is good at tempting, but Jesus is perfect at saving.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.