Tempted by Satan
This sermon was presented at Trinity and St. Jacob’s on March 5, 2017, the First Sunday in Lent. The text is Matthew 4:1-11.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!
Today we’re talking about Satan and Temptation. I want you to get a picture in your mind right now about the devil and what he looks like. If you need to close your eyes for a moment, go ahead. What image do you see? Does he have horns and a frightening, evil grin, and is he dressed in red?
Oh, that Satan did look like that and we could instantly spot him. But Satan, Sin, Evil, or Temptation – whatever you call being in opposition to God’s way – is usually wrapped in a way that is Pleasing, Enticing, Alluring or Comfortable.
It was Dante’s Inferno in the Middle Ages that presented the world with an image of a nefarious, horned creature with a pitchfork. The Bible does not give us such an image. The writers of scripture knew from experience that the Evil One is much too sly to present himself as he really is.
C.S. Lewis wrote The Screwtape Letters to give us a taste of how the Devil thinks and acts. So many of us here have read this short book. If you haven’t read it, I think you would learn some valuable lessons from reading it.
The book contains the correspondence of the worldly-wise old devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood is a novice demon in charge of securing the damnation of an ordinary young man.
One of the pieces of advice from Screwtape to Wormwood is this: “It is the policy of the High Command (from Satan himself) that devils are to conceal themselves”. He writes, “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to rise in his mind, suggest a picture of something in red tights and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that, he therefore cannot believe in you…(Letter #7)”.
Today in our Gospel reading, we heard about Satan’s attempt to make Jesus sin out there in the wilderness. Did you note that just when it was in Jesus’ 40-day experience out there in the wilderness when Satan comes to him? It was after Jesus had fasted for 40 days and nights and was famished. Then it was that Satan arrived. Note too that what Satan looks like is not mentioned. But we can surmise that he looked reasonable enough for Jesus’ earthly eyes. 2
Satan zeroed in on Jesus’ need and vulnerability, food. His first temptation then was this: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And Jesus refused, his answer being a quote from scripture, “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Satan comes at Jesus again, this time taking him to Jerusalem and the pinnacle of the temple and saying, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Again Jesus refuses, again quoting scripture, “Again it is written, ‘do not put the Lord your God to the test.’
And then Satan tries a third time. This time he took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” And Jesus said, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord you God, and serve only him.” Matthew concludes this account with this telling sentence: then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Matthew’s original audience was largely composed of Jewish Christians. Matthew’s method of tying Jesus to the Old Testament heritage of Jewish faith involved demonstrating how Jesus relived the history of Israel in miniature. So, our story today mirrors the forty-year wilderness.
These three temptations that Jesus endures echo specific challenges Israel faced and we can read about them in the Book of Deuteronomy.
First, out there in the wilderness, the people had complained to God about lacking food and facing starvation. Second, the people quarreled with Moses, declaring to him that God’s power was insufficient to care for all their needs. Moses told the people that God never failed them in the past, so don’t doubt Him now. Third, after facing these 2 incidents out in the wilderness, the wandering people of Israel faced the prospect of becoming lost among the other nations. Moses has to remind them of who they are, God’s people, and so Moses goes up on the top of a hill and raises his hands toward heaven to show their strength was not found in their military might, but in their devotion to the Lord. And Jesus too, on a high mountain, declared to Satan, “Away with you, for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.”
What valuable lessons can we learn today from Jesus’ experience and example during his time of temptation?
- Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. The Spirit knew that there would be an encounter with Satan.
- The temptations came from Satan, not from God. But God used those temptations for His own purpose because of how Jesus responded. Jesus was not deceived by Satan. Instead of rebelling against God, Jesus relied on God.
- There is a difference between Jesus’ response to temptation and our response to temptation. Jesus was tempted (the offers from Satan were very appealing to his human needs and desires), but Jesus did not give in. His great strength came not just from quoting Scripture (as good as that is). His great strength came from his utter trust and reliance on the power of God. We, on the other hand, are tempted and more often than we would like to admit, we give in. We want to trust God in all things, but our humanity is too often weak and wishy-washy. And so, we rely on the wonderful gift of Grace. We are invited to “ride on the coattails of Jesus.” Jesus is more powerful than Satan and any form of temptation. By his ultimate victory over Sin, Death and the Devil, you and I are made right and invited into God’s kingdom.
Well, back to our story: Jesus met the first barrage from Satan and stood his ground. I’d like to think that this wilderness fight helped Jesus to decide and know what his priorities in life were. And he gained a better sense of what Satan wanted from him
The end of this account comes when Satan retreats, Matthew tells us. But Satan is constantly lurking, waiting for another encounter. In the movie, The Passion of Christ, we see the devil often lurking about Jesus, especially as he gets closer to the cross. Why? Because even Satan knows what it will mean if Jesus dies without ever giving in to temptations. It will mean that Jesus in his humanity is stronger than Satan. If that is true, just think about the power of Jesus in his full divinity!
The good news for this day then is one word. That word is “Jesus”. Just as God revealed to Moses of old where we can receive strength to fight evils of all kinds, so we today know that we can receive our strength from Jesus, our Savior.