First Sunday in Lent (A)
March 1, 2020
Text: Matt. 4:1-11
“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray. “Lead us not…” Those are the words (the Greek word means “lead”), and we should not change them, apologies to Pope Francis. Then again, I don’t think I will apologize, for we should never apologize for the Word of God, and no one, not even the pope, has the authority to change what God has said. Jesus knew what He was doing when He gave us the petition. And, in fact, He is reflecting on the incident recorded in our Holy Gospel this morning. Matthew tells us that after our Lord was baptized, He was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt. 4:1; ESV). Luke, likewise, says He was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Luke 4:1). Mark is more vivid: After His Baptism, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Drove Him out! The Greek word there is the one usually used to indicate the casting out of demons! In any case, the Gospel writers are unanimous: The Spirit of God leads Jesus into temptation!
Are you scandalized? Good! Because here is the point: Jesus is led into temptation by God, so that you could be led out. So that temptation could no longer trap you in sin. Not that you would no longer sin. You will and you do for as long as you are in this moral body (Repent of that, of course!). But that you would no longer be enslaved to sin, that you would no longer be the possession of the devil. You see, Jesus is led into temptation as your Substitute, to do battle with the devil in your place, to win where you have lost, to win where our first parents lost it for us all. As the writer to the Hebrews says, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus faced down Satan’s temptation, and He did not fall! It is for that reason He can be our Champion all the way to His sin-atoning death on the cross and His resurrection victory over death.
Now, it is important to understand the nature of the temptations. These were real temptations. Remember, Jesus is a real Man, and so He really was tempted. That is, He suffered the introduction of wicked ideas into His ear and His mind. As true God, He was able to do what we cannot do when such ideas are introduced to us. That is, deny them. Remain steadfast against them. Refuse to entertain them. Remember that temptation is not sin. Giving in to temptation is sin, and entertaining temptation is sin. Luther famously said, “Temptations, of course, cannot be avoided, but because we cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads, there is no need that we should let them nest in our hair.” Our problem is, the minute a tempting thought enters our mind, we start handing the demonic birds twigs and straw. So for us, temptation is usually contemporaneous with sin. Not Jesus. Unlike us, unlike Eve, our Lord does not give ear to the serpent’s siren song.
But imagine fasting forty days and forty nights, nothing to eat at all, and then the devil comes along and reminds Jesus that, if He is the Son of God, the Creator of all, He could just command these stones to become bread, and they would! To hear that when He’s that hungry, and to know that it’s true, and to resist that… That is to suffer! To know that He could bypass the cross by simply throwing Himself down off the Temple, and in front of all those crowds, the angels would miraculously swoop Him up so that everyone would adore Him… To resist that… That is to suffer! To know, once again, that He could bypass the cross by one simple act of devotion to the devil, and all the kingdoms of the world would be His… To resist that in full determination to go to His crucifixion… That is to suffer! He suffered it! Jesus suffered it all, the full force of temptation. He knows what it is to be tempted. He knows what it is to ache to give in. But He doesn’t. He doesn’t give in. He doesn’t because of you. Jesus will not give in to temptation because He is determined to save you.
Notice the first temptation involves food. Ring a bell? Here He undoes the temptation to which Adam falls. He does not take and eat what is not given Him to take and eat. This temptation has to do with the desires of the flesh. The second has to do with the lust for glory. The third, the lust for power. Do not all our temptations proceed from one of these lusts? It all has to do with the idea that God is holding out on us somehow, that there is more, and better, to be had than what He has given, that we can be our own gods. And at the root of it all, there are two things: First, are you really the Son of God? In other words, does He really love you, and can you trust His Word? And second, is the cross the only way?
Jesus defeats Satan by clinging to the Word of His Father. “It is written… it is written… it is written…” (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Jesus wields the Sword of the Spirit. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4). “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7). “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (v. 10). It is not just that He quotes Bible verses. Satan quotes Bible verses, too, although he misquotes them and twists them to his own purposes. It is that in the speaking of these verses, Jesus places all His trust in the Father alone. He confesses that God is true, that it is as the Father has said and as the Spirit testifies: Jesus is God’s beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. And it is this Son whom the Father has given to suffer and die for the life of the world.
Jesus defeats the devil by unyielding faith in the Father, and flowing from that faith, the absolute determination to accomplish the Father’s will. By dying on the cross. Thus saving you. The cross is the decisive battle in the war between God and the devil. The cross is the crushing of the serpent’s head by the suffering of his mortal bite. The cross is the swallowing up of temptation and sin and guilt and death by the only One who can take them away. And He does. He dies. And now Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
So when you are tempted, first, recognize that no matter how fierce the battle, the war is already won. By Jesus, on the cross and in the empty tomb. Second, wield the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17), not just quoting Bible verses (because the devil knows the Bible better than you do), but clinging in faith to the God who cannot lie, who has declared in Holy Baptism that you are His beloved child, in Holy Absolution that all your sins are forgiven, in the preaching of the Gospel that you are righteous and holy with the righteousness and holiness of Christ. And in all of this, pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” knowing that it is true, “God tempts no one,” as we confess in the Catechism and as St. James writes (James 1:13). But He led Jesus into temptation to be temptation’s demise. Jesus is your victory over temptation. Jesus is your way out. And Jesus is ever and always your forgiveness when you fall. When you pray, “lead us not into temptation,” Jesus is the answer to your prayer.
So when you are tempted, run where Jesus is, where He has promised to be for you with salvation, His Spirit, and life. Run to the Word and to the Holy Sacrament. That is where the Spirit leads you. Here in the wilderness of this world there is hunger and temptation and the opposition of the devil. But here in the Church there is Jesus, who has defeated all of these in His death and resurrection. He sets right all that has gone wrong, with Adam, and with you. Live by His every Word. Worship and trust in Him alone. And so He leads you out of temptation and delivers you from the evil one. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.