The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
I’m quite sure that everyone here is more than familiar with the old adage of “practicing what you preach.” Do what you say, and say what you do. The two should always go together, right? And that’s not exactly an extra-biblical concept, is it? The concept of practicing what you preach and preaching what you practice is found throughout Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation, God is pretty big on doctrine and practice being in agreement. But, as I said a few moments ago, we’re all quite familiar with this. We get it. We know it. There’s really no need for further explanation.
And yet…if you listen to your Gospel lesson this morning, we seem to encounter God Himself not practicing what He preaches. “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” The Father speaks these words to Jesus in His baptism. And then we’re told in the very next verse that no sooner are these words spoken when the Holy Spirit immediately drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted for forty days. Now, at first glance you may not pick up on the troubling contrast. In fact, even the other Gospel accounts don’t convey the dark nature of this transition from the waters of baptism to the desert wilderness. “Dark nature? Pastor, that sounds like something the devil would do. That sounds evil. I don’t think you understand. Jesus was being led by the Holy Spirit out into the desert wilderness to confront and battle the dark nature of sin and the dark forces of the devil and all his evil.”
Well…you’re kind of right. In fact, if we were in the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke, I wouldn’t argue with you one bit. Both of those accounts tell us quite clearly that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Luke even says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” when He was led out into the wilderness to be tempted.
And before we go any further, we do need to make clear why Jesus was led out to be tempted. In a nutshell…He was tempted for us, in our place. You see, Christ’s perfect substitutionary work for us didn’t just take place on the cross. It was already taking place here in the waters of baptism. It was already taking place here in the wilderness temptations. Jesus went out to do what we simply cannot do in our own daily lives. He was tempted by the devil with three of the most basic, yet devastating temptations the devil has in his arsenal—hunger, trust in God above all things, while not unnecessarily putting God to the test, and pride/power.
Let’s face it: The devil continually meets us with these basic temptations in our day-to-day lives, and even though we may put up a bit of a brief fight, we still ultimately fail. Everyone has their price. Everyone—every child descended from Adam and Eve—ultimately sells out and gives in to temptation. We worry and fret and lose sleep over our daily bread. We don’t trust in God above all things. We do often put God to the test, assuming that His merciful patience with us is the same as His approval. We do still want to be in charge. We still want to be like God and call the shots and have our say. We often place the accolades and praises of men and lust for worldly power above God’s declaration to us that we are His beloved children who have been baptized into His heavenly family, co-heirs with Christ the Lord.
You may not want to admit it, but many a person will routinely and chronically sell out and forsake their eternal baptismal promise for fifteen minutes of fame or the equivalence of a sandwich or a bowl of soup, no different than Esau sold his birthright in order to quiet his grumbling belly. And none of this should come as a surprise or a shock to anyone. After all, we confess ourselves that we are by nature, sinful and unclean. The good we want to do we don’t do, and the evil we don’t want to do, we wind up doing. This is precisely what it means.
This is why Jesus went to the wilderness to be tempted. He went to do what we simply cannot do in our own lives, by our own reason and strength. If we could overcome these temptations and vanquish the devil, then we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we? Just try harder! But this is precisely why Christ went to confront these temptations, and to win out. He met each and every one of them head-on, and He countered with a perfect and complete trust in Almighty God and His almighty Word.
And do not be deceived: This account of Christ’s wilderness temptations is not meant to be a motivational tool for you to go and simply copy Jesus and do what He did. I know it’s often treated that way. I know it’s often taught as nothing more than a lesson on “What would Jesus do?” “Jesus handled it this way, and so should you.” This is NOT why God felt it so important that He had three of the four Gospel writers record this account for us. This account is recorded for us so that we can see Christ’s perfect substitutionary work for us. This account is recorded for us so that we can see and behold the fact that our Lord and Savior was confronted with, and vanquished, each and every sin of ours—perfectly. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15).
And that takes us back to what I was saying before about the dark nature of this transition from God-pleasing baptismal waters to demonic, temptation-filled desert wilderness. As I said earlier, Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted. But Mark uses a very different term in His account. Mark tells us that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. But even that English translation doesn’t capture and convey the true divine terror of this action. The original Greek tells us that the Holy Spirit ekballw’ed Jesus into the wilderness; that is, the Holy Spirit cast Jesus out into the wilderness. What is so significant about that word is the fact that it is a word used throughout Scripture to describe the casting out of demons. Whenever Christ or the apostles encounter the demon-possessed, they ekballw the demons. They cast them out.
I want you to think about what this is saying, because it is profound. Jesus was being treated like a devil by Almighty God for us, in our place! God Himself was already treating His own beloved Son like He was full of sin, casting Him out into the barren wilderness; the proverbial haunt of all things dark and demonic. This is what makes those heavenly words spoken mere moments earlier at baptism so much more meaningful and profound. “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased. Remember this. Hold fast to this Gospel proclamation, because what I am about to do to You is going to hurt. In order to save these rebellious corpses of Adam, I have to treat you, My beloved Son, like a damned devil-filled corpse. In order for My beloved children to be saved, You must endure wrathful treatment reserved for the devil and all unbelievers. I love you and I am well pleased with You, but now I must cast You out, for the sake of My fallen and helpless children of Adam.”
As I said earlier, this account of Christ’s wilderness temptation is not a motivational account for us to try and emulate, but rather it is a wonderfully descriptive account of God’s great love for us. It is a wonderful description of Christ’s unconditional and unfathomable perfect obedience to His heavenly Father for us and for our sake. It is a wonderful description of Christ’s immeasurable love for us. Here is yet another example of the hellish depths our kinsman Redeemer—our God and Lord—is willing to sink to and expose Himself to and endure for us and for our salvation. Here, as St. Paul says, is God, for our sake, making Him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in Him we become the righteousness of God.
My fellow redeemed: This what Lent is all about. This is why this particular lesson is traditionally the first Gospel lesson of the Lenten season. Christ gave up everything for us. He endured the Father’s hellish wrath for us, and it wasn’t just a one-time, momentary thing on Good Friday. It was right out of the gate, and it was persistent, finally culminating in the ultimate forsaking on the cross. And even there, Christ was perfect in His obedient trust and faith. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?” Even in that ultimate moment of being completely cast off and forgotten by His own heavenly Father, Christ never lost faith. He never stopped trusting. God was still His God. Again, you may not want to admit it, but we’ve been unfaithful and untrusting in matters far less grave and pressing in our own lives. Not Christ, and thank God that this is so.
You know, understood in this wonderful Gospel light of Christ’s perfect and complete substitutionary atonement for us, you begin to see that God really was practicing what He preached all along. There was no divorce or contradiction. His doctrine matched His practice, and His practice bespoke His doctrine. God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son to die for it. God so loved us that He made Him who knew no sin to be our sin, all so that we could have the righteousness; that is, the justification of God Himself. God so loved us that He treated His own Son like a damned devil for us, all so that He could show nothing but His undeserved love and mercy to us.
And this is our joy today and every day that God gives to us. Christ’s justifying words ring out as true today as that day He first shouted them victoriously from His cross: “It is finished.” Christ’s perfect substitutionary work is finished, once and for all. Our sins were put upon Him. He paid our price, in our place, in full. His righteousness has been reckoned to us. Because of Him, and Him alone, we are justified; that is, declared innocent and redeemed and children of our heavenly Father.
This is what Lent is all about. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God is at hand. In fact, this victorious reign and rule of God is so close to you right now, you can see it, hear it, touch it, and taste it. Repent; that is, turn from your sin and believe in the Gospel. Turn and believe and cling fast to the Good News that Christ gave all for you. It is finished, in Him and because of Him.
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