The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Context matters. Keeping and understanding the Word of God within its proper context; not plucking select words or phrases out of context in order to proof-text or bolster your particular opinion or desire, is important, to say the least. It matters. Faith and salvation are at stake. Context matters. After almost nine years with you, though, I’m quite positive you already know this.
The reason I begin like this is because today’s Gospel lesson is one that is quite often used and abused. In this particular case, it’s not so much that particular words or phrases are plucked out of context (although we could certainly point to the devil lifting a portion of a verse from Psalm 91:11, but not citing the whole verse). Clearly, there is an issue here with plucking words out of context. But…overall the problem is not that the words are plucked out of context, but rather the meaning is lost because the entire account is plucked out of context and treated as a separate little story or event, divorced entirely from the rest of Scripture.
Now, those are some pretty harsh words, I know. That’s a very heavy accusation to make. Sadly, though, it’s true. Just think how often you’ve heard this very lesson held up as a prime example of what you need to do when you too are faced with temptation and suffering. “Do what Jesus did! Recite Scripture! That’ll get the devil on the run.” Is that what this is really all about? Did the Holy Spirit inspire Matthew to record this event so that we can have a proven method for beating the devil? Matthew chapter 4: “How to beat temptation, triumph over the devil, and be just like Jesus…for dummies.” That’s NOT what this is about, but…that’s how this is often framed, treated, taught, and confessed.
Now, before we go any further, it is important to point out that every “good” lie contains a certain amount of truth. That’s what makes it a “good” lie. It’s so believable. It sounds so good. After all, there is truth to it, right? Look no further than Satan’s three temptations. There was a certain amount of truth in all three temptations. Jesus certainly had the power and the ability to turn those stones into bread, and He had been fasting for forty days, which no doubt left Him feeling hungry. God sending His angels to protect Jesus and keep Him from meeting an untimely and unplanned end? Absolutely! The devil even used selects parts of Psalm 91 to make that point. As far as all the kingdoms and goods of the world being given over to Jesus if He fell down and worshipped Satan…there is even truth in those words. Many like to say that Satan had no authority to do anything, and all that worldly stuff rightly belongs to God, not Satan. Satan doesn’t have the authority to give away what doesn’t belong to him.
That’s true…but consider also that your Lord does make very clear elsewhere in the Gospels that His kingdom is not of this world. We’re told many times throughout Scripture that Satan is the prince of this world. All that “stuff” that he was pointing to was indeed fallen and sinful, tainted with the death and deadliness of sin. In that way, it really did fall under Satan’s control and realm of responsibility. He could promise Jesus all that fallen, worldly, sinful dead weight because that’s what he had to offer. Even in promising Jesus worldly glory, worldly goods, and worldly comfort in exchange for turning His back on God and giving allegiance and trust to Satan, Satan was telling the truth…kind of.
The reason I say all this is because the over-arching lie that says that this Gospel lesson is nothing more than a “how-to methodology” on how to battle Satan and be like Jesus does have some truth to it. When confronted with temptation; when you’re struggling, should you call upon God? Should you look to God’s Word for comfort, peace, and assurance? Absolutely! Not giving ear to Satan and his lies and the false comforts of this fallen and sinful world by turning that ear to God and His Word is ALWAYS what Christians are to do. But…is God’s Word simply an incantational, quick-fix, magical elixir? If you simply speak the words—hocus pocus—does that make all the trouble go away? No. Not even close.
How often, though, God’s Word is treated as if it’s a string of garlic and we’re battling a vampire. How often God’s Word is treated as if we’re in some low-budget horror flick and we hold up the Bible or spout a few canned phrases, and the devil immediately runs away in terror. Guys: The devil himself spoke God’s Word! Mere recitation of the Word doesn’t repel him or send him running. Faith in that Word does. More specifically, the object/person that saving faith holds fast to sends him running. My faith, in and of itself, doesn’t scare the devil. One bad day; a couple of things don’t go the way I planned, and the devil can easily crush that faith. It happens to people all the time. But…almighty God, the object of saving faith, does send the devil fleeing. Where the almighty and victorious Christ stands, the devil must flee.
Now, who here trusts in God above all things all the time? I wouldn’t be too quick to highlight yourself here. The fact of the matter is that no one trusts in God perfectly. No one trusts in God above all things all the time. That’s why this is the First Commandment. We break this one ALL THE TIME! We put our trust, our fear, and our hope in all kinds of people and things all the time. If we give God a shot at all, it’s often only as a last resort, after we’ve tried and failed and tried and failed some more; after all our other gods have failed us. That’s when we cry out to Him to be merciful; to save us; to deliver us. And even then, if we don’t get the immediate results we’re looking for, we blame God or believe the lies of the devil that tell us that we’re not holy enough or good enough, and we need to do more in order to get right with God and get on His good side. “God, I’ll do this really big thing for you, and in return you can help me out with this really big favor.”
But…that wasn’t the case with Jesus, not in the desert wilderness after forty days of fasting, not during the three years of being hounded and harassed by all those people who hated Him and wanted Him gone, not even while He hung on the cross and the devil returned with the very same temptations, hitting Jesus at His absolutely lowest point in life. “If you really are the Christ, save yourself and come down off that cross. You don’t need all that pain and suffering. Come down. You, who had the power to turn stones into bread, has the power to come off that cross and stop all the suffering. If you really are the Christ, it doesn’t have to be this way. It doesn’t have to end this way.”
But that’s just it: It does have to end this way, and thank God that it did end this way. If it wasn’t for the death of God-in-the-flesh, we would be lost and condemned forever. That’s how great and grave our sin truly is. We can’t make amendment for even one single sin, let alone an eternity’s worth of them. Only the sinless can cancel out the debt of sin, and Christ Jesus is the only sinless One. Apart from Christ and His all-redeeming sacrifice, our only hope would be sharing hell with Satan. That’s it. But Christ Jesus humbled Himself to the will of His heavenly Father. He trusted that His Father knew best and was working all things for His good and for the good of all those who love Him, even as He suffered.
And that right there is where I want to take you back to the very beginning of this sermon. Context matters. Folks: This account of Christ’s wilderness temptations isn’t some separate little, once-upon-a-time narrative in a collection of little stories and vignettes that make up the life of Jesus. No. This event took place immediately after Jesus was baptized. More specifically (and more to the contextual point), this event took place immediately after Jesus heard the Word of His heavenly Father that said, “You are My beloved Son. With You I am well-pleased.” Jesus heard that Word, and He believed it. He held fast to it, even when He was forty days in the wilderness without a friend in the world, without a thing to eat, and the devil was hitting Him when He was at one of the lowest points in His life. Jesus trusted the Word His Father declared. No matter what the circumstances were; no matter how dark or bleak things seemed; no matter how alone He may have felt, He trusted wholly and perfectly that His Father meant what He said in Baptism: You are My beloved Son. I am well-pleased with You. You are in My grace and favor. I love You.
Again, how many of us can say we have that kind of trust? This is why faithful preachers and teachers have NEVER taught this account as a “how-to methodology.” It’s not a “how-to.” It’s the First Commandment, and when it comes to trusting in God above all things all the time, we fail, and we fail miserably. But…Christ does not. Christ fulfills this commandment perfectly. He trusts perfectly. All this He does, not for brownie points or fame or glory or any other form of personal self-exaltation, but for us and for our salvation. He does all this, endures all this, suffers all this…for us. He walks the Way of His Father (that’s the little part the devil had left out when he [mis]quoted Scripture to Jesus). Jesus is kept and guarded in His Way, precisely because His Way is the Way of the Father. Jesus and the Father didn’t have different maps or different plans. The Way of the Father was the Way of Jesus. The Way of Jesus was the Way of the Cross. This was and is the ONLY way that atonement for all sin could be made. Jesus Christ—God in the flesh—had to die, and die He did…for us. I know I say it all the time, but it always bears repeating: Look to this cross. Here is God’s wrath against sin. Here is the wage of sin. Here, in this same moment and point is God’s unconditional and boundless love for you. Here is a love for you that runs so incomprehensibly deep that it willingly sacrificed His only-begotten Son to save you. Here is a love so deep, so wide, and so profound that it willingly gave up all of heaven’s majesty to take on weak and pathetic flesh, suffering all the pains and sorrows and humilities that go along with that flesh, all for the sole purpose of taking that flesh to the cross as payment for your sin; as ransom for you and your salvation.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: You, too, are baptized children of God. God Himself has brought this cruciform victory to you, bringing it to you right here in the waters of Holy Baptism. In Holy Baptism He put His name upon you. In this humble little washing, God spoke His Word of forgiveness, life, and salvation to you, adopting you as His own precious child, and putting His name upon your head and your heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ the Lord. With you He is well-pleased. You, my dear brothers and sisters, are beloved; beloved by almighty God Himself; the same almighty God who suffered, died, and rose again, declaring victoriously, “It is finished.” And finished it is, in Christ and because of Christ. In the words of St. Paul, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death and His resurrection?” Christ’s victory is your victory. It is finished. You are God’s beloved, baptized child, and with you He is well-pleased. Trust in this Word. Trust in His justification. Call upon Him (which is what the Latin word “Invocabit” means). Call upon Him, in good times, in bad times, in sickness, in health, richer, poorer, bull market, bear market. Call upon Him. Hold fast to Him. He hears you. He loves you. He cares for you and delivers you. Notice: I didn’t say to simply recite and regurgitate and cookie-cutter Jesus. No! Imitate Christ, though, and hold fast to God! Hold fast to your justification. Hold fast to His baptismal promise!
You are a baptized, redeemed child of God. You bear Christ’s name and victory upon your head and your heart. Nothing and no one can ever snatch that away. May this blessed Gospel Truth be your rock, your hope, your assurance, and your peace, all your remaining days. AMEN.
Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people.
Send Pastor Jason Zirbel an email.