First Congregational Church
February 14, 2015
First Sunday In Lent
“Amazing Grace for the Tempted”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Call me Angelo. I know that’s not a very creative handle, especially when compared to Michael or Gabriel, those great champions of the heavenly host. I’m just one member of that vast angel pool God calls on to do whatever God says whenever God pleases.
I’ve been around since the beginning. God created thousands upon thousands of angels to worship at God’s throne and do God’s bidding. But some of our ranks became discontented at the honor of always serving and worshiping and obeying. They rebelled. They fell from the lofty place to which God had raised them. Satan, sometimes called Lucifer, was their leader. Michael the archangel fought against them.
The war in heaven was so horrific human language can’t describe it and so the details have never been revealed to you. But to St. John, in his Revelation, a window was opened through which he could peer and catch just a glimpse of the awful event. Here’s what he says: “Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.” (Revelation 12:7-9)
That ended the rebellion in heaven. There never was and never will be any chance that Satan can defeat the eternal and almighty God. But that doesn’t mean he just goes away, conceding his loss. No, he keeps at it, hammering away at whatever is dear to God. And that would be the creation, the world, and especially that which is most precious to the Creator - human beings.
All of creation is precious to God. God’s the Master Planner, the Designer, the Maker, the Sustainer of all things. But most precious of all, more precious even than angels like me, is humanity, people, you, his highest creation. Of all that God created, only Adam and Eve were made in God’s image, holy and beautiful, each a unique echo and reflection of God’s self, able to see God and speak with God face to face. Even the holy angels cover own faces in the presence of God. But not Adam and Eve when God formed them and breathed into them God’s own spirit of life.
So, of course, Satan chose them for his target. If he could deceive Adam and Eve, tempting them to doubt God’s love and so disobey God, Satan could destroy what God cherished most and claim victory for himself. He could set himself up as the king of a world created by God but fractured and corrupted by the sin he introduced. That was Satan’s strategy.
It would appear to have worked. Adam and Eve were deceived. They were tempted. They fell. They ate fruit from the one tree God denied them in the Garden. The consequences for their sin were just as God had told them, a life of struggle, of suffering and eventual death.
But even in Eden, after what looked like a victory for Satan, God revealed, ever so cryptically, God’s plan to redeem fallen creation. Far in the future the serpent would strike at a descendant of the woman, wounding him, but that descendant would in turn deal a crushing blow to the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).
That brings me to another scene of temptation, not a lovely garden of plenty this time, but a barren wilderness. Yes, Satan had claimed the world as his kingdom, but it was never really his. It was still the property of its Maker, and its fallen children were still the love of God’s heart. What happened there in the wilderness would be part of the battle over you.
The battle to win back God’s highest creation, humanity, was announced again and again by the prophets. The Messiah would come, the Anointed One, the divine Son of God’s self. That One would do battle with Satan and his demon horde and vanquish them forever. But it would not be like the epic war that took place in heaven at the dawn of creation. It would be a quiet war that would hardly be noticed. It would begin small, like a mustard seed.
Every Sunday school child knows how the quiet war began. A baby was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Gabriel was there to announce it. I was there with the angel chorus to sing the good news to shepherds. And so was Satan; but he was there to oppose it. Herod was his servant, the king who thought he was looking after his own interests.
But it wasn’t just Herod’s kingdom that the infant Jesus threatened. It was Satan’s. Satan knew that should the Child survive, Satan’s dominion would be lost. So Satan attacked with full fury, slaughtering innocent little boys, using Herod’s soldiers to carry out his brutality. But the Child escaped. The champion for the invasion by the Kingdom of God was secured.
It’s not my purpose to tell you of the stories of Jesus’ childhood and manhood. Suffice it to say that he grew up as a normal boy in a normal family with normal brothers and sisters. He was every bit as normal as you or anyone in your family or any neighbor or friend you’ve ever had. He had the same needs, the same emotions, the same growing pains, as anyone else. In fact, like every other human being he was susceptible to temptation.
Satan knew that. Temptation was where he had scored his first great victory and introduced suffering and death into the world. Having succeeded once, he would try it again. This time the stakes were much higher. This time it was winner take all; the victory of Satan and your enslavement to sin and death forever, or the victory of Jesus and your forgiveness and freedom forever.
The two met on an isolated battlefield. There was no one there to help Jesus. Yes, I was there with other holy angels, but we were not there to intervene. We were there to watch, to witness.
So Jesus, alone, faced Satan in combat for the life of the world. The temptations that attacked his needs as a human being, his identity as the Son of God, his natural desire to live and avoid the agony of the cross. For Jesus, these temptations didn’t come when he was well fed and safe and rested and living in Paradise, as it was when Adam and Eve were tempted. No, these temptations came as Jesus chose: exhausted, starving, thirsty and alone in a desert.
For forty days he had eaten nothing. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” the tempter mocked him (Matthew 4:3). IF you are the Son of God? Of course he was the Son of God! And he who made the stones could certainly turn them into bread if he wanted to.
What will Jesus do? This was a very real temptation. Remember that though Jesus was the Son of God, he was also human, just like you.
Here’s how he answers, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:3-4) Life is more than food, Jesus is saying. Life is believing in and trusting God’s promises. And there in the wilderness that is what Jesus does in your place, making up for all your failures to believe in and trust God.
Another temptation comes. “The devil took him to the holy city [Jerusalem] and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,’ for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6).
Say what you will about Satan, he’s a fast learner. If Jesus turns the sword of Holy Scripture against him, then Satan will just use the same weapon against Jesus. That’s what’s he’s doing here. He’s using God’s own Word to spin his web of deception.
But Jesus is no fool. He sees through this trick. Yes, God is always there for God's people as they go through the threatening perils of life. But God doesn’t bless their foolish and dangerous behavior. So Jesus replies, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).
Then there’s the last temptation, perhaps the most powerful one. Jesus knows what’s ahead for him. He knows that the price of redemption for the world and his own return to the right hand of God is the horror of Good Friday. The betrayal of Judas, the trials with false witnesses, the denial of Peter, the whip, the thorns, the nails, the cross, separation from God, the grave—incomprehensible suffering lies ahead for Jesus, but he must bear it if sinners are to be saved and Paradise restored. It would be so much easier just to call in sick, refuse the suffering and take the devil’s next offer, a very rich one.
Now the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; their wealth, their power. “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9).
This would be so easy. This is exactly the sort of offer Satan has used to entrap the children of God for centuries. In the days of the Roman Empire, Christianity was illegal; you could lose your property, your family and your life if you were baptized. But, said, Caesar, “If you will just worship my statue, if you’ll just burn a little pinch of incense before it, I’ll leave you alone. All your suffering will go away. You can live happily ever after.”
Thousands died rather than do it. Thousands more worshiped before the statue.
These oaths to Caesar are really just examples of people bowing down to Satan so they can get ahead, so they can keep their jobs, so they can be successful. If you were put in the position of taking an oath like that, what would you do? If it meant losing your life or property or livelihood or family if you didn’t take the oath, what would do?
I’m not human—I’m just a holy angel. But I’ve observed human nature for a very long time. I suspect that many if not most of you would take the oath; in effect falling down and worshiping Satan. Many of you, to your shame, would fail.
But what about Jesus? What does he do when faced with that choice, a choice of ease and luxury and power on the one hand, or incomprehensible loss, suffering and death on the other?
Here’s how Jesus answers Satan, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” At that point, “the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:10-11).
And that, of course, is me. I’m like the trainer at a boxing match, observing everything, but able to do nothing till the round is over. Now I offer my champion a cool wet towel to refresh him.
Back to those oaths. Guess what? In every case, when the person demanding the oath is defeated or dies, the oath is no longer in effect. The consequences are canceled! Caesar is dead. None of the oaths he forced on others will bind anyone ever again.
That’s where you come in, and all the temptations you’ve faced, and failed to overcome. Having watched over God’s people as long as I have, even having been in their churches, I’ve heard interesting takes on the temptations of Jesus. Perhaps most popular is that Jesus’ use of Scripture to defeat Satan is the secret to overcoming temptation in your own life. All you need to do when the devil puts you in a tough spot is quote the right Bible verse. The devil will run away, and you’ll have victory over your temptation.
It would be great if it worked. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Many is the time I’ve been at the side of a sorely tempted Christian and heard him quote Scripture even as he gave in to the very temptation he sought to avoid. That’s because Christians, while forgiven, are still fallen sinners. Quoting scripture may bring comfort to a moment, but even Adam and Eve quoted God, adding a few of their own words, just before they fell. Now that Adam and Eve have fallen, and bequeathed to all their progeny a sinful nature, human beings are even less able to withstand temptation.
So there has to be a better interpretation of what happened when Jesus defeated Satan in the wilderness. Here’s what it is: Jesus’ success against temptation is accounted by God as your success. Just as Adam represented you in the Garden and failed miserably, bringing sin and death upon you, so Jesus represents you in the wilderness and restores to you holiness and life. God accounts Christ’s victory as your victory, even as his suffering and death are accounted as your suffering and death, and so you are spared - by faith - the consequences of sin.
It’s just as the writer of Hebrews says, “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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
So the next time you’re tempted, don’t come looking for me. We holy angels will be around but we can’t get you out of a mess you get yourself in. And don’t just quote Bible verses; that’s probably just going to make you feel more guilty. Here’s what I recommend: cling to Jesus by faith, be joined to him, and let him take on the devil for you. When you do, the devil flees.
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, you know the power of the temptations we face, having faced them yourself and won. Grant us boldness to resist evil, not in our own strength but in the strength of faith in you, our champion in the fight. Thank you for the victory over temptation, sin and death you have gained for us. In your name all your people say, Amen.
By Don Neidigk. © 2015 Creative Communications for the Parish, 1564 Fencorp Dr., Fenton, MO 63026. 800-325-9414. www.creativecommunications.com. All rights reserved.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.