The first verse of our reading is rather shocking if you think about it. “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil.” We don’t usually think of temptation as a spiritual exercise.
Jesus had just been baptized. In his baptism, Jesus had taken his place with all the sinners who lined up to receive John’s baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He had heard the voice of the Father say, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Father is saying “Yes” to the Son’s mission of saving sinners by fully entering human life.
But how could Jesus enter fully into human life without facing our enemy. How could he deliver us without entering our battle with temptation, sin, and the Devil? So the Spirit led him from the water of baptism directly into the wilderness of temptation. If Jesus is going to save us, he will have to face our enemy.
Yes, we all face a powerful, smart, and ruthless enemy. Behind the scenes of our ordinary lives there is a battle going on, a battle for our souls. As Paul puts it, “our battle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) And the leader of this enemy army is the Devil, the Prince of Darkness.
The whole Bible agrees on this. It assumes there is this mysterious spiritual enemy force at loose in the world called the Devil, or Satan. I say mysterious because we cannot fully understand where the Devil comes from, or who it really is. But the Devil is real. If we look into our hearts, if we have felt that powerful gravitational pull toward sin, if we see the how the world constantly erupts in violence and chaos, we know the Devil is real.
Someone once said we can make the mistake of either of thinking too little of the Devil or too much.
If you don’t believe the Devil is such a big deal, think about this. Jeffery Burton Russell, a highly regarded professor of history once wrote a scholarly history of the Devil. His personal conclusion: The Devil is “A real force…actively present in the cosmos urging evil. This force has a purposive center that actively hates good, the cosmos, and every individual in the cosmos. It urges us to hate good, the cosmos, other individuals, and ourselves. It has terrible and immense effects,
But we can also think too much of the Devil’s power. Professor Russell concludes by saying, “but [the Devil] is ultimately futile; every individual can defeat it in himself or herself by drawing upon the loving power of God.”
The classic mistake is to make the Devil into a kind of god-like figure. The Bible is clear, the Devil is a creature, like we are. One way the Bible talks about the Devil is that it is an angelic being, who has rebelled against God. So, as an angelic being, the Devil has more power than we do, but it is no rival to God.
The Devil is essentially an evil parasite, like a malignant cancer. It has to have something to live off of, and all it has to live off of us God’s good creation. So the only way the Devil can operate is to make us see good as evil and evil as good. And it does that by lying, pure and simple. The Bible calls the Devil the “Father of Lies.”
We can see it in the ancient story of the fall in the Garden of Eden. The Serpent says to Eve, “Did God say you cannot eat from any tree in the Garden?” A lie, of course, but it also suggests that God just wants to restrict us. Eve corrects the serpent. “No God just said we couldn’t eat from the one tree of the knowledge of good and evil or we will die.”
But now at least the serpent has her thinking about it. So it says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And we all know the rest of that story.
The Devil doesn’t come with red neon signs flashing the message: SIN! EVIL! BAD! No, The Devil’s tactics are subtle, telling lies, planting doubts, twisting good into evil, and evil into good.
Today, instead of looking at each one of the temptations the Devil throws at Jesus, we are going to back up a bit. We will take a wide angle view. We will look at how Jesus battles the Devil, his battlefield tactics.
If you look at the three temptations from that wider perspective, you realize that Jesus battles the Devil with basically two weapons– the calling of his baptism, and the Word of God, the Bible. Jesus does battle in the same way his fellow human beings must, he used what we call ordinary means of grace, the sacraments and the word of God.
Remember that Jesus met the Devil in the wilderness fresh from his baptism. The Father’s words were still ringing in his ears, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased.” In Jesus’ baptism the Father affirmed two things: who Jesus is, and what he is called to do. He is the beloved Son, and he has a mission to enter human life to redeem us from sin and death.
Today, Sarah was baptized. In her baptism she received her identity, her adoption as a daughter of God through Jesus Christ, and she received her mission, to follow Jesus.
Each one of Jesus’ temptations were aimed, in one way or another, at those two very things– Jesus’ identity and mission. In the first two temptations, the Devil raises doubts about who he is, “If you are the Son of God, make these stones into bread.” “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down.” Show me. Display your power. Prove who you are.
But Jesus believes in the identity given in his baptism. He knows who he is. He refuses to doubt that God-given identity.
The Devil then tries to turn Jesus from his baptismal mission–identifying with humanity, being one of us. Mere humans will experience hunger in the wilderness, but you are the Son of God. You have the power to make stones into bread.
See the point? Jesus can show his human face out there in the world, but in the loneliness of the wilderness, he can help himself to bread made miraculously from rocks. But Jesus trusts in his baptismal mission to live a fully human life. He refuses to miraculously feed himself while others work for their daily bread
The most damaging weapon of the Devil aims at getting us to doubt our identity. The Devil wants us to doubt that we are sons and daughters of God in Jesus Christ. To do that the Devil accuses us of sin and paints us with guilt. After all, the Devil’s other name is Satan, which means the accuser. If you are a child of God, why are you such a messed up sinner? Once we accept that identity, we will start to live by it, and that’s disastrous.
How do you deal with that? What can you hold on to? When Martin Luther faced off the devil in his doubts and fears he would cry out, “I have been baptized!”
We need to fight the devil by remembering each day who we are. I am a baptized son of daughter of God through Jesus Christ. The Devil can accuse me all day long, but I have been washed in the blood of Christ and called to a new life in him. Our identity as baptized children of God is crucial.
If our first defensive weapon is our baptism. The second is the Word of God. I want you to notice that in answering every one the three temptations, Jesus quotes the Word of God, the Bible. In fact, the three texts are all from Deuteronomy 6-9.
In a way you would think that Jesus could answer for himself as the Son of God without quoting scripture. But remember, his mission is to be one of us, and so he has to use the same weapons we do.
In John 17 Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” The Word of God is the truth by which we live. It is God’s trustworthy word to guide us in every aspect of our faith, and how we live it out. Unless we know the scriptures and live by them, we stand unarmed before the Prince of Darkness.
But the Devil is a liar, a deceiver, and it can twist and manipulate the Word of God. Down through history the twisted abuse of scripture has been used to justify slavery, war, and the degradation of women. It’s all the Devil’s work.
So the Devil takes Jesus to the highest point in the temple and invites him to take a swan dive to impress the crowds. The Devil can quote Scripture too. ‘It is written. ‘God will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
The Devil’s chosen text, Psalm 91, is wonderful. It’s a great encouragement to trust in God. But does it really invite us to leap off tall buildings? What does the text really say? What do other texts say that help us understand this one.
So Jesus responds to the devil with another text. He doesn’t say, that text is wrong. He says “It is also written, ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” You shall not manipulate God to your own ends. You shall not use the Bible for your own purposes. You shall not force God to accept your program.
In his reply to the Devil, Jesus teaches us to love and respect the scriptures, but he also teaches how to apply them, interpret them, and understand them with the help of the Holy Spirit. He counters the devil’s crass, literal, self-serving interpretation of Scripture with a more careful one. He interprets one scripture with another.
Jesus is teaching us that there is an order of scriptural truth, in which every text needs to be interpreted in the light of others. It’s really a lesson in how to interpret the Bible.
So let’s put it all together. If we are going to do battle with the Devil, we dare not go into that war zone with without weapons. The Devil may not be all-powerful, but it is stronger than we are, and it’s foolish to go into this battle in our own feeble strength.
But we don’t need that much. When David went out to fight Goliath, he didn’t take the heavy armor Saul tried to push on him. He just needed a sling and a few small stones.
First, we need the sling of our baptism, that new identity given us in Jesus Christ. Satan cannot load us with guilt or point his accusing finger at us. We are forgiven children of God, redeemed by Christ on the cross, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’s what our baptism gives us.
Next we need the ammunition of the Scriptures, rightly interpreted and understood. With it we can answer the Devil’s twisted lies. Paul calls the Word of God the “sword of the Spirit.” It is the truth by which we live and the weapon by which we cut through the Devil’s lies.
So, the two weapons of our warfare with the Devil are God’s Word and the sacraments. And, amazingly, that’s exactly what we come to church for each week. Our whole worship service revolves around word and sacrament– pulpit, baptismal font, and table.
In our worship we hear God’s Word and are taught how to understand it. We remember our God-given identity given in baptism. We confirm it when we gather around the table to share in the body and blood of Christ who won our forgiveness. Word and sacrament.
We come here every Sunday to worship God. But as we do that we are arming ourselves for that battle with the Devil and all the hosts of evil we will fight every day. Here we receive the weapons of our warfare.
“The Weapons of our Warfare”
Matthew 4: 1-11
March 5, 2017
©Leonard J. Vander Zee
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The Weapons of our Warfare