Sunday, February 10, 2008

Sticks, Stones, and the Word of God

First Sunday Lent
Silas, Fellow Worker of Peter and Paul
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Matthew 4:1-11

Just when you think you know someone. Have you ever found out something about someone you knew well that shocked you? You might even have said, “I thought I knew you.” There is often more to people than meets the eye. We may think we know people very well and then find out differently.

Well, there’s someone we need to get to know better, because we probably don’t know him as well as we think we do. But let me immediately rephrase. Because this isn’t someone we want to get to know. But we do need to know who he is. So often we treat him as an afterthought.

He’s very real. He has some power. And he’s not afraid to come after us. After all, he came right up to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. He’s the devil. And if you think you know him, or even who he is, think again. He’s not just a scary guy with horns on his head or even a being that comes to you in a more seductive way to harm you.

One reason why Jesus was tempted as He was is so that we can know exactly what we’re up against. In giving his account of the temptation of Jesus Luke refers to the devil as the “the devil” four times. Matthew does also. However, Matthew also refers to him as the “tempter” and as “Satan”. These different terms for the devil tell us much about him and what we’re up against.

Matthew first says that Jesus was tempted by the devil. We’re so used to referring to the devil as the devil that we might not think twice about what the word means and what it means that he is the devil. In English it simply means that he is the supreme agent of evil, God’s foremost enemy. We have almost come to think of it as a position. What is at the essence of who the devil is? The Greek word in the Gospel reading is “diabolos”. This is where we get our word diabolical from. It refers to one who engages in slander. The devil is very much a slanderer.

Jesus began His Ministry in celebration. He was commended by His Heavenly Father and anointed by the Holy Spirit. This was His commissioning. His ordination. His anointing. He was now ready and willing to serve and be the Messiah. But there was no time for any Ministry just yet, because He was thrown into the desert by the Holy Spirit in order to be tempted. So much for celebration. Here He was welcomed by the Father and the Spirit only to be attacked by the devil.

Matthew tells us how the devil attacked Him, too. He says that the “tempter” came to Him. We are all tempted. There are many people that tempt us. But none of them is the “Tempter” except this one. This is who he is. This is what he does.

Matthew has called the devil both the slanderer and the tempter. But Jesus gets personal. At the end of it all Jesus calls him Satan. The name Satan means “adversary”. And he is every bit that, using slander and temptation to attack Jesus. Jesus knows exactly who He’s dealing with. The devil has been a liar from the beginning. Jesus is also very aware that Satan knows what he’s doing. He himself uses God’s Word. This means that he knows the Word of God. But when Satan uses it, he twists it and distorts it.

He did this with Eve. He came up to her under the pretense of talking to her about the Word of God, but put doubt in her mind—“Did God really say?” He does the same thing with Jesus, starting off with the most recently heard Word of God, that of God the Father at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is My beloved Son.” So, the devil says to Jesus, “If You are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread.” In other words, God said You’re His Son, so prove it! It’ll help You out a lot, too, as hungry as You are after not eating for forty days. And what’s the big deal, it’s just a little way of getting something out of this raw deal You seem to have gotten from God, Your Father. If You are His beloved Son, then why has He left You out here in the desert to practically starve?

So Satan had been listening. He had heard the Word of the Heavenly Father at Jesus’ Baptism. But it’s one thing to hear the Word of God, it’s another to believe it and take it as it stands. Satan rebels against it and slanders God. Jesus knows the Word of God also and uses it against Satan: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.” So He’ll stand with the Word He has just heard from His Heavenly Father, thank you very much. And every other one, for that matter. God’s Word may not satisfy His stomach, but Jesus knows it will sustain Him in His fasting and in His temptation from Satan.

But Satan is not deterred. This time he goes to the written Word of God. He says He loves You, He promised to protect You. Turning the stones to bread would help You but no one else would know that You have all these great powers. Why not show the people who You are and how God makes good on His promise to protect those He loves? If You were to jump off the temple and not hit the ground in death, that could only be a good thing for You and God—you’d get all kinds of followers. And isn’t this exactly what so many people want? Some kind of sign? Some spectacular display of power to show that Jesus is truly God? Satan knows exactly which buttons to push.

But if he knows the Word of God and how to twist it to his evil ends, Jesus knows it more so and exactly the purpose for which it was given. So He comes right back at Satan with the Word of God. Yes, what you say is true that God will protect those He loves. But you are not to test Him. He is the one who helps you in your need. You don’t go looking for trouble just so that He can rescue you.

At this point we see that it’s true that the Word of God sustains those who trust in God and flee to His Word for help in times of trouble and temptation. We tend to forget how human Jesus was. He was completely human. He was born a man, just like you and I have been born men and women. We are fleshly creatures in a physical world. What we see is as real as it gets. And when someone waves at you a whole lot of stuff you don’t have, well, that’s enticing for just about anyone. Including Christ.

He had stepped off His throne. Granted, He did it willingly. But when we choose to do something noble and the going gets rough, don’t we have second thoughts at times? Like when you embark on an exercise program. Things are going well, but after a while, sitting on the couch and eating chips is a lot more appealing than laboring on the treadmill. Or when you experience that excitement of volunteering at a nursing home and you feel rewarded at bringing joy to people who may not have much of it. But when your schedule gets crazy, and you’re getting a little run down yourself, the passion for helping out can vanish very quickly. Or what about when money is tight? Isn’t it more tempting to cut out giving your offering to God than other important items in your budget?

Jesus knew what He had chosen to do. He was God, and yet, very human. The Heavenly glory, the eternal power, the unearthly joy He knew must have seemed a distant memory now. He loved the world, but at what cost? Now where did He find Himself? In the middle of a desert. No food. No one to talk to. His Heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit weren’t around anymore so they could celebrate like they did forty days ago. At least that was something. Here Satan was at least talking to Him. And offering things that would even put Him in a better position in the eyes of the world.

All it would take would be one simple act. And would it really be that big of a deal to bow down to Satan just once? Jesus could even do it without His heart being in it. That’s really all Satan was asking for anyway. Just like with Eve, just one little taste. It can’t do much harm and it sure will be satisfying.

This is what we’re up against, then. Death, lies, a diabolical adversary who will stop at nothing to bring us down with him for all eternity. But Jesus knows that it’s all or nothing. There is no little taste or simple act of worship and then you can go on from there with your allegiance back to God. His final quote of the Word of God is coupled with a command: “Be gone Satan! You shall worship the Lord God and Him only shall you serve.”

This is the one thing Satan didn’t do. It’s the one thing we are most tempted not to do. It is abundantly clear that it is all or nothing with God. Even in His salvation. He went all out to save us. He faced even further temptation as He headed to the cross. But He never veered, even though it meant His life so that we may have life. Christ’s temptation and overcoming of it is anything but an interesting story. Here is the battle between eternal life and death. We all know the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Well, Satan doesn’t need sticks, or stones, or anything else to hurt us. He often uses simple words. Even the Word of God itself. And had Jesus turned those stones to bread all would have been lost.

Jesus held firm on the Word of God and that will never fail us. Amen.


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