Just as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.Romans 5:19
C.S. Lewis once said that there are two equal and opposite mistakes you can make when it comes to the devil: One is to disbelieve in his existence. The other is to believe, but to have an excessive and unhealthy interest in him. His words still ring true to me. I think that we often still make these mistakes today. Sometimes, we might take too much interest in the evil that is in our world. We can look around our world today, and see all manner of evil, and we can fall into the trap of believing that the devil must be in charge of our world. But at other times, we might be tempted to deny that the evil one even exists. It might seem like a rather old-fashioned way of explaining the presence of evil in our world.
Today, what I want to try to do is avoid each of these mistakes. I want to spend some time thinking about the devil with you. And look at some ways that we can resist him, even renounce him, just as Jesus once did on our behalf.
The First Sin
And to do that, we really have to start in the Garden of Eden, with the serpent, who we are told in our first reading, Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, “was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” And already, we learn something important about the evil one: That he was created by God. And that he, too, must submit to God. Whatever we may believe or think about the devil, he is clearly less than God. This serpent may be crafty, and he shouldn’t be ignored. But neither should fear of him control our lives.
Well, as we all know, this crafty serpent brought sin into our world. And it has been here ever since. Sin came into the world through them, as Paul teaches us in our second reading (Romans 5:12-19), “and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned.” Sin, death, and the devil – what Martin Luther called the “unholy trinity” – are clearly still present in our world. But they are no longer in charge. Because a champion has come to fight, whom God himself elected. Just as Martin Luther put it in his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Or, as Paul put it in our second reading: “Just as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”
And who is that one man? Who is it who finally wins the war against sin, death, and the devil? It is Christ Jesus, our mighty Lord, God’s only Son, adored, who holds the field victorious.
Reversing the Curse
And so we fast forward to our gospel reading (Matthew 4:1-11), where we find Jesus locked in battle with the evil one. And we see in this gospel story a kind-of reverse of the story of the first sin in Genesis. The crafty serpent is back – twisting God’s word, testing, tempting, trying to convince Jesus to eat forbidden fruit. But ultimately failing.
The timing of this story is very important. It takes place right after Jesus is baptized, and right before he begins his public ministry. So before he begins to preach and teach and heal and call, he first must pass this important test. Jesus has been baptized by John. He has heard the voice of his heavenly father saying: “This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And now, he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And as I said, the timing of all this is important.
Jesus is tempted right after he is baptized. And I think that holds true for us as well. Our greatest temptations often come after we are baptized, after we are involved in the church, as we are trying to live out our faith. Living faithfully makes the devil nervous. And so, he gets to work. Tempting us. Testing us. Trying to bump us off the straight and narrow path. And any method will do.
As I have often said, if I were the devil, my busiest and most productive time would be Sunday mornings, when we are getting ready for church. Most of us don’t have to be at church as early as we have to be at work or at school. But how much harder is it to get ready, and to get out the door, on a Sunday morning? The devil at work. I’ve also often said that the devil loves when a church is arguing about something – anything! – because that means less energy for doing what God is calling us to do.
Seeing the devil at work in this way is helpful. Because it turns us back to the champion who came to fight for us. It turns us back to Jesus. Jesus shows us how to defeat the devil. And he defeats him on our behalf. But it’s important to recognize that Jesus really was tempted, in the wilderness. And everything that we believe about Jesus hinges on his victory over this very real temptation, and his victory over the devil.
Jesus’ First Temptation
So what about the specific temptations that the devil uses on Jesus? What can we learn from these three attempts that the devil makes to throw Jesus off his course? The first attempt was through the simple temptation of hunger. Jesus has been fasting forty days and forty nights, and he is famished. And the devil reminds him that he is the Son of God; he can command the stones all around him to become loaves of bread. Indeed, later in his ministry he will feed 5,000, with bread and fish leftover.
He can do it. And it must have been tempting. The devil’s temptations are often very reasonable. And obviously very clever. But think of how important it was for Jesus to overcome this simple temptation. If the devil could have just convinced Jesus to turn the stones into bread and take care of his hunger, think of how easy it would have been for him to convince Jesus to come down from the cross and not be crucified for the sins of humanity! Any temptation will do. And if Jesus begins to think of himself first, even in this small way, it will start an avalanche that will take him from his mission.
Jesus, obviously, does not give in to this temptation – he reminds the devil that he chooses to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. He quotes scripture. A good thing to do when we are facing temptation. But it turns out that the devil knows scripture, too. Which takes us to the second temptation.
The Second Temptation
The devil placed Jesus 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, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Yes, this serpent is crafty. He quotes scripture to Jesus. And tempts him to take a shortcut to accomplish his mission.
Why wait for the cross? Why endure its shame? Just throw yourself down now. Get it over with. Test God’s love for you. How tempting this must have been for him! But again, he finds strength in God’s Word. He does not take advantage of his Father’s love, and he does not put the Lord his God to the test.
I suppose we are all tempted to test God at times. To bargain with God. If you would just do this for me, God, then I will do what I know you are asking. Or, if you want me to do this, give me a sign. Prove it. It’s easy to do, isn’t it? To be tempted to test God in this way.
One of the purposes of Lent is to wrestle with these kinds of questions. To spend a little extra time in church, with the Bible, in prayer. To learn from Jesus to face down these temptations. But there is one more temptation that Jesus faces. And that crafty serpent may have saved the best for last.
The Final Temptation
The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and offers them all instantly, if he would only fall down and worship Satan. This, too, believe it or not, must have been very tempting. I think we can all agree that the world would be better off if Jesus were in control! If he just took charge, and made this world do his Father’s will.
Jesus knew that the way of the cross would not be the quickest or most effective way to usher in the Kingdom of God. How much easier would it have been for him to worship Satan, and be given all the kingdoms of the world. And think of how much good he could do with all that power! And isn’t this a universal temptation? Isn’t it always tempting to use politics and power to force what we think is right on our world? Politics are important, surely, but they are never most important. We may be tempted to place our hope in politics or power, but that is not the way of the cross; it is not the way of God. We are to worship the Lord our God and serve only him. Trust that God has a plan for this world. A plan that cares more for love and mercy than power and control.
One day every knee will bend and every tongue will proclaim that Jesus is Lord. One day, Jesus will come again to judge all the nations of the earth. But only after he has died for the sins of the world. Only after he has emptied himself of his divinity, and become obedient, even unto death. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. And we see that obedience in today’s gospel reading.
The great Christian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is reported to have said that: “If every copy of the Bible were destroyed, and we had only the single page which tells the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, it would be enough.” Why? Because this story foreshadows everything that the rest of the gospel story will tell us so clearly: That Jesus has overcome the devil, and earned our salvation, not by power or by force, but by obedience and by love.
And that is why we need not fear the devil or his empty promises, even while we dare not ignore his existence. And that is why we can undertake the discipline of Lent – self-examination and repentance, prayer and fasting, sacrificial giving and works of love – with confidence and hope. Because we know that our Lord has already done all this for us, and for the world. Sin, death, and the devil have been defeated, once and for all. Thanks be to God. Amen.
6 thoughts on “One Man’s Obedience: My Sermon on the First Sunday in Lent”
This is very well done and vital for every Christian to read.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Excellent sermon, but I find it difficult to believe that “the evil one…was created by God.” In my layman’s mind the devil would seem or be a separate entity unto itself and of another world or dimension or origin, i.e. NOT created by God. I’m probably missing the whole point here, scripture-wise, so I would appreciate your clarification.
This is a wonderfully balanced sermon. I hadn’t stopped to think how important the temptation of Jesus is.