A Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
St. Matthew 4:1-11
by William Klock
Last Sunday—the last Sunday before the great fast of Lent began—the lessons reminded us that the point of our fasting is to grow in love. That’s what Lent is all about. It’s not about being dreary or sad or sombre. It’s about focusing our attention on love. God the Father so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son. No man has shown greater love than the Son, who laid down his life for us. And love is the first and greatest work and fruit of the Holy Spirit as he united us to Jesus and transforms our lives with his grace. The Scriptures tells us about all sorts of godly works, and characteristics, and fruit that we should show in our lives as Christians, but all those things are born out of the greatest of all godly virtues: love.
Now that doesn’t mean that as we fast and put our attention on love, we won’t sometimes end up feeling dreary, or sad, or sombre. The more we focus on the love God has shown us in Jesus Christ, the more our attention should be drawn to the cross. If you look up behind me this morning at the cross, you can see that for Lent it’s draped in purple and hanging there in the centre is a crown of thorns. Purple is the colour of royalty and the purple cloth draped on the cross during Lent is meant to remind us that it was no mere man—not even a “good” man—who died on the cross for us, but that it was God himself—God Incarnate—who poured himself out, who set aside the glory that was his by right as God, who humbled himself and was born as one of us that he might die for our sins—die the death that we deserve. The cross reminds us of the painful death he died. The crown of thorns reminds us that it was no quick death, but that he—God Incarnate—allowed himself to be taunted and humiliated by men, tortured and beaten and mocked. We need the reminder that it was God who gave himself up as a sacrifice for sins, that it was no petty execution, and that it was all because of our sins and for our sake—so that God could reconcile us to himself and deliver us from the bondage and slavery of sin. The more we reflect and meditate on the cross, the more we understand the love of God—and the more we understood what he did in his love for us, the more we should mourn our sins and the more we should mourn the fact that even though he has freed us from the yoke of sin and made us new creations, we repeatedly and wilfully return to our sins. We should mourn the fact that love has not yet been perfected in us.
And as I said on Wednesday evening, this is why we need times of fasting. This is why the Church calls us to an annual fast. We need regular times in our lives that deliberately focus our attention on the cross, on the love that God has shown us, and on his call for us to love him and to love our brothers and sisters. If we don’t have these times of reflection, our fallen human tendency is to simply go on thinking that everything’s fine and that we’re doing okay. We start to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to. Ash Wednesday gave us the example of the ancient Jews, whom God called to a national fast of repentance through the prophet Joel—not a time when they were in the middle of national apostasy or gross sin, but at a time when, compared to much of their history, they were actually doing pretty well spiritually. And yet they still needed a reminder that they hadn’t “made it” yet, that they were still reliant on the grace of God whether they knew it or not, and that they still needed to grow in their love for God and their love for each other. Brothers and siters, we’re no different. We need this annual reminder that we are saved by grace and that we need to be always growing in grace—and as we grow in grace we grow in love—and as we grow in love, we grow in obedience to God.
As Lent focuses on the cross of Christ and on his love for us sinners, it should cause us to love him more. And as we grow in love for God, the first thing we should see in our lives is a growing desire to please him and to be obedient to his commands and precepts. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). It’s that simple. There are a thousand ways of showing love, but the one Jesus says is most important is that we will be obedient to him.
And that’s where these first three Sundays of Lent put our attention. They’re realistic about our situation. We all face temptation to sin—to be disobedient—and so as our love for God grows, one of our first questions should be: “How do I obey?” And that’s where our lessons pick up. The three sources of temptation are the world, the flesh, and the devil and today they point to the example of Jesus and show us how to be obedient, even when it’s the devil himself who tempts us.
Today’s Gospel picks up just after Jesus’ baptism by John. This was just before the beginning of his public ministry. In his baptism, his divinity was confirmed as the Holy Spirit descended on him and as the Father’s voice was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.” It was Jesus’ commissioning and no doubt would have been one of those spiritual “mountaintop” experiences. But then St. Matthew tells us that from the Jordan River, the Spirit led him into the wilderness—and that he specifically led Jesus there to be tempted by the devil. The temptation didn’t come immediately. Jesus first spent forty day and nights fasting and praying there in the wilderness and communing with his Father and with the Holy Spirit. At the end of those forty days Jesus was spiritually filled, but Matthew makes a point of saying that Jesus was also hungry. He was spiritually filled, but he was physically starving.
And that’s when Matthew says that “the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” Now remember how Adam fell into sin in the first place. Adam and Eve were fat and happy in the garden. They had everything they needed. They had all the food they could eat and they only had one commandment to obey. They could do whatever they wanted to as long as they didn’t eat the fruit from that one forbidden tree. It’s easy to forget that the Scriptures tell us that each of us would have fallen just as Adam did had we been there, but it’s still easy to get frustrated with Adam and think he was just plain stupid. Think of all the commandments God has given to us. In contrast Adam had just one—and it seems to us like it should have been an easy one to keep. And as “easy” as he had it, as much as he had no good reason or argument to break that one commandment, he did.
Now in the Gospel we see Jesus, the second Adam, approached by Satan in the wilderness. He’s starving after forty days with no food. Jesus is God, but he’s also man. He’s just as subject to the physical needs of the body as you and I are. After forty days, he was just as hungry as you or I would be. And he was still out in the wilderness, presumably with no real source of food around, so his fast was over, but he still had nothing to eat. And Satan comes to him and tempts him: “Jesus, you’re divine—you’re God—work a miracle and feed yourself! I know you’re hungry. Turn that rock into bread and eat it.” If it had been so easy to tempt Adam and to eat a piece of fruit that he had no need or earthly reason to eat, how much easier to tempt Jesus to abuse his power so that he can eat something when he’s starving? And remember too, that Jesus had just been confirmed as God’s Son in his baptism. Satan appeals to that and plays off it: “Why should the Son of God be starving in the wilderness? Come on, Jesus. It’s beneath your dignity!”
Satan often works like that. He affirms a certain amount of truth, but then he twists it for his own purposes. Just as he confirmed Adam’s sonship, now he confirms Jesus’ sonship. He wants to build up Jesus’ pride, just as he did with Adam: “Hey, yeah, that’s right! I am God’s son. Why shouldn’t I eat that fruit?” or “I am God’s Son! Why should I be starving here in the wilderness?” But where Adam fell to the temptation, Jesus did not. He knew that to be God’s son meant that God would provide if he would only trust his Father. And so he reminds Satan: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus knew—and so should we—that obedience is more important than personal comfort and that God’s sons and daughters are called to trust in him for their provision. Jesus really did need to eat—God created us with that need—but Jesus wasn’t willing to sin in order to meet it. Obedience was more important. He also knew that God would provide and he didn’t let what looked like a hopeless circumstance destroy his trust.
The other things we see in each of these three temptations is that Jesus overcomes the temptation because he knows Scripture. In fact, in each case, it’s not just that we can see him putting Scriptural principles to work in his obedience, but he actually quotes Scripture back at Satan. We can see the two ways that knowledge of Scripture helps us when we face temptation. First, the better we know Scripture in general, the better we’ll know God, know his will, and know what’s expected of us. Jesus wouldn’t have known that God’s Son should trust in his Father if it hadn’t been for what he learned of his Father in the Scriptures—and neither would we. Sin abounds where the Bible is not taught, because without the teaching of God’s Word, God’s people will never know his commandments and precepts. But we also see Jesus applying specific Scripture to specific temptation. It wouldn’t have necessarily taken Satan to tempt Jesus to turn the stones into bread. He hadn’t eaten in forty days. His flesh could have tempted him to do it too. This is just my speculation, but knowing human nature, I think it’s very likely that Jesus had already experienced fleshly temptation to do something like this even before Satan came. If he had, that may be why he was so ready with this Scripture—Deuteronomy 8:3—to ward off Satan’s attack and it shows us one of the greatest tools in the Christian’s spiritual toolbox: Scripture memory. If there’s some sin that you struggle with, memorise Scriptures that address that sin. Jesus may have been reminding himself of this passage every time he got hungry during those forty days and then when the temptation came again from Satan, he was ready. The Scripture that gave both God’s promise of provision and that laid out God’s expectation of our trust in him was right there. It turned an occasion of temptation into an immediate and real opportunity for obedience. I guarantee that if you memorise Scripture passages that deal with your particular problem sins, they will immediately come to mind when temptation strikes and give you pause to consider and to take the opportunity to obey.
So Satan tempted Jesus to stop trusting in the care and provision of his Father and lost. Now he takes a new tack. Matthew writes:
Then the devil took him to the holy city 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)
He failed to tempt Jesus where he was weak, so now he tempts him where he’s strong—in his faith. He tempts Jesus to presume upon his Father’s provision and care. He’s saying, “Jesus, you know that your Father will take care of you, so stand right here on the highest point in the city and jump off. You know you won’t get hurt, because your Father has promised to take care of you.” Jesus rebuked Satan with Scripture the last time, so this time Satan tries to get a jump on him: he actually tempts Jesus by quoting Scripture himself.
Brothers and sisters, Satan knows Scripture and he’ll happily throw it at us left and right if he thinks it’ll help him make us fall. I’ve heard Christians justify all sorts of sinful and presumptuous things by twisting Scripture. This is why it isn’t enough to have a casual acquaintance with the Bible. God’s people need to steep themselves in it. We need to know it well. We need to let it permeate our being. We need to know it well enough that we can tell when what we’re hearing is only part of the story or when what we’re hearing is Scripture being twisted to say something that God never intended. This is why we need to be careful not to take a verse here and a verse there out of context. If you do that, you can always find something in Scripture to justify pretty much anything.
Notice what Jesus does. Satan proof-texts a couple of verses, but Jesus quotes some more Scripture that totally changes the spin Satan put on them. Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Jesus lays Satan’s argument wide open. To presume is to tempt God; it’s to ask him to bless your disobedience. We presume when our faith in God’s care leads us to extravagance, or when our faith in his protection leads to needless danger, or when our faith in his mercy leads us into carelessness in our conduct. Basically, whenever we expect to receive God’s promises without observing his conditions—without living according to his commandments and precepts—we’re guilty of presumption.
When I was in elementary school my parents had a friend who was the king of presumption. It was the late 1970s and times were hard economically. Our family was forced to live on very little because my dad had such a hard time finding work. It seemed like every job he found was only part time or the company would go out of business within a few weeks or months. But he did everything he could to make sure that he was working and while he did that, he trusted in God’s promise of provision—and we really saw God take care of our family. This friend, however, took a very different approach. He would sit at home all day relaxing. He didn’t go out and look for work and if you asked him why, His answer was that God hadn’t told him to go look for work that day. If you asked him what he was going to do about food and rent and all that, he’d just tell you that he knew God would take care of him. Friends, that’s presumption. God doesn’t need to tell you to go look for a job when you’re unemployed. The Scriptures repeatedly condemn laziness and affirm the fact that God not only created us to work for our bread, but that he expects us to work for it as part of his provision for us. Doing nothing to provide for your family while expecting God to miraculously take care of them is presumption.
But it’s not just people who should be out looking for work and aren’t. Christians do this sort of thing frequently. Scripture gives us clear instructions for most areas of our lives, and yet I can’t count how many times I’ve heard Christians—instead of doing what the Bible clearly tells them to do—say, “Well, I’ll pray about it and ask God to tell me what to do.” Friends, that’s presumption too. When God has already spoken to us through the Scriptures, it’s presumptuous to then expect him to give us some new revelation to the contrary. It’s also sinful to neglect the duties he’s given us while we wait for an answer that’s not likely to come.
Finally, now, Satan tempts Jesus to be disloyal to his sonship. In verses 8 and 9 Matthew writes:
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Satan now tempts Jesus with something that looks really good. Jesus came to establish God’s kingdom and now here’s his chance: Satan’s willing to give him the whole world to rule with truth and righteousness. But to get to that good, there was an important catch: he had to fall down and submit himself to Satan—he had to deny his relationship with his Father. We face this kind of temptation all the time. It’s the temptation to do some evil—often something that seems very small or insignificant—in the hope that something good will happen. But, brothers and sisters, the end never justifies the means—never. Satan tempted Jesus with an immediately fulfilment of his mission. The things he tempts us with are a lot more mundane than that. And so if Jesus could resist the temptation to do something sinful in order to bring about his kingdom, we should be able to resist the much smaller temptations Satan puts in front of us. How often have you been tempted to lie at work or at school or at home to save yourself? Good thing “A” will be yours, but you have to do bad thing “B” to get to it. And so often good thing “A” is really good and bad thing “B” seems to insignificant. Jesus could have said, “All I have to do is bow down before Satan and worship him and my kingdom will be here and now. I won’t have to die on the cross for it. That would be awesome! And Satan didn’t say how long I have to bow down and worship him. I could just do it for a second…and I wouldn’t even have to mean it.” But Jesus knew that even a small sin can never be justified by the result of what looks like great good. If you read the Scriptures we see people doing this repeatedly and every time it backfired and they ended up in a heap of trouble. So Jesus rebukes Satan: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10).
Jesus knew that God never calls us to disobey as part of our obedience. There are times when, from our limited perspective, things may look better on the other side of a particular sin, but we can be confident that they aren’t. Sin always drives us away from God and God himself is our spiritual life. The problem is that we too often limit our view to a worldly perspective. We’re always thinking about here and now. We need to be thinking about eternity and about how we can prepare ourselves for renewed life in Christ.
Think about that as we enter Lent. As you focus your attention on the cross and on the love that Jesus showed us when he shed his blood there, reflect on his love and cultivate a heart of loving gratitude in return. And as you spend time in God’s Word, let him show you the places in your life where you could better show your love for him by being more obedient. It’s not an easy task. You have to be humble enough to admit to your sins and you have to be humble enough to ask the Holy Spirit to show you your sins as his Word speaks, and you have to be courageous enough to make changes in your life and set aside many of the sins you’ve grown to love, to hold on to for your security, even sins that are so much a part of you that you’ve let them define your identity. But if we will have the humility to admit our sins and the courage to set them aside, Jesus reminds us here that he is with us. In our baptism his Father gave us the grace of adoption. Through Jesus we are his sons and daughters. He’s filled each and every one of his redeemed children with his Holy Spirit so that we can know that he is always at our side, fighting for us and with us.
Let us pray: “Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sake fasted forty days and forty nights, give us grace so to discipline ourselves that we may always obey your will in righteousness and true holiness to the honour and glory of your name; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”