“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Maundy Thursday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Satan works overtime in the shadow of the cross. He is always casting temptations our way, but he never works harder than when the cross comes into view. His goal is to separate us from the cross, from Christ’s death on our behalf. He wants us to live in sin and despair; that is the goal of temptation, as Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.” False belief, despair, other great shame and vice—these are the goals of temptation. The devil, and his allies—the world and our sinful nature—want to separate us from the cross, they want to separate us from Jesus. That is their goal this Maundy Thursday, and it was their goal the first Maundy Thursday.
Temptation swirled around in the darkness of that night; for good reason Jesus told His disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” The temptation was to see the cross and take offense, to see Christ’s sufferings and fall away, to want nothing to do with a dying Savior. Jesus predicted those temptations would come. He told the twelve, “Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Judas wanted a warrior-king, he was offended by the meek and suffering Savior, and so he handed Him over to His enemies. But he was not the only one to take offense at the cross. Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” The disciples would see the cross and flee from it; they would want nothing to do with crucifixion and the agony of suffering, for they knew that Christ’s death would lead to their own. How many of you would keep coming to worship if you were threatened with beatings or arrest? I wonder how full this church would be if it were a target of persecution, or if you would have anyone to preach to you if pastors were threatened with death. Don’t answer too quickly; Peter had much confidence in his own ability to stay firm, and Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”
Instead of praying that their faith wouldn’t fail, Peter and the rest boasted of their loyalty. But events would quickly show that there was no reason for such trust in their own abilities to withstand Satan, just as Jesus had predicted. He goes off to pray, to wrestle with His Father in agony, and He calls on His trusted companions to keep vigil with Him, but they cannot. “And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour?’” Satan’s temptation is for us to become lazy, to fall asleep, when we should be watchful in prayer. We should be watching for Satan’s temptations, we should be looking to Christ to counter them, but we are soothed to sleep by Satan’s lullaby. He distracts us with the things of this world; even good things, like family and friends, are used by our enemy to divert us, to take our sleepy eyes away from the cross. I might stay away from worship or bible study because of sin, but also because I’m busy with work, feeding my family. I can neglect reading the Bible or prayer because I have other things to do, even good and noble things. A thousand different distractions, sinful or not, keep us from focusing on Christ’s cross, for Satan has one goal in mind. He wants you to have nothing to do with the proclamation of the cross, because Satan wants you, and he knows that the only way to get you is to separate you from Jesus, to lead you into “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”
He wants us to despise the cross; to take offense at Jesus’ sufferings or to hear of them as little as possible. He wants you to deny your Lord, to take offense at suffering for His name, or to live your life in a contented, drowsy spiritual sleep. He wants you to live your life as far as possible from the cross of Christ, because Satan knows that at the cross he is defeated. That’s why the temptations the disciples faced were only a sideshow; the main event was his temptation of Jesus. And this greatest of all temptations was the same as his whisperings in your ear and in mine: “Have nothing to do with the cross.”
Jesus falls in agony to His knees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” The cross is staring Him in the face; He knows the agony, the suffering ahead of Him, and He would not be true man if He did not struggle with that future. Satan is there, whispering the same temptation that he spoke in the wilderness: “Take the glory without the cross.” It was the prince of hell that filled His soul with the dread of death, who made Him shrink back from the tortures of the cross, who called on Him to refuse obedience to His Father in heaven. Jesus is tempted to refuse that cup, to leave it for you and me to drink, to escape the tortures of hell, leaving us to endure them forever. Make no mistake, with a word Christ could’ve avoided the cross; and Satan tempts Him to speak that word.
Christ is left alone; the disciples were to pray with Him and for Him, but they have failed; they sleep and soon will scatter. With Satan whispering in His ear, Jesus alone wrestles with the Father’s will. He says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He wrestles in agony, the torment of these dark hours are impossible to describe, but where man fell into the temptations of Satan, Christ refused to listen. He cries out, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” God’s will be done, not Jesus’ will or Satan’s will. God’s will be done. Jesus rises from His wrestling triumphant over temptation, triumphant over Satan; He will go to the cross. It’s over; the cross lies ahead, but Christ will not avoid it, He will go forth resolute, ready to suffer and die. There is no hesitation, no shrinking now. He emerges from the Garden not like a fugitive who must be drawn out from hiding; He is as a conqueror meeting the vanquished. “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”
Satan tried to keep Jesus from the cross because he knew that the cross would be his end. He thought that in the face of all the torture, humiliation, and suffering that was ahead of Him, Christ would grasp after glory, He would seek to escape, but He didn’t. He was resolute, and Satan’s defeat was as good as done. He refused to be separated from the cross, but He boldly walked that path for you and for me. And now He who refused to be separated from the cross refuses to let you be separated from it either. That is Satan’s goal, each and every day, to separate you from the cross, too keep you from the forgiveness found there, the defeat over death won by Christ’s death. But take heart, Jesus fights for you; He brings His cross near to you, overcoming Satan’s attempts to isolate you from your Lord or His cross. That’s why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, to bring the cross to us, to forgive our sins and to strengthen us against all the whisperings of the enemy.
“Lead us not into temptation,” Jesus teaches us to pray. He gave the Supper to His disciples in answer to that prayer, to strengthen them for the temptations that lay ahead. That same Body and Blood is given to you in the midst of your temptations; in the Supper, the cross of Christ is brought near to you. In the Small Catechism we read, “Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” Jesus overcame the temptations of Satan, He won the victory, and in the Supper He brings that victory to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Jesus will let nothing come between Him and you; not Satan’s temptations, not your sin, not even death itself. He is resolute, He is unshaken, He is firm; He who went to the cross will not allow Satan to divide you from Him. He went to the cross for you, and this night He brings the cross to you. Take eat, take drink, the fruits of the cross are for you. In the name of Jesus, Amen.