“Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.” 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 first Sunday in Lent comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: God created the man in His own image, stooping down into the dust of His creation to form him from the clay, then bending low to fill his nostrils with the breath of life. God created the woman from man, forming her from man’s own flesh and bone to be the perfect helper corresponding to him. God gave life to the people of Israel, the family of Jacob, by removing them from bitter bondage in Egypt, taking them through the waters of the Red Sea from slavery to freedom, from death to life, and placing His Name upon them as His own unique people. God made you alive, giving to you the second birth that delivered you from the curse of your first birth, taking you through the waters of the baptismal font from slavery to freedom, from death to life, and placing His Name upon you as His own child. And Jesus? He stood in the waters of the Jordan and was declared to be the very Son of the Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Adam and Eve rose from their birth and entered the garden established for their good. But they did not know, they could not know, that in that garden of paradise lurked the voice of temptation. The people of Israel left slavery and death behind them in the waters of the Red Sea, but they did not enter the Promised Land immediately; they passed through water into the wilderness, the wilderness of scarcity, the wilderness of temptation. The Lord did not take your life the moment after your baptism; instead you traveled from the font out of the sanctuary into the wilderness of a world that had just received a new enemy—you, an enemy that the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature would not cease to attack, constantly seeking your overthrow. And Jesus? He too would go from water to the wilderness. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Satan always works to make us desire that which is not ours, to doubt that God really cares for us. “Did God actually say?” He wants Eve to doubt the Word, to doubt God’s goodness, to doubt who she is, the crown of God’s creation. God has promised to provide for Israel in the wilderness, but now they are hungry, they thirst. Satan’s forked tongue whispers in their ears, telling them that God’s promises are lies, that He will not give them what they need. You have wants, desires; your eyes, your mind, your very body cries out for what it wants. And Satan tells you to go get it yourself, to doubt God’s declaration that you are His beloved child, His promise that He will provide. And so you fulfill your desires: you lust after, you covet, you even take what God has not given to you; unsatisfied with His gifts, you desire what is not yours.
Jesus was hungry, deathly hungry; He is certainly true God, but He is also just as certainly true man, and after forty days and forty nights the stomach of God was famished, the body of God was weak and emaciated. Satan has been waiting for this. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” If. Two letters full of poison, the poison of doubt. God has declared to the world that Jesus is His beloved Son; now Satan wants Jesus to prove it. But Jesus doesn’t take the bait; instead, He will take up the sword of the Word. “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” He will not take what God has not given; He will in humility receive all things as a gift from His Father, even suffering, even the burden of humanity’s sin, even the cross.
Satan is a master manipulator of God’s Word. “You will not surely die,” he says to Eve. Put God to the test, see if His Word is really true, or if He’s just holding back on you. The people of Israel, driven by their thirst, demanded that God act when and how they want, testing Him to see if He would follow their orders. “You will not surely die,” Satan whispers in your ear when you are caught in sin, when you are indulging the desires of your flesh, when you are taking what you want on your own terms rather than trusting in God to provide. What else is unrepentant sin than you testing God, daring Him to withdraw His protection, to demand your life from you? God’s Law says, ‘Repent!’ Satan says, ‘Build bigger barns; eat, drink, and be merry.’
Satan is usually content to deny the truth of God’s Word, but if needed, he can quote and misquote with the best. So when Jesus takes up the sword of the Word, Satan is ready to strike back, taking Christ to the highest point of the temple. “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.’” Put God to the test, Jesus, call on Him to fulfill His promises, if you truly are His Son. But Jesus will not budge; He stands firm where Eve, Israel, and you have failed. “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” He will not demand that the Father do His bidding, He will do the Father’s bidding, even if it means the way of suffering, the way of humiliation, the path of the cross.
Satan’s clinching argument is to tell Eve what she can become, if she would only extend her hand and take what has not been given to her: “You will be like God.” He attacks, he inflates her pride, and the fruit is soon in her mouth. The people of Israel thought that they knew better than Moses, that they knew better than God. And so they made their own god at the foot of Mount Sinai, bowing down to a calf made of gold. “You will be like God;” that is what every temptation comes down to. You be the god, for you know better than God; you call the shots, you say what’s right and what’s wrong. You will worship anything that satisfies your natural desires, especially yourself; a god is not a statue on the shelf, but what you desire above all else, what you cannot live without.
Satan promised Eve, Israel, and you that he can make you like God. Just exert yourself, stand up to and against God, and you yourself can have the same power and authority as God. But it’s all a lie. He has no such power and authority to give. He promises much, but he cannot deliver. “Again, the devil took [Jesus] 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 promises Jesus the very glory of God Himself, all the earthly power and glory that there is to give. But Satan is a liar from the first, and Jesus knows exactly how to counter lies: with the truth of God’s Word. “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.’” He triumphs where Eve failed, He triumphs where Israel failed, He triumphs where you failed and continue to fail. He refuses to seek His own glory, He will not stop to gather an earthly kingdom; His road leads to the cross, and He will take it, all the way to the end.
For Jesus, glory only comes after suffering. By refusing to take Satan’s deal, by refusing to seek earthly glory, Jesus has signed His own death sentence. He will be humiliated, insulted, beaten, and put to death. He will suffer the death of a criminal, but more than that, He will suffer the very wrath of God Himself; He will suffer the judgment of hell as He hangs suspended between heaven and earth. But on the other side of the horror of the cross lies the glory of the empty tomb, the Ascension, the very right hand of the throne of God. On the other side of the wilderness lies the Promised Land. God will vindicate Him, God will deliver Him; what was said at the Jordan will remain just as true on Easter: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
God is well-pleased with Jesus because He was born, baptized, tempted, suffered, and died in the place of sinful man, in your place. You have failed under every one of Satan’s temptations; you have indulged your own sinful desires, putting God to the test and indeed making yourself like God by grasping after that which was not given to you. Whenever Satan whispered, you listened; whenever he tempted, you fell. But Jesus stood fast. He stood fast for you, in your place, triumphing where you failed, and His perfect life was offered up in your place to satisfy God’s just wrath. Christ did what you couldn’t; He faced Satan and defeated him, in the wilderness and on the cross.
After hearing from God’s own lips the curse that their sin would bring, Adam and Eve cowered with fear; paradise had become a wilderness. But paradise would be restored; one would come to crush the serpent’s head and deliver all creation from the bondage of sin. His salvation was prefigured by the people of Israel, who through many trials and temptations did, only by the grace of God, cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Now the mighty Savior has come; He triumphed over Satan in the wilderness, where Eve, Israel, and you failed, then crushed him by the cross and empty tomb. Now you have forgiveness, you have life, you have salvation; you will pass through this wilderness to the Promised Land, the Promised Land of the new heavens and the new earth. Jesus won it for you, by standing in your place, and it is your inheritance, just as sure as Jesus is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. In His Name, Amen.