Sermon 03-01-2020: “Tempted By the Devil”

March 4, 2020

Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11

I got baptized in April of 1984, two months after my conversion. I was 14. As you can imagine, my baptism was deeply significant. I felt as if I were on a spiritual high; I felt very close to God. And then… the next day the lawnmower incident happened.

The next day, after school on Monday, I had to cut the grass. This was a push mower. And this was back in the days before you had modern conveniences like “electric starters” on lawnmowers or that little primer button that you’re supposed to push to make the mower easier to start. And this lawnmower, I’m convinced, was demon-possessed. Very temperamental. And sure enough, I pulled and pulled and pulled the cord on the starting mechanism. And it wouldn’t start!

And believe it or not, I was getting really angry about it. And I probably kicked the mower. Well, no, I definitely kicked the mower. And I also let fly a few choice words that described exactly the way I felt about this machine!

And my mom, God bless her, saw me from the window at the kitchen sink, where she was washing dishes. And with great compassion she came outside and said, “Brent, Brent… what’s gotten in to you? It’s just a lawnmower!” She said, “You just got baptized yesterday, and here you are, losing your religion over the fact that the lawnmower won’t start!”

You just got baptized yesterday… What happened the day before was one of the most significant events in my life and here I was, acting in a way that was completely inconsistent with the meaning of that event! What terrible timing! 

Yet the same could be said for the timing of the events in today’s scripture: Look at verse 1: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Do you know what happened immediately before this ominous verse: Jesus had just been baptized, by John the Baptist, in the Jordan River. During his baptism, Jesus had had an amazing spiritualexperience.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—look at verses 16 and 17 of Matthew 3: He came up from the water, saw the Spirit descend on him, and heard this voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

And now, right after his baptism, he’s being tempted by Satan… Satan did the same thing to me right after my baptism! Not that the stakes were nearly as high for me, but still… Unlike Jesus, I badly failed my test. 

Which reminds me of a country song: “Lead me not into temptation/ I can find it all by myself.” 

The good news, of course, is that when Jesus was tempted after his baptism, he didn’t fail his test.

But I want us to notice the connection between the words that his Father spoke to him, “This is my beloved Son with whom I’m well pleased,” and Satan’s temptation of him, which happened 40 days later—after Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness. Forty days is the far edge of how long an adult male can go before starvation starts to kick in. Not that I know from experience, but if you fast for a long period, after a matter of days, you stop feeling hunger pangs; you’re stomach stops telling you you need to eat every few hours; and the fast becomes easier. But by 40 days your hunger pangs come back with a vengeance, and if you don’t eat soon, you will die. Physically speaking, that’s where Jesus is right now. He’s weak. He’s vulnerable. And Satan is going to attack his weak spot.

So, 40 days earlier, Jesus’ Father had told him, “You’re my beloved Son with whom I’m well pleased,” and now Satan is going to test Jesus on this very point: “If you are the Son of God”—he tells him in verse 3 and verse 6—if you are the Son of God, then prove it by doing something miraculous. “Prove it,” Satan tells him in the first temptation, “by turning this stone into bread.

Your Father told you not long ago that you were the Son of God. If that’s true, Jesus, then why should suffer like this… if you are the Son of God? No one who truly is the Son of God would let his Father starve him to death out here in the desert. Besides, don’t you have to die on a cross in order to save humanity? You’ll never get the chance to do that if you starve out here first! You’re here waiting for your Father to give you something to eat. What if that doesn’t happen? And you die? What good will you be doing fo the world in that case? Come on, Jesus! Be reasonable! You have the power to save yourself from dying—by turning this stone into bread. Do it! I’m your friend, Jesus. I’m here to help you accomplish your mission, Jesus. Trust me!

By the way, notice: Matthew doesn’t describe the devil here. We don’t know in what guise the devil comes to Jesus. But I know for sure that if you’re picturing a cartoon Satan in horns, red tights, cloven hooves, and a pitchfork, that’s not how he appeared.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’s insightful and depressingly funny book The Screwtape Letters. The book is a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape to his young and inexperienced demon nephew, Wormwood. In Lewis’s depiction of the spiritual realm, each demon has a “patient”—a human being who’s living and breathing right now. It’s the demon’s job to lead that person to hell. In one of the letters, Screwtape discusses whether or not to let the patient know the truth: that Satan and demons are real. There are benefits to both, Screwtape says, but official policy these days is keep humans in the dark about Satan’s existence. To make us believe that there’s really nothing beyond this world of time, space, and matter. 

But from Satan’s perspective, it’s very easy to see why he’d want us to be in the dark about his existence. Keith Green wrote a song in the ’70s from Satan’s point of view. He sings: “I used to have to sneak around/ But now they just open their doors/ You know, no one’s watching for my tricks/ Because no one believes in me anymore.”

Screwtape goes on to say that it’s not hard to keep the humans from finding out the truth about demons because, after all, he says, “‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination.” He writes, “If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that… he therefore cannot believe in you.” 

And that’s the number one obstacle to believing in in the existence of Satan: he’s become a cartoon character. He doesn’t seem real.

What Jesus if facing, however, is real. And it seems likely to me that Satan could come to Jesus in exactly the same way he comes to you and me: as thoughts, orintuitions, or ideas in our heads. We don’t know. But we do know that if the Bible is telling the truth here—and it is—that means that these temptations are genuinely tempting to Jesus. They’re not silly. They’re not trivial. They’re not easy. Jesus isn’t going through motions of being tempted, pretending that this is hard for him when it’s really not, humoring the devil. No… If they’re truly tempting, that means Jesus considers giving in to them. Otherwise, it’s not a temptation! 

And what’s so tempting about Satan’s suggestions? Each of these three helps Jesus accomplish the mission for which God became incarnate in the first place! Do you see? Temptation number one: You have to stay alive long enough to fulfill your mission to go to the cross. Therefore you’ve got to eat! Temptation number two: “Jesus, isn’t the point that people would put their faith in you and be saved? What better way to have people do that than perform some spectacular miracle: throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple! The most religious Jews in the capital city will see it, and of course they’ll have no choice but to believe in you! And by the way… let me give you some scripture from Psalm 91 to back it up.

By the way, Jesus gives us a nice principle of biblical interpretation here: Just because the devil is quoting scripture in verse 6 doesn’t mean he’s using scripture correctly. So when we’re not sure what one difficult passage of scripture means, we interpret it in light of passages of scripture that are clearer. So Satan’s “interpretation” can’t be correct because, as Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, you don’t put God to the test.

But the second temptation is that performing this miracle will enable people to believe that Jesus is God’s Son, and isn’t that the point?

Finally, temptation number three: Satan will give Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” if only Jesus will fall down and worship him. This requires some explaining: Just last night, a pastor friend of mine told me that he believed that Satan was lying to Jesus—that he couldn’t deliver what he was promising Jesus. I disagree. Because the devil would know that Jesus would know that he couldn’t deliver “all the kingdoms of the world.” Jesus could tell Satan, “Look, you and I both know that you can’t give me those things!” And Jesus wouldn’t really be tempted. But again, Jesus really was tempted. So how do we explain it?

Like this: God has allowed Satan to have a limited but real amount of power over this world: We see this in Job chapters 1 and 2. Jesus refers to Satan as “the ruler of this world” in three places in John’s gospel. Paul calls him “the ruler of the kingdom of the air.” John says that the “whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” So Satan does have power over the kingdoms of the world. But whether he would give it or not reminds me of that Charlie Daniels song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Johnny makes this deal with the devil… why does the devil honor his deal with Johnny? Why isn’t he like, “I don’t care that you play the fiddle better than me! I’m taking your soul anyway.”

My point is, Jesus is the world’s one true king. One day, the Bible says, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Why not get a head start on that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Jesus could usher in God’s kingdom on earth right now… instead of waiting until Judgment Day? Think of all the evil that Jesus could prevent if he were the world’s ruler! Think of all the good he could do!

But as Jesus later says, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” By all means, the end goals with which the devil tempts Jesus may seem worthy, but not at the expense of loving and trusting his heavenly Father. For Jesus, literally nothing is worth that! 

Because Jesus is going to trust his Father even if it kills him

And make no mistake: it will kill him. His obedience to his Father will ultimately cost Jesus his life. See, going back to the first temptation, it’s as if the devil were saying, “Aren’t you the Son of God? Save yourself, Jesus!” And Jesus tells him “no.” 

And this has a familiar ring to it… Remember the two criminals on the cross alongside Jesus. One of them says, “Aren’t you the Messiah? Don’t you have the power to do miraculous things? Save yourself—and while you’re at it, save us, too.”

But what this criminal doesn’t understand is this: It’s because Jesus is the Messiah, it’s because he is the Son of God, that he can’t save himself. In order to make salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and eternal life possible and available for that criminal and every one else in the world, Jesus can’t save himself from the cross—no matter how tempting that might be! 

See, Luke’s version of these temptations includes an intriguing detail missing from Matthew: In Luke 4:13: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” When was that time? Surely when Jesus was hanging on the cross with all these people—people in the crowds, soldiers, religious leaders, and the criminal next to him, saying, “Aren’t you the Messiah… aren’t you the Son of God… aren’t you highly favored by your Father… can’t you work miracles?… haven’t you saved others? Save yourself… if you are the Son of God.” 

And Jesus said “no.” And by saying “no,” he suffered the punishment for our sins; he died for our sins; he suffered hell for our sins—which is nothing other than separation from his Father. That’s what he needed to do because God loves us. This is what it costs to have a relationship with us. This is what it costs to save us! So what happened in the wilderness when Jesus said “no” to the devil was preparation—literally practice—for saying no to him three years later, on the cross.

[Share recent Ringo story… Applications: when we’re tempted… But never forget: where we fail, Jesus succeeds!]

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