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By Your Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation . . .Help Us, Good Lord! (Matthew 4.1-11)


“By Your baptism, fasting, and temptation . . .Help us, good Lord!”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

Matthew 4.1-11

26 February 2023


The devil is a real spiritual being. He is the source of all evil in this world. Yet, many deny his existence. They may deny his existence but we see the evidence of it nearly every day. The news media fill our eyes and ears with his doings. War, violence, murder, theft, lying, cheating, corruption in every level of society, the hatred by nearly everybody, the persecution of all that is right and good. If there is no devil, then how have these things arisen? What explanation can be given for the darkness of the human mind and soul? Why are people driven to commit unspeakably horrific deeds? Why, if not for the presence of evil in this world, a personified evil presence? A popular comedian of a generation ago, was Flip Wilson. One of his signature lines, delivered in a high-pitched voice was, “The devil made me do it!” He poked fun at our inability to admit that we had done something wrong. It shifted the blame. But it was spot on.

We first hear of Satan and his minions—the demons—in the Gospels. He appears as soon as Jesus had been baptized and the word of the Father came from heaven designating him as his “beloved Son” to whom all the world should listen. As soon as the work of our Savior began Satan was there attempting to destroy it.

Satan wanted to be like God. He tried to usurp God himself. He did what God did not want. He wanted and did evil, and he was cast out of heaven to earth. He tempted Eve to disobey God’s Word and eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And through Eve, who pulled Adam into this sin—and Adam was guilty for allowing Eve to do this—the creation began its death throes. What had been proclaimed good at Creation was now blighted. Nothing would ever be the same.

The decisive conflict came when Jesus was born. Satan tried to destroy him at birth through King Herod. His plan was unsuccessful, but now it came to a decisive moment when our Lord began his ministry to redeem the world from Satan’s grip. Satan tried to end Christ’s mission quickly in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus three times to sin, a bold move.

The temptation narrative reveals something that most of us have never thought of: Jesus was left alone by his Father, there were angels and no fellow human beings, just Jesus and the Tempter. It is true that you and I are most tempted when we are alone. Our thoughts run to things that depress us and make us afraid. Alone with no food and no drink the Tempter confronts Jesus. He tempts him about his empty stomach. Those with full pantries and freezers do not worry about their next meal. But those with nothing feel the temptation to steal or harm another who has what they need.

But there is more going on here instead of hunger. Unbelief accompanies hunger. I found it remarkable that Luther wrote:

“Do you not think that such unbelief, worry, and greed are the reason people are afraid of married life? Why do people refrain from it and remain in unchastity, unless they are worried that they will have to die of hunger and suffer scarcity?” [AE 76.368]

It is almost as if he has been witnessing the decline of marriage in our day and why the birthrate in our nation has plummeted. A report by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research published just yesterday revealed that marriage in our nation “has declined precipitously in the last half century—by 60 percent.” In many instances people are afraid that they won’t have enough material goods and forgo marriage. And the majority of children are born to unmarried women who often end up in poverty. God’s plan for marriage and children is shoved aside because of worries about the success of the marriage or because the man may not want to support the children he has helped to create. Or the single mother-to-be who wonders how she will support the child she is carrying and instead opts for an abortion.

Satan told Jesus to look at the stones lying in front of him. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” He tempted Jesus to use his power as the Son of God to relieve the hunger pangs he was suffering. But Jesus pointed to the Word of God:

“ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

If God fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna every day for 40 years, he can certainly provide what is necessary for us. Jesus points to faith in God’s promises. He trusted even when tempted. He overcame for us.

Life does not consist merely in existing from day to day, of eating bread, whether much or little; it depends on God and his providence. Bread is the metaphor for all our necessities, our daily bread as Luther explains in the explanation of the Fourth Petition of the Our Father. In such times of need we are to trust that God will furnish what we need. It is a test also for us to trust in God above all things. Yet, we are tempted even while we are swimming in abundance. Enough is not always enough for us. Unbelief brings greed.

Yet, it seems plain that few of us are in this predicament of not knowing from where our next meal will come. God has blessed us with abundance, but do we thank him for it? Do we see that it is he who provides abundantly for us, or do we complain that we don’t have as much as our neighbor? Are we living by the words which come from God’s mouth? Are we anxious? Does our faith fail?

In the second temptation Satan tempts Jesus to take God’s protection for granted. He puts Jesus in danger and tells him to see if God will protect him by sending his holy angels. He even quotes Scripture in his temptation! Of course, we might say that engaging in physically risky behavior might provide a thrill, but tightrope walkers sometimes fall and mountain climbers sometimes plunge to their deaths. What this means for us is that we should not willingly put ourselves into harm’s way.

I remember a story that illustrates this. There was a severe flood and a man was sitting on the roof of his house as the water continued to rise. He prayed, “O God, save me from this flood!” Soon a boat came along and the man in the boat told the man on the roof to get in. He said, “I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” The rescue boat went on. It happened two more times, each time the man giving the same excuse for not getting into the boat. Finally the flood waters covered the house and the man drowned. Standing before God he asked, “Why didn’t you rescue me from the flood?” To which God answered, “I sent three boats, didn’t I?” That’s tempting God.

For us this most likely is spiritual danger. Following up on the matter about bread for the body think bread for the soul, that same Word of God that is more than bread alone. After Jesus fed the 5,000 men he said,

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” [John 6.35].

Christ feeds us abundantly with Word and Sacrament but there are those who absent themselves for long periods of time from the Divine Service where Christ feeds us. They put their faith at risk because they can be overcome by the thorns and thistle of everyday life. They become “busy” as I said a few week ago. What sustains faith is put aside. One tempts God to keep you in the faith while neglecting the Bread of Life, Jesus. I’ve heard this so many times, “Oh, I’ll come back to the Divine Service!” Sadly, most never do. They tempted God and the worst happened—their faith died. They no longer had the Bread of Life.

This second temptation leads to the third. Satan tempted Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for bowing down and worshiping him. It was a scam because the kingdoms of the world already belonged to Jesus. Many fall away from the faith in order to gain popularity or honor in men’s eyes. What Satan cannot overcome with poverty and need, he attacks with riches, favor, power, and earthly honor. This third temptation is particularly troublesome for the clergy. The temptation to have the largest, most well-known congregation in the community or in the circuit is very real. “I’ll be the pastor with multiple large congregations bringing in the most people and, as a result, I’ll be highly honored for being so successful.” It piggy-backs on the first and second temptations.

St. Peter likens these temptations of Satan to a prowling lion stalking his prey. [1 Peter 5.8]. Picture the lion circling and circling until he finds the right moment to pounce. He goes right for the jugular—man’s ego, where he almost always finds a willing accomplice.

Our Gospel reading concludes:

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

This account is written for our comfort and strengthening in the faith. God has promised to send his holy angels to guard and protect us. It’s what they do by God’s command. Rather than looking for the appearances of these heavenly beings—which, by the way, always elicited fear from those to whom they appeared!—it seems best to remember than God uses them to help his children, both adults and little ones! I think Luther said it best:

“ . . . but angels must first come from heaven and become our bakers, cellarers, and cooks and serve us in all our needs.” [AE 76.374]

This takes us back to the explanation of the First Article of the Creed which describes how God provides all these things to us through agency, that is, through others, namely, bakers, farmers, physicians, police, first responders, and all others who supply what we need to support this body and life. God uses these “angels”—messengers—to supply our physical and spiritual needs.

In the Litany on Ash Wednesday we prayed for such blessings.

By Your baptism, fasting, and temptation . . .Help us, good Lord.

Christ has conquered in temptation for us. He will give us what we need, especially when we are tempted. Our victory remains with Christ.

In the Name 0f the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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