~ First Sunday in Lent ~
Readings: Genesis 3:1–21 | Hebrews 4:14–16 | Matthew 4:1–11
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
The season of Lent is not a 6-week period of feeling bad for ourselves, bemoaning our inadequacy, or—God forbid!—feeling more pious than the rabble of the world. It is a time of teaching, of catechesis, that we might learn to know our Lord better. The Gloria in Excelsis stops, because He whose birth the angels announced, also humbled Himself to the point of being unrecognizable as good news for anyone [Luke 2:14 comp. to Isa. 53:3]. The Hallelujah’s (“Praise the Lord”) stop (and have stopped) so that we can better hear the lessons of our God’s work in suffering and weakness, His presence in darkness and death [Psalm 139:11-12].
So, we begin Lent where all of our sorrow and trouble began—where sin entered into the world. The Old Testament reading today shows us where it all broke down. God made everything good—even on the sixth day extolling His creation “Behold! It was very good” (Gen. 1:31). But the Serpent came and deceived the woman. The man betrayed his Creator, spurned his duty as a husband, and unleashed misery on all his descendants.
Adam and his wife gave into temptation under the best of all circumstances. They were surrounded by trees bearing ready-to-eat food, had not a care or trouble in the world, and they were at peace with it all. And yet, they were so quickly turned away from God!
But Lent isn’t about Adam and Eve. Thank God it’s not, because that’s a frustrating narrative, full of mistakes and hurts. That’s because we bear the image of Adam; we no longer bear the image of God [Gen. 5:3] (Yes, we were originally made in God’s image, but our lives from conception to death are the experience as the image of the man of dust, 1 Cor. 15:48-49] Adam’s story is suspiciously like our stories—only the names have been changed. It’s the same story every person on this earth is living for the short time we’re given. No, we need a better hope than to look to our fellow descendants of Adam.
Lent starts at the beginning: the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Right after He is baptized in the Jordan, declared by the voice from heaven to be the beloved Son of God, He is driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted. There’s no wasting any time here, because there is saving to do, which is God’s sole purpose.
Why the wilderness? Wilderness is where those who are exiled from the Garden go. Life and abundance were in the primeval garden, but sin brought death and scarcity. Thus, the wilderness is God’s proving ground for what’s in a person’s heart. In what will you trust? Will it be what your eye can see and is readily in reach? Or will you cast your needs upon your Creator and stay true to Him? This is how it was for Israel in their 40-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai. The Lord God was testing to see what was in their hearts, and the results were abysmal.
It was in the wilderness that God commanded sacrifices so that He could dwell in the midst of this people who were impatient, greedy, ungrateful, and inventors of evil. The highest sacrifice day was the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16. At the center of that Day are two goats: “Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.” (Lev. 16:7-8) The first goat gets killed as a sin offering, a death for life exchange. But the second goat is treated like this: “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Lev. 16:21-22) We’re accustomed to the sin offering as justice for what our sins deserve. But the other goat—the Scapegoat—is imputed with the sins of the people—“all their iniquities, all their transgressions, all their sins”—and then he is led into the wilderness to go to Azazel. Azazel is a transliteration from Hebrew, and many commentators associate with the devil or a demon. So it is actually the beloved Son of God who is both the appointed sin offering and the sin bearer and substitute.
In the wilderness, handed over to the devil, He stands in place of Adam and all his children. Here, it’s helpful to stop and consider just how serious Jesus’ situation was: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” He went without food for 40 days, which is far longer than average. Even half that time could ordinarily kill a person. He must have been like a skeleton, not able to think, perhaps his organs failing. But He lived because God kept Him alive. If you think this is preposterous, listen to what the Lord says just before the verse Jesus quotes:
The Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. (Deut. 8:2-4)
Sin has so corrupted our desires that we think our lives are kept going by food and doctors, jobs and retirement, that the Word which comes from the mouth of the Lord is a nice afterthought, some more information to use so we can broaden our horizons. But Jesus shows this truth in his emaciated body (and maybe I’m totally wrong, and he was vigorous—God can do that also). But along with that bodily hunger, is the weakness of God’s Son’s humiliation. He was mortal, and confined to one place, and giving up any divine foreknowledge, the man Jesus didn’t know if He would make it out of the wilderness alive. He had all creation at His disposal, as the Word by which all things are made, and yet He willingly humbled Himself. St. Paul would later describe this as the mind which Christ gives us to follow: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:5-7)
He was in the likeness of men, but where man has failed again and again, Jesus stood firm. When He was tempted to use divine “cheat codes” in order to feed Himself, He refused—even though it could have meant His death. Where Eve and Adam evaluated food on their own terms and for their own benefit, Jesus obeyed His God and fully entrusted His life into His Father’s hands.
When Jesus was tempted to have a little Temple-jumping recreation along his way, claiming that God would surely protect him from harm, Jesus affirmed something we are dreadfully weak about: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah.” (Deut. 6:16) In case you’re not familiar with that incident, that’s where the people came to a place with no readily accessible water, and they blamed Moses and accused God of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them, even doubting in the Lord was among them at all (see Exodus 17:1-7). Lying through our teeth, we might say we never do that and that we have such perfect submission to our Father’s will, and we’ve never charged God with wrongdoing when we suddenly lose someone we love.
No, even when tempted with that, Jesus did not put the Lord His God to the test, and even willingly accepted all the tests which happened in the wilderness.
Finally, when the devil shows his true colors and flat out asks Jesus to worship him instead of God, Jesus again and alone succeeds where we so many times have failed. It’s really no big deal, we tell ourselves; we’re only doing what everyone else is. Trouble is, those of the world are deceived and eating from the devil’s hand. There’s no hope here in going with the crowd, following our feelings, because it will wind us up where the rest of the sons of Adam have landed—sin and death.
Our hope is in Christ, who is called the Second Adam. He is the only one who can outmaneuver and defeat the devil. He’s the only One who can take on and take away our unfaithfulness and our naked shame before God and one another. It’s Jesus alone who, having done all this, is able to go into the grave as a free man, and rising on the Third Day to free us from death’s power!
Listen to how St. Paul explains what Jesus Christ has done for us:
12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many… 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)
And about the victory over death, and restoring that lost image of God to us, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:
47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15:47-49)
This is our hope and our confidence in Christ! He has saved us where all other help was powerless. God has come to our rescue through the water of Holy Baptism, where He declared in Christ, “You are my beloved child.”
Even though the devil was bested in the wilderness with Jesus, he will be after us all the more because we belong to God, and because we still bear that image of Adam. This is the realm of spiritual warfare—“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12) And that topic can be both scary and exciting. Scary, because we know what a mighty enemy the devil is and because of how weak we are. Exciting because it’s true that there is an unseen battle taking place in the world between good and evil. It’s just that in our own strength and understanding, we get spiritual warfare wrong. It isn’t like video games or heroic epics where we somehow have power in ourselves. Our strength and shield are in Christ alone.
Sometimes the devil’s tactics will be obvious—making disobedience to God’s clear Word sound appealing and reasonable. Call this the front door attack, if you will. But the devil also has a backdoor attack, and that is to divide us from Christ and divide us from one another. That is actually what his Greek name, Diabolos, means—the Divider. So, he will try to divide us from Christ by making His Word seem irrelevant or less important than the stuff happening in our daily life and the world. But he doesn’t stop there, because he also seeks to divide us from the flock of God. So, he brings up hurts that we can’t seem to get past, stirs up feelings of resentment, and gives us excuses why we’re better on our own. We can get by without hearing the precious voice of our Savior, because, according to the devil, it’s just information. Yeah, I learned that all in Catechism. I was raised in it, so it must magically stick. Hook, line, and sinker.
Our only hope against the devil and all his craftiness is our God who comes to our rescue. He covers our shame with His righteousness. He says, “Be gone, Satan!” and sends His angels to minister to us. There is no need to fear, because the Son of God has truly done for you what you needed most. Through faith in Him, you have the victory over sin, death, and the devil, and eternal peace with your Creator. Amen.
Scapegoat Lev. 16
Does what Adam did not do
Obeys where we are disobedient
His humiliation: hunger and thirst, gives up his divine attributes
Shares in our weakness (Heb. 4:15)
Bread of God is enough; Adam had enough, Israel in their wilderness journey still complained (Dt. 8)
Putting God to the test (Dt. 6)
Bow down (Dt. 6)
Our only hope in our struggle with sin and bearing Satanic attack, is Jesus.
Demon possession, spiritual warfare can often be a scary topic which we don’t like to take on in our love for clinical safety. But the defeat of Satan has already been accomplished. When the devil or a demon comes to a Christian, he will use the same attacks. If we respond on his terms and in our wisdom or strength, we will surely fall. Do not imagine yourself strong enough to do what even our first parents failed to do in paradise!
Instead, hold up Jesus, your Lord and Savior. Whether that means having a crucifix on your wall or around your neck. Here, bare crosses require more imagination which can be hard to muster in the heat of battle. Hold up Jesus, the scapegoat who went into the wilderness on your behalf; the lamb of God who was led to the slaughter and now whose blood has been sprinkled on you in the cleansing flood of Baptism, the Passover Lamb whose flesh and blood are now given you to eat and drink.
You are not left alone as Satan’s prey, and you are not hungry because you feed upon the all-sufficient, life-sustaining Word of God. Though you and all your ancestors have daily put the Lord to the test, He has remembered His steadfast love and covenant toward you—not based on your promise or fortitude, but upon the covenant which Jesus ratified with His own blood. Even though Satan and the godless world may promise you your hearts’ desire, your Lord alone is pure, throws down all idols, and His Spirit jealously fights our idolatrous desires and replaces them day by day with a hunger and thirst for God and what is pleasing to Him!