“The devil attacks the promises given. That’s how the devil always works.” Invocavit 2023

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26. February 2023


Matthew 4:1-11

“Immediately, the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness. And He was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to Him.” (Mk 1:12-13)

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today we hear about temptations from the flesh, the world, and the devil. But underlying this is something worse! What is temptation, really? What power do you have to overcome it? Sinful people think they know what temptation is. They think that they have a will inside them and a free conscience. There’s the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. And the question is a matter of choosing. I want my will to be aligned with God. I want what He wants. I don’t want what He doesn’t want. 

Thus, Lent is thought to be about getting control of your willpower. I am overcoming hunger by fasting and giving up something I love to eat. I am resisting the will to power and serving my neighbor in need. I am giving up my time for extra devotion and prayer. And, of course, I ask God to come alongside me to help me do what He wants and not do what He doesn’t want. I can get myself right with God through effort, attention, and discipline. 

But then we hear that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Huh? But what about the Lord’s Prayer and its petition, “And lead us not into temptation?” Luther rightly has us confess that “God tempts no one.” But that doesn’t seem to be at all what’s going on in our Gospel text. That’s not what’s going on with Jesus. “Lead us not into temptation” is as much Jesus’s prayer as it is ours. The conflict is between our experience, which seems as if God is the one leading us astray, and our faith which believes that temptation comes from anyone and everything opposed to God. 

Thus, you rightly confess that it’s not God who tempts you but the devil, the world, and your sinful flesh. “We pray in this petition that God may so guard and preserve us that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into unbelief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, but that, although we may be so tempted, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.” 

The devil doesn’t mind if you are fasting or doing any of the other spiritual disciplines. He doesn’t mind if you think that to avoid temptation is to restrain the body. But your body is not the problem. What does it mean to be the Son of God? Does it mean to create bread from stones, command angels, or be lord of the world’s kingdoms? 

The temptation is, “If you are the Son of God,” not, “Are you really hungry?” This comes right on the heels of the Baptism, where the Father speaks from heaven, “You are my beloved Son!” Jesus has a promise given to Him with His baptism. Every time God gives a promise, the devil shows up. And what is the devil trying to do? 

When you get a Word of promise from God, the devil immediately wants to talk to you. And he takes what the Father says and adds that qualifier like “If!” That’s his whole strategy, his whole bag of tricks. It’s the same thing he does to Adam and Eve in Genesis. There they had a promise and a threat from God, and the serpent added, “Did God really say?” 

Now you know what you pray for in the Lord’s Prayer when you ask, “Lead us not into temptation.” It’s not simply asking God to keep you from hunger, threats, or even your desire for power. You ask God to give you His Word so that you speak as Jesus speaks. 

The devil is attacking the promise given to Jesus. That’s how the devil always works. He will twist that word of promise into a form of the law. “Command these stones to be bread!” But bread is given as a gift of creation. “Throw yourself down!” Now do this to yourself, commanding Himself, exercising self-control. And “All these I will give you!” Now take what is not yours, not given to you by the Father in Baptism. 

Satan demands a sign or evidence of the truth. He lives by experience, emotion, and law. But Jesus gives him an external Word, just like Moses said to God’s people in the wilderness, quoted by Jesus (Deut 8). A quick summary of Moses’s sermon shows that everything was a gift of God, even His Word that would guard, protect, and instruct them. God did everything for Israel without any righteousness of their own but out of His righteousness. The devil knows nothing of this Word nor of the Gospel’s power. He only knows the Law with its threats and punishments. Thus, man lives not by the command alone but by the gifts and promises, “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” 

In temptation, the Deceiver turns us away from the promise and back to our merit, work, obedience, and discipline. But in temptation, we pray that the Spirit returns us to the promise, not to powers, skills, new habits, or Lenten disciplines to escape temptation. That’s just going back to the law that is powerless to save you. You cannot be righteous or holy by the law, not by righteous or holy doing. You aren’t in control. You don’t have it in you. Even if you could get a handle on yourself, it’d never be enough. 

The difference between a command and a promise is sometimes seen in grammar as “if…when…or….then the result.” He even translates the Words that give the Gospel into law with conditional statements. The Gospel is not “if…then” but “because…therefore.” For example: Because Christ has taken sins upon Himself at the cross, you are righteous or just apart from the works of the Law.

The devil can even manipulate grammar and cite the Scripture. Satan’s quote from Psalm 91 doesn’t add anything, but this time leaves something out, “to guard you in God’s ways.” He leaves this out because our temptation is to think we’re capable of spiritual self-control of our will. We can’t even control our bodies, never mind our minds or souls. Everything hangs on the veracity of the promise. Jesus is your example, not as some who clings to works but clings to faith.

Psalm 91, which we prayed for our Introit, also reminds us of how God gets ahold of us. The psalm shows us what a Lenten discipline looks like. Fast if you want, but the Word gives us to “fear, love, and trust in God.” It’s not self-control, but it’s God who’s in control. It is Father who gives daily bread, protection, and His kingdom. They were given to Jesus and to you, who are baptized into Jesus. That’s His Word of promise! There’s no need to make bread, act recklessly, or use your flesh’s will to power to retrieve a kingdom of your own.

The devil is going to lie. The devil tempts us by taking a promise given to us and telling us that the promise is false. But in faith, you turn to the devil and tell him his lie is false. The promise of God stands, despite whatever you see in me or what I feel at the time. What I see or feel doesn’t determine what is true and false. Not my status. Not how well I’ve done. Not how good I’m feeling. And definitely how much self-control I’ve exercised this lent.

The last temptation is to avoid the cross, the suffering, and the death. But it is in His crucifixion and resurrection that God shows the way through temptation. And He always gives that means of escape to you, too! Your prayer that you be led not into temptation is answered here today! The Word proclaims, and the sacrament gives the promise. How is it that you know that you are a son of God? Baptism! Just like Jesus, who returned to His baptismal promise, you return to your baptismal promise. 

What happens if the Devil throws you into temptation? You cry out for the Lord to deliver you from temptation as He promises! What do you do if you feel empty and powerless to resist? Come, take, eat, and drink of Christ, who is your sustaining bread and life-giving blood. You don’t dig deep into your reserves to resist. You return to God’s promise and, in faith, ask God to deliver you again. 

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin