The First Sunday in Lent
February 28-March 1, 2009
Text: Mark 1:9-15
Dear Friends in Christ,
Most of the time, people think of war as a bad thing. But that’s not always the case. Most wars in human history have been fought over the foolish ambitions of men. It is true that there are men who are possessed of a constant lust for power over other people. Some might even suggest that such people are in Washington today. To fight a war over such foolish human lusts is indeed a bad thing. But then this is hardly new. Sometimes the lust for power is even literal lust. For in one of the oldest all war epics, Paris kidnaped Helen of Sparta, which started the Trojan War. However, we must recognize that war is not always a bad thing. If it is a war to stand up against tyranny and the power lust of men, then it is indeed a good thing. So for those who fought against Troy and Paris’ treachery, the were doing a good thing by fighting. Consider the injustice that they would have allowed had they not fought the war. And so we can go throughout history. Sometimes it is clear that a particular war was fought over foolishness and all sides have blood on their hands. This would be the case, I think, with Word War I. And one has to wonder if in fact the Yugoslavian civil war of recent years was not, in fact, God’s vengeance upon that nation for starting World War I. Other wars are more clear. Certainly stopping Nazi Germany was a good and righteous cause. However, General Patton, I believe, was correct in that we should have kept going and taken out the Soviet Union as well. That would have been an even better and more and righteous cause. For indeed, we know that for every atrocity committed by Hitler, Stalin did the same, times ten. Think of all the suffering and injustice in the world we would have prevented if we had done so. As sinful human beings, just as often as we fight foolish wars, we fail to fight just ones that we ought to fight.
Christ fought a war. He fought a just war against a vile, lying oppressor. It was a war of liberation. That oppressor was Satan. It is a war He didn’t have to fight, but one which He chose to fight. It is much the same as a nation which intervenes in a war when they see that one side is in the right the other in the wrong. Christ intervened to rescue a people oppressed by sin and death. Sin and death are Satan’s tools of oppression. He would hold us in bondage to sin and death forever. Christ stepped onto the battlefield with His temptation. He took over the battle and began to fight in our place. It was a battle we could not win. We were totally defeated. But Christ, our maker and redeemer defeats Satan on our behalf.
Traditionally, we’ve looked at the temptation either through Matthew or Luke. It does not appear at all in John’s gospel and is a scant two verses in Mark. But we should not overlook those two verses or the context in which they appear. Matthew and Luke give us the story, but Mark, more clearly than the other two, places these events into the framework of Christ’s ministry. When did this happen? Immediately after Christ’s baptism. The Holy Spirit drives Christ out into the wilderness. Why? Precisely so that Satan can attack Him. This is the challenge. Christ is going to Satan and challenging Him. He’s throwing down the gauntlet. He is declaring to Satan that he has no power over the Son of Man. But notice the connection. Christ’s victory in the desert is connected to His baptism. By this Christ is also connecting His victory back to baptism. When we are baptized, Christ’s victory over Satan in the desert becomes our victory.
Now, we must make an important point here. All theology has it’s origins in the Old Testament. The New Testament does not occur in a vacuum. Nor does the New Testament teach anything new. Further, real depth of understanding the New Testament comes from the Old Testament. This is why the Australian theologian John Kleinig can start a lecture at Mount Sinai, and within an hour take you through the whole of the gospels, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and Revelation.
For us to understand Christ’s temptation, we must understand the fall of man into sin and the effects of that fall. Christ becomes our substitute and does what Adam failed to do - that is tell Satan to go to hell. Satan and his minions are the ones you need to tell to go to hell. Adam failed to do that. We fail to do that. But Christ did not fail to tell Satan where to go. What was the effect of man’s failure. Man was driven from the Garden of Eden, and driven away from the Tree of Life. A flaming sword was put in place to block our access to the tree of life. That flaming sword has never been put out. It will never be put out. It will remain in place for all eternity. Yet, for some it is put out. When an unbaptized person approaches the tree of life, the flaming sword still blocks the way. We don’t see it. But it’s still there. In Baptism, that person is united to Christ’s victory over Satan. In Baptism, each person becomes Christ telling Satan where to go. And that flaming sword is plunged into the font. Baptism opens the way for us to the tree of life. It does that because it unites us to Christ in the desert battling Satan on our behalf.
This idea of Baptism quenching the flaming sword was well understood by the ancient fathers. We have for example a quote of the Venerable Bede in the seventh century. It is still well understood today by Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox Christians. But this would be offensive to most American Protestants. This is because most American Protestants deny that God does anything in Baptism. Most American Protestants would reject every single word the Small Catechism says about Baptism. In so doing they are denying God’s most precious gift to us.
Part of the problem is that most people today don’t understand what the tree of life even looks like. The tree of life is not beautiful in an earthly sense. It doesn’t even appear alive. It appears to be old, dead wood. In fact old, dead wood covered with blood and gore. The tree of life is the Cross of Jesus Christ. Christ by defeating Satan in our place, out in the desert, dying for sins on the cross and making these things ours in baptism, is indeed quenching the flaming sword and opening the way to the tree of life. Though that tree might look dead, from it flows the life giving water of baptism and the life giving blood of the Supper.
Many people think war is a bad thing. But it is indeed good, right and salutary to fight for that which is good and right. Christ fought such a war on our behalf, against Satan. He defeated Satan on our behalf out in the desert. He applies that victory to us in Baptism. He uses Baptism to quench the flaming sword that blocks the way to the tree of life - that is His cross by which we were saved.