The First Sunday in Lent
February 20-21, 2010
Text: Luke 4:1-13
Dear Friends in Christ,
It has been known for some time that there was no such thing as global warming. The data did not support it. Nor is there any evidence that climate change is anything other than a natural cycle, which man cannot affect. In recent weeks we’ve had all sorts of scandals about scientists withholding data or altering data to make their case. But those that have actually looked at the available information have known that global warming was a farce for some time. It actually started when a couple climatologists couldn’t get a research grant. So they wrote up an absolutely panicked and hysterical hypothesis in order scare people into giving them money for research. It took on a life of its own from there. The old adage follow the money applies to global warming, just as it does many other earthly matters.
This is much like the matter before us this morning. Our text for today is perhaps the most persistently misunderstood and miss-applied portion of Scripture in recent LCMS preaching. Sadly Luther had understood this text correctly. The false understanding here comes from the last hundred years or so. The traditional way that this text has been preached is that Christ here gives us an example of how to fight off temptations. So we should follow Christ’s example and use the word of God to fight off the devil. First, that is law, law, law, with no hint of the Gospel. Second, it proposes an impossible thing. In Jude 9 we read: “But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you.’” What Jude is saying is that even the Archangel Michael would not do battle against Satan. He turned the battle over to Christ. Even the great archangel called upon Christ to fight in His stead. Luther echoes this sentiment in our sermon hymn. I should note that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is the traditional sermon hymn for the First Sunday in Lent going back several centuries. Many of the older hymnals were arranged by the Sundays of the church year. So for example in the Norwegian Synod’s 1912 Lutheran Hymnary we find a “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” listed for the first Sunday in Lent. As I stated, Luther notes in this great hymn that we are not to fight the devil. Where does it say that? Well lets start with “The old evil foe now means deadly woe.” The first verse ends with the line “On earth is not his equal.” In other words there is no one on earth who can fight Satan. No sinful human being has that power. Luther continues: “With might of ours can naught be done.” Sometimes people today don’t understand poetic phrases. So what does that mean? We have no power against Satan. Luther continues: “Soon were our loss effected.” That means that we are quickly defeated when we go against the devil. Satan can immediately put our defeat into effect. In fact the devil doesn’t even have work very hard at it. Thus if I get up here and tell you to fight Satan as Christ did, I’m preaching you right into hell.
Luther, in our sermon hymn gives us the key to understanding our text in the very next line. “But for us fights the valiant One, Whom God Himself elected.” What does that mean? It means that God the Father loves us so much that He sent One to fight on our behalf. He could not send an angel. We’ve already established, from Scripture, that angels, on their own, do not have this power. God the Father sent God the Son to fight Satan on our behalf. And what does Luther say of Christ? “He holds the field forever.” Christ stands upon the battlefield as the victor. He has put Satan down under His power. In the ancient world, they had a great way of signifying this. The victorious king would stand in the middle of the battle field with his foot on the neck of the defeated king. Luther want us to think of Christ and Satan eternally in this pose. Christ stands with His foot on Satan’s neck, forever. Satan is defeated. He is crushed. His power is broken. Christ alone has broken it. Thus, even if “devils all the world should fill, they can harm us none.” Christ holds them all under foot.
Christ, in His temptation, is formally entering the battle. He is taking our temptation and defeating it in our place. This is part of Christ fulfilling the law in our place. He bears our temptation. It is also an important step in His humanity. Christ, to be fully human, had to face temptation as we do. Thus Scripture recounts His temptation in the wilderness. This binds Christ to us, as the writer to the Hebrews explains: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Christ understands our situation because He lived it. He faced the devil, but not only for Himself, but for us also. So that in His victory, we also triumph.
The Temptation of Christ points us forward to the cross. Here Christ would bring this battle to its conclusion. On the cross Christ would declare “It is finished!” The battle is over. Satan’s power is broken. Sin, which is the power Satan holds over us, is atoned.
Can we say anything here about the temptations that Satan hurls against us? Yes. We can say that they are powerless. They have no hold upon us. Christ has faced down that temptation in our place. Satan has been drained of all power. But wait a minute. Am I not still tempted? What does St Peter say? “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Lions are pack hunters. The young hunting lions will hide silently in the brush. The old, toothless lions will come from the other side and begin to roar loudly. The animals run from the sound, right into the mouths of the hunting lions. The devil is an old, toothless lion trying to convince us to run into the danger. He cannot harm us. He can only convince us to harm ourselves. Thus as Luther says: “One little word can fell him.” That word is “liar”. When we confront Satan with that word, we see him for what he really is - crushed and defeated by Christ. Satan lies because that’s all he has left. But even this is built upon the work of Christ. In calling Satan a liar we are not fighting Satan. We are simply calling up the reality of what Christ has done to him on our behalf.
It is popular today for people to think of themselves as fighting Satan. But we cannot fight him. We have no power to defeat Satan. But Christ reduces Satan to a toothless lion who has no power left but deception. This is the victory that Christ wins for us. That battle begins when Christ steps on the field to face Satan in the wilderness. It would culminate on the cross when Christ says, “It is finished.”