The First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

 

a sermon by Peter M. Berg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Once again, we take the Lenten journey.  Once again, the long journey to Jerusalem, a journey which began with a fast in the wilderness. And so, once again, the Lenten fast.  For some, it will be the fasting from food, for all, the fasting of the ears and eyes.  Gone are the Gloria in Excelsis, the Alleluias, and feast day hymns, and soon enough, the crucifix and other religious objects will be shrouded from our eyes.  All this, that we might recall this season of the church’s year, and that we might recall Jesus’ fast. That he was thrust out by the Spirit into the wilderness for us, to win the victory which we could not win, to say “no” because we have so often said “yes.”  Jesus goes out as the second Adam. Whereas the first Adam turned paradise into a wilderness, now the second Adam turns the wilderness into paradise again.  He goes out as the Davidic king. While the first David helped himself to many things, the Son of David came only to help others. He goes out as the new and obedient Israel.  As the first Israel came out of water into the wilderness for forty years, so the true Israelite comes forth from the waters of baptism into the wilderness for forty days. He comes from his baptism, when he saw the Spirit’s descent and heard the Father’s voice, “...My beloved Son...” 

 

 

Now the Son engages the devil, and it is his Sonship which the devil attacks. “You are the Son of God?  Really?  What kind of son are you, living in the wilderness with no food?”  The innuendo worked with the first Adam.  It has worked with the fallen children of Adam ever since. We, too, emerge from the waters of Baptism to face a fierce foe. “You’re a child of God? Why do you have cancer? You are lonely and depressed. A child of God would not have the thoughts you have and would not speak and act the way you do.”  Then, there is the temptation at the corporate level.  Adam heard it.  “Are they helping you to become more spiritual here at St. Eden’s Church, to become like God?”  So, too, today.  The Sunday entertainment is always better down the street, and there one feels more godly, you know, more “up.”  In every generation, fallen Israel quickly grows weary of its eucharistic manna and longs for the cucumbers of Egypt, just as Esau long ago sold his birthright for porridge.   “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  Jesus replied, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”  You see, if bread is the only thing, then the world can’t contain enough bread, then the checkbook can’t be flush enough, and there can’t be enough harmony and growth in our churches.  But this “bread” proves nothing.  A Christian poet put it this way, “We live not, Lord, by bread alone; without Thy blessing bread were stone”  (Martin Franzmann).  You see, if one suffers the loss of all earthly goods, but still has Jesus, the Bread of Life, he has all things.  Add this Bread to the worst of circumstances and the children of God are rich.  Add this Bread, this Word, to the common species of bread and wine, and the children of God have the Feast of the Lamb on earth.  When the Bread of Life is on the table at God’s House, then there will be bread on the table at your house. Just as “bread makes life possible, and wine makes life tolerable,” so the Supper elevates common life to the uncommon.

 

 

 “Ah, I can tell from your words about bread that you are a spiritual man, a man of the Book.  Come now, let me take you to that most spiritual of all places, atop the pinnacle of the Holy Temple.”  This move is not surprising, for Satan does his best work in church.  Even as Jesus stood upon the Temple, the devil and the doctors of the Law below were heaping legalistic burdens upon the shoulders of people, which neither could bear.  They were scouring the world for a single convert so that they might make him twice the child of hell.  “Jump, Man of the Book,” Satan says.  “For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge concerning you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone’” (Ps 91.11, 12).   “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” says Shakespeare, and “every heretic too,” adds the church father Tertullian. Many a fundamentalist can beat a Lutheran preacher at Bible trivia, but he does not have the key to unlocking the scriptures, for he lacks the sacraments, the mysteries which reveal The Mystery who is Christ.  “Prove your Sonship,” Satan says again.  “A bit of spiritual exhibitionism will get you off to a good start on your Messiah gig.  That will get the crowd on your side.”  But Satan had not gotten the Bible citation entirely right, for he left out the heart of the verse, “To keep you in all your ways.”  He left out Jesus, who is the Way, and who only goes the Father’s way, the way of the Cross.  But since that way is the controverted way, and the hard way, the fallen children of Adam seek other ways of their own choosing, by which God may prove Himself to their own satisfaction. And so apparitions of holy people replace the Word.  Rallies and retreats supplement the Mass.  “Walking the walk” gives greater assurance than Holy Baptism.  Counseling supplants Holy Absolution.  Sappy emotionalism and the latest trite tune replace the sturdy chorale.  A full checkbook is stronger than the promises of God.  Weekly liturgical experiments (and mediocrity) shove aside the catholic rite.  “Results” are preferred to the foolishness and weakness of the Cross.  “My vision” for a restless, busy church is better than being still (Ps. 46) and letting God be God.  Countless humanistic solutions and devices are preferred to the faith, once delivered to the saints.  All this is putting God to the test, the One who has already proven Himself in Word and deed, and only asks his people to have faith and his pastors to be faithful in handling his mysteries.  “No thank you!” the faithful say, “There are perfectly good stairs here, we’ll take them.  The Lord has given us his appointed means and his ministry, we shall rely on them.”  Don’t you see, this pericope is not a “how to” to show you the way to cite Bible passages which will repel Satan.  No, this is the record of your defeat of Satan through Holy Baptism.  For you were not only baptized into Christ’s death, but also into his victory over Satan two millennia ago in a most uninviting place.

 

A fallen angel led Adam into sin, the second Adam will not receive his glory from angels scooping Him up from the ground.  The faithful Son of God will not take the easy road to glory.  The kingdom will come, not at the wave of a magic wand or by a simple genuflection.  But that is what Satan was promising when he showed the kingdoms of the world from a high mount.  “All these things I will give You if You fall down and worship me.”  The Savior knows that this is not the true worship of God.  The obedience of the nations is his, but that will not come due to the exercise of raw, divine power.  He will rather go up another mountain in greatest weakness.  He will not be glorious on that mount.  He will bear the shame of the world.  He will bear your shameful sins, the ones everyone knows about, which make you so difficult to live with, and the ones you zealously hide.  He goes up because going down is all that you can do, due to your sinful nature.  The Savior will wear a crown of glory, but first comes a crown of thorns.  The wrath of God will be upon him, that the blessing of God might be upon you.  The first Adam ate his way, and our way, into everlasting death, but the second Adam will not eat bread made of stones, rather, he will give his body on the Cross that he might give it to us, in the Eucharist, for our salvation.  And so, we go the opposite way of our Father Adam:  we eat our way to eternal life!            

 

The Son of God does not go the “glory road,” rather he goes the way of the Cross.  However, because we are not good theologians, we desire the glory road.  As Blessed Doctor Luther once wrote, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil.”  The church, on the other hand, is called to the Theology of the Cross, and this theology, as Luther concluded, calls a spade a spade.  The Theology of Glory seeks peace in the church through doctrinal compromise, calling confessionalism extreme. It seeks the approval of the world by accommodation to the world, calling persecution unnecessary.  It praises those in the church who use slick gimmicks and inoffensive moralizing to produce growth, but it calls faithfulness in the handling of the mysteries, without regard to numbers irresponsible.  But this theology is evil in itself and is to be rejected, as the Savior rejected Satan’s blasphemous lies.  Indeed, if we were to believe the devil, there never would be any martyrs.  He, who is Truth, did not believe the lies of the old evil foe, and so the Tempter left Him until an opportune time, and at that time, Jesus would worship his Father with every ounce of his being and every drop of his holy precious blood. 

 

God bless us along our Lenten journey.  May he strengthen us, so that we refuse the glittering trash which Satan serves up, and when we fall, may he grant us Holy Absolution in his Gospel.  Then, when the fast is over, may we all join our Alleluias with the “angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.”  Until then, let us not fast from the Holy Supper, for that is our provision along the Lenten way.  For this Supper is the Incarnate One, Jacob’s true ladder, the Stairway to Heaven, and upon his back we ascend to the Father, along with the angels who attended Jesus and who attend us and our little ones. 

 

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.  §

 

The Reverend Peter M. Berg is the pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.