First Sunday in Lent – Series B
The Sundays of Lent bring us back to the very basics of our faith. By tradition the First Sunday in Lent (notice that the Sundays are ‘in’ Lent, not of Lent, they remain always a mini-Easter) launches the season with the temptation of Christ. Today we will read that in Mark, but since it is so short there, we will also get a little context, the baptism and beginning of Jesus ministry. For once I do not have to add in the verses on either side of the passage for some context for us. This is good because we get to see the temptation’s connection to the baptism and ministry of Jesus more clearly.
It is easy for the preacher to get hung up in the details of the temptation or the mechanics of the act of temptation. We might preach about the nature of Satan or the methods Jesus uses to overcome the evil one. All those could be good sermons, but I think may miss the point. I think it is much easier than this. The point of the first Sunday of Lent is that Jesus won. The devil gave it his best shot and threw everything he had into the battle, and Jesus flat out beat him.
For the catechumen who was enrolled for baptism on the Easter Vigil in a little over six weeks, this had a simple but important message. He or she is on the winning side. Christ has beaten the one foe against which you have no chance. Your immersion into the life of Christ through the water of baptism is an immersion into the victor, into the one who wins the battle.
I think part of our problem today is that we do not really have a credible devil who genuinely plagues us. That means we read these stories very differently. Philip Jenkins recently wrote a book about the religion of the Global South in which he noted that post-enlightenment Christians keep trying to grab the rapidly growing churches of the south and commandeer them for their causes in the developed world. The American Evangelical claims them because they are biblically faithful. The Pentecostal likes them because they talk about the Spirit a great deal. The Liberal sees them as the success of the relief program. The LCMS Lutheran would co-opt them as an ally in the battle against the erosion of Scriptural authority. But none of these really get the movement which is spreading across Africa, Asia, and India today. The people of those places read of Jesus defeating Satan and casting out the demons and they rejoice. They rejoice because they are pretty sure that the guy a couple houses down is possessed by a demon and they are afraid of him. When they read of Jesus defeating Satan, they want to be Jesus’ friend because they have no way to combat the evil that lives in that house down the street.
Because we have very little or no room for an active demonic presence in our post-enlightenment world view, we hear this sort of a passage very differently than those catechumens for whom it was first intended as this lesson was chosen for this day well over a millennium ago. We see this as a victory over a generic evil, as a triumph which means horrors perpetrated in distant lands have been defeated, things like Nazi’s and Pol Pot or Idi Amin. But until you encounter real and personal evil, a personal presence so hair-raising, knee-buckling, gut-wrenching, and strong that you are powerless before it, you are in danger of not getting the point of this day. Jesus beat the 2
Evil One, the one who has a face, against whom my powers of resistance and willpower are feeble, even risible.
How can we portray that sort of helplessness to a society which demands and revels in our competence? The folks of long ago understood their precarious position, it seems. The preacher did not need to develop this reality. We need help to see this, but do we really need to look too far? The abused child is helpless, so is the elderly person caught in the squeeze of increasing costs and a flat social security benefit. The mentally vulnerable upon whom the scam artists prey is little of this sort of helpless. But even here I am not sure that we have fully encountered the full helplessness of which I speak.
Our temptation is always to blame the person. I think some addicts feel this helplessness before their addiction, but while the rest of us are conditioned to look at them and pity, we always have a sense that they deserve this a little. If they would just admit their problem, they might be able to lick this thing. If they had just listened to their mom a little better, they would not be hooked on this stuff. No, it seems that it is only before the Devil’s ugly handmaiden that we feel this helplessness anymore. It is only before death. We try mightily there too, but the truth is, doctors still lose all their patients eventually and eventually the coldness of death catches up to us all. No one has come up with a cure for dying yet. Has the COVID pandemic allowed us to see this more clearly?
I do believe that Lewis had it right in the Screwtape Letters. This is not an accident. The devil knows that the sort of fear his presence engenders in us, for all the perverse pleasure it brings him, drives us into the arms of Jesus. So he abides his time, waiting until death is upon us before he reveals himself, leaving us in our foolish security. How do we convey to people today? Do we even try? Why is it important that Jesus won on this day?
Some years ago we spent some time on the pastoral implications of asking people to observe Lent. We wondered how we could observe Lent healthily. What is the proper way to observe Lent? What should our Lenten fast entail? Is it just an extra service on Wednesdays? Is it giving something up for the season? What is a Lent well observed?
This question is important. I think our failure to observe Lent is often connect to our languid Easter celebration too. I have to give it to the folks in New Orleans, they know how to have a party and that makes the Lenten fast all the stronger.
Our culture does not like to repent. The church of the first four centuries may have developed the Lenten season as a penitential season because Christians wanted to repent all year long, even during Easter season. There is some indication from early Christendom that Lent developed as a way for the Church to say, “This is the repentance time and those weeks that follow is the celebration time.” It was not that they needed to stop celebrating, they needed to stop repenting. Could our approach to repentance be any more different? How will we allow for repentance to happen so we can really rejoice in Easter’s glory? 3
Should a good Lent always include some catechesis? This was another root of the season, a time of preparation for baptism.
What is Lent for? What is a successful Lenten season?
1. People understand their need for a savior often through serious/sober introspection, prayer, etc.
2. Measured in the celebration of Easter – Lent disconnected from Easter is problematic, and Easter without Lent is pallid. A good Lent leads to a joyful and celebratory Easter.
3. Faithful relationship with Christ is renewed – brings us back to the basics of our Christianity – the non-essentials are stripped away and we see the structure of our faith, its essentials. Jesus has rescued us from Satan’s power.
4. A good Lenten observer prays, considers the needy, and exercises faith in healthy ways.
5. Fasting is another good and healthy practice. We can fast from singing alleluia’s in the season, from the Hymn of Praise, and other liturgical elements. We might fast from practices or elements of our diet. But this needs to be connected to Jesus giving up for me. This needs to remind me of what Christ has done and enable me to participate in His sacrifice.
Collect of the Day
O Lord God, You led Your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide the people of Your Church that following our Savior we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The prayer does an interesting thing. The readings today are not really about the Promised Land and the wandering in the wilderness, or are they? Jesus fasts for forty days in the wilderness. Dare we hear that without thinking about the forty years in the desert? If we fail to remember the Exodus, are we really theologically deficient?
But this memory is an interesting choice. Moses did not get there. The people who fled Egypt over the age of 20 or so did not get there, except for Joshua and Caleb. God led them through the wilderness and yet those forty years were purging the people of disobedient folks who refused to go and punitive in a sense. What does that comparison say about us?
God has rescued his people from the slavery of Pharaoh with a mighty arm and outstretched hand. He has brought them to the Promised Land. For Christians this has always been about more than an historical event which took place over a millennium before Jesus was born. For Christians that has always been the meta-narrative, the big picture story of the whole Bible. Enslaved to Sin, we are rescued from our bondage and brought to the promised land of heavenly 4
joy and bliss. We all are walking through that sea on dry land, we are all eating of the manna in the wilderness and drinking from the rock that followed them. That rock was Christ! (I Cor. 10) This is where the Lenten season properly starts, remembering what this whole thing is about. Jesus has conquered the foe.
Now, however, we also remember that we are not there yet, so we pray that this same God who has already accomplished this, would guide His Church through the wilderness of this world to the glory of the world to come. We get there by following the Savior Jesus.
We as Lutherans are quite good at the first part of this equation. The proclamation that God has rescued his people from slavery in sin we preach comfortably. It is the part about Jesus the example, the one whom we follow through this wilderness, which we sometimes find difficult. Because we are tempted to the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian formulation in which our efforts, or even our desires to make an effort, become something other than the manifestation of Christ in us, we have shied away from this language.. We have at times almost abandoned the notion that Christianity has a distinct “way” about it, a following of Jesus down a path on which he shapes our lives both inwardly and outwardly. At our worst moments, Christianity has become simply an assent to a set of doctrines which may have no impact on the living of our lives.
I would argue that an authentic Lutheran, Confessional theology is very concerned about the living of life, the way of the Christian. Luther was profoundly concerned about the lives lived by the Germans in Saxony. He once famously preached a sermon in which he threatened that God would cause it to rain mud if they did not clean up their act. Even the great doctor of Law and Gospel himself, C. F. W. Walther, spent a fair amount of time on sanctification. I encourage you to pick up his sermons, not the santitized ones, but the real ones, better in German. The man must have preached sermons with a sanctification goal about 60% of the time.
This prayer is a challenge for us, which really is the Lenten challenge as well. The faith we confess is also confessed in the lives we live. Christianity is a way of life, in addition to being a set of beliefs. The readings we will hear today, and which we will hear for the next 40 or so days will not be completely comprehensible if we miss this point.
After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 2 He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” 3 So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. 5 Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the 5
boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” 6 And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. 7 And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” 8 Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
9 When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
15 And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
This is a tough passage to preach. I was reading the “Lutheran Forum” this week and the editor quoted Luther on this passage. Luther said that he was unable to climb this mountain. He was down at the bottom with the rest of the asses, wondering what was going on. If Luther was perplexed by this, don’t be surprised that you find yourself wondering what is happening here.
“The Art of Reading Scripture” which is a collection of essays edited by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays has a great essay about this passage. In this essay the author notices that the ancients and the moderns read this text completely differently. The moderns as often as not are appalled by this text, wondering what sort of a God would ask a man to do this. The ancients never went there, they just did not say this. If you have not seen this text and are interested in Biblical interpretation, I highly recommend this collection.
That said, we need to have something to say here. Where does one start with this text? It is simply one of the most commented upon passages of the Old Testament, both in Jewish literature and Christian exegesis. This story grips us. If you want a really interesting reading on it from an existential position, try Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” Despite the name, this is an engaging and interesting read, the sort of thing that preachers really ought to avail themselves 6
of. Kirkegaard will have harsh words for the church of his day which he felt had reduced Christianity to a vague set of intellectual and cultural tenets but which had little room in its theology for a God who would do something like this and hence little expectation of actually changing someone’s life. He did this by imagining what was going through Abraham’s mind as he acted upon the command of God. What thoughts passed through the mind of Abraham as he walked up that hill with Isaac? It is a good read.
The Jewish commentators also thought this story was important. In fact, you might hear this story called simply “The Akeda” for the word which was used for the “binding” of Isaac. This is the only place this particular Hebrew word occurs in the Bible. They parsed over every little phrase of this text, as they did all the texts of the OT, especially of the Torah. The opening line “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac” they took to reflect a conversation between God and Abraham which went a little like this:
Abraham,”Here I am.”
God, “Take your son.”
Abraham, “Which of my sons? I have two.”
God, “Your only son.”
Abraham, “But I have two, Isaac and Ishmael.”
God, “The son whom you love.”
Abraham, “But I love them both.”
God, “Isaac! I want you to take Isaac!”
Our translation into English changes a little of the word order, but the Jewish readers were pondering and contemplating even this oddly phrased little string of descriptors which Hebrew piled up on the name Isaac and constructed this little scene to explain why it was in the text this way. This practice is called a Midrash. Paul was schooled in Midrash technique and it shows up in several places in his letters.
For Christians this passage has long fascinated us as we see Isaac, Abrahams “only” son carrying the wood of the sacrifice, meekly ascending a hill where he will be sacrificed. It just looks so much like Jesus that we cannot avoid it. Then, at the moment of the sacrifice, God stretches out his hand, and provides a ram, caught in the bushes by his horns. In the place of the whole nation of Israel, which is latent in the genetic code of Isaac, God has provided a sacrifice in its place. Just in case you missed the sledgehammer, the tradition is that this mountain in which Abraham did this was Moriah, which was also known later as Zion, the spot where the temple was built, the very hill on which Jesus would die, outside the walls, on an outcropping they called “The Skull.” 7
But even the story telling of this story is marvelous. Notice how the narrative slows down, almost to slow motion when the moment of sacrifice arrives. Abraham stretches forth his hand, grasps the knife, lifts the knife. Then, from thin air, the hand of God stays his arm, you can imagine just as the downward stroke begins.
The careful exegesis of the scholastics, both medieval and protestant, noticed that something funny is going on with the angel of the Lord in this text. What is the Angel of the Lord here? At times it seems to speak for God, at other times the voice which Abraham hears is simply called YHWH, the personal name of God. One who is the messenger of God and who is God, hmm….sounds like Jesus!
Modern readers of this text have also been fascinated by this passage but it is the fascination of a horror movie. It has become one of the proof texts of those who assert that religion is inherently violent and evil. Most modern commentators focus on the victim. We note that the feelings of Isaac are completely ignored. I have read entire books based on the fact that Isaac was traumatized by this event, explaining why he was such a poor father to Jacob and Esau, etc., and this goes on ad nauseam. The Bible is quiet about both Abraham’s and Isaac’s feelings in this whole thing. I find that explorations into them are hardly helpful. I also find that the whole conversation does not seem to really arise until the modern period. The ancients did not have a problem with God asking everything of us, even this. In this I think we find our own version of idolatry. God was within his rights, we have none. The modern image of “having a few questions to ask God when I get to heaven,” would be simply laughable were it not so tragically wrong. God will be asking all the questions that day and I will be the one who must give answer for what has transpired, not him. To think that I can hold God accountable, even for what looks like such an egregiously evil act as child sacrifice, is to put myself into the position of God, at least on a par with him.
You can see that this text has been extremely fertile ground for the creative interpretation. What will we do with it, especially as we hear it in light of Jesus’ own baptism, temptation, and the beginning of his ministry?
God sends forth his only Son to engage a foe against which even Abraham’s most precious possible sacrifice was powerless. What will we give that our life be spared? What can we do that is not simply what is required of us? What can make recompense for our lives? No sinner, no sacrifice, no act of heroic virtue, nothing. This problem will take God to solve. On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.
This text has been an occasion for many to doubt the goodness of God. The preacher needs to be aware of this and be ready to engage that conversation. It is tough. I don’t know why God would do something which looks so brutal to a young person. I imagine poor Isaac having nightmares about this event for years to come. And yet, he was obedient too. Isaac was a teen by this point. Abraham was over 100 years old. Isaac had to climb on that pile of wood. I don’t know that Abraham would have single handedly put him there against Isaac’s will. Do I understand this? 8
No. Do I stand in awe of it? Yes. The truth is that both Abraham and Isaac may have passed this test – they both were willing to lay down that life.
If this was indeed the mountain which would later come to be known as Zion. We also know that this was inhabited at this time. We often have depicted for us that this whole scene took place somewhere off in the wilderness, without anyone else around. It may have happened in the middle of a town, in the square, with many witnesses.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. 2 O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me. 3 Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame; they shall be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. 5 Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.
6 Remember your mercy, O LORD, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. 7 Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD!
8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.
Depending on how you want to run with the OT lesson, this Psalm takes on various themes. The modern who sees Genesis 22 as a horror story chokes on verse 8 and cannot accept that God is upright.
Luther and other heirs of the Reformation who see heroic faith in Abraham will likely resonate with verse 2 and see this as a prayer for God to strengthen faith. 9
The ancient Christians, the ones who read Genesis as a kind of retelling of the Jesus story would have gravitated toward vss. 4-5.
I think the modern who read it without the context of Genesis 22 would have focused on verses 6-7 which are in and of themselves a great Lenten sermon. The psalmists words which remember foolish and youthful deeds hit home for many of the crusty baby-boomers sitting in the pews.
The psalmist, as is often the case, is really expressing the faith of the person who hears and takes to heart all that is said today. He is expressing faith, the relationship which God has established in baptism and which counts on God for the rescue which we cannot provide, even if we were to sacrifice our only son.
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.
James says that God tempts no one. Then what do we say about God’s treatment of Abraham in Gen. 22 above? What is the difference between testing and temptation? James seems to use the words almost interchangeably in this text but then says God does not do this. Yet, James must have read Gen. 22 as well. How can he say God does not tempt/test?
1. Temptation tempts us to act upon our own desires. If anything, the temptation which came to Abraham in Gen. 22 would have been to run the other way from God’s command. God did not ask Abraham to do what he wanted. Temptation always plays on our own wants and desires.
2. The testing of Abraham was to reveal Abraham’s faith for Abraham to see. Temptation would have involved revealing Abraham’s brokenness and sinfulness.
In one sense, testing and temptation can feel very much the same, look the same, but they are at the heart of them, very different. One directs our attention up to God and the other directs us to ourselves and down to Satan.
James seems to be speaking to a totally different world than the one in which we live. Recently Oxford Press has been publishing a series of books which bring classic texts of the western tradition to a broader audience. The Dalai Lama specifically requested the opportunity to write 10
the introduction to the book of James, which he holds to be a text which reflects the heart of Buddhism. Does that change the way you read this book? Should it?
What does “remaining steadfast” look like today? How would we say that to an audience of 21st century folk? “Until death parts us” has come to mean “until I find it difficult.” John the Steadfast of Luther’s day was noted for his firm stance on behalf of the Reformation. Unfortunately he said all the right things and just as it was all coming to a head, he died and his son John Frederick had to become “the Magnanimous” in a crushing defeat.
Is steadfastness remaining faithful to promises that we have made? Is this a moment to talk about confirmation promises? Is it a moment to talk about the times we have stood at the font as a sponsor and promised to pray for a child, parents, and families? Is it time to remember vows made to a spouse before an altar? These are hard things to do. Blessed is the person who is steadfast.
Or is steadfastness something that really belongs to God and which he gives to us? Is it synonymous with faith or is it one of the fruits of faith in which we participate like love and service and acts of charity? Is the steadfastness of which James speaks really the steadfastness of God to us? Is that were we are to remain?
Is it both?
James is an interesting little book. It is not attributed, historically anyway, to the disciple of that name, but to the brother of Jesus, James the Just. If the tradition is true, he was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem, the mother church of all Christendom. He was not the first leader, that was the apostle James, the first martyr of the 12. Herod killed that first James a short while after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This second James would lead God’s people for some time, but in the tumult of the decades following Jesus’ ministry which would eventually culminate in the Jewish rebellion of 68-70 and the destruction of the temple, James would also meet a martyr’s death. We think around the year 50. Supposedly he was thrown from the top of the temple, when that did not kill him, they stoned him. Josephus talks about him and notes that he was genuinely grieved in both the Christian and Jewish communities as a good man who was unjustly persecuted and killed. In that he would bear witness to his brother and Lord, Jesus.
Where this little letter fits into all this, is then also somewhat muddy. Scholars are all over the map on this letter. Some even assert that this is not a Christian text originally at all, but a Jewish text that has been reworked. That sounds to me like someone trying to get published because they have a wild new idea; but it worked and they got published. The text appears to have been reworked at some point. It clearly was originally delivered as a sermon, but then seems to have been sent out as a letter. The most plausible reconstruction of events, and remember this does rest on some guesswork, is that after James’ death and after the dispersion of the Christian community of Jerusalem into the surrounding area following that city’s destruction in 68-70, the 11
letter was repackaged and sent out to encourage these Christians. We know that they were not warmly received into the synagogues at the time, in fact the reception was decidedly chilly. The letter makes a lot of sense if the audience is understood to be a Palestinian Jewish Christian audience who are discouraged. James reminds them of the basics of the faith, encourages them, and challenges them to live out their faith in their situation. As the word from the martyred hero of the community, it would have had a powerful effect on the folks to whom it was addressed.
We get these words today because James assures the hearers that God does not tempt people to evil. We have evil desires in our hearts which happily cooperate with the temptations which are around us and lead us into acts of sin. God is not rightly blamed for what is in our rebellious hearts, the sins we commit or even the consequences of those sins, our own death.
God gives good and perfect gifts, he does not change, he is the father of lights (perhaps the stars above?) He brought us forth by His Word of truth (creative act) and we are now the good gifts which he has given to this world in which we live, first fruits which bear witness to the larger harvest which is to come through His continuing work.
It would seem the primary reason this text is here is to correct a possible misreading of Mark and Genesis in which the temptation seems to come from God who tests Abraham and the Spirit which drives Jesus out into the desert. Is God tempting there? What is the difference between temptation and testing? Why does the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness?
Mark 1:9-15 (The temptation of Jesus)
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
We have recently seen the two little sections which begin and end this passage (Baptism of our Lord and Epiphany 3). But the temptation is so brief, only two short verses in Mark, we would almost be embarrassed to read that as our Gospel lesson for the day. What is more, Mark’s brevity gives us a chance to look at this in its context and the importance of the Baptism which come before the temptation and the Ministry which follows it. 12
First verses 12 and 13. The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. The word here is violent. It is in fact the same Greek word which was used to describe a soldier throwing a spear. Jesus is hurled into the desert by the Spirit. Mark is always rushing about and using rather dramatic and vigorous language, so perhaps we need to consider the word choice with some circumspection. But many have noted this. There is urgency and this is God taking decisive action. But what action? Jesus is not like some boxer who fights his way through the lesser fighters to earn a chance at the title. He is thrown into the ring with the champion in his first fight. He is in the championship game his first game. He is sort of a rookie called upon to start in the World Series. The Holy Spirit seems to have impelled this narrative arc on the salvation story. Jesus’ ministry will hang on this victory.
Jesus is driven into the wilderness. That word is also loaded with meaning for the Christian reader. The Christian remembers the wilderness sojourn of the people of Israel for forty years. We also remember that Elijah, who also stood with Moses on the mountain, fasted in the desert for forty days. The wilderness in Isaiah and Hosea was developed even further as a place of cleansing. God repeatedly speaks of leading his people back out into the desert in sort of a exodus “redo” so that he can purify and cleanse them and bring them back as his devout and true people. Is Jesus here recapitulating Israel’s history, is he repenting and going through a purification on behalf of all?
He was in the wilderness for forty days. Again the number of penitence and purification. It rains for forty days when Noah is in the ark, the people wander for forty years, Elijah fasts for forty days. Jonah gives the people of Nineveh 40 days to repent and then expects the judgment to come. This number is associated with the cleansing process, the repenting work.
He was tempted by Satan. The other gospel writers give us much more detail. Mark simply notes that it happens. Satan tempted him. He contended with the source of evil out there, and he prevailed. We know he prevailed because we hear the words he spoke when he came out. Repent! Believe! The Kingdom of God is here!
He was with the wild animals. This is pre-romanticism so do not get all eco-fuzzy on this account. More likely this is a picture of the eschatological fulfillment here. The wildness of the animals, the terror of the lion for the human who might be the prey, is taken away in the eschaton, the end of the world. This comes from places like Isaiah 65 where the prophet says that on that day the wolf and lamb will lie down together. Only Mark notices this little tidbit of the Temptation.
The angels minister to him. Matthew also notices this point, Luke does not. Like Elijah in the desert when he is fed under the broom tree, Jesus is not alone, but the ministering servants of God attend to him. Does this speak to the current man or woman who is battling temptation? They are not alone either. 13
We get these words in the context of the baptism and the ministry of Christ. His baptism and the outpouring of the Spirit at that baptism lead immediately to a victory over Satan. The victory over Satan immediately leads to the ministry of salvation in which call to repent and believe is proclaimed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed. The order of the actions and the actions themselves are important. Jesus acts with Authority and Spirit. He is the Son of God and is filled with the Holy Spirit. This is not Jesus clawing his way to the top, not Jesus achieving status, but Jesus living out status which he properly has and acting on a Spirit filled directive which flows from what he possesses in full.
That the very next action is taken against the ancient foe is also important. Jesus does not start on the outside and work his way toward the root of the problem. Authorized and empowered, he goes right to the root of the issue, Satan himself. The subsequent ministry, therefore, is not undertaken as a ministry which builds toward the eschatological battle at which the fate of the world is determined. The victory was won immediately. The ministry and the ensuing ministry of the Church is the working out of that victory over Satan, won first in the desert, completed in the cross and empty tomb. We are not engaged in some cataclysmic struggle whose end we do not know. This is not like Star Wars so that we are not sure if the evil emperor will win or the virtuous hero. The ministry of Christ and the ministry of his church flow out of victorious action against the primary foe. The end of this is determined by the beginning of it. In the much the same what that a journey is largely determined by whether one turns right or left at a juncture early in the trip. We are witnessing, in what looks like s small event, only two verses long; yet, it is a significant pivot in the history of the world. Satan tempted a man in the wilderness of Judea, and that man did not succumb. Satan’s entire kingdom is shaken, cracks start to immediately appear, demons are cast out, lepers are cleansed, sinners are forgiven. Our ministry as a congregation and as His people is simply a continuation of that action. We are bringing into reality what he has done by defeating Satan once in the wilderness and finally and fully with a cross and empty tomb forty days from now.
1. The Devil is not my friend. It is not true that the folks in hell have more fun or that he is just a loveable rascal who likes to break the unreasonable rules of heaven. He is a monster who would devour my soul. He eats people.
2. The Devil is strong. He is not the sanitized guy in the red suit with a pitchfork and tail whom we often like to mock. But that is not the real Satan, not the lord of hell. He cannot bear being laughed at. We do laugh at him, but we only dare laugh at him when we realize who he really is, otherwise it is pure folly on our part. I am weak and helpless in comparison to him.
3. The Devil is real. He has withdrawn his presence from much of my life, simply because he doesn’t need to bully me into sin. I am rather comfortable there. He will have his fun in an eternity spent terrifying me. So he can afford to be just a little patient right now. He can be very patient.
4. The Devil has a right to me and all that I am. By virtue of my sinfulness, he has a justifiable claim over me, and there is nothing I can do to get him off my back. He knows it and he is willing to let me think otherwise because he knows that the day comes when everything will either be claimed by himself or by his enemy, the Creator of heaven and earth. I delude myself into thinking that I am my own person. I am not my own, I belong to another. There can be no question as to which one. My sin means I belong to the evil one.
5. I am foolish enough to fall for his deception and believe that he is either my friend, or that he is powerless and absent from this modern world. I am foolish enough to believe that I am my own person and to believe that I am in control of my own destiny and that my willpower is sufficient to resist. Even though, let’s be honest here, I have a hard time passing a plate of donuts without grabbing one. My enemy will not disabuse me of my folly. It works too well into his plans for me.
1. Jesus is my friend. Though I have not ever been even aware of my true need and the depth of the relationship which he has established, he has always been my true friend, my heroic savior. He does not seek to control me, but he does include me in the gracious rule of his kingdom. He finds room and place for me to thrive and grow, part of his beautiful creation.
2. My friend is strong. Where the devil never really needs to try hard to get me to sin, Jesus has resisted and overcome every craft of my foe. His strength has been tested by the very prince of darkness and he was not lacking on that.
3. Jesus is here for me. In Word and Sacrament, in fellowship and Spirit, I am in the presence of Christ. He goes with me out of these doors, even intimately uniting himself with me in this sacrament that I never can be without him. That means the old rebel inside of me must be undone, but even that is sweet work, for he raises to new life in baptism a new man who genuinely delights in the good that Jesus has for me.
4. In his cross and resurrection, Jesus has established his redemptive claim on me. He has purchased and won me from sin, death and devil, not with silver or gold but with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death that I may be his own and live under him in his kingdom. He has established the stronger claim on me than any claim of Satan. Come the last day, Jesus’ blood and righteousness are my great hope.
5. Jesus knows what it is to be tempted and he knows my weakness. He too has been tempted and he has lived with fallen, weak and terrified people. He has established his church, this preaching office, these sacraments, preserved this Bible, and put me in the community of these people because he knows how much I need these things. He has poured out his spirit on me too so that I may be called, gathered, enlightened, sanctified and kept in the one true faith even as he calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth.
1. On the Mountain of the Lord it will be provided. (OT and Gospel – That the hearer remember and rejoice in the good news that Jesus has won the victory that we could not win.)
Today we have embarked upon the long journey to Calvary and the passion of our Lord in the sure and certain hope that he has won the day. Where we were powerless and helpless before the strength of our foe, before the relentless onslaught of age and death, before the utter mess of this world and what has happened to it and what it is doing to us, God was not thus helpless and impotent. He was strong to save. There was no gift we could bring, there was no sacrifice we could make. Not even Abraham’s sacrifice of his most precious son was enough to pay for Abraham’s sins. Had he given his son to death, he would have walked down that hill just as much a sinner and a mortal sinner as when we walked up it. Only God could offer the gift that he required and the gift which we require. Two thousand years or so after Abraham and Isaac climbed that hill with the wood of that sacrifice strapped to Isaac’s back, another son of Abraham walked up a hill, if the tradition is to be believed, the same hill, with a wooden cross laid upon his back. This time no ram would be given in his place, for he was the very sacrifice which would free this world of sin and death and brokenness. When his body was carried down that hill and laid in a tomb, everyone thought that it was over, but in truth it had just begun. For that death was death’s undoing, and that sacrifice was the beginning of the end for Satan’s hold on this world. Today, Jesus is freeing sinners from Satan’s grip, one absolution at a time. Jesus is feeding the hungry, one bowl of soup, one piece of bread at a time as Christians man the soup kitchens and give their gifts to relief agencies. Today, Jesus is comforting widows and widowers who feel so acutely the loss of their spouse or parents who grieve for a child or children who grieve for a parent. Today, through this congregation he is still about the job of announcing that victory, of freeing those captives, of proclaiming his kingdom. Come, this is the day to repent, to own our need for this Jesus. God has provided on his Holy Mountain!
2. And he bound him (That the hearer believe that God has placed within him/her a powerful and vibrant faith which dares impossible things.)
It says that God tested Abraham. Now a test is something we do when we want to find something out. A professor tests students to see what they have learned. An engineer might test a beam or some structural component to know how much weight it can bear. A test tells us something. But God already knows what Abraham believes. Does God test him so that Abraham would know it too? Does he test Abraham to show Abraham and Isaac what God has worked in them?
The Jewish interpreters of this text have a tradition that these events happened when Isaac was thirty years old. They say this because he carried the wood up the hill. That required strength. He was no small child. He was a strong man. If he was thirty, that makes Abraham one hundred thirty years old! The Jewish interpreters do not imagine that that he could have wrestled a man in his prime onto that altar against his will.
Is Isaac the real hero of this story? Did he, when he realized what God was asking turn to his father and say, “We have to do this. Trust God. I trust God.” Did he climb willingly onto that altar and ask his father to bind him as a sacrifice? That word for bind – Akeda in Hebrew – is found no where else in the Biblical text. For that reason this is often referred to as the binding story, the Akeda story. But that willingness to be bound may be more than simply a verbally rare term. It might be the very focus of the story itself. Isaac was willing to be bound.
Did Abraham and Isaac walking down that mountain know something very important about themselves and what God had done for them? They might have known it before, but now did they really know it? God has put that same faith in the people of your congregation through the waters of Baptism and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Is he calling us to lives of similar faith, sacrifice, and awesome deeds? This is the day on which Jesus defeats Satan. What does that free us to do? The preacher who undertakes this sermon will want to proclaim that God has given the hearer something of which we may not yet have the measure. It might be very big indeed.
3. The Victory is Ours (Epistle and Gospel – That the hearer would be empowered by God’s Word and Spirit to engage in the kingdom work of witness and service, confident that he/she is on the winning side, and that God is at work through their words and deeds.)
Jesus, filled with Spirit, and with the authority which belongs only to the Son of God, was hurled out into that desert. There he would meet the foe in a contest which had to be fought and which we could not win. That battle would be ongoing and finally bring him to a cross, to agonizing death and to cruel injustice. It was a battle which only God could win and which God had foreseen in the garden when our first parents transgressed. God had predicted that a child of Eve would crush Satan’s head but be painfully bruised. On a wilderness mountain, Abraham would foreshadow this event with the near sacrifice of Isaac. In that wilderness of his temptation Jesus finally won the day for the whole human 17
race, just as on Easter morning he beat our fearsome foe, death. Today we see that he had the Spirit, he had the authority. He was the One who championed the entire human race and rightfully bested Satan. Now, crowned in glory and victory, the very glory which was briefly revealed last week to Peter, James, and John, he continues to proclaim this victory to the destruction of Satan’s kingdom.
But now he does it through us.
James called us the first fruits of Jesus victory. We are now the good gifts which he has sent from above, the captives liberated whom he has armed with word and service to do battle. He has conquered the foe, but many remain who suffer in his clutches and the effects of his foul kingdom. Many continue to struggle under an obligation of guilt and sin which Jesus has already paid in his death. Many this day are lonely when the Spirit of God has been poured out, befriending all humanity. Many this day are hopeless when Christ has brought hope to light.
But did you see how Jesus also was served? When he was in that wilderness with the Devil and the wild animals, it says that the angels came to him, served him. We could perhaps add something to Lent this year. Or if you insist on giving something up, give up our most precious gift of all, a little time. Add a few minutes into your day’s devotion so you can be ministered to by the same messengers that sustained Christ in the wilderness. His very meat and drink, by his own statement, was the Word of his Father. This is essential to being the Lenten people of this community. We dare not starve ourselves of this gift from him, choking it off with our busy-ness and obligations. The good Lent is one which takes stock of this calendar and remembers that God wants to help and feed us.
Now these forty days of Lent remind us that we are sinners, but on this side of the baptismal font, our sins always bear testimony as well to the forgiveness of Christ, our repentance is an acknowledgement of his grace as much as it is a recognition of our own corruption, for we do know and believe that he loves us too. That essential fact, his love for sinners, empowers and authorizes us as well to be agents of liberation for those captive to Satan’s kingdom. We know this because we have partaken of this food, knelt at this rail, and heard his voice speak tenderly to us in this word. He has washed our sins away in baptism. That means we too can proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is right here, right now. Jesus is among us, Jesus is in us. We can love with His love, speak with His Word, act with His Spirit. Look at what is happening in this place this day….! (Be ready with a few illustrations of good things happening through your people. You will proclaim that the same Jesus who beat Satan in the wilderness works through you!)
We really thought that a preacher might be able to read that first reading, slowly and emphatically. A few comments and then a re-reading of that text and you would have a pretty good sermon which almost preaches itself. Draw a few connections to Christ but let the word do the preaching on this 18
4. Steadfast (Epistle and Gospel – that the Holy Spirit would connect Christ’s victory over Satan to the hearer’s life – empower his/her steadfast resistance to temptation.)
Let’s face it, we are not very good at resisting temptation. Satan just doesn’t have to work that hard at it with us. We usually cave into his blandishments and lies before too long. Even if we do put a little effort into this, the end result doesn’t change that much. Hence, we have pity for the poor soul who is trapped in some sin, we ourselves might have that pet sin which plagues us, but we shrug our shoulders and with resignation make some comment about human fallibility.
But does it need to be so? James urged his audience to be steadfast and spoke of receiving the crown of life in the judgment. Abraham in the OT reading today seems to be superhuman in his faithful response to a request from God which horrifies us. What are we to make of this? Is God asking us to be something impossible?
Yes and no. It is true that we will fail before this trial of our own strength. Even Abraham, in fear for his life, gave Sarah to Pharaoh and thus jeopardized God’s promise of a child through Sarah. We will succumb and just as every human being before us has fallen prey to Satan we will not be the one to break that mold. Did I really say every human being? There was one and his story is the source of our expectation and joy today. Jesus did not succumb but broke the power of Satan and stood firm against his evil schemes and plots.
James exhorts us to steadfastness because we are connected to this Jesus through our baptism. Every good and perfect gift comes from God, and steadfastness is the gift which Jesus has given us through the Spirit.
That means your life is lived in the confident expectation of Christ. Our basic human idolatry often turns to our own sufficiency when it comes to these questions. We are exhorted to follow these steps or exercise some self-discipline. These may be good things, they may be healthy, but they will not conquer the tempter’s might. This Lenten-tide we are called by God to lives of holiness and purity in Christ. We all have a distance to travel to meet that goal. But God has not simply called us and left us to flounder. He has connected us to the one human being who has been steadfast in the face of temptation. That connection not only assures us of the final victory on the Day of Judgment, but it also transmits to us right now the strength and integrity which Jesus wielded against the temptation of Satan in the wilderness of Judea those many years ago. He connected himself to Abraham and enabled his faithful act. He connected himself to us in our Baptism and this sacrament of which we partake and that connection gives us of his very nature and character.
James does not enjoin us to some impossible task, but to the living out of the gift we have already been given in Christ. So we live it. 19
5. The Kingdom of God is here – Repent and Believe! (That the hearer crushed by the realization of their own failures would embrace the good news that Jesus has won the day in our place and established His kingdom in my life.)
This sermon will use the three readings in a strong Law-Gospel dynamic. Abraham the heroic paragon of faith shows me for a failure. God has not come and asked me for my son, he has asked me for much less and I have grumbled and complained. I have given a pittance when he has simply asked for what is his. Abraham shows me for a failure.
James raises the stakes. The one who stands up in the day of testing will receive the crown of life. I have failed. Do I get the dunce cap of death? Have I lost the crown? Were my efforts the end of this story, it would be bleak indeed.
But Jesus is the Gospel here. He contends with Satan in the wilderness, much like Abraham walked to the wilderness to sacrifice Isaac and the children of Israel tromped through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. Jesus went into the wilderness for us. Here is where the battle must be joined. He joined it and won.
Jesus proclaims that the kingom has come. God’s will is done. The good news is here. It is not my victory, but His, and he has given it to me.
Now we can read through the Epistle and OT lesson backwards. James proclaims that all good gifts come from above. The crown of life is given because Jesus victory is mine. I have stood the test.
The OT reading is critical here. On the mountain of the Lord it has been provided. The ram caught in the thicket has been sacrificed in our place. Abraham’s obedience is given to us. The faith to which Jesus calls us is now up to doing the amazing things. We will not be asked to sacrifice our children on some ancient altar. But we will sacrifice our self-righteousness in order to be humble before our neighbor. We will sacrifice our whole selves to him, he is now the one who stands at the center of my life. We have all seen the stalwart Christian who has given and given and given. Where did that come from? It came from Christ and Christ gives that to all of you too.