When we were growing up, my younger brother loved watching the wrestling on TV. Each week he would sit down and watch as Hulk Hogan and Kane and all the rest fought it out in the ring. His favourite fight, though, was the royal rumble. In it, 30 fighters would enter the ring in quick succession, with a fight to the finish, throwing everyone else out of the ring over the top of the ropes.
The weaker wrestlers would be quickly eliminated, one defeating them all easily. Until right at the end would come the showdown. Could the last fresh wrestler defeat the champion, the one who looked certain to win?
In our gospel reading today, it’s a bit like the closing stages of a royal rumble. The fight has been going on since the beginning of creation, the devil defeating everyone who has gone before - Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; the children of Israel in the wilderness; every human being has failed and fallen in the face of temptation. The big question is: can Jesus succeed where Adam and Israel failed? Can Jesus do what each of us fail to do?
Let’s briefly remind ourselves of the tests that Jesus faced. In the first, the devil says: ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ (3) Jesus has been in the wilderness for forty days; we’re told that he is hungry. We know he is the Son of God - we’ve already heard the Father’s voice in Luke 3. We know that Jesus has the power to provide miraculous food - later he will feed five thousand and four thousand. So why not a bit of a bap for one?
How does Jesus respond? ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.”’ Jesus goes straight to the scriptures to discover God’s will for his people. The verse he points to is from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses summarises the experience of the children of Israel in the wilderness. There, God provided manna for them after they hungered, to show that ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.’ While bread might be good, it’s much more important to have and obey the word of God. Jesus has passed the test.
The second test offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world, if he will but worship the devil. Now what’s going on here? As you might have guessed from my physique, I was never a fan of PE. The classes I dreaded most were when Mr McAleese would announce the 1.2. The 1.2 was a run 1.2 miles long, starting at the school, through the park, past the sewage works, onto the road, down through the town (past our house, where mum and/or granny would be watching out), and back round to school.
On cold, miserable mornings, it was torture! Except, some boys quickly worked out that once you had started into the park, you could cut out about half the distance by using another gate. You avoided the smelly sewage works and the big hill; you could even rest on the benches until the keen ones had gone the long way round. A shortcut. Why strain yourself? Why not take the easy way out? That’s what the devil is offering here - king of kings and lord of lords, without having to go to the cross. Just bow down and worship the devil. A lot less hassle.
How does Jesus respond? ‘It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ (8) Jesus turns to the scriptures again, and declares that God is the only one who is worthy of our worship. To worship anyone or anything else is at the heart of sin - idolatry. Jesus has passed the test.
By now the devil is sick hearing Jesus quote scripture, so he tries it himself. ‘It is written...’ He takes Jesus to the top of the temple - about 700 feet up - the height of 50 double deckers on top of each other, and urges him to jump without a parachute or a bungy rope. Why? Well, because God has promised in Psalm 91 to protect his people. Plus, if Jesus pulls it off, it’ll provide a great spectacle in Jerusalem. Think of the watching crowds!
But just because the devil can quote scripture doesn’t mean that he understands it. He’s using it with an agenda; he seizes on something that suits his purpose. And how does Jesus respond? ‘It is said (which is in effect, it is written), ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’’ God is not a performing puppy who has to jump to our demands; we don’t call the shots; we can’t just test out the promises to make sure. We can depend on them, but not check them, just to be sure. Once again, Jesus has passed the test.
The end result that day was that Jesus passed the test. He defeated the temptations the devil threw at him. He remained faithful and obedient to God; he proved himself to be the Son of God, not by doing what the devil said, but by doing what God has said.
God’s Son succeeds in perfect obedience where Adam and all his sons and daughters have failed. He is qualified to win salvation for us by his perfect life as he dies in our place for our sins. So we can be sure that our failures are covered; that when we have given in to temptation, Jesus’ blood is covering our sin. We are credited with his obedience where we have disobeyed. What wonderful good news!
But what about those times tomorrow when temptation strikes? How will you react when you’re given an opportunity you feel you just can’t refuse? The first thing to remember is that Jesus knows what we are going through. As the letter to the Hebrews reminds us: Jesus ‘has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ (Heb 4:15). Therefore, we can ‘approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find find grace to help in time of need.’ (Heb 4:16). Jesus, the Saviour, knows what we face; he has been in our shoes; he faced temptation on a level we will never know, and yet did not sin. He’s not like an armchair general or a commander who has never experienced the front line of the battle... he’s been there before us. He gives us grace when tested, and mercy when we fail.
But there’s more. You see, Jesus is not just our Saviour; he is also our example. So how does our passage help us when we face temptation? What will the grace for the battle look like?
Notice how Jesus answers each of the temptations in the same way - ‘It is written’ (or ‘It is said’). Jesus’ response comes from the Scriptures, the creator’s instructions. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I get a new gadget, I want to tear into it straight away. Plug it in, turn it on, and figure it out as I go. Before you know it, I’m stuck, I don’t know how to work it, and I have to hoke in the box for the instructions. The Bible is a bit like the maker’s instructions - a guide for living.
As well as that, though, the Bible is also like a love letter to us from God - now maybe young people today don’t bother with love letters - they’re more into Facebook wall posts; but imagine (or remember) back to when it was pen and paper - you received word from your beloved; you would treasure it, and read it, and re-read it. The Bible is not only from God, it’s also about God - we see the Lord Jesus within its pages from Genesis to Revelation, as it unfolds the greatest story ever told, God’s rescue plan for people like us.
But it’s even more. Do you remember the armour of God in Ephesians 6? Paul describes all the pieces of defensive armour - helmet, belt, breastplate, shield... there’s just one weapon for attack: ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.’ It’s the sword that Jesus uses here against the devil.
I’m sure you’ve seen an often-repeated scene in films and TV drama. The hero is in a showdown with the villain, when suddenly, the hero has no sword, no weapon. They’re powerless. That’s a picture of the Christian against the power of the devil.
The other day I was in a small Primary School speaking to an SU group. They were practicing their ‘sword drill’ - finding and reading and getting to know Bible verses. How is your own sword drill? Is your Bible in use, or gathering dust on a shelf or safely away in a cupboard?
You see, it’s as we read our Bibles, as we wield our swords, that we can resist temptation as we become more like the Lord Jesus - as Paul says. ‘All scripture is inspired by God (God-breathed) and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.’ (2 Tim 3:16)
Perhaps this season of Lent would be a good time to start to read your Bible. Why not read through a gospel as you learn more about the Saviour? Some find it useful to start the day off by reading the Bible and praying. For others, it might be at the end of the day; or during lunchbreak; or when you get a few minutes any time of the day. You could get a Bible app on your phone; or have the Bible on cd to listen in the car or as you jog. Any time we’re out shopping and Lynsey goes to try on clothes, I take the opportunity to read a chapter or two on my phone. There are lots of daily reading notes available - ask me or your rector afterwards for details of some.
Why read the Bible? It shows us the beauty and glory and wonder of our glorious Saviour, who defeated our enemies (including the devil), and reigns on high; who gives us his word so that we can know him; and gives us grace to stand firm against the devil’s lies. God, who spoke creation into being continues to speak to us through his unchanging word, to him be the glory. Amen.
This sermon was preached in St Mark's Church, Dundela, east Belfast on Sunday 17th February 2013.