Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our present pandemic conditions are no doubt vexing our would-be snowbirds in the congregation. After avoiding winter for all those years, this must be a nasty shock for you people, having to put up with these -45 billion degree temperatures! I knew a guy who went down to Arizona every year without fail basically forever. He was involved in the cowboy action shoot out stuff and he looked the part. 10 gallon hat. Drifter coat. 6 shooters. The whole 9 yards. They would reenact all the famous showdowns and gunfights like the OK Corral. 3PM on Wednesday October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. Outlaw Cowboys Billy Clanton, Tom & Frank McLaury opposed the lawmen Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt Earp, aided by Doc Holiday. After the fierce 30 second battle, the bad guys lay dead and bleeding the street while the good guys were all wounded, except Wyatt who walked away from the showdown unscathed. It seems the desert has always been a battle ground of sorts. Arizona to ancient Israel, I think all that heat goes right to your head!
Spiritual showdowns and duels to the death! It’s the name of the game today for this first Sunday in Lent. Perhaps even more famous than the battle at the O.K. Corral was the battle fought between Jesus and the devil in, yes, you guessed it, the desert. St. Mark tells us that immediately after Jesus is baptized He is thrown into the desert by the Spirit. He was in the Judean wilderness 40 days being tempted by Satan. St. Mark doesn’t really flesh out the details for us like St. Matthew and St. Luke do. The other Gospel writers tell all of Jesus’ triumph over Satan and how He is able to rise above the very real temptations Satan placed before Him. Mark simply tells us that Jesus is baptized and then is thrown into the ring to go head to head with the devil.
This is a picture of the life of every Christian, too. The majority of people miss this fact. Christian parents bring their new baby to be Baptized, dressed in white, lots of photos and celebrations. They don’t really think through the implications. Baptism Christens us for war. Spiritual battle. Baptism paints a giant target on each one of us, declaring that we are an enemy of the devil. Satan attacks and pursues us all the more because of that, ever trying to destroy the faith and salvation God creates in Baptism. It doesn’t matter if we are in the desert, the prairies, the mountains, the rain forests, the ocean beaches - temptation will always be around us. And what is temptation? It’s nothing but a seductive attraction to sin. Like a big fat juicy worm on a hook, the devil is there enticing us to take the bait and bite!
This is the ever-present problem for people. We are temptable beings. ‘Eat the forbidden fruit.’ ‘Doubt God’s Word to you.’ ‘Seek after the false god of self.’ Nothing has really changed in all of human existence. From iron plows to smart phones, our plight and condition remains the same. When the devil or his demons come to tempt us, it’s the same thing over and over again. There are no new sins. There are no new sick and twisted ways to go about breaking God’s laws. Satan and his team stick with what works. They’ve had thousands and thousands of years of practice bringing people down with temptation and sin. It’s like a newbie playing chess against a grand master. We don’t stand much of a chance.
The spiritual odds are stacked against us to be sure. And many Lutherans have simply yielded to this fact. “Can’t win, don’t try. God will forgive me anyways, might as well sin.” This kind of junk has been prevalent amongst us - so much so that Lutherans get accused of preaching “cheap grace” - do whatever you want because God is rich in grace and forgiveness! But this is not the way to approach the spiritual life. It’s like drinking poison and then going off to war. The enemy has already won.
St. Paul specifically warns us about this. He writes “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:1-4). And, St. James build on this too when he writes “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” (Jam1:12).
It’s God’s will for us that we remain steadfast in the face of temptation. And the nature of tempation is that it is different for all of us. One person may be tempted to be a glutton and eat the whole tub of Maple Walnut ice cream. The next person may be tempted to empty the cash register when no one is looking. Again St. James spells this out for us: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (1:14). This is the heart of temptation. The thought comes to us. Then it is entertained in our hearts and minds. And then, it is acted upon. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Temptations are like birds flying around us. They continue flying over us unless we give them a place to land. The ancient Christian Desert Fathers who were hermits out in the wilderness, living in caves, were able to diagnose the disease of sin very clearly. Temptation comes first as a thought. It is at this point immediately we should push the idea from our minds. Whatever it takes. Pray, read the scriptures, pinch your arm, anything but giving that bird a branch to land on. If we don’t drive it out, then we start to stare at it, like a dog drooling at the idea of getting a snack from the master’s table. We learn from Eve’s mistake back in the garden: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” The idea gives way to seeing it, beholding it and then doing it. A tiny seed takes root and grows into a full fledged weed. And if it is not uprooted it becomes an addiction, a garden full of weeds!
So alas, “the devil made me do it” doesn’t hold up. Satan doesn’t actually have the power to force us to do anything. It’s like the idea of “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” But you can salt the oats. This is what the devil does. He salts the oats, enticing us to sin against our Lord and Savior Jesus. If we fall for it, it’s on us. St. Paul reminds us: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1Cor10:13). Our Lord Jesus relates to us on this front too, as He was being tempted by Satan in the wilderness. “For because He Himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).
In the midst of our struggles and spiritual battles, we never forget that Christ has conquered. He beat the devil in the wilderness, succeeding where Eve and Adam failed so miserably. He beats down death by death on the cross. We become victorious by being united with Christ by faith. We believe that our Lord has done what we in our weakness could not. We belong to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. He gives us strength to continue to fight temptation and sin. He bids us to be a fellow soldier of the cross. Pick up your own cross and follow. He calls us to remember our Baptism when we fail and succumb to temptation. He washes us clean, dusts us off and sends us back out into the world to continue to fight the good fight.
The “bright sadness” of Lent is a lament of the darkness of our sins, yet remains focused on the bright victory of the cross of Christ and empty tomb. This season calls us to pursue virtues and righteousness rather than sin and iniquity. And in Christ our Lord, we endure all things and conquer through Him. The world around us is ever trying to convince us to nurture our sins. Fertilize the weeds! But we must not yield! For this is a path of destruction. Rather we turn to Christ. We pray. We fast. We give. We read the Scriptures that fill our hearts and minds with the victory of our Messiah. We open our hands and mouths to receive the life giving body and blood of our Savior, given and shed for us to forgive when we do wrong and strengthen us to fight against temptation. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!