1st Sunday in Lent
“The Faithfulness of the Holy Spirit”
March 5, 2017
Sermon Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Most of the historical accounts in Scripture are stories of seemingly ordinary events played out among human beings. There are some big events and amazing things that happen, grand battles between nations and kingdoms, confrontations between great leaders, tremendous miracles. But all of these things usually occur within the stories of the day-to-day life of people. You almost always have to study the events, and read what the Bible has to say about them, to see the real spiritual struggle that is always going on behind the scenes. Seldom is the veil removed and good seen in its purest form, and evil seen in its most heinous form.
One example of this is the story of the Exodus. The release of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is often misunderstood because it is interpreted as being a struggle between Israel and Egypt, or Moses and Pharaoh, or even some kind of metaphor of slavery and freedom. The only way to get to the heart of what the Exodus was all about is to see it as a no-holds-barred war between the Lord and Satan. Only by looking behind the veil of the human actors and getting to that core struggle can you understand what that book is all about.
This is seen even more clearly in the book of Esther, which is another account of the Lord’s miraculous rescue of His people, even though God is never mentioned once in that entire book. But He is there, working through means, as He always does, keeping His promise to His people and protecting them from His enemies and their enemies. Only when you see past the veil can you understand what that book is all about.
Our Gospel lesson this morning is the exception to the rule. The normal veil is not here. There are not even any ordinary human beings involved in the story. This text is almost exactly what it seems. Jesus, the Son of God Himself, goes out into the wilderness and is confronted by Satan, the prince of evil Himself. Jesus versus Satan, directly, face to face, until one cries “Uncle!” This is spiritual war at its most clear in Scripture.
And yet, though the normal veil is not here, there is a different kind of veil here. Though this text is almost exactly what it seems, it is not quite what it seems. There is something going on behind the scenes here, and we have to see it to get this story right.
We might easily miss it, which is exactly why I say it is hidden. Though it is mentioned once, it could be mentioned several times in our text. But it is only mentioned once, and it is our task to see it and make note of it. How many combatants are there in our text? Two? Or three? Look closely at verse one, and tell me who is there, taking the lead in the action?
“Jesus was led …” Was led. Passive verb. Led by whom? Led by the Spirit, led by the Holy Spirit. In order to get this story right, we have to get all the verbs right. The Holy Spirit is active. Jesus is passive, following His lead. And the devil is merely reactive. The devil can’t do anything original. All he can do is react. The devil and all the fallen angels in the Gospels are always like dogs in a kennel when a cat runs right down the center aisle between the cages. They bark and bark and throw a fit and get each other more excited with each bark and they’re still barking five minutes after the cat is long gone. Jesus appears, and the devil has to react by lashing out. That’s all he’s capable of doing.
So the Holy Spirit is the active one here. His work is key. But it is just like the Holy Spirit to not make a big deal of Himself here. The Holy Spirit’s job is to point to Jesus, look to Jesus, Jesus is what you need, Jesus is everything that you need. The Holy Spirit doesn’t like the attention. He wants us to focus on Jesus. Which is why Jesus called unbelief the one unforgivable sin and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, because unbelief is calling the Holy Spirit a liar when He testifies that Jesus is the Savior of all mankind. And why the only real job that your pastor has as an instrument of the Holy Spirit is to point to Jesus.
But, although the Holy Spirit doesn’t like the attention, we have to give Him some attention this morning because there are some things about what He does that we have to understand in order to get this text right. It is important that we know that the Holy Spirit was always with Jesus.
In the mystery of the Incarnation of God becoming a man, we meditate upon the truth that Jesus, though He is God, still had to go through all the stages of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual growth that all people do. In all of these things, the Holy Spirit was with Him and working in Him, just as the Holy Spirit is with us and working in us. When Jesus had His nose in His Bible, studying it, the Holy Spirit was guiding Him into all the truth and preparing Him for His life’s work just as the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth and prepares us for our lives when we have our noses in our Bibles.
In the mystery of the Incarnation of God becoming a man, we also meditate upon the truth that though Jesus was a human being, just like us, and was tempted, just like us, He did not sin. Jesus never did anything that He was not supposed to do. Jesus always did everything that He was supposed to do. And perhaps most difficult of all, in all that Jesus did not do, and in all that Jesus did do, He always conducted Himself with pure, perfect motives. Most, if not all, of the best things that you and I have done we have ruined with perhaps even just a tint of selfishness or jealousy or anger or some other impure motive. Not Jesus. He was perfect and beautiful and holy, a picture of what humanity was always designed to be. And His sinlessness consisted simply of this: Christ always did exactly what the Holy Spirit led Him to do, with a perfect joy and a perfect trust and a “Yessir, if that’s what the Father wants Me to do, I shall go do it.”
So the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit was key in sustaining and leading Jesus in His work on our behalf. And Jesus continuing on that work is what is going on in this text. I was reading a commentary on this text this week that made the point that the first two and a half chapters of Matthew emphasize Jesus as the true King of Israel. But beginning with the Baptism of Christ at the end of chapter three, and continuing into this account in chapter four, the emphasis shifts from Christ as King to Christ as our sin-bearer, Christ as our priest, although Christ never stops being the true King of Israel. In fact, Christ bears all three of His offices in this text, those three offices being what again? Christ our King, Christ our Priest, and Christ our Prophet. Prophet, Priest, and King. Christ our Priest bears our sin and suffers temptation in our place. Christ our Prophet speaks God’s true Word against the temptations of the devil. And Christ our King conquers our great enemy in open warfare, out in that barren wilderness, as He defeats temptation and drives the tempter away.
Looking at our text, what weapon did Christ use in warfare? Was it intelligence? Was it will-power? Was it even His rights as the Son of God? No, even those rights were a potential weak spot that the devil tried to exploit. “If You are the Son of God, make food for Yourself … throw Yourself down, for the angels will protect You … worship me, and I will give You the world You deserve.” No, the simple weapon that Jesus used exclusively against temptation and the devil was the Word of God, that instrument that the Holy Spirit had taught to Him and that He had learned to put all of His trust in. Simply the Word of God as illuminated by the Divine Author, the Holy Spirit Himself.
So if part one of this lesson is that Jesus engaged in battle with and defeated the devil and his temptations for us, part two is that Jesus did not have anything available to Him that we don’t have available to us. In the Nicene Creed we confess that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit has been sent to us and He is here to guide us into all the truth, as Jesus promises in the Gospel According to St. John. The Holy Spirit is with you in your Baptismal covenant every day of your life. Lean on Him, depend upon His instruction, study and know and use the Word that He has given, and you will have the same tools at your disposal that Christ used in defeating the devil and temptation in open warfare.
And part three of the lesson is perhaps the most important, important for us because we have all failed the tests of temptation and failed them badly. We all know that. Nobody has to tell us that. But the Holy Spirit is faithful, and He taps us on the shoulder and points us away from ourselves and our failures and does His favorite job of pointing to Christ. Look to Christ only, He says. Christ has engaged in battle where we have failed and He has won a glorious victory over the devil and over sin.
Yet there was a still more glorious victory to come. Some three years later, another story would play out among human beings with the real spiritual battle taking place behind the scenes. The religious leaders in Jerusalem would turn over one of their own to the Romans. Their motives no doubt were varied. To some it was simply a matter of this man threatening the status quo and their power structure. To others is was an affront of the most serious nature that this man dared to call Himself the Messiah and even the Son of God Himself. No matter what their motives were, they arrested this man, turned Him over to the Romans, and demanded that He be crucified to death, at least for the crime of treason against Ceasar by allowing others to call Him the King of the Jews. And the Romans did what they were asked, crucifying Him just like thousands of other Jews that they crucified back in that bloody time. Seemingly, a simple, ordinary story of intrigue, jealousy, and bloodshed, much like many other stories.
But the Holy Spirit has been faithful in making sure that this story was recorded and bringing us to faith in it, for behind the scenes this was no ordinary human event. This was the ultimate confrontation between Jesus and the devil, as the devil cast down his last and greatest temptation to Jesus – skip the cross, cheat death, abandon the human race. “If You are the Son of God, You do not deserve to die – they do. Abandon them, give them what they deserve. Look at them, look at how they treat you. Do not drink from this cup”. And Jesus prays about it – “Father, if it possible, let this cup pass from me – nevertheless, not My will, but Your’s be done.” And in His simple dependence upon the Holy Spirit, Christ received the answer, “Yes, Son, this cup will pass from You, but only as You drink from it.” And Christ joyfully, whole-heartedly, responded, in perfect trust, “Yessir, Father, if that’s what You want Me to do, I shall go do it.”
And so was accomplished the forgiveness of our sins. We who have been defeated in battle with temptation have been forgiven, granted peace with God, and given the precious gift of eternal life. Christ has won those blessings for us, and we receive those blessings through the faith that the faithful Holy Spirit works in our hearts. Even now the Holy Spirit is active, creating faith in you in these promises I declare to you, and renewing the faith in you that prepares you to receive the holy and precious body and blood of Christ from this table in His Holy Supper.
These blessings will always be the only important blessings in our lives. Every day we remember and rejoice that God the Father has chosen us to be His own since before the creation of the world, God the Son has become one of us and laid down His life to forgive us and make us His own, and God the Holy Spirit keeps us as His own in the one true faith unto life everlasting. Amen.
“The Faithfulness of the Holy Spirit”
3/4/17 The Rev. Richard J Bellas
St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL