I don’t know about you, but Mom and Dad taught me not to fight. They raised me to think that fighting is not necessary, except, of course, when I must defend myself. Even the law of the land agrees with this. You can be arrested for assault and battery or brawling, but you can also be exonerated when you act in self-defense. Mom, Dad and society want to make fighting as rare as possible. Today’s message, though, would seem to contradict that. Today the Church tells her spiritual children that fights are necessary. In fact, she says, you can expect many fights against sin, death, and the devil. On this First Sunday in Lent our Lord Jesus shows us and teaches us that when we become Christians, we will have necessary fights.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “That can’t be right! Jesus is the Prince of Peace; Christians are supposed to be gentle peace makers, right?” But there’s a reason the Church begins the season of Lent with Jesus fighting against the devil in the wilderness. Through the centuries, Lent has been the time when the Church enrolls catechumens—learners of the faith—for their final and more intense round of instruction in the Faith. These new Christians need to know that coming into the Church does not mean that life will be a bed of roses. Contrary to what the feel-good, positive-thinking preachers in our day say, becoming a Christian means that the fights—against the sinful flesh, against our sickness of death, and against the devil—have only just begun. And today we (will see) we’ve seen Lily Alethea be baptized. She also now enters the necessary fights against the sinful flesh, our sickness of death, and the devil.
So whether you are a new Christian in your Baptism, or a Christian soon to finish instruction and be confirmed, or even a more mature Christian, accustomed fighting against sin, death, and Satan, Jesus’ necessary fight against the devil is for you.
In Round One of Jesus’ necessary fight against Satan, the old evil foe tries to appeal to bodily cravings, to needs of the belly. Remember how Satan deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden? He appealed to their hunger for food. They gave in by taking and eating the fruit that God told them not to eat. By their eating, by submitting to their bodily cravings, Adam and Eve brought the disease of death into God’s good world. So when Jesus, the Perfect Man, the Second Adam, comes on the scene, He begins to reverse the curse of death by not eating, by fasting for 40 days. The first Adam began in Paradise, ate the food offered by Satan, and then ended up in the wilderness of a world infected by death. But Jesus, the Second Adam, began in the wilderness, fasted from food offered by Satan, and thus restores us to Paradise with God. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word—especially the Word Who is Christ—that comes from the mouth of God.”
In Round Two of Jesus’ necessary fight with the devil, the satanic foe appeals to vain ambition. Let’s call it “ego” or “self-promotion.” Will Jesus, the Second Adam, humbly submit to the Father’s will, or will He demand and depend on a spectacular sign, a leap of faith? We know that Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God,” and so they ate, and their self-promotion, their desire to exalt themselves, was exposed. Satan even tried to quote Scripture to lure Jesus into showing off His Godhood, but again Jesus resisted the temptation. He fought off the devil. He did not need to put the Lord [His] God to the test, because He trusted that His Father would protect Him.
In Round Three of Jesus’ necessary fight against Satan, the fallen angel tries to sucker the Lord of Creation into bowing down and worshiping him. For what? For all of the kingdoms of the world that already belonged to Him. Adam and Eve thought that the forbidden fruit would make them wise and thus open up the world to their domination. Yes, they got greedy. They wanted the world to work on their terms and be at their beck and call. But Jesus knows better. Wisdom comes only from God. The world already belongs to Him, and He does not need to flaunt it. Instead, as the Perfect Man, He bows down and worships His Father. “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve.”
Now it so happens that Satan attacks us in the same three ways that he first attacked Adam and Eve and later attacked our Lord Jesus. The old evil foe comes at us through bodily cravings. He tries to appeal to our vain ambition. And he loves to see our avarice and greed get the best of us. Believe me, dear saints, the devil is having a heyday in our American culture, because we all love to satisfy out bodily cravings, especially when the fast food chain says, “Have it your way.” We all love to improve our self-esteem and feel good about ourselves, but we usually do so by making God and other people bow down to us. And we like to think that the world could be ours, or at least the parts of it that we want, if only we will work hard enough or pay enough money. After all, you have to spend money to get more money, right?
But notice how our Lord Jesus conquers the old satanic foe for us. When He is hungry and tempted by needs of the belly, Jesus relies on God’s words to feed Him. When He is tempted to exalt Himself and prove His faith in God, Jesus humbles Himself to His Father. And when He is tempted to greedily grab the kingdoms of the world, the Son worships the Father instead. The fourth century pastor Gregory the Great said, “He overcame his enemy not by destroying him but by suffering him for a while” (ACCS, 63). And our Lord Jesus finally and ultimately suffered His enemy, the devil, on the bloody cross. He was tempted to avoid the pain and hardship. He was tempted to come down from the cross, so that people would supposedly believe Him. But remember this: your Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, did not give in to such temptations. No, He loved you and went to the cross and grave for you. He loved you and wanted to rescue you from the evil foe. He loved you and wanted to restore you to life with God—life of living on His words, life of being humble before Him, life of bowing down and worshiping Him—because He is gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. It’s the same Love that (will wash) has washed Lily Alethea free from sin. The same Love that keeps her and us joined to Christ and His dying and rising.
So now what? Now that Christ, the Second Adam, has conquered the devil and brought life back to us, how do we engage in the necessary fights? This, dear friends, is why the Church gives us the three disciplines of Lent: fasting, giving to the needy, and prayer. Now that we are forgiven and enlivened by God’s grace, we can engage the enemy. We get to practice fasting during Lent, not to earn God’s grace, but because we already live in it. As one pastor friend of mine once said, “Fasting is saying to your body: ‘You’re not the boss!’” Fasting helps us control our bodily cravings. We get to practice giving to the needy, that is, giving money, food, clothing, and shelter to the poor. Giving to the needy tells your ego, “You’re not in charge.” We get to practice prayer as we reorganize our hectic schedules in order to take part in the services in God’s house and keep times of prayer at home. Prayer is saying to the world, “You don’t control me; God does; and I’ll worship Him, thank you very much.”
Yes, these fights against our sinful flesh, our disease of death, and the old satanic foe are necessary fights. These fights against our bodily cravings, our vain ambition, and our greed are necessary fights. But also remember this: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). Dear friends, you are about to come to the Lord’s throne of grace and receive His Body and Blood. Let this true, heavenly food of Christ strengthen you and give you the divine mercy and grace, strength and energy that you need to engage in the necessary fights. Amen.