Victory Over Temptation

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent based on Mark 1:9-15 and James 1:12-18

Dear tempted saints: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Lead us not into temptation. These are the words Jesus taught us to pray.

In our Epistle lesson, James helps us understand what this means. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he writes, “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. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” (James 1:13-14)

In the Small Catechism, we have the explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.”

We have in the Small Catechism a great treasure for the church. It so wonderfully summarizes the faith and gives simple explanation for young and old alike. You can do no better than to recite portions of it every morning and evening. If you don’t know what to do for daily devotions, pick up your Small Catechism. If you don’t have a Small Catechism, pick one up from the table in the narthex.

But back to our text. God tempts no one. From where do temptations come? Temptations come from the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.

The devil and the world don’t have to work very hard to tempt us because of our sinful nature. Our sinful nature is always ready to sin and always seeking opportunity to sin. Our sinful nature has desires that are contrary to God’s desires for us. That is why we fall into sin even when we’re not tempted by the devil or the world. As we heard, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.”

This desire varies from person to person, and even within a person from youth to old age. In younger years, temptation is often in sins of the flesh. In middle age, it’s often money and power that are the greatest temptation. In older years, it is often the desire to live forever that is the greatest temptation.

Most often, however, we do not and cannot anticipate what will tempt us, from where the temptation will come, or when it will come. The truth is that anything can be a temptation for us.

We can be tempted to overwork, we can be tempted to be lazy. We can be tempted to meddle in other people’s affairs, or we can be tempted to be indifferent to other people altogether. We can be tempted into hardness of heart and believing we need no forgiveness or we can be tempted to believe that our sins are too awful to be forgiven and thus be tempted to despair.

Temptation is not just into obvious vices and evil. Temptation comes like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, disguising itself as something good.

Material possessions are a good blessing from God, but we are tempted to be more attached to God’s physical blessings than His spiritual blessings. Having a good reputation is a blessing from God, but we are tempted to not speak up when we should, for fear of the disapproval of others. Leisure time is a blessing from God, but we are tempted to do anything except study God’s Word when we have free time. Thus, there are temptations for us everywhere and with everything.

These temptations come from within us, as we desire what God forbids. The world adds to the temptation because the world does what it wants and seems to enjoy it. The devil adds to the temptation because he is ever seeking our fall.

God, however, does not tempt us. God may test us, as He did Abraham, but He does not tempt us into sin. “[God] does not test in order that we may fear and hate Him like a tyrant but to the end that He may exercise and stir up faith and love in us. Satan, however, tempts for evil, in order to draw you away from God and to make you distrust and blaspheme God.” (Luther AE 4:132)

Everything God does, He does for our eternal good. Everything the devil does, he does for our eternal ill. God wants you to trust Him in poverty, illness, and failure and He wants you to trust Him in wealth, health, and success. The devil wants you to distrust and question God in poverty, illness, and failure, and not to think of God at all in wealth, health, and success.

Thus, we pray to God, saying lead us not into temptation. Guard and keep us from falling into temptation. We cannot avoid temptation with out own strength. If we could, we would have no need to pray this petition. We pray this petition because we need God to fight temptation for us.

Hebrews tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, as He was tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin. The devil threw every temptation he could muster up against Jesus, but Jesus did not sin. The cunning father or lies is no match for the Word of God. Jesus won the battle.

The temptation of Jesus is more than Christ’s personal victory over temptation. It is our victory as well. Just as surely as we inherited Adam’s sin, so we also inherit Christ’s righteousness. St Paul put in this way in his Epistle to the Romans: For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)

The devil won the victory against Adam. He came to him through his dear wife. God gave Eve to Adam for him to care for. He owed her spiritual care. God had made him her spiritual head. He was to care for her as a man should care for his woman by protecting her with the Word of God. Instead, he abdicated his office as pastor of his own home and elected Eve to be his pastor and immediately submitted to her spiritual oversight. The devil gained mastery over Adam through his wife. But while Eve ate the forbidden fruit before Adam did, the Bible blames Adam. It is Adam’s sin that is reckoned to the world. So it is that Jesus, the second Adam, comes to do what Adam failed to do. Whereas the first Adam disobeyed, the second Adam obeyed. (quoted from a sermon by Rev. Rolf Preus)

Jesus gave us an example of how to fight the devil’s lies with the Word of God, but He is not merely an example for us in fighting temptation. His victory over temptation is our victory because He is our substitute. His obedience is our righteousness as we heard from Romans, because He is our substitute.

Jesus was obedient to the point of death on a cross. There He also acted as our substitute. He lived our life and He died our death. In His life He fought temptation for us and won, and in His death He paid the price for our falls into temptation.

And Jesus sympathizes with your weaknesses. When you feel all alone in temptation and think that no one understands; when it seems like your whole life is taken over by some desire, know that you are not alone. Jesus is there and He sympathizes with your weaknesses. He knows what it’s like to be tempted. He suffered when tempted so His heart aches when He sees you suffering in temptation, and He helps you in temptation (Heb. 2:18).

Jesus sympathized with your weaknesses to the point of death. It is for you that Jesus suffered and died. It is for you that He rose again. His victory over temptation is your victory over temptation, and His victory over death is your victory over death. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Christ’s Letter to the Church in Ephesus

Sermon for Ash Wednesday based on Revelation 2:1-7

Dear church of Christ who will eat of the tree of life: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Christ Jesus, the Lord of the Church, sent seven letters to seven churches. Tonight, we focus on His letter to the church in Ephesus.

Jesus starts out with commending them for their works, especially in recognizing false teachers. He praises them saying, “You cannot bear with those you are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and have found them to be false.”

The church in Ephesus was enduring and bearing up under the great difficulty of having false teachers in their midst. Jesus specifically praises them for hating the false teachings and works of the Nicolaitans, which Jesus says He also hates. The church in Ephesus was clinging to the truth of the Gospel in the midst of trying times and false teachings.

Jesus does have something against them, however. They had abandoned the love they had at first.

When the Gospel had first reached Ephesus, those who believed the Gospel had responded with great love. They loved gathering to hear God’s Word in church. They loved sharing what they had with the needy. They generously gave offerings to the church so that more people could hear the good news that had saved them. They did good works in the community out of love for God and love for their neighbour. They did these good works since they were so filled with love because their sins were forgiven and they had the promise of eternal life.

Over time, however, their love had grown cold. They no longer had the same love for God which they had at first, so they did not do the same works they did at first. They no longer showed love for their neighbour. They no longer showed love for hearing God’s Word.

Jesus warns in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew that in the latter days, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” (Matt. 24:12) This happened in Ephesus already at the time of Jesus’ letter to them.

Lawlessness was great in Ephesus. This is evident from the influence of the Nicolaitans in Ephesus. The Nicolaitans were an antinomian cult participating in offering food to pagan gods and cult prostitution, quite likely connected to the popular goddess Artemis of the Ephesians. There is documentary evidence of the worship of up to 50 gods in Ephesus, but all paled in comparison to Artemis, the temple built to her being numbered among the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Jesus commends the church in Ephesus for hating the works of the Nicolaitans, but these evil works around them still influenced their love to grow cold.

The church had condemned the works of the Nicolaitans, but they still lost members to the cult. They had done outreach to their pagan neighbours, but their neighbours didn’t come to church. They had helped the poor and needy in Ephesus, yet they still had the poor and needy around them. They had taught their children the faith, yet their children were being lost to the world and its enticements. All their works did nothing. Their love grew cold.

It’s not just their love for good works that grew cold. Their love for God grew cold. These are really one and the same. Their love for God grew cold, because they thought He should be doing more in Ephesus. They thought God should knock over the great temple built for Artemis; that God should take care of the poor and needy; that God should bring these worshipers of false gods to a knowledge of the one and only true God.

Because God didn’t do what they expected Him to do, their love for Him grew cold, and they stopped inviting their neighbours to church. They stopped helping the poor and needy and reduced their offerings to God. They stopped teaching their children the faith.

Jesus knows all His churches and all His people. Therefore, He writes a letter to the church in Ephesus saying, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

In the first chapter of Revelation, we heard that the lampstand is the church. Thus, Jesus is saying, if you don’t repent, I will remove the church out of Ephesus. If you do not repent, I will take away my Word and Sacraments from you.

If Jesus wrote a letter to the church in Melville, what would He say? Has our love for God grown cold because of lawlessness that God has not curtailed? Has our love for our neighbour grown cold as there continue to be poor and needy even though we have helped them? Have we stopped doing the works we used to do because our invitations to our neighbours and children and grandchildren to join us in church have gone unheeded?

Christ’s warning to the church in Ephesus is His warning to the church in Melville and to the church in every city in the world. Repent. If you do not repent, I will remove the church out of your midst.

What is it that Christ is calling us to do? Grow the church here? Eliminate poverty? Turn unbelievers’ hearts? No. We can do none of those things. God, and God alone gives growth to the church and turns hearts to Him (I Cor. 3:6-7), and Jesus said, “You always have the poor with you.” (Matt. 26:11)

Jesus is simply calling for us to love Him and trust Him, even if He doesn’t do what we think He should do. And since Scripture teaches that faith without works is dead, that is, it is not true faith (James 2:17), we strive out of love for God to serve our neighbour. Not to earn salvation, for this we can never do, but willingly and joyfully because we are already saved.

Galatians teaches, “Let us not grow weary of doing good… as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Gal. 6:9-10) This does not mean that our invitations to others to come to church will be accepted and our church will grow. It does not mean that our congregational budget won’t be tight. It doesn’t mean that there will be no more poor.

It means that out of our love for God, we do good, regardless of the outcome, regardless of success or failure, regardless of the lawlessness around us.

Jesus promises, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

Revelation twelve tells us that Satan has been conquered by the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 12:11). Romans eight tells us that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (Rom. 8:37).

In Christ by faith, we are conquerors, and will eat from the tree of life in paradise. Adam and Eve did not get to eat from the tree of life which would have caused them to live forever as sinful beings (Gen. 3:22), but when we are brought into the joys of paradise as sinless people, we will get to eat from the tree of life and live forever.

In fact, we already get to eat from the tree of life. Not the one in paradise, but the word Jesus uses which is translated as tree, is more often used to refer to wood which has been cut down, and thus points us to the tree of the cross. The fruit of the cross is the forgiveness of sins, which we eat every Sunday in the Lord’s Supper, and which we eat again tonight. This fruit of the cross keeps us in Christ, so that we are conquerors, and will be strengthened in faith and in good works until we eat of the tree of life in paradise.

Because of the fruit we eat from the tree of life now, we receive the forgiveness of sins. Because we receive the forgiveness of sins, will live forever, and will join Christ our dear Saviour and Lord of the Church in the paradise of God. Christ has made sure of it by shedding His blood on the tree and thus conquering Satan. Christ has made sure that we will eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God by giving us the fruits of the tree of His cross in His body and blood given and shed for us. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Fear and Glory

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord based on Mark 9:2-9

Dear people in the veiled presence of God: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

There is only one emotion present when sinners are in the presence of the glory of God. That emotion is fear. In the presence of the glory of God Almighty, man falls on his face in terror.

As Jesus walked around looking like any other man, He was hiding His glory. His glory was veiled so everyone did not fall down in fear around Him. On the mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus’ glory and heard God the Father’s voice from heaven and were terrified and did fall on their faces (Matt. 17:6).

Mankind is sinful, so we can have no other reaction to God’s glory than falling on our faces in fear. Scripture tells us that on Judgment Day, every knee will bow to Jesus, the judge of the living and the dead (Rom. 14:11). Whether you’re a believer or an unbeliever, you will bow down to God in His glory because of your sin. Our sin will make us fear.

Right now, we don’t fear. Our sins don’t even seem like such a big deal. God didn’t punish us the first time we fell into sin, and He hasn’t punished us when we returned into that sin. He hasn’t punished us as we keep falling into sin, even as we have gotten others to sin and made our sin their door. God hasn’t punished us for the sin we shunned a year or two, but wallowed in a score. (language in this paragraph paraphrased from ELH 498)

In the presence of the glory of God, however, we will be acutely aware of our sinfulness. We will fall on our faces in fear at the judgment seat of Christ.

Christ will not leave us in fear. As Jesus touched the disciples on the mount of transfiguration and said to them, “Rise, and have no fear” (Matt. 17:7), so He will raise us off our faces and tell us not to be afraid. We do not have to be afraid because Jesus was punished for our sins.

The Almighty God took on human flesh, veiling His glory. He veiled His glory so that He would give His life as a ransom for our lives. Our sins were and are such a big deal that they required God to die in order for them to be covered. It required the life of God in the flesh to pay the price of our sins and thus save us from eternal damnation.

Jesus will raise us up off our faces and tell us, “Rise, and have no fear. I have paid the price of your sins.” His forgiveness is so great and overflowing, that it covers even those sins into which we fall repeatedly; those sins of weakness which we hate and detest. Jesus’ forgiveness covers those sins we have brought into the lives of others.

Jesus doesn’t ask, “How many times must I forgive you?” He is the one who taught unlimited forgiveness when He said, “If [your brother] sins against you seven times in a day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” (Luke 17:4) If he demands such forgiveness from you, do you seriously think He will not show such forgiveness to you?

That’s why God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son; listen to Him.” Listen to Jesus for forgiveness and eternal life. He is the one foretold by Moses and Elijah. Listen to Him. All the Old Testament points to Jesus. Everything that God said for thousands of years was about the coming of the Christ. Now that He has come, listen to Him.

The book of Hebrews starts with the words, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.”

The prophets of old searched and inquired carefully to learn about the promised Christ (I Pt. 1:10). They did not have first hand knowledge of the divine mysteries concerning which they prophesied. They simply repeated faithfully what God had told them to say.

Now, in these last days, God has spoken to us by His Son. Not just another prophet bringing the Word of God, but He is Himself God, the eternal Word (Jn 1:1). He speaks as one who has authority, because He has all authority in heaven and on earth (Mt. 28:18).

Jesus is not just one of many topics in the Bible. He is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). If you take Him out of the Scriptures, you have nothing left. Thus, when Jesus sent out His apostles, He did not send them to talk about their own views and ideas. He sent them to talk about Him. He is the one to whom we should listen. His voice is the voice we hear on the pages of sacred Scripture. Listen to Him.

Christ Jesus came to you hidden in the waters of Holy Baptism. He comes to you veiled in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He needs to be hidden and veiled so that you are not overcome by your sinfulness in His glorious presence and fall on your face. We would be afraid of the sacraments if we could see what happens in them.

Jesus knows us. He knows our sins and He knows our fears. Therefore, the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit He veils with water. His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins He veils with bread and wine. He knows you need the forgiveness of your sins, so He gives it to you freely. He knows your frailties, so He gives the forgiveness to you in these veiled ways, so that you will not fear.

There will come a time when we will not fear to see God face to face. It will be when we are raised with perfected and sinless bodies that are spiritual and imperishable (I Cor. 15:42,44), and we will be like God, because we will see Him as He is (I Jn 3:2). Then we will dwell in His presence forever without fear because we will be without sin. Then we will not fall on our faces in God’s glorious presence because we will be glorious in His glorious presence.

Until then, we are in the veiled presence of God. He is here because He has promised us, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mt. 28:20) He is here because He has promised us, “Take eat, this is my body… drink of it all of you, for this is my blood…” (Mt. 26:26, 28) He is here because He has promised us, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20) Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Preaching is Better than Healing

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany based on Mark 1:29-39

Dear hearers of preaching: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

God is not a vending machine. You don’t put in a dollar and then make your selection of what you want.

This is the way false gods are worshiped. The prophets of Baal thought that the longer they prayed, and the more intensely they prayed, the more they would be heard by Baal. When they would not receive an answer, they would cut themselves in the hopes of getting their false god to have compassion on them and answer their prayer (cf. I Ki. 18).

Offering sacrifices to idols was in order win to the favour of the idols. If food offerings didn’t result in an answer to their prayers, then they would try animal sacrifices. When animal sacrifices still did not result in the idol answering their prayer, they would even offer their children to be sacrificed, as the followers of Molech did. The thinking was that if you wanted the god to answer your prayer, you had to offer a sacrifice that was great enough. You put in your dollar and make your selection.

Atheists use a similar misunderstanding of God as an argument that there is no God. They say, “I prayed to God and He didn’t give me what I wanted, so there is no God.” I made my selection on the vending machine, but I didn’t get what I wanted, so I do not believe.

But God is not a vending machine, regardless of how people think of Him. He’s got better things prepared for us than we can even understand.

The whole city gathered at the door of the house where Jesus was. They wanted healing. They wanted sicknesses and diseases gone. Jesus did heal many. He healed many who were sick or oppressed by demons, as He had healed Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever.

However, Jesus said He came to preach. As more people came looking for Him desiring healing for themselves or their loved ones, Jesus departed to go on to the next towns in order to preach. Jesus did not heal everyone in the city, even though He could have. Instead of healing, Jesus did the more important thing – preaching. He said to His disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”

Preaching is better than healing. Healing leads to living longer in this sinful world, but preaching leads to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth.

Yet, how often do we pray for preaching? “Dear God, grant me to hear more sermons.” How often do we spend time listening to sermons and reading sermons? Okay, maybe we’ll hear one on Sunday morning, but what about hearing God’s Word throughout the week? I hardly think too many of us pray for more preaching. I don’t think anyone prayed this morning, “Dear God, grant my pastor to have an extra long sermon this morning.”

Yet, we do pray for healing. We pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. We keep hitting the healing button on the vending machine and are disappointed if all we get is preaching. We’d rather have the healing than the preaching.

It’s not that healing is bad. Healing can mean less pain. Healing can mean more time to spend with our families before we die. Healing can mean hearing more preaching before we die.

Healing is, however, temporary. We will all still die. Healing just puts off the inevitable for a little while longer. Illnesses and sicknesses will return. Death will come. In the end, healing makes us no better off.

Preaching teaches God’s Word and tells us what God’s will is for our lives. Preaching convicts us of sin and brings us to repentance. Preaching creates and sustains trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin, and it thus makes us eternally better off.

Sometimes we need illness. We may need it to humble us. It is a very humbling thing to have your body or mind fail and require the help of others. It is humbling to be bedridden or confined to a wheelchair. God certainly can use illness to crush our sinful pride and give us humility.

Illness also can make us think of eternal matters. When we are healthy, we are busy with the things of this world. Illness can make us reflect on the fact that we will all die. Illness can prompt in us a greater desire to hear preaching and the Word of God. God can use illness to turn us away from the world and open our eyes to better things.

Whether God sees it fit to give healing or not, He does not give it because of anything we have done. God does not answer our prayers because our prayers are long or well-worded or intense. He doesn’t answer our prayers because we have sacrificed greatly or given Him offerings.

Everything God gives to us, He gives only out of Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. Even the illnesses that He gives to us, He gives to us out of love, desiring what is for our eternal good.

Unlike a vending machine, what God gives to us is not His response to what we have given to Him. It’s the other way around. God gives to us first. He gives blessings to us, so that we have something to give to Him as an offering. He gives us the greatest good – the forgiveness of sin – so that our hearts would be freed to give offerings to Him willingly and joyfully, not under compulsion. He gives us eternal life, so that we will not cling to the things of this earth like they are going to last, but that we would release our hold of what God has entrusted to us and use it for the eternal good of others, by supporting preaching here and around the world.

Preaching is better than healing, because it brings not just temporary healing, but eternal healing. If you do pray for healing from illness, just know that God may say no to healing in this life, and instead bring you into His eternal joys where you will have eternal healing.

Pray for preaching. Pray that God will graciously grant you to hear the preaching of His Word for all the days of your life. Pray that God would grant your children and grandchildren preachers who preach His Word. Pray that God would give you a desire to hear His Word, and that He would give you wisdom and understanding when you hear it preached.

There is nothing better than hearing the Gospel preached to you. Jesus died for you, so your sins are forgiven. Your sins which plague you cannot keep you from heaven because your sins have been removed from you. You have the promise of eternal life. Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. You have the promise of being healed eternally from all illnesses and sicknesses, where you will see God face to face, and He will wipe away every tear from your eyes. Eternal healing is God’s promise to you, and that promise gives you trust in God through all the illnesses of this life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.