Mark 1:9-15. 1 Peter 3:18-22.
The season of Lent is one of the oldest traditions of the Christian faith. The first written reference to Lent is in the annals of the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. It was mentioned without fanfare; so it was probably seen as an accepted part of the life of the church. In the early days of the established Church you couldn’t just get yourself baptised. You had to spend at least a year under instruction as a catechumen in which you would receive instruction in the faith and if you stuck with it you would be baptised in Holy week. Lent naturally evolved into a time of fasting and testing before final acceptance into the body of Christ, which is the church. From this it became only obvious to link the testing time of Lent with the testing of our Lord Jesus in the wilderness and so it became the tradition of the church that the reading on the first Sunday of Lent is always to do with the temptations of The Christ, as we see today in the reading from Mark.
Now there are of course many questions that we can examine about this episode in the Ministry of our Lord Jesus, many different angles we can look at it from, but the one I would like to look at today is the question; why did our enemy restrict himself to only subjecting our Lord Jesus to temptations? Why no thunderbolts? Why no swallowing up into the earth? Why no quiet dagger in the night? The obvious answer that presents itself is what good would any of those do against the Son of God? How could they hope to succeed in any such enterprise against the Lord our God who created all that is, seen and unseen; brought low the Pharaoh and all his empire in order to free the Israelites and lead them through the wilderness to the promised land? But this is always assuming any of this is within the capability of our enemy, which I don’t believe it is. There is also the inconvenient fact that our enemy cannot allow himself to be revealed to us. If the adversary for just one moment allows mankind to see him for what he is then man would immediately turn to the Lord for rescue and protection. The very thing the enemy works so hard to prevent. Everything he does, everything he says has one intent; to entice us away from God.
The Lord our God reveals Himself through His Son and through His Holy Scripture but never shows Himself to us, because we would not survive the revelation; remember what He told Moses
Exodus 33:20 You cannot see my face for no man shall see me and live…
There is also the view that if we had positive, conclusive, irrefutable proof of God then where would faith be required? The queues to get into the churches would stretch around the block and the worship would be worthless. As our Lord Jesus has told us through the Apostle Thomas in
John 20:29 …blessed and happy and to be envied are those who have never seen me and yet have believed….
But could it be that our enemy doesn’t restrict himself at all? Our enemy is capable, intelligent and completely evil; and he’s been doing what he does for thousands of years. Why would someone with that much power and experience accept any restrictions upon himself? But it cannot be denied that our enemy is obviously operating within a very constrained set of powers; in fact, it is my contention he has just one power that he can actually use, lying. In fact, I would put forward the theory that our enemy does in fact have no real powers as such. We see in
Revelation 12:9 And the huge dragon was cast down and out – that age old serpent, who is called the devil and satan, he who is the seducer and deceiver of all humanity the world over; he was forced out and down to the earth, and his angels were flung out along with him.
Now we know that ‘his angels’ refers to one third of all the angelic host and these demons are still at the service of our enemy. But I believe that when God cast them down, he stripped them of most if not all angelic power. They have no real spiritual power and indeed no corporate presence. They have no body only a crippled and stunted spirit which can only attack us through lies and our own weaknesses. This doesn’t make them weak or helpless against us. We cannot fight them with our own power. Only with God can we hope to resist them. Remember this phrase if you remember nothing else from today’s sermon. “THE BATTLE IS YOURS LORD”. Our enemy’s only superpower, to put it in today’s idiom, is the ability to lie better than any other creature. Our Lord Jesus calls him the father of all lies in
John 8:44. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a falsehood, he speaks what is natural to him, for he is a liar himself and the father of lies and of all that is false….
Now don’t misunderstand me. This is not a minor power. Our enemy has the power to influence every single one of us and everybody we know and everybody who knows us. And he is very good at it. Pause and think about that for a second. If he can’t get to you, he can try to get to you through your friends and your acquaintances or just some random passer-by; scary stuff. But also remember THE BATTLE IS YOURS LORD.
Indeed, if we look at the recent history of the Churches, and there are today over 38,000 different Christian denominations and 2 billion Christians, we see that the churches are being attacked as never before and more effectively than ever before. When our enemy was whispering into Nero’s ear, 2000 years ago, that it would be a good idea to burn Christians at the stake or feed them alive to dogs and lions, the church continued to grow. Over 2000 years the Church, the body of Christ has continued to grow and diversify through persecutions and schisms and own goals. So, what has changed? Now you may have heard the phrase ‘soft power’ but for the sake of clarity allow me to explain; hard power is punching someone on the nose or dropping a bomb down their chimney; soft power is attacking someone through gossip and lies and misinformation. The recent change in strategy of our enemy to concentrating more on soft power attacks has seen the church really struggling to cope. Our enemy has changed the emphasis of his attacks from attacking us directly, although he still does do that, to attacking us through society at large by representing the churches as intolerant and hidebound. Probably because that is in fact the easiest way to attack us today, because, let’s face it, we don’t exactly make that difficult for him, do we? There is an old joke; how many Anglicans does it take to change a lightbulb? You can’t change that lightbulb! My grandmother donated that lightbulb! Ring any bells?
Ask anybody under the age of forty what they think about the Christian Churches today and the accusations of homophobia and child abusing priests will not be long in coming, and we have to face it, the church has made a woefully inadequate response to these accusations, by ducking the issues, by badly mismanaging our responses and, worst of all, by outright clericalism; where priests, who have indeed sinned terribly, have been protected by the church from their proper punishment out of a misplaced sense of sympathy, they were obviously under attack from the enemy, or worse, a bunker mentality. So, we can see how effective this strategy of our enemy can be. How then do we defend ourselves against such an enemy who as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:8 be vigilant and cautious at all times; for that enemy of yours roams around like a lion roaring in fierce hunger, seeking someone to seize upon and devour.
Well, we should keep in mind that the lions don’t eat the unlucky gazelles. They eat the weak gazelles. In short, those gazelles easiest to catch and kill through illness, old age or wandering away from the herd. So, don’t be a weak gazelle. How do we do that, I hear you ask. What did our Lord Jesus do? This should always be the answer to how do I do that; because we can’t do anything against our enemy without our Lord Jesus the Christ in our lives and as our example. THE BATTLE IS YOURS LORD.
What did our Lord Jesus do? Well, it doesn’t actually tell us in today’s reading but it does in Matthew 4: 1-11 and Luke 4: 1-13. The enemy attacked our Lord three times with temptations. Our Lord Jesus had been 40 days in the wilderness without food, so the enemy went straight to the easy option, hedonism. Making satisfying our own desires the most important thing in our lives in place of our relationship with God.
“If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread”. Now for anyone who has seriously tried fasting you will know that after 5 days we would all probably at least consider that proposal. But our Lord Jesus is made of sterner stuff; he is fully human and he is fully divine; but you notice he doesn’t argue with the enemy. Take special note of that! If you try to argue with the enemy you are lost because that is one of the ways he will try to sink the hook into you. Remember his aim is to entice you away from the Lord. Our lord Jesus doesn’t argue with the enemy, He just goes straight to the word of God. Deuteronomy 8:3 “…man does not live by bread only, but man lives by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord”.
So the enemy tries again; an appeal to hedonism has failed so he tries egoism by taking our Lord Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, 450 feet above the floor of the valley below. “If you are the son of God, throw yourself down”. Again, our Lord Jesus doesn’t argue but goes straight to the word of God; straight to the Bible.
Deuteronomy 6:16 “you shall not tempt and try the Lord your God as you tempted and tried Him in Massah.” Our Lord Jesus is referring here to Exodus 17:7 where the Israelites were complaining that the Lord had not rescued them out of slavery into palaces and luxury by asking “is the Lord among us or not. Having failed to corrupt our Lord Jesus by appealing to his ego he tries to buy Him. “Bow down before me and I will make you king of all the earth”. Again, our Lord Jesus does not argue; straight to the Bible.
Deuteronomy 6:13-14, “You shall reverently fear the Lord your God and serve Him and swear by His name and presence only”
We must always do the same. If you can keep one thing in mind from today remember this phrase. “THE BATTLE IS YOURS LORD”. Do not try to argue when that voice whispers into your mind, pray to The Lord for help and go to your bible and find your defence there. Remember Paul has told us in 1 Corinthians 10:13 For no temptation (no trial regarded as enticing to sin), no matter how it comes or where it leads, has overtaken you and laid hold on you that is not common to man. That is no temptation or trial has come to you that is beyond human resistance and that is not adjusted and adapted and belonging to human experience and such as man can bear. But God is faithful to His word and to His compassionate nature, and He can be trusted not to let you be tempted and tried and assayed beyond your ability and strength of resistance and power to endure, but with the temptation He will always also provide the way out, the means of escape to a landing place that you may be capable and strong and powerful to bear up under it patiently. Don’t even try to rely upon your own resources; don’t go it alone. THE BATTLE IS YOURS LORD. Remain in Christ, which as we know means remain as part of the body of Christ, which is the church. Know how to use your weapon, which is the word of God, Holy Scripture, the Bible. Keep your armour in good repair. This is known as defence in depth. Ephesians 6: 11-18. Put on God’s whole armour, the armour of a heavily armed soldier, which God supplies, that you may be able successfully to stand up against all the strategies and defeats of the enemy. For we are not wrestling with flesh and blood, but against the despotisms, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the demonic realm. Therefore, put on God’s complete armour, that you may be able to resist and stand your ground on the evil day of danger, and having done all the crisis demands, to stand firmly in your place. Stand therefore, hold your ground, having tightened the belt of truth around your loins, and having put on the breastplate of integrity and of moral rectitude and of right standing with God, and having shod your feet in preparation of the Gospel of peace. Lift up the shield of saving faith against the flaming missiles of the wicked one, and take the helmet of salvation and the sword that the Spirit wields, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit; keep alert, watch with strong purpose and perseverance. This all sounds rather exhausting, but whatever you do, always keep in mind why we do it, what is our objective, what will be our reward from our Father in Heaven and it suddenly becomes a worthwhile way of life. Many are called but few are chosen. Constantly replenish your ammunition, which is by prayer, together or alone and often; remember we cannot carry more than enough ammunition for a short time, so we have to keep asking God, by prayer, for more whenever we might feel we need it.
Today we have heard how our enemy tried to derail the mission of our Lord Jesus right at the beginning and we see that the Christ brushed him off without too much trouble by sticking to the plan. We know how it turned out. The story is the heart of our faith and our lives. But how did it turn out for our enemy? We don’t tend to think too much about that, but we can see a hint in the first reading of today. We see in verses 19 and 20 that before our Lord Jesus came back for us after being put out of life on the cross and into Spirit he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison; those spirits who had rebelled against Him. He went and demonstrated how futile their rebellion had been; how defeat was staring them in the face. Then He came back for us; to equip us for the journey and the battle that is the life of all Christians of whatever denomination, whatever disposition, whatever sexual orientation, whatever ability or disability. Our Lord Jesus the Christ came back for us, to give us everything we need to triumph over the evil that never stops trying to entice us away from God’s will and into trying to do it our way. We have the Holy Spirit for counsel and comfort, we have Holy Scripture for wisdom, we have the power of prayer and confession, we have the example and teachings of our Lord Jesus’ Ministry and sacrifice once for all for our inspiration. We have the love and protection of our Father in Heaven and access to His attention through the prayer of a contrite heart. And last but not least, because we need each and every one of these equally, we have the fellowship and support of each other, may it ever be so.