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Worship Theme: The Savior in conflict with Satan

Sermon Theme: This Is What Really Counts

It seems so strange, so odd. The Gospel writer Mark is telling a story, and it’s short. Read his Gospel, the second book of the New Testament, and you’ll see why today’s account from chapter one is so different. When Mark tells a story, he usually writes with drama and details as if his mentor, the apostle Peter, were right there with bulging eyes, an excited tremor in his voice, sitting on the edge of his chair, “You gotta hear what happened next!” But this account is short, stating in just a couple sentences Jesus being tempted by the devil for forty days at the start of his ministry and the start of his preaching up north near the Sea of Galilee. Bang! No intricate details, no list of those who were at Jesus’ side, no cities or towns named. Just “Boom!” like an unexpected clap of the hands, like the slamming down of the hood of your car, like the sudden roar of fighter jet zooming overhead Mach 3 at church steeple level. By using this few-words style, Mark seems to be breathless, as if to say, “Sit up! Open your ears! Pay attention to the greatest story ever. God himself burst into our time and space to grasp us by the hand and yank us from the edge of the pit of hell. Here’s how it all started!”

This attention-grabbing little account comes at just the right time. This is Lent, and we’ve no time to lose. There’s no sense putting off what Lent is all about like saying, “The doctors found a growing tumor on my brain, but I’m going to pretend it’s not there.” Nor does it make sense to fall into apathetic patterns, “My sins aren’t so bad. I’ll think about God and what he says in the Bible when I’ve got more time. After all, I’m a student, and I’m busy with homework” or “I’m trying to get or fix my love life” or “I’m thinking about what my kids need to succeed” or “I’m wondering about how and when to get a COVID vaccine.” Mark’s short, punchy Gospel account hollers out, “Don’t put this off. Don’t take your connection with God for granted”: This Is What Really Counts!”

 Victory for us twice over… for us (in our place)

How are you doing when temptation sneaks up on you like a rubber-soled, black-clad, balaclava-masked Ninja? Has your mind wandered down dark alleys of insecurity, which is basically telling God, “You didn’t know what you were doing when you made me”? Does your heart yearn for things that others have, ignoring God’s call for contentment? Are you tempted to retaliate with stinging retorts when anyone so much as looks at you funny? Are you secretly feeding lustful passion with thoughts and behaviors which would embarrass you to death if anyone found out? Do you make excuses when it comes to paying attention to your spiritual growth, meaning God has to play second fiddle to the games and gismos that eat up your time? Are you wasting money and racking up debt on fun-now things with no thought of long-term care for your personal family and your church family? And then comes, the thought, “I can overcome those temptations! I’ll just flip a switch and get myself back on track with God.” How often have I tried that and fallen right back where I started with the same old, same old failings and faults. I’ll bet you have, too.

It took Mark just twenty-two words to sketch Jesus’ momentous battle with the devil. At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. No sooner had the Son of God been inaugurated into his work as Savior, when “Bang!” he entered into a one-on-one duel with the devil. But, think of it. That’s exactly why the Son of God took on human flesh. The whole point of God sending his Son into our world was for him to go into combat against the accuser because no human warrior could do the job. “What job?” you ask. The job of freeing humans from Satan’s chokehold on our hearts. From the moment of our birth, we are trapped in the devil’s clutches with no way out. That news shocks some people, but it’s true nonetheless. And I’m not talking about trying to escape demon possession. The devil is not primarily interested in possessing bodies. He’s interested in possessing our souls, keeping us in the prison of self-importance. He gets us there by targeting our souls with the RPGs of his temptation to think that what really counts most is our wants and desires and our being in control.

When Adam and Eve broke the connection they had with God, he had a perfect right to shake his finger in their face, “You want to hang with your new buddy, Satan? Fine! I’ll leave you stuck there.” But he didn’t go that. Instead, he turned to the devil and said, “One day one descendant of this woman is going to come into the world and crush your power, and as surely as I am God, it’s going to happen!” That must have driven the devil crazy, “Which baby born will be the one? Which one is going to destroy me?” Then, we see this Jesus of Nazareth standing knee deep in the Jordan River. A voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son!” (Matthew 3:17). Don’t you think the devil was listening? If he could get Jesus off track, then he’d have the whole human race in his control forever! And that takes us to what really counts in this battle in the wilderness.

At once, Mark wrote. No internship. No practice till Jesus gets it right. No waiting around. The time had come, the time to begin the battle with Satan, a constant series of temptations over forty days. He was … being tempted. And note that Jesus was in this alone. We can sense the isolation when Mark tells us, “He was with the wild animals.” This battle in the wilderness was not a cleverly staged tussle performed by stunt doubles with plastic weapons. These temptations were real and intense. “Jesus, you know that you are the Son of God. So do I. You have all authority and power over heaven and earth. Just snap your mighty fingers and make everyone bow down to you. Why go through all the pain, all the torture? Why suffer when you can have the glory now?”

Without added details Mark states Jesus’ triumph in the simplest way, “angels attended him.” But this victory wasn’t the end of Satan’s efforts to trip or trap Jesus. While there was never again until the Garden of Gethsemane and at the cross a vivid head-to-head encounter like this between Jesus and the devil, but Satan put Jesus to the test in subtler ways. At different times he was behind the crowds when they tried to crown him as an earthly king. He was behind the crowds when they tried to kill him because he didn’t do what they wanted. Satan was there at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he was there in the middle, and he was there at the end in Peter’s suggestion to forego suffering, in Pilate’s sneers, and in the mob’s taunts. Through it all Jesus stood the test, battled Satan, and came through with flying colors. Now here’s the best news. His victory was for us, that is, in our place. If someone asks, “What’s Lent all about?” tell them, “It’s not really about denying ourselves banana splits or beef or bourbon. Lent is all about focusing on what really counts. God has credited Jesus’ victory to be ours! I’m not stuck in Satan’s camp. I’m in God’s, and trusting in Jesus, you will be, too.”

Victory for us twice over… for us (for our benefit)

“OK, pastor! Jesus won, and I don’t have to battle the devil to get out of hell. But what about the temptations that still come my way?” Mark whisks us one year forward from the temptation in the wilderness to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in and around a fishing town on the Sea of Galilee. After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. What “good news”? That spring is twenty-seven days away? That you will one day have a chance to wash the salt off your car? That COVID vaccines are being distributed? No! The good news is “of God … The time has come ... the kingdom of God is near.” Jesus is announcing that nothing is going to stop him, not religious enemies, not confused disciples, not even Satan. He was on his way to the cross. He went there. He died there. He put in motion the kingdom of God there, which is none other than pardon from God that wipes away our sins and power to ward off temptations coming our way.

Saul was the first king of the ancient nation of Israel, and he was a total flop. His son Jonathan was a prince of a guy, in more than just his title. On one occasion the Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots … and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore … When the Israelites saw that their situation was critical … they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns … All the troops with [Saul] were quacking with fear … They numbered about six hundred (1 Samuel 13:5-7,15). But Jonathan would not stand for that. Any threat to Israel was a threat to the survival of God’s promise to send a Savior through that nation. The next Bible chapter sketches a skirmish that defies gravity and parallels a Captain America movie. Jonathan and his armor-bearer scaled a cliff and slaughtered twenty Philistine warriors in the space of about half a football field. The Bible writer tells us, “Panic struck the whole [Philistine] army … It was a panic sent by God” (1 Samuel14:15). The news spread like wildfire. The Israelite soldiers crawled out of their hiding holes and stood in amazement as the LORD saved Israel that day (1 Samuel 14:23).

Jesus is not only the warrior who defeated Satan. He is also the victor who comes to us with the news that we have Jonathan-like power. Mark uses six words to capture Jesus’ heart-changing, life-altering message, “Repent and believe the good news!”, which gets to what really counts as we live our lives for God and others. God has many things to say to us in his Holy Word on how we are to live for him and for others. “Keep me number one. Uphold my reputation. Use my words. Respect those over you. Take care of physical well-being, yours and others. Respect the opposite gender. Take care of property, yours and others. Watch your tongue. Control your desires.” But serving as the foundation for all of that, Jesus’ message today zeroes in on what really counts and makes it possible to do all those things that God wants, “Repent and believe the good news!” He is saying, “Believe me when I tell you that on your own you are lost and stuck in Satan’s grasp, and believe me when I tell you that my victory is for you two times over, not only “for you” in your place but also “for you” for your benefit, giving you power. You don’t have to think of yourself first. You don’t have to act out. You don’t have to get tangled up in the spider-web of worries. Though devils all the world should fill, you can send them running because one little word from Scripture can fell him, can cut him down.”

If someone asks, “What’s Lent all about?” tell them, “It’s a time to recall how much I need Jesus. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a time to focus on what really counts. I’ve got Jesus as my Champion, and I can now lift my head, and say, ‘Bring it on, Satan! You’re going down, and I’m going up all the way to heaven’!” Amen.

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