I love the collect for the First Sunday of Lent, for how accurately it describes our experience not only in this season of penitence, but also throughout the whole of life:
“ALMIGHTY GOD… Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save…”Collect for the First Sunday of Lent
The exactness of the phrase “assaulted by many temptations” is striking, and it is a powerful prayer indeed. The word “assault” implies that we are under attack, or in the midst of battle. And if a battle, then presumably there is also a victor once the dust settles. Indeed, we are in a battle, for as the first letter of Peter tells us, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, ESV). Of course, we know who the ultimate Victor is: Jesus Christ the righteous. The question for us, then, is will we allow ourselves to be devoured in the midst of battle, trying to win it by ourselves, or will we take refuge in the only one who is mighty to save?
As a young child, I can remember playing war-games in the backyard where we would recreate battles, either real or imaginary. (And sometimes, if the rules were broken, the game would devolve into a very real, physical fight.) As everyone knows, no such game would complete without the right props: swords, guns, armor, defenses, you name it. The child puts on his costume and grabs his toys, and with all gusto goes to “battle” against his friend or sibling.
And in times like that, in the heat of the moment, one honestly believes he is actually protected and armed in reality. As if the toys themselves transform into the real thing. But the whole nature of the situation is that it is only a game.
The Three Lies of Temptation
When we play such games, we briefly suspend reality for the sake of the game. We would never in our right minds wear plastic armor and carry Nerf guns into a real fight, or a real battle. That would be foolish! If you were enlisted to go to war and to fight in combat, and you were offered a bunch of toys to defend yourself against the enemy, would you feel particularly good about your chances? Of course not! If you are defending your home against an invader (perhaps you hear a “thump” in the night, and you go to investigate) – do you reach for the Whiffle-ball bat, or do you reach for the wooden one? When speaking in purely physical terms, we innately understand that serious threats require equally serious defenses. But what do we affirm about our adversary, the devil? He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
We would not dare fight a lion with our bare hands! Why then, do we not take the Scripture seriously? The fact of the matter is, we know exactly how to defend ourselves against temptation, and yet we choose not to. I can think of three primary reasons for this situation.
“Temptation Does Not Really Assault Us”
First, we are deceived into thinking that temptation really is not “assaulting” us. We think life is mostly harmless, and we can just float on through minding our own business. We think that as long as we do not commit the “big” sins, like actual murder or adultery, then we’re living really righteous lives! And we think that temptation only presents itself as obvious, like a tiny version of ourselves with devil horns will pop up on our shoulder and start telling you to do really bad things. But this is not so! We live life as if we are walking through the yard, and temptation is just the occasional mosquito that tries to bite us, and we swat it away. No, temptation is more like a swarm of bees, and we should be running as fast as we can to get inside to safety! But we do not act like this is true. We poke the hornets’ nest and say, “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.” Brothers and sisters, we are on a battlefield, under aerial assault, and Jesus is the only shelter that can protect us.
“Temptation Will Always Be Obvious to Us”
If the first reason for our complacency misunderstanding how often temptation befalls us, then the second reason is deceiving ourselves about what temptation really looks like. When we imagine temptation, we think it will be obvious to us when it happens. We imagine a big flashing red light, an alarm sounding, a direct invitation to do something evil. But Satan is much too clever for that. Temptation would be too easy to notice this way! Instead, temptation tricks us into committing sin under the guise of doing something good. This is the same moral posturing we were warned about on Ash Wednesday: temptation lures us into thinking what we are doing is not so bad, that in fact we are actually really good people, and everyone else should know about it! Temptation invites us to push God to the side, perhaps even in annoyance, to take care of things we think are “more important.” Temptation convinces us that the “little sins” we commit are not really so bad. We all have these “pet sins” that we keep around, pretending as if nothing is actually wrong. But unless we resist temptation with the help of the Holy Spirit, sin will only grow and consume our lives. As the great Reformer, Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “Temptations, of course, cannot be avoided, but because we cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads, there is no need that we should let them nest in our hair.”
“We Are Not Really That Bad”
The last reason for our failure to resist temptation is pride. So long as we do not acknowledge the temptation all around us, the longer we are able to project the image that we “have it all together.” Admitting we are surrounded by temptation inherently means admitting we have truly little control over our lives, admitting we cannot truly save ourselves. And this attitude of humility is the very thing which brings us to the foot of the Cross. As our reading from Psalm 25 puts it, “He [The LORD] guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly” (Psalm 25:8). The prideful are not guided in doing right! The prideful think they have all the answers, and so reject the teachings of the LORD.
For these reasons, the austerity of the Lenten season is so important. For it is in humility and sober assessment that we truly see our need for repentance, the need for a Savior in Christ Jesus. One thing we are taught time and again during the season of Lent, is this: Jesus is indeed mighty to save. Scripture shows us the comprehensive, and final victory Jesus wins over sin and death, and it shows us exactly how Christ protects us from temptation. Through faith in Christ and Baptism into Him, we are joined to Him, taking refuge in the ultimate Ark, which shelters us.
God’s Promise in Baptism
In Genesis, after God saves Noah and his family through the flood in the ark, He makes this promise to Noah:
“This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.”Genesis 9:12-15
The bow of which God speaks is the rainbow, and it is a sign of God’s promise to never again destroy the earth with a flood of water. Even more so, it points to God’s promise to redeem His people and all creation in Jesus Christ, the true Ark. The Apostle Peter makes this point clear. In his first letter, Peter compares Baptism in Christ to Noah being brought safely through water in the ark: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).
Baptism is more than just a ritual cleaning, more than just an act of circumcision (as Peter relates to his audience), but an outward sign of saving faith in Christ, and a receiving of God’s grace – a renewal of the conscience and protection under His covenant with His people. Just as God used the ark to preserve Noah and his family and all living creatures, entering a new covenant, so too does God use Holy Baptism as a means of passing through the waters of sin and death, now joined to Christ in His Death and Resurrection. And we need not fear, for Christ now sits triumphantly at the right hand of God.
Christ’s Ultimate Victory
Thus, we are reminded of Jesus’ Baptism and subsequent temptation in the desert in the Gospel of Mark. Mark, in his brief, distinctive style, could almost be mistaken for rushing over these events. The first chapter of Mark almost covers it all in one breath. Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Spirit comes down, and God proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And in this passage, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness forty days, and is tempted by Satan.
Supplemented by accounts in Matthew and Luke, as well as the tradition of the Church Fathers, there is incredible beauty and depth to Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, even in such a short passage as Mark.
Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for much the same reason as He was Baptized: to claim solidarity with us, His people. We know Jesus did not sin, and so did not need the repentance offered through ritual baptism. But looking ahead to the Cross, Jesus knew he had to do so to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). In the waters of Baptism, Jesus is further consenting to take on our sin, to struggle with us in human existence. And that struggle continues in the wilderness. Jesus is in a sense reconciling every aspect of human history, from the very beginning. As the “Second Adam”, Jesus overcomes temptation in the desert, the opposite image of Eden, perfectly obeying the Lord in a way which the First Adam could not. And in subjecting himself to temptation by the devil, yet never sinning, Jesus further joins us in solidarity against the constant struggle of daily life. Yes, we have a Savior who does not merely look down from an ivory tower. We have a Savior who has fought in the very same battle we do against temptation and won! Jesus is all the more able to save us from temptation because He too was tempted.
Viewed another way, the armor which we need to defend against temptation was forged those forty days in the desert. Jesus, by the mighty power of God, turned the most desolate of places into a place of redemption. He calmed the wild animals, one of early man’s most dangerous adversaries, and made them peaceful. And He went toe-to-toe with Satan, resisting him in a way we could never do on our own. Jesus, in perfect righteousness and one-ness with God, brings perfect peace to the chaos of creation. Jesus, by wrestling with the struggles of daily life at every point in his earthly ministry, proves to us that He is not just with us in theory. Jesus is no passive bystander in the battle against sin. He is in the trenches, marching forward, fighting for us every step of the way. But if we do not take this battle seriously, we will never get behind Him! And so, as we embark on our own 40 days in the wilderness this Lent, and throughout the rest of the year, let us treat temptation with the seriousness it deserves. Let us take heart, and fight temptation at every step of the way, not with our own strength, but with the strength of Christ, who gained victory over temptation once and for all.
Image: Rafael, The Transfiguration (1516-1520), detail