First Sunday in Lent

It’s No Contest!

Saint Matthew 4:1-11

The Philistine champion Goliath was a nine and a half foot tall giant of a man, a seasoned veteran of war from the time of his youth. The armor that he wore weighed more than the average soldier. His coat of mail alone was over a hundred and twenty pounds. And yet the one to challenge him on the field of battle was a young shepherd, who wore no armor at all and who carried no weapon except a sling and five smooth stones that he had picked up from a nearby brook.

Last Sunday we heard of this youth, the eighth and youngest son of Jesse from Bethlehem, whose name is David, and how the Lord God had chosen him to be king over Israel, replacing Israel’s first king, Saul, who had been rejected by God because he rejected God’s Word. This change in Israel’s leadership will surely come, but at the time of this Sunday’s Old Testament Reading, Saul is still king and David is still tending sheep for his father, albeit now only on a part time basis, to help his aging father, whose other sons are away at war against the Philistines. David’s full time job is in the court of Saul, serving as his personal musician.

So how does this young lyre strummer and part time shepherd end up facing the man-mountain Goliath in single combat? How does David go from the safety of Saul’s palace to the battlefield? Well, during one of the times that David’s back home in Bethlehem tending the sheep, his dad tells him to go find his brothers on the front line, take them some food, and bring back word of how they’re doing. When David gets to the army camp, he learns that forty days have gone by in which the giant each day comes out from the Philistines and says, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” We’re told that, “when Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” No one had the courage to answer the challenge—not even with Saul’s promise of great riches and marriage to his daughter as reward. They all left Goliath’s taunts go unanswered.

Now, dear friends, if David were just the young pretty boy that others take him to be, he would’ve, no doubt, made his way back to the pasture and his father’s sheep posthaste. Instead, David looks at the cowering men of Israel and asks why they are all leaving Saul’s reward unclaimed. After all, as he says to them, “for who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?” He then goes to Saul and says to the king, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

In response, and as to be expected, Saul basically tells David, “What chance have you got? You’re just a kid!” David, however, convinces the king that he can do it, telling him that when lions and bears came to kill his father’s sheep, he would strike and kill them. “This uncircumcised Philistine,” David says, “shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God. … The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of the Philistine.”

And, as we heard, the Lord did just that. Armed only with his sling and the five smooth river stones, David goes before the giant Philistine, who looking upon his puny challenger, mocks David and curses him by his false gods. But David says to Goliath, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hand.”

About a thousand years later, another confrontation takes place that, on the outward appearance of things, looks just as mismatched as the facing off between David and Goliath. In one corner of the ring is a contestant who considers himself mighty and invincible and whom the world bows down to as its prince. In the other corner, is a man physically weak from hunger; He’s not eaten a thing for forty days and forty nights. And as Isaiah had said of Him in prophecy: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” The battle between these two opponents, however, is not fought with sword or spear or javelin or even shepherd’s sling, but with words. One wields words of deceit and temptation and the other is armed with the Word of truth. Which is stronger, dear friends? Which will win the day?

Round one of this contest has the devil, also known as the “tempter” and the “father of lies,” come at Jesus looking to capitalize on our Lord’s physical hunger and weakness. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil knows that the real issue he puts before Jesus is not can He turn the stones into bread, but what it would say and mean if He did, for in the humility of His flesh and in obedience to His Father’s holy will, our Lord has laid aside His divine power, except when it is used in service to sinners like you and me. He did not come to serve Himself, but to “give his life as a ransom for many.” The devil tempts Jesus to trust in Himself, rather than in His Father who sent Him and who gives His Son all that He needs for His work to be done.

This temptation, however, is not the knockout blow hoped for by the devil. At best it reminds Jesus of His empty stomach. It does nothing to stop Jesus from trusting in His Father’s goodness and mercy. And so, Jesus counters the devil’s attack by saying, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” “It is written,” Jesus says. These are words that Jesus speaks to the devil are words that Moses spoke to the children of Israel after forty years of wandering in the wilderness. They are to remind them of how the Lord has faithfully cared for them all that time, and how even in the difficult times, God was working for their good, to teach them to fear Him only, to love Him only, and to trust and rely on Him only.

Round two has the devil taking Jesus to the top, the pinnacle, of the temple of Jerusalem, where he says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” Hah! “It is written,” the devil says. Well, no; not really, for it’s no longer the Word of God when a portion of the sacred text is omitted to make it say something other than what God intends. And that’s what the devil did. Ironically, if you put back the portion of the verses from Psalm 91 that the devil leaves out, the context of the whole is about help from God against the danger of false teaching—danger not to one’s body, but the greater danger to one’s soul. And so in answer to this pathetic attempt of the devil to put one over on Him who is the very Word of God in the flesh, Jesus says, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

In the first round, dear friends, the devil’s attack essentially centered on the First Commandment with the temptation put before Jesus to not “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” In Round Two, the attack dealt with the Second Commandment with the devil tempting Jesus to go along with his misuse of God’s Word, which is what is meant by the misuse of “the name of the Lord your God.” In the final round, the devil’s attack centres upon violating the Third Commandment’s call for the right and faithful worship of God.

Taking Jesus to an even higher place than the top of the temple—to a very high mountain—the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” And he tells Jesus, “All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me.” Now before getting to our Lord’s reply and His final knockout blow, a few words about this last temptation. The devil takes Jesus to the top of the mountain not just to give Him a clear view of the earthly glory that he offers, but also because, in Scripture, mountain heights are seen as being where God receives our worship and praise. For example, it’s on a mountain that Noah, after the Flood, offers a sacrifice and worships God; it’s on a mountain that Abraham takes his son Isaac to offer him in sacrifice, there to be replaced, though, by a substitute, prefiguring our Lord Jesus as our substitute; and it’s on Mount Sinai that Moses ascends when the Lord calls Him to its heights to serve Him. In his evil longing to take the place of God, the devil wants the same worship that God receives, even with regard to location. The other thing about the devil’s temptation is how he uses worldly glory and riches in his seduction to garner worship for himself. In the Revelation, we are told that this is how it will be in the end times—how it is now. And so the devil tempts each one of you: “If you will fall down and worship me,” I’ll give you the world and all its glory. Of course, our Lord’s answer to this temptation is our answer, too: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”

With this final blow delivered, the devil is vanquished. Actually, the devil had lost out from before this battle in the wilderness even began. He lost out from the moment he turned from devotion to God at the beginning and in his sinful pride thought that he was greater than his Creator. The devil, dear friends, may look big and scary, like Goliath on steroids, and we may cower in fear like the army of Israel, but it only takes the small stone—the “one little word,” as Luther’s hymn says, to fell him. He’s judged; the deed is done, and he can harm us none. The day belongs to Jesus, and in Him, our victory has been won. Therefore, as the writer to the Hebrews urges, “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.” The mercy and grace of God in Christ is here in greatest abundance for you today in His Word and Sacraments. Thanks be to Christ in whom we have the victory! Amen.