At the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says that he has been given all authority in heaven and earth. He is king of kings, and Lord of Lords. And yet, the road to arrive there is long and difficult. Jesus must pass through the valley of the shadow of death. He must be rejected by the chief priests, handed over to the Gentiles, be mocked, spit up and crucified.
In our Gospel reading we hear from the beginning of Jesus ministry. Right after Jesus Baptism.. Just starting out, and he is offered an easier way. No cross, no suffering, no death. All the kingdoms of the world, practically given to him for free. He came to defeat Satan, and in our Gospel reading today, Satan is offering him everything.
Jesus knows what is to come. He may not know the exact details, but he knows he has come to die for the sins of the world. He knows he will suffer the wrath of the Divine Judgment on the cross. Satan tempts him – offering him a way to escape that judgment.
Back in the Garden, Adam and Eve had been given everything they needed – God placed them in the garden, and gave them every kind of plant for food. There was only one exception – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They showed their obedience to God’s Word by not eating of the tree. But Satan tempted Adam and Eve – did God say you couldn’t eat any of the food in the garden – of course, God said no such thing. But Satan is a liar and the father of lies. He makes God’s position seem unreasonable. Rather than acknowledging the wisdom and love of God in giving them so many other good trees – including the tree of life – Satan makes it seem as if somehow God is keeping the good stuff back from them. Even the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil was given for their good. It gave them a chance to show their obedience to God’s law. But Satan makes it seem like God doesn’t want them to have the real good things. It’s was good for food, it was good to make them wise. There was a good thing that God did not want them to have. Because God is not good, not loving, and if you want to get ahead – if you want the real good things – if you want to be like God, then you need to take for yourself. Because God won’t give you the best. He wants to keep that from you.
We see this with Jesus as well in the Gospel reading – If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread – God isn’t providing for you. You are the Son of God – you can have whatever you want. And yet, God isn’t even providing you with the thing you need in order to survive – bread. It’s a simple thing. And God won’t let you have it. So, you must provide it yourself. God needs you to stay alive so you can fulfill the plan of salvation. And here you are, almost dead in the wilderness. What kind of a father is he? But Jesus is kept alive in the wilderness by the Word and promise of God. It is not much – the thinnest of threads. But it is enough.
Satan takes Jesus to the temple – again, you can be the religious leader if you want. You are supposed to be teaching the people. But instead of crowds, you are alone in the desert. God tells you to speak his Holy Word, and then doesn’t give anyone to speak to. You are a teacher with no students. If you jump off the temple, everyone will worship you. They will see the angels. God can’t let you die yet. This way, you can teach the people. Even the leaders will have to admit you are something special if you are surrounded by angels. No opposition. No angry leaders. No arrest. No show trial. And God has to do it for you, because if he lets you die, then his plan is ruined. Think of how much better it will be to have the best and brightest – the faithful and pious teachers of the law who are in Jerusalem. His plan is to have you call people with no formal training in the Word of God, and then try and teach them. It won’t work. He doesn’t really want you to succeed, but I will give you all the success you deserve.
And the third temptation seems the easiest and most obvious to decline. Who would worship Satan? That’s an easy one. But remember, Jesus came so that he could defeat Satan on the cross. Jesus and Satan both know how this ends. Jesus has a loving heavenly father who wants him to die horribly on the cross. Why bother with that when I can just give you the entire world without any suffering at all? What kind of sick sadist insists that his own son suffer all that is coming your way? I can do it for free really. No suffering, so death. Just kingdom and power and glory.
But of course, the kingdoms and powers and glory that Satan offers are fading. Satan is offering something that doesn’t last, something he doesn’t even own.
Jesus goes to the first commandment – worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things. Satan’s temptation to Jesus, to Adam and Eve, it never really changes – God he is keeping you from the good things. His law is actually harmful to you. You can not trust him to take care of you. And because you can’t trust him, he isn’t worthy of your love either. The only reason to obey him is fear. And that isn’t enough. Just go your own way. At least you can live this life free from his tyranny. That temptation has not changed since the garden. You want the best – you want to be like God? Then you need to do it on your terms. Because you are able to do it without all the gratuitous violence that God seems to cherish. He even killed his own son. You can’t trust him. So don’t.
He comes whispering this – not during the good times, but during the dark times. The times when your own life makes it easy to believe that God has abandoned you. Jesus even says, My God, My God why have you forsaken me. Certainly if he abandoned his son, he won’t take care of you. Fall down and worship me and it can all be yours.
Satan twists the comforting words of God into an accusation against him. He who did not spare his own son, but gave him into death, will he not also with him give us all things? He gave his son into death so that you would be saved. That is the depth of his love for you. Satan twists it. Just as he did in Eden. A lie always contains a kernel of the truth. Jesus is the Son of God. He is hungry. He does need sustenance or he will die. So, stones to bread.
Jesus focuses instead on the sustaining word of God. At the temple he focuses on the Divine goodness of God – the spectacle of the temple is that the sacrifice for sin is offered. God works there through the hidden things of this world. Just as he does today through the water, bread and wine. Through the word which his servants bring. We don’t need men throwing themselves off of pinnacles. We have the Divine Word of promise.
And all the kingdoms of the earth – Satan doesn’t have those. He has the devotion those who seek after worldly power. But earthly power fades. Earthly glory passes quickly. Jesus isn’t fooled by the empty promises – he does better than our first parents. They chose death over the things of God. Jesus was sent to die so that we could have the things of God again. And he does go into death – he does it willingly. He does it in love for you.
It’s sometimes said that the devils favorite trick is convincing the world he doesn’t exist. That’s not true. Belief in Satan or not has varied throughout the centuries. The trick of the devil is to convince you that God doesn’t care. That somehow he doesn’t want the good things for you. That you may as well give up on it all, because he isn’t really taking care of you.
Jesus in the Gospel reading shows this to be a lie. Jesus in his entire life and ministry shows the lie. He himself is the fulfillment of the promise. He is the savior. He is the one who gives us every good thing. In him the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. In him, the curse of Eden is undone. Sin and death are defeated in the death of Jesus. There time is short. Soon, very soon, Jesus will return – not in weakness in the desert with no followers and a looming death. But in power and glory, with trumpets and angels. All authority in heaven and earth is his. Don’t believe the lie. He has saved you from your sins. You have been claimed by God in the water. And now, you no longer belong to Satan, who is a murderer from the beginning. You belong to the loving son of God, who has promised to give you all things. In his holy name.