Today’s collect uses the name “Satan” to refer to that great enemy of humanity. That is a Biblical name, but it’s a name that Saint Luke never uses. Luke uses exactly one word for the enemy that our Lord confronts and defeats in today’s Gospel reading. That name is the devil. So what does this name mean? In Greek “diabolos,” from which we get our word “devil,” literally means to set apart or break asunder, to divide. In a more extended sense it means to slander or lie. So how do we get the meaning of the devil as a slanderer from setting apart or breaking asunder? What does the devil separate such that he is a liar? The answer I think is clear: The devil is a liar of a particular sort. His lies consist in separating a fake from the truth and passing it off as the real thing. The devil is a counterfeiter, and a counterfeit is always ever so close to the real thing.
That is what makes temptation by the devil so tricky. The devil’s lies are never outright or obvious, but cunning and indirect. This is why the devil says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” “If you are the Son of God, thrown yourself down from here.” Notice the devil does not say, “You’re not the Son of God,” because an outright denial of the truth is easy to detect and to reject. His attack is more careful; he seeks to insinuate and to sow doubt.
Everything the devil says in this episode is an empty promise. This is how diabolical temptation works. It makes us doubtful and restless and desirous of something we think we need and pretends to be able to put our doubts to rest and give us what we really want, but this is a cheap illusion.
Every one of the devil’s temptations faced by Christ is a total fraud.
“You must be hungry, if you’re really the Son of God then why not just use your power to turn this stone to bread? Then you can eat and be happy. I have authority over the whole world. It can be yours, all you have to do is worship me, and then all that authority and glory will be yours. If you’re really the Son of God then you can throw yourself down and God will save you; he won’t let you die. He will keep you safe, and then you’ll know for sure that he loves you.”
Empty promises allure with what we might call nowadays the prospect of instant gratification. And isn’t that the hallmark of our culture? Our fallen world provokes us to doubt and restless desire, and we are told that our doubt and anxiety have a solution, but the fallen world has caused these doubts and anxieties in the first place, and the fallen world’s material solutions make us worse, not better.
Instant gratification is fundamentally opposed to the truth. This is the subtle lure that truly deserves to be called diabolical; this is the peeling away of illusion from truth.
But Jesus already knows the truth.
There can be no question that he is the Son of God. There is no “if” here, but that “if” is exactly how the devil tries to divide us from the truth we already know.
Jesus knows, and we know, that he is the Son of God because of what Luke said at the very beginning of chapter 4. Jesus “returned from the Jordan” Luke says and made his way into the desert. What happened at the Jordan? Jesus was baptized, and when he was baptized, God the Father himself said, “Thou art my beloved Son.”
This is the truth—from God’s own word.
And this truth exposes the counterfeit lies of the devil for what they are.
And this is how Jesus defeats the devil. By the truth of who he is and what he is here to do for us and for our salvation.
“Command this stone to become bread.” No. Jesus will not use his power to feed himself. Instead he will feed others, first five thousand, then his disciples and friends at the Last Supper, then at Emmaus, and finally he will feed the very life of the world with his own body: here, and on thousands of altars around the world.
“If you, then, will worship, me, all this authority and glory shall be yours.” Again no. Jesus will not claim political power over the world. He will instead found a counter community, the kingdom of God, which is not of this world and exists to rebuke and hold to account every worldly power. In Luke’s Gospel people who hear Jesus preaching about the kingdom of God are amazed because Jesus teaches they say “with authority.” He casts out demons “by his authority,” and so the truth is he doesn’t need the authority and glory that the devil falsely promises; he already has all authority and all glory, and he will use it proclaim and promote the new reign of God over all the world.
“Throw yourself down. God’s angels will bear you up.” For the last time no. In the end Jesus will not presume upon his Father to save him from harm. Instead he will willingly go to his death on the cross.
Of course he could do any of the things the devil asks. He could turn a stone to bread or claim power over the world or even command an army of angels to save him from harm.
But he won’t. And that’s why he defeats the devil and his lies.
So what can we take away from our Lord’s experience of temptation and his victory over the devil?
At this time of year especially there are a few things for us to consider. First, about the nature of fasting. Jesus goes into the desert to fast, and he assumes his disciples will fast too. Jesus never says to his followers “if you fast,” he always says, “when you fast.” He assumes we will fast, and the church summons us to do so now, in Lent, for 40 days, as he did.
Some commentators say that the devil attacks Jesus when he is hungry and thus weak and vulnerable. I disagree. I think he is strong. He has fasted for forty days, and so of course he is hungry as anyone would be. Our Lord is fully human as well as fully divine, and rarely is his humanity more conspicuously on display, but his fasting makes him not weak but strong, and fasting strengthens us too.
Because the empty promise is always the easy one, right? That’s why we like instant gratification. The devil entices us by making us think we can have something now on the cheap that is actually already ours but only ours with suffering and difficulty. Fasting steels us against this tawdry deception. “Have another slice, it won’t do you any harm. Grub for a little extra money, you earned it. Can’t hurt to have another look at Instagram, something might have changed in the last two minutes. Go ahead, it will make you happy.”
Why do we deny ourselves things like this? Because when we deny ourselves we are better able to resist this cheap seduction for what it is. When we fast we realize we don’t need to gratify our material desires. We need to satisfy our spiritual longing.
And that satisfaction can be had with the help of deep immersion in the word of God. Every word Jesus speaks against the devil in this encounter, every word, is from Scripture. His side of the conversation is all quotes. The Scripture is Jesus’s primary defense against the devil’s lies, even when the devil himself quotes Scripture. What this means is that Jesus does not defeat the devil just by superior knowledge of the Bible but by willingness to abide by its teachings.
And that is why along with fasting the church asks us in Lent to spend more time in the Word of God. We must know and be ready to obey the Word of God as incarnate in Christ Jesus and to do that we must know and be ready to obey the Word of God given to us in the Scripture. As our Lord’s own example proves, when temptation comes, there is no better defense.
Finally, let me say a word of encouragement as we go through our Lenten journey together. Jesus is actually not alone in the desert, and neither are we. Look again at the beginning of Luke 4. Jesus has just been baptized, and there he was revealed to be the Son of God, and he was anointed with the power of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit goes with him into the desert.
Any time you feel that you are faltering in your Lenten discipline, or feeling tempted in any way, remind yourself of this truth. Open yourself to the Holy Spirit working through fasting and study of Scripture to strengthen you, to make you holier, and more able to resist the lies that besiege us in a culture of instant gratification.
We are in our Lenten journey together as a parish. We are not alone in this sense either. Rely on one another for strength. So let’s remind ourselves of the truths we already know. We do not live by bread alone. We are not interested in worldly power. And we dare not presume that God will keep us from every suffering or setback.
But we are not alone in our suffering and difficulty. The truth is that Jesus is in fact the Son of God. And his Holy Spirit remains with us, even in the desert. Amen.