06 March 2017

Homily for Lent 1 - Invocabit - 2017

"To the Throne of Grace"
Matthew 4:1-11

Listen here.

We have an enemy who loves to parade around as our friend. He’s very slick, even quite appealing. But he is absolutely dangerous. He doesn’t just wish you pain; he wants you to have pain that never ends, suffering untold, agony unquenched. He wants to devour you, inside and out. And he’s not some fictitious monster dreamed up by a Hollywood film-maker. You can take all the fantasy monsters, roll them into one, and you still won’t even begin to touch the evil of this enemy, our old evil foe.

He first appeared to Eve as a serpent, and as her buddy. He asked, “Did God really say?” He appeared completely on her side when he said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Very slick! He never told her to eat it. He never handed it to her or coaxed her. He just planted that insidious seed of doubt. “Did God really say?” And he did something even more dangerous. He gave that oh-so-subtle suggestion that God may not be entirely honest with you. He suggested without saying it that God is holding something back from you, and holding you back yourself. And with the hook firmly set, he just waited for the play on the line, and then he had them. Not just Eve, but Adam with her.

And not just them. He also had US! You see, we are in them, in our first parents. Their disease of doubt and their infection of faithless distrust are also ours. The contagion of death that they embraced has also been passed on to us like a congenital birth defect.

They were riddled with conflict between themselves—blaming each other, blaming God, blaming the serpent. Blaming anyone else would do! They were expelled from the Garden, and they would struggle through all the days of their life knowing where they would end up. How terrifying it sounds: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And, if you want the real terror of those words, remember what God had said to the serpent: “on your belly you shall go, and DUST you shall eat all the days of your life.” The serpent would eat dust. Adam and Eve would be that dust! Yes, they would be serpent food. And, again, we are with them. We too are headed for the dust from which we came…and we too are serpent food. St. Peter tells us the same thing, but he refers to the enemy as a lion: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 3:8).

Then comes today’s Gospel reading. Imagine what it was like for our ancient foe when he first met flesh and blood that would not cave into his deadly insinuations. Again the insidious seed of doubt: “IF you are the son of God….” Again, he did not outright say it; he merely suggested it. “Come on! You can’t really be God’s beloved Son, can You? Look where you are: wandering out here, all alone, in the wilderness, hungry and starving, parched and famished.” Three times the tempter assaults Him—once with hunger, once with pride, and once with riches. And three times the tempter is rebuffed. Three times he is silenced by the bold, confident words of the Word made Flesh. Three times “It is written” rings from the mouth of Him who is the Word of God made dust for us. And stung by this defeat, the devil withdraws from Jesus, but only for a time.

Yes, the enemy will be back. The enemy will again invite Him to distrust the Father. This time it will be as He hangs on the tree. Jesus will hear the words “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 26:40). A different voice, but the same mind, the same insidious suggestion. The evil foe says, “You cannot trust Your Father or His goodness. He has forsaken You! You cannot trust His promises to You. See where they land you? Give up! Despair! ‘Curse God and die!’ (Job 2:9). You will be my food too!”

But Jesus does not despair, not in the wilderness, and certainly not from the cross. Instead, He trusts with absolute trust. He believes with absolute confidence that the Father’s will is good, that He is the Father’s beloved Son, and that His Father will not abandon Him even in death. He trusts that through His death the Father will bring the children of dust back to the immortality that He had planned for them from the beginning. David’s prayer centuries earlier was also His prayer: “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Ps. 16:10). And His Father did not abandon Him there!

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and ahead of today’s Gospel. Even though Jesus was tempted, He did not give in. Oh, He was truly tempted to be sure. He certainly felt the pangs hunger, the allurement of pride, the glitter of the world. But He was also armed with the Word, unlike Adam and Eve and all of their children, including us. He stood firm and endured the test to its very end. This One who does not give in to temptation at all now feels the full, cumulative weight of all temptations pressing down on Him. We usually cave long before we feel even a smidgeon of it; but He knew and felt it all.

And that brings us to the soothing sweetness of our second reading. “We have a great High Priest…Jesus, the Son of God”—true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary. He “has passed through the heavens” and now He stands before the Father as our Righteousness. Look to Him, for He knows and feels everything you go through. He knows and feels all the temptations you experience—all those temptations by which Satan would lead you away from Him, promising all kinds of fun and good times and then laughing in your face as he devours you for eternity. Look to Jesus, because He has known those same temptations through to the bitter end for you. Look to Him, “because He Himself has suffered when tempted,” and “He is able to help [you] who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Look to Him, because He has said “No!” to all of them for you. Look to Him, because He can sympathize with your every weakness, your every impulse to distrust God and to rely on yourself. Not only does He understand; He also reveals that temptation is a dead-end road and the enemy only wants to seduce you to destroy you.

Instead, your Lord and Savior calls you to come to Him, to His “throne of grace,” where you will find “mercy and grace to help in time of need.” And where is this “throne of grace”? Look right up here at His holy Altar! Here your great High Priest reaches out to you and gives you the sacrifice which He offered once for all to His Father, the sacrifice that is the ransom price of your soul and body. He gives you the Body and Blood of His sacrifice so that you may have forgiveness, so that He may enter you and fill you. Flee to Him, and you flee to the One Man who could not and did not fall to Satan’s temptations.

Think of that! In this One Man, this New Adam, and only in Him, is there full and free forgiveness for every time you have yielded to the tempter and fallen. In Him and only in Him do you have strength for the ongoing battle. And, yes, in Him and only in Him do you have full, final, and lasting victory.

Let’s not forget perhaps the most important expression of all: “Let us then with confidence draw near.” With confidence? Yes, with strong faith. He does not call you to Himself as slaves who cringe and cower. No, He calls you to be His beloved sisters and brothers who receive His heavenly inheritance. It’s the inheritance He has obtained by sharing our flesh and blood and going to a cross, and He gives it to you in His Body and Blood.

Yes, you DO have an enemy. You DO have a malevolent spirit intent on destroying and devouring you. He is mightier than you, and full of wickedness. Never underestimate him! But your Savior Jesus Christ is stronger than your enemy. Your Savior Jesus Christ knows you inside and out, and He sympathizes with you in your weaknesses. He calls you to His “throne of grace” to receive the only help that dwarfs the power of your enemy. Your Savior’s help is like the ocean, and the devil’s temptations are like little sparks. Those sparks fall on the ocean of Jesus’ help and they are extinguished. By yourself and in yourself, you don’t stand a chance against your enemy. But in and by Christ Jesus, united to Him as you trust the promises of your Father, you are “able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13). Here’s the throne of grace. What are we waiting for? Amen.

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