February 17, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty day, being tempted by the devil…. And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.”
“One little word can fell him.” Such thought was in the mind of Satan when he appeared in the wilderness to confront Jesus. One little word—a word that would follow temptation, enticement, and ensnarement—was all it took before. One little word was the weapon of choice to bring down the man whom the Lord formed from the ground. Sure, a couple of phrases were used to get his companion, the woman, to eat of the tree’s fruit: “Did God really say…? You will surely not die.” But then she gave it to the man, saying: “Eat.” And that was it. The man ate what the Lord had prohibited. Death came because of it.
So it went through the centuries, one little word bringing down man after man: “Doubt. Lie. Steal. Curse. Swear. Covet. Cheat. Lust. Deceive. Rape. Kill.” The little words flowed out of the Slanderer’s mouth. They were heard and followed. The acts were done that felled each man. For every word that came from Satan’s mouth was vile and poisonous. They were commands to self-destruct, to perform deeds that brought wrath and death to the actor. But each individual would actually do them. Victim after countless victim was added to the tally.
Satan’s encounter with Jesus was meant to go the same way. Another man, another descendant from Eve was present. The quarry was there in the wilderness. This One had even walked into the venue where the Deceiver had great advantage. He had traveled away from the others, away from the supposed safety in numbers. The Slanderer had brought down herds of this Man’s ancestors in the wilderness before. It would be a simple matter with the Liar having a single target this time, just as it was in the beginning.
“One little word can fell him.” That was the formula for victory. Several phrases were used: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread…. To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has all been delivered to me, and I will give it to whom I will…. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” But they led up to the simple commands, the little words spoken into Jesus’ ears: “Doubt. Worship. Test.”
The devil’s expectation was that the little words would work. But this time, there was a problem. This time, the result that had been achieved through the generations did not come. The time-tested method did not achieve its goal. Against this Man, the little words were not effective. Why did it not work? Why did the little words not fell this One?
The answer to those questions is found in the actions that Jesus does when the Satan’s little words were heard. The instructions to commit acts that would transgress the Lord’s will were answered with statements that defiantly declare that will. In the face of temptation, enticement, and ensnarement, Jesus responds with announcement and affirmation of the Lord’s righteous ways, the way of life that He will follow.
“Doubt,” the Slanderer commands: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” But Jesus responds with the statement of trust in the provision that His Father gives to Him: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” “Worship,” the Deceiver commands: “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” But Jesus responds with the statement of true and exclusive devotion to His Father: “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” “Test,” the Liar commands: “Throw yourself down from here.” But Jesus responds with the statement of abiding by the ways that His Father has set out, not pushing the boundaries: “It is said: ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
The tables are turned, and Satan recognizes this: “When the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.” The formula of victory had been reversed. “One little word can fell him.” But with Jesus’ actions, the one who was being felled by the word was not the Man standing as Satan’s prey. Instead, Satan had become the victim. He was being felled by the words proceeding from Jesus’ mouth. The slander, deceit, and lies of the devil were countered by the praise, honesty, and truth that Jesus spoke. Not falling as a victim of Satan, Jesus returns from that wilderness to take up His role as the Messiah, the One who brings deliverance by crushing the serpent’s head.
Jesus does as the psalm prophesied: “You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot.” That trampling of Satan begins in the wilderness. But it does not stop there. It continues throughout Jesus’ life, as He encounters the results of Satan’s slander, deceit, and lies. Jesus sees all who had been felled by the devil’s little words, and He does something about it. That is what you heard in part during the Epiphany Season. Jesus’ first preaching reveals His work: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The words that flow from the mouth of Jesus—His exorcizing of the evil spirits, His rebuke of illnesses, His command that makes the leper clean, His preaching of righteousness, His calls to follow Him, His speaking forgiveness—they all counter the effects of Satan’s handiwork.
And then the big event occurs: the felling of Satan happens when the Sinless One offers Himself to atone for all the times when man obeyed the little words that led to their sins. This is where the judgment against the slander, deceit, and lies is rendered. The serpent that overcame by the tree of the garden is likewise by the tree of the cross overcome. Salvation is given through the mighty hand and outstretched arm of Jesus—not just in the great deeds of terror, the signs and wonders performed by Him, but also in His loving arms that were stretched out to embrace the world in His death.
But these events have not been kept secret. Jesus’ actions have not been printed on the pages of history book, left on a hidden shelf never to be seen again. No, His acts that engaged and defeated Satan have become the Church’s proclamation, the Church’s word. It is what you have been given to hear. Your confession of it is made, even as you come to offer to the Lord the first fruits of your harvest or work. You gather and remember the act of salvation that Jesus performed for you; even as you eat and drink here, you proclaim Jesus’ death for you. The record of what Jesus has done for you is the word that is put in your mouth and in your heart. That’s what Paul means when he writes: “’The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” This word is given to you to believe and confess. It is a word given for you to speak.
There are times and places when you will need to speak it, especially in the venue where Jesus found Himself. Though Satan could not defeat Jesus, he still attempts to fell all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. The method has of attack has not changed. It still is the use of little words that follow temptation, enticement, and ensnarement: “Doubt. Lie. Steal. Curse. Swear. Covet. Cheat. Lust. Deceive. Rape. Kill.” Those little words and more are spoken in your hearing. Even now, the devil still wants people to despair, to have false gods, to test the Lord. But he also knows the truth: “One little word can fell him.” That word of faith—the confession that Jesus is Lord and the belief that God raised Him from the dead—is the word that does so.
When the devil leads you into temptation, then the word of faith that speaks of Jesus’ lordship must be spoken. That word calls on Him for aid: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” That word of faith that confesses Jesus’ death and resurrection is the deathblow for Satan. He cannot bear to hear it, because it reveals the truth about him and about you: “I am not your slave; Jesus has redeemed and delivered me. I am not ignorant of your deceptions; Jesus has exposed what you are. I am not bound to follow your will; Jesus has given me the will to follow the righteous ways of life. I am not left to be a victim; Jesus has overcome you and has given me a share of the spoils.” That effect of Jesus’ work for you is what the word of faith makes known.
Because Jesus has felled Satan and has made you His people, you have a Lord who is powerful, who offers you protection. This is why you could say the words this morning: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” This is why you could call Him a “trusty shield and weapon”. What Jesus provides for you stands true—not just in the times of leisure and ease, of joy and celebration, but also in the midst of your trials and tribulations, your times of testing and temptation. It turns you from being cowering victims to being the victors, the ones who could defiantly say:
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill;
They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none.
He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.
That word of faith is once again in your mouth and in your heart today: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” Ensure it stays there by diligently hearing it proclaimed and regularly making it part of your speech. For this is the formula for victory given to you: “One little word can fell him.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.