The First Sunday in Lent
February 14, 2016
“Between God and the Devil”
St. Matthew 4:4
But He answered and said, "It is written, `Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.' "
Today, let’s talk about going to church. When we think of church, we should not think of a building, a constitution, a governmental structure, or a list of rules, customs, or even the enjoyment of good company with Christian friends. When we think of church we should think of God’s Word. God’s Word is what makes the church the church. Without God’s Word it isn’t a church at all, but a group of religiously minded people doing religiously minded things. And religion, if broken away from the Word of God, is a dangerous thing.
Let us take to heart the words our Lord Jesus spoke to Satan in response to his temptation to turn stones into bread and consider three things these words tell us. First, we should go to church regularly. Second, we should go to a church that teaches God’s Word faithfully. Third, we should pay attention to the Word of God that is proclaimed in church.
We should go to church every Sunday. The reason that Eve fell for Satan’s lie and persuaded her clueless husband to go along with her is because neither of them went to church that day. The Bible doesn’t say what they were doing, but we know they weren’t listening to God’s Word. God’s Word wasn’t being proclaimed. It was being questioned and denied. We should go to church every chance we get because we are always being bombarded by lies that contradict what God says in his holy Word. The devil wants to tear us away from God’s Word. Should he succeed in doing so, he can con us into believing and doing whatever he wants.
If you have a schedule that doesn’t permit you to come to an orthodox congregation on a given Sunday, then hold your own service wherever you may be. Read from the Holy Scriptures, sing some hymns, read a sermon or a devotion written by an orthodox minister, confess the Creed, and pray the Lord’s Prayer. It’s not the same as attending the service of a congregation and you cannot have the Lord’s Supper, but Jesus did say, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” We should go to church faithfully because we live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The Old Testament church was required to rest on Saturday, which was also the day when they assembled to hear the preaching of God’s Word. In the New Testament, the Old Testament Sabbath law has been abolished. We no longer need to rest on the seventh day of the week. But we need the preaching of God’s Word as much as our Old Testament brothers and sisters did. Luther’s Small Catechism explains the Sabbath Law as it applies to us Christians in these words:
This is why we should go to church faithfully. Church is where God’s Word is preached.
Second, we should go to a church that teaches God’s Word faithfully. Some years ago, when I was serving as pastor of a congregation in southeast Wisconsin with a parochial school, a young man in his early thirties stopped by the church, and seeing me outside came up and told me he was church-shopping. He was married with a couple of children. He wanted to know what my church had to offer his family. I told him that we had the pure Word of God. “We have the truth,” I said. “Well of course,” he replied. “But I’m talking about what programs you have, what is available for the children, and so forth.” I think he thought I didn’t understand his question. I understood his question. I doubt he understood my answer.
“It is written.” But anybody can quote the Bible. The devil can. He did in his second temptation of Christ where he tried to get Jesus to put God to the test by appealing to the Bible to contradict the Bible. Still, “It is written.” Jesus appeals to the authority of the Bible and the Bible alone. It is not the Bible as it can be made to agree with whatever is fashionable among contemporary theologians. It is not the Bible as it is forced to agree with the standards of human reason, human emotion, human expectations, or any other human desire. It is the plain meaning of the biblical text. “It is written.” That’s what the preacher must preach or what he is preaching won’t be the Word of God. Just because a man can put on pious airs and speak fluently and quote the Bible doesn’t mean you should listen to what he has to say. Jesus said that we live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This means you should attend only orthodox churches and avoid worshipping at heterodox churches.
What? Orthodox? Heterodox? What’s that? That’s the problem. People don’t know the difference. “A church is a church is a church. Choose the church that meets your fancy. It doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go.” So they say.
But that’s not true. It matters very much where you go to church. If you attend a church that promotes error you will learn error. You may begin to trust in it, rely upon it, be misled by it, and suffer spiritual harm. False teaching hurts you. It is very bad for you.
“It is written,” Jesus says. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Every word! Go to church faithfully and go to an orthodox church, that is, a church that teaches God’s Word rightly. If you go to a heterodox church, that is, a church that teaches differently than the Bible teaches, you may be damaged. False doctrine poisons the soul. Jesus said that God sanctifies us by his truth. False teaching sanctifies no one.
If a church denies that God gives us forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Christ’s sacraments, it is a heterodox church. It teaches differently than the Bible teaches. If a church teaches that Adam and Eve may have never existed, and that the Bible contains errors on matters of history, and that what the Bible says about women not preaching in the church doesn’t apply today, and that what the Bible says about homosexual conduct doesn’t apply today, it is a heterodox church. It teaches differently than the Bible teaches. If a church teaches that your good works help get you to heaven, it is a heterodox church. It teaches differently than the Bible teachers. Heterodoxy hurts you. We don’t preach against heterodoxy because we hate those who suffer under it. It is because we love them. God wants us to live on every word that comes from his mouth. It is love that holds to the truth. The devil is the author of all false teachings.
We should go to church faithfully. We should attend a church that faithfully teaches the whole truth of God’s Word. And third, we should pay attention.
The Catechism doesn’t say, “Go to church.” It says,
You may not be in the mood. You may be tired, distracted, and preoccupied. It is likely that Eve was a bit distracted when Satan lured her away from God’s Word. But that’s his game. He does whatever he can do to draw our attention away from what God says to what we feel. Then he urges us to follow our feelings. When we do, he’s got us where he wants us, which is in his clutches. The devil’s temptations are not directed at certain sins, as if he spends his time making the sins look attractive. No, the sinful flesh does that without the devil’s help. The devil focuses his attention on our faith. His purpose is to undermine it. The Word of God is what drives him away. So we take God’s Word to heart, eat it as our daily bread, we focus our attention on it, and we treasure it. We listen to the lessons from the Bible, pay attention to the sermon, sing the liturgy and hymns, and take to heart the words of the Sacrament, “Given and shed for you, for the remission of sins.”
Wherever Christ builds a church the devil builds a chapel. He’s here. He’s here to distract your attention. Being a live body inside a church building during a church service doesn’t guarantee anything at all. Jesus says that we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. We take it in. It is food for our soul.
What is it about God’s Word that makes it so precious? What is it about God’s Word that makes it a sure defense against the devil’s lies, temptations, and assaults against our soul? The substance of God’s written word and God’s preached word is the Word made flesh: Jesus Christ, our Lord. The primary message of his temptation in the desert by the devil is not a how to manual for us to follow in resisting the devil’s temptations, though it does provide that. The primary reason the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to record this account is so that we, as we struggle against the devil and his lies, might see in Christ our champion. He defeated the devil and he gives his victory to us.
The Bible and the preaching bring Jesus to us. The sacrament of Christ’s body and blood brings Jesus to us. The liturgy, drawn right out of the Bible, brings Jesus to us. The doctrinally sound and Christ-centered hymns bring Jesus to us. When Jesus comes to us, he comes with all the treasures of God’s grace, treasures he won by his obedience suffering and death. Adam disobeyed and brought sin upon the human race. Jesus obeyed and brought righteousness. He did what he did as our champion, our representative, our substitute. He is the Seed of the woman who crushed the head of the father of lies. The name Satan means accuser. The word devil means slanderer. The crucifixion of Jesus is where the devil’s accusations are refuted and his slander is exposed. “If you are the Son of God . . .” the devil taunted, both in the desert trying to con Jesus into sinning and while Jesus suffered on the cross bearing the sin of the world. His attempt failed. Jesus is the Son of God and the Son of man and his obedience throughout his life of substitution for us is our victory over the devil.
That’s what the Word of God is all about. It’s about Jesus gaining for us life out of death. It’s about living under the grace of God. It’s about confidence in the forgiveness of our sins for Christ’s sake. It’s about knowing we are God’s children and are headed for glory. We live on God’s Word. We live on what is written. It is centered on him who fought our battle against the evil one and won it. The life we now live in this dying body we live by faith in the Son of God who won our victory over the devil and reconciled us to our Father in heaven. This is why we live on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
Rolf D. Preus