Are you ever surprised at how strong Satan really is? I mean we all know about the power of the devil and we talk about the power of the devil, but does it ever happen to you that some news story breaks and you just sit straight up and say, “Man, Satan really has a lot of power!” When people talked about Osama bin Laden, or Sadam Hussein, they talked about Satan’s power. When the name Adolf Hitler comes up, “Satan has a lot of power.” Or when you here of clergy abusing children, you get the same feeling.
But let’s get a little closer to home. Why does my neighbor risk messing up his life with liquor and drugs? Why does my co-worker risk destroying his marriage by living with reckless abandon? Why did my friend decide life wasn’t worth living and take her own life? Why? Because Satan is alive and well and living on planet earth, that’s why. Don’t ever underestimate how strong the devil is. Peter wrote in his First Letter: “The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.”
So, are you surprised at how easily Jesus took down the devil? Jesus really out-powered the devil, didn’t he? Satan came at Jesus three times, with three very real temptations. God is letting you starve; make some bread and feed yourself. God wants you to suffer and die before he’ll give you glory; I’ll give it to you now if you worship me. You say you trust God; OK, prove it. Jump. He’d been in the middle of the wilderness for 40 days and hadn’t had a meal the whole time. But each time Satan came at him, Jesus put him down. Quickly. Easily. And he did it with just three words in the language of the New International Version: “It is written.”In the original Greek language, it is just one little word: gegraptai. One little word, and the devil’s temptations were a memory.
For hundreds and hundreds of years Christians have come to church on the First Sunday in Lent to hear about this battle in the desert. This Gospel is read every year on this day as a reminder of that the battle between Satan and God, the battle that began way back when the Garden of Eden was still perfect, and that still rages today. There are two truths to remember on the First Sunday in Lent. This is the first truth: the devil has incredible power--don’t be fooled. And this is the second truth: Jesus has more power--don’t be without it. When Satan comes knocking at your door--and he will--remember this, One Little Word Can Fell Him!
Actually, we’re going to be focusing our attention this morning on the Second Lesson for today, from the letter to the Romans. Paul’s purpose in writing this letter to the Romans was to emphasize that human beings get right in the sight of God simply by trusting in Jesus. In chapter three Paul says beautifully, “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe.” And a little later he writes: “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” From front to back, the Bible insists that getting people right in the sight of God is a unilateral activity: God does it all.
Satan attacks this truth with the biggest guns in his arsenal. Quite often his target is human pride. He wants us all to believe that we’re as smart and as good and as big as God. Remember how he tricked Eve? “Did God really say…?” Why not say, “You’re smarter than that, aren’t you?” Eve thought she was, and we all have her blood running in our veins. Every human heart pride-fully says, “Hey, God, there’s some good in us. We’re basically OK. We can help. Let us do something, too.”
If religion exists to show people how to get right in God’s sight, there are only two religions in the world. The one religion is based on God’s truth: God does it all. The other religion buys into Satan’s trick: you can help. Some churches teach you can help a lot and other churches teach you can help a little, but they’re all basically the same: Getting right with God is a joint effort. And if you look around the world, you’ll see that most religions and most churches have bought into Satan’s trick. If you’ve ever been struck by just how powerful Satan is, the church is the place you really see it.
Of course, Satan’s tricks always have a downside, and he never tells people that upfront. The same is true with this trick. If I want to get myself right with God by helping him along, how much do I have to do? How much is enough? What if I mess up? What happens then? The instant we start asking those questions, the devil pounces. You don’t do enough, you can’t do enough, you’ll never do enough. Millions of people across our world feel that power of Satan every day of their lives: the never ending pressure to do good, the excruciating pain of failure, and the relentless force pressing down on them as they try to get themselves right with God on their own. And sometimes even we feel that power.
Thank God this is not the way it is. Getting right with God doesn’t require doing more and living better. Satan is wrong about this. “If you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Every hear someone say about faith, “If you have enough faith, you can do it.” Paul doesn’t talk like that. Paul’s idea of faith starts in your heart and works up to your mouth. Sometimes the faith in our heart is strong and firm and what comes out of our mouth is bold and assertive. But sometimes the faith in our heart is weak and afraid and what comes out of our mouth is timid and quiet. But Paul doesn’t see a difference. The way Paul writes, weak faith and timid words don’t gain anything less from God than strong faith and bold words. There’s nothing about strong and weak here. “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” Paul emphasizes that by quoting Isaiah from the Old Testament:“As the Scripture says, ‘Anyone who trusts in him will not be put to shame.’” Jesus spoke in exactly the same way: “I tell you the truth,” he said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to that mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” You heard it: nothing will be impossible for you, not even being right with God. Big faith, little faith, my faith, your faith, his faith, her faith--listen to Paul: “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all, and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”
So what do you do when the devil comes calling? In the hospital when the news is bad, and he whispers in your ear: you did something to deserve this, you know. When a sin you thought you’d defeated comes back and you fall deeper than you’ve ever fallen before, and he’s right there: God isn’t going to help you this time. After a real bad sin that messes up your life and the lives of other people, too, and Satan says: God won’t forget this one. At the last moment of your life when he drags across your mind every sin you’ve ever committed and he laughs in your face: No heaven for you, sweetheart! What are you going to do then? Listen to Paul. Look that dirty dog of a devil in the eye and shout at him “I believe.” This is the “word about faith” Paul has proclaimed to us. Two words for us; one word for him: pisteuw. Say that to the devil, and that One Little Word Can Fell Him!
“Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to thy cross I cling.”That’s what faith is: giving up on ourselves and looking only to Jesus. And faith in Jesus is what gives the right to be right with God. Nothing we do for God, not even a lot, could ever get us to be right in God’s sight. God simply demands too much. Only Jesus could do what God demands. The devil knew that, of course, and he tried his best to stop Jesus. He tried in the desert, but Jesus would have none of his temptations. But Satan wasn’t done with Jesus. Did you hear what St. Luke wrote at the end of the Gospel for today? “When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Jesus until an opportune time.” That opportune time came three years later, on a Friday in Jerusalem. Satan tried everything. He led Jesus’ friends to betray him, deny him, and forsake him. He led Jesus own people, the Jews, to reject him, arrest him, and scream for his death. He led the Roman soldiers to beat him and whip him and crucify him. The worst part of the passion of the Christ was not the blood and the gore, but the reality that God the Father had no other choice than to forsake the Son he loved. The hell Satan wanted for us God placed on Jesus. God turned his back on Jesus so that he would not have to turn his back on us. And when it was all done and when the penalty was all paid and when my sins and your sins were all forgiven, Jesus said “It is finished.”Three words in English; one word in Greek: tetelestai. And with that one little word, Jesus destroyed Satan’s greatest power for good.
Oh, the devil still has power, plenty of it. You know it and I know it, and we better never sell it short. But we don’t have to fear it. Jesus triumphed over Satan, and because he did, we have, too. Jesus knew it; St. Paul knew it. Satan knows it. The Bible says, “Resist him and he will flee.” And Martin Luther knew it, too. And that’s why he wrote: 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!
The devil has incredible power--don’t be fooled. Jesus has more power--don’t be without it. One little word can fell him. Tetelestai—“it is finished.” And because “It is finished,” because the debt for sin is paid in full by Jesus Christ, “It is written”—gegraptai. Amen.