Please read Psalm 91 and Luke 4 v 1-13 and then pray; Our loving God, as I come before your Word, may all that is written upon its pages be also written in our hearts, and lived out in our lives, to the glory, praise and honour of your name. Amen!

As we meet today on this first Sunday in Lent, I am sure that our thoughts and prayers will be with all those caught up in the conflict within Ukraine. War is detestable and always results in the tragic loss of many lives. What could be more terrifying than being in the middle of a situation where bombs are exploding and bullets are flying all around you? Let us earnestly pray for a speedy end and a just resolution to this awful conflict.

Jesus had to face threat and conflict in this world. The land in which he was born, lived and moved around was under strict occupation, and there was significant and continual unrest. The Romans brutally put down and extinguished any form of uprising, trouble or resistance to their domination, rule and authority. Crucifixion was one of the main tools which Rome used for maintaining “order”.  It could be a ruthless regime.

And yet Jesus did not understand his main conflict to be with Rome or with any human ruler or earthly force, but with a spiritual enemy who was bent on destroying God’s creation. It is this spiritual enemy and his dark and oppressive power that lies behind and motivates all evil earthly power and conflict. Jesus was conscious of the fact that the greatest ongoing battle was in fact a cosmic spiritual battle. It was a battle between God and the devil, light and darkness, good and evil, God’s kingdom and another one ruled by a malicious, lying, powerful spiritual being – the devil. The name speaks volumes.

If you possess a biblical worldview, you will recognise the reality of this awesome spiritual battle that rages on in this world. Much of the western world believes this to be utter nonsense, for their worldview is entirely materialistic and secularistic. There is, in their materialistic worldview, no room for spiritual realities and spiritual beings. Jesus was not divine – he was just a man. There is no God. There are no angels and devils. The bible is not God’s Word inspired by God the Holy Spirit, but simply a dusty old religious script containing a bit of history and a lot of myth. There are no miracles. Prayer is fantasy and delusion. There is no spiritual realm, and there is no after life – either a heaven or a hell. If you believe in this religious/spiritual stuff you are assumed to be sadly and pathetically in the grip of what Professor Richard Dawkins refers to as The God Delusion. You need to grow up intellectually and proceed in life with rationality and science as your only guides. The “spiritual stuff” must be dropped and totally abandoned because it ia a demeaning and even dangerous relic of the past.

And the bible’s response to this? The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt and their deeds are vile, there is no-one who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no-one who does good, not even one.  (Psalm 14: 1-3)

Why is the bible so scathing on those who do not believe in God and the spiritual realm? The answer is to be found in the Psalms and in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their word to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:1-4)

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Romans 1: 18-20)

According the Psalmist and the apostle Paul and so many other biblical witnesses, the ignorant and senseless ones are not the believers in God but the unbelievers. The evidence from creation alone about the existence and rule of God is enough to prove God’s invisible qualities and glory. Unbelievers are without excuse. And it will be no good appealing to the “theory of evolution” on the day of judgement. Materialism alone is totally inadequate according to Jesus, hence his words in the wilderness and his rebuttal of the devil;

Man does not live on bread alone (Luke 4:4)

If you try to live materialistically on bread alone, you will miss out on the most important and decisive aspect of life – the Presence and Word of the living God. On another occasion Jesus spoke about the danger and foolishness of “gaining the whole world” (the material world) but forfeiting your soul. (Luke 9:25) There is a spiritual dimension in all of us which must be fed properly, otherwise we shall remain forever hungry and dissatisfied. Jesus states that we ignore this truth to our eternal loss. We are not just biological, chemical and physical matter. We bear the image of our Creator God and we have an eternal soul. “Man does not live by bread alone” needs to be declared with boldness to this modern world and not just to the devil.

It is this story of Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness which brings so much to light with regard to the realities of this fallen world. Jesus has recently been baptised and declared to be “God’s Son” by the Father. (Luke 3:22) The Spirit had come down upon him in ceaseless measure. Jesus is now full of the Holy Spirit. As Luke soon reveals, the Spirit of the Lord has come upon Jesus so as to powerfully enable and anoint him to preach the good news and set the captives free. (Luke 4: 18-21)

However, before Jesus sets one foot on the mission field of this world, he must walk into the desert wilderness and be alone for forty days (and nights). Forty is a number which carries great significance in the bible. The nation of Israel, often referred to as “God’s Son” in the OT wandered around the wilderness for forty years. Moses and Elijah, who Jesus will later encounter on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:30) both spent periods of forty days alone with God (Exodus 34:28 and 1 Kings 19:8) for sacred purposes.

Jesus full of God’s Spirit and being led by the Spirit (4:1) is now to be confronted with the reality that the mission which he is about to commence, with the Spirit’s power and the Father’s blessing, is a mission that is fundamentally opposed by God’s enemy – a great fallen angelic being by the name of Satan, otherwise known as the devil. Jesus had come into this world mainly to do one thing – to completely fulfil the will of God for the salvation of the world. (Hebrews 10: 5-7) The devil exists and thirsts for one thing – to completely oppose and thwart the will of God for the salvation of this world. There is therefore a mighty clash of wills – but only the will of God can prevail. He is Sovereign. The battle though begins here, in this wilderness, between Jesus who had fasted and is desperately hungry, and the devil who now sees a great opportunity to attack a vulnerable and weakened Son of God.

The temptations are all directed at getting Jesus to turn away from God’s will. However, as well as Jesus being full of God’s Spirit, he is also full of God’s Word, and on three separate occasions he speaks God’s Word with power from his heart and to the devil’s face. The devil is defeated and must wait for another occasion to launch a further assault upon Jesus and upon the will of God. Jesus will go on to victory after victory. On the this first Sunday of Lent, we remember this great initial triumph of the Son of God over the “prince of this world, the god of this age,” (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4) which took place in the wilderness of Judea. When the season of Lent is over and Easter morning dawns, we will rejoice and exult in Jesus’s death-defeating victory. On the “third day” the devil’s power was crushed to a fine powder and blown away in the wind through the powerful hand of God.

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity, so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2: 14-15)

For surely, it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason, he was made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.  (Hebrews 2: 16-18)

The first Sunday in Lent takes us to the decisive commencement of a battle which Christ wins! Then we go on a journey by which Christ fulfils the will on God in every single aspect of his ministry. His first act of power after his wilderness experience is to expel a raucous evil spirit from a poor man who had somehow made it into a synagogue where Jesus was teaching. (Read Luke 4: 31-37) Christ came to destroy the works of the evil one (1 John 3:8) – and his Kingdom will increase. (Isaiah 9:7) His power sets captives free time and time again. (Acts 10:38) No evil spirit could/can resist – not even a Legion. (Luke 8:26f). The kingdom of God advances and overthrows Satan’s domain. The strong man (Satan) is bound by One much stronger than him. (Luke 11:19-22)

If we fast forward to the last week of the life of Jesus, (and the final days of Lent) we see that what began in the wilderness is magnificently completed on Easter Sunday – but not without tremendous struggle, pain and suffering. In the wilderness, three years earlier, he had faced life-threatening hunger pains and powerful enticing temptations. Now there is one almighty struggle, not in a wilderness, but in an olive grove called Gethsemane.  (Read Luke 22:39-46)

Within a few hours of declaring and affirming “not my will, but yours be done,” Jesus is to undergo the most excruciating pain, suffering, torture and anguish as he faces and endures severe barbaric flogging and then a Roman style crucifixion. But crucially it is on the cross where he takes upon himself all the sin and evil of this broken world and of fallen humanity. Now the devils work is completely undone and Christ, the Son of God pays the price of sin through his sinless sacrifice. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) The cross is not ignominious defeat, but glorious victory. A dying, bleeding, suffocating Christ (Messiah) is victorious because the price for sin and evil is being paid in full – and his earthly mission to do God’s will is complete. (1 John 3:5) He can cry out from a blood-stained cross, “It is finished”. (John 19:30) And it was finished – and the devil’s power over death was also finished. (Hebrews 2:14) What is extraordinarily ironic according to the apostle Paul, is that in this great spiritual battle, it is not the crucified Christ who is made the public spectacle as he hangs naked on a cross, but the devil, who is dragged behind in defeat and submission to Christ in a Roman style victory parade. Paul with incredible spiritual insight writes;

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive in Christ.  He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away nailing it to the cross.

And have disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 2: 13-15)

Then on the third day, a terrific earthquake occurs, a pitiful Roman seal on the tomb is broken, angels descend, Roman guard’s quake and become like dead men – for the Son of God has risen from the dead! The sting has well and truly been extracted from death. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57). Death has been totally swallowed up in victory. Christ is risen – he is alive for evermore!! He is eternal life, and all who come to him, believe in him, trust in him, shall also be made alive and be raised up to be with him for eternity. (Ephesians 2: 6-10) This is the good news – the greatest good news in the history of this sad and broken world. And what is more – this can become your personal good news – and your personal hope. You only have to turn from your sin and turn to Christ who bore it for you. He will save a captive like you, and graciously grant you the gift of eternal life. (Romans 6:23)

My dear friend, are you ready to once again take up this sacred and holy Lenten journey? Are you ready to start today in the wilderness with a starving yet Spirit-filled victorious Christ? Empty stomach -yes – but nevertheless full of the Holy Spirit, and overflowing with the pure Word of God, and a spotless heart, determined to do the will of God whatever the cost and sacrifice. It is written! It is indeed written that human beings shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. That truth friends, is written into the universe, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. Your heart will always remain restless until it finds its rest in God and His Word.

Are you ready to live and journey with the Word of God as your anchor and sword? And will you journey through every bit of the compassionate ministry of Christ to the outcast, the sick, the demon oppressed and the hungry? Will you deny yourself, take up your own cross, and follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem? Will you let him wash your feet? Will you watch and pray with him in the garden? Will you survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died for you, in your place, for your sake? And will you then rejoice with exceedingly great joy in the wonder and hope of his almighty resurrection from the dead?

There is nothing more glorious or greater that journeying with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit throughout this earthly life and then on to eternal bliss. Our Psalm today contains a verse which the devil deviously misapplied when he tossed it in Christ’s direction in the wilderness, teaches us that our victory and hope are in God as we make Him our dwelling place and rock of refuge. Is it any wonder that many missionaries who have served Christ fearlessly in some of the most extreme and toughest places in the world state that this is their favourite Psalm, clinging to its truths and walking it its power? According to Psalm 91, It is written;

If you make the Most High your dwelling – even the Lord, who is my refuge – then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. You will tread upon the lion and the cobra: you will trample the great lion and the serpent. (1 Peter 5:8—11, Luke 10:18-20, Revelation 12:9)

“Because he loves me”, says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name. He will call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honour him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.   (Psalm 91:9-16)

May you be supremely satisfied with God as your Refuge, Christ as your Lord and Saviour, and the Holy Spirit as your great Enabler and Comforter. May you always journey well with God. Amen.

Revd Peter J Clarkson (13.3.22)