This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Text: “Jesus answered, ‘It is written.’” (Matthew 4:4)
Sermon prepared by Rev. Peter Slofstra, Courtice, Ontario
Purpose: to challenge listeners to get back into God’s Word so that they are better equipped to deal with all that life brings.
At the very beginning of His ministry, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness to fast and pray. “After fasting forty day and forty nights, he was hungry” (Matthew 4:2).
The fast that Jesus undertook was what Arthur Wallis, author of “God’s Chosen Fast”, calls a Normal Fast involving abstention only from solid food. While not as dangerous as an Absolute Fast that includes abstaining from all liquids, it is still a difficult endurance test for the human body, especially when it lasts as long as forty days or longer. A watching public in London, England observed that firsthand in the fall of 2003 when magician David Blaine, age 30, undertook an endurance test that saw him survive only on water fed through a tube while confined in a Plexiglass box hanging from a tall crane for forty-four days. When he finally emerged, having lost fifty-five pounds, he manifested such symptoms as weakness, dizziness and loss of energy and was hospitalized immediately.
In such a weakened state, we can well imagine that both the body and the spirit would be vulnerable to attack. Physically and spiritually, there would be lower resistance, even a loss of immunity. Since the Bible is very clear that Jesus abstained totally from food for forty days and became very hungry, he would have been in this depleted and vulnerable condition. And that’s when the devil came on the scene, twice tempting Jesus to rely on his own power (turn stones into bread; jump from the temple) and then tempting Jesus to rely on the devil’s power (the whole world in exchange for worshiping me). Three temptations with a common theme: don’t rely on God the Father.
The devil knows that there is nothing more freeing than relying on God. When you know how to rely on God you can send your child to kindergarten or to high school or to University, violent incidents at various schools notwithstanding. When you have learned to rely on God, you can live through a time of insecurity when you don’t know if your house will sell or whether you will keep your job. If you have learned to rely on God, you can face surgery or a series of chemo treatments with child-like trust. In your life, you can relax and let go if you know how to rely on God. You can get beyond yesterday, enjoy today and welcome tomorrow if you know the freedom of relying on God.
Satan wants to take this freedom away from you!
Two thousand years ago, Satan wanted to take this freedom away Jesus. And so he came with his temptations when Jesus was weak from fasting, when he was especially vulnerable to promises and ideas that offered short term relief and escape at the cost of long term remorse and bondage. “Rely on yourself,” Satan said. “Rely on me,” Satan offered.
But Jesus won and Satan lost. After three very tempting offers the devil gave up and slithered away.
How was Jesus, despite His weakened state, able to win this victory and keep relying on His Father in Heaven?
When the tempter dared Jesus to prove that he was the Son of God by telling stones to become bread, Jesus fought back by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy: “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). He relied on his Bible knowledge and used it the way a Samurai warrior uses his sword.
When the tempter dared Jesus to prove that he was the second person of the Trinity by throwing himself down from the roof of the temple, Jesus stood his ground by quoting Deuteronomy again: “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test”(Deuteronomy 6:16). He relied on his Bible knowledge and used it the way a professional hockey player uses his stick.
When the tempter offered Jesus the world in exchange for his soul, Jesus got the devil to leave him alone by quoting Deuteronomy one last time: “Away from me, Satan. For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Deuteronomy 6:13). He relied on his Bible knowledge and used it the way an alcoholic uses the Serenity Prayer to make it through another day.
In other words, the Word relied on the Word. And if the Word of God was a strong enough weapon for the food deprived Lord of Light when the Prince of Darkness attacked him, then surely the Word of God is the best possible weapon of defense for human beings, too!
The writer of Psalm 119 knew this well. Listen to what he wrote about God’s Word:
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light for my path.
106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it,
that I will follow your righteous laws.
107 I have suffered much;
preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word.
108 Accept, O LORD, the willing praise of my mouth,
and teach me your laws.
109 Though I constantly take my life in my hands,
I will not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a snare for me,
but I have not strayed from your precepts.
111 Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
In these eight verses the psalmist describes a life experience that is full of suffering, risks and snares. Sounds a lot like our lives, doesn’t it?
There are things in our lives that cause all of us to suffer. Things like conflict and misunderstandings, chronic medical problems and unexpected emergencies, the break up of a significant relationship, or the devastating loss of a loved one. Any of these can cause us to fall.
There are daily challenges that put our emotional and spiritual lives at risk. Making ends meet. Disappointment in ourselves and others. Attacks on our character. Information overload. Horrific events in the world and in our personal lives over which we have absolutely no control. Any one of these can represent a risk to our integrity and faith in God.
There are snares that the wicked have set for all of us. Snares on our computers that are only a point and click away! Snares in our towns and cities that we are tempted to drive to whenever sinful urges get too strong! Snares in our hearts that appeal to our pride and target our baser instincts and emotional needs! Any one of these can lead us into temptation.
Faced with the same suffering, risks and snares that we all know so well, the psalmist was still able to celebrate the fact that he did not stray. He did not congratulate himself for this as if it was his own achievement. Instead he gave full credit to his greatest resource, namely, everything written in God’s Word. The scriptures that we know as the Bible guided his feet, illuminated his path and kept him from falling. The writer of Psalm 119 faced everything that life threw at him with the written word of God, foreshadowing the day when Jesus faced everything the devil threw at him with three little words: “IT IS WRITTEN.”
A recent news story featured the Bible as a source of protective strength, but not in the way that you might expect. In September, 2006, Hurricane Florence hit the South coast of Newfoundland with tremendous force. Liz Durnford was watching TV in her three year old bungalow perched on a rocky escarpment on the edge of the ocean in Francois, a small hamlet of one hundred people, when she felt the house shake. Here, in her words, is what she did then: “I picked up my Bible to push the wind back. I'm not religious or anything, but I do believe in God, and something was telling me, 'If you take your Bible, somebody's watching over you.” After grabbing her Bible she and her husband fled the house. Moments later it was swept toward the ocean. Thankfully, they escaped with their lives.
Isn’t that a striking image of the young woman superstitiously holding on to her Bible when everything she owned and her very life was under attack? Instinctively, she did what the psalmist did. Without thinking, she did what Christ himself did. She grabbed on to God’s Word like a drowning person grabbing on to a life preserver. Although she did not understand the true power of the Bible, she still knew enough to reach for it when her home gave way and was about to “fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:2).
What about you? Are you holding on to everything that is in God’s Word or is your Bible a closed book collecting dust on a shelf, little more than a religious icon? Do your family meals begin or end with a reading from the Bible or does everybody just dig in and push off when they’re done? On your travels, does the Bible come along or does it stay at home? Do you know the Bible well enough to say, “It is written!” when you come under spiritual attack, when you are faced with decisions or difficulties?
I have a sense that many of us, individually and as families, are not as faithful as we used to be in reading the Bible. I have a sense that our homes have so many distractions and our personal schedules are so busy that God’s Word is being squeezed out of the central place it should have in our lives. I have a sense that our Bible knowledge and our ability to quote Scripture or find an encouraging Bible verse or story for ourselves or someone else is on the decline. As a result, we are spiritually depleted and more vulnerable than ever to spiritual and emotional attack.
In Matthew 4 and Psalm 119 God has a very specific challenge for all of us: to bring our Bibles along wherever we go for whatever we will face. And so I challenge you to get back into the Word, to take an oath as the psalm writer did to learn, remember and keep what’s written in God’s Word.
For starters, bring your Bible along to the dinner table every time you eat together and read some verses with your roommates or your families at the beginning or the end of the meal. Book mark what you read and pick it up there the next time. If or when you have young children at the table with you, read to them from an age appropriate Children’s Story Bible. See to it that they become biblically literate, knowing the stories of the Bible, including the story of Jesus defeating the devil with Bible quotes when he was exhausted and vulnerable after fasting in the wilderness.
Additionally, bring your Bible to a solitary place where you can read the Bible alone, by yourself. Find a time and a place and a reading schedule that works for you. There are schedules available to help you read through the Bible in one year or in two years; in fact, Christian Book stores carry One Year Bibles that divide the Bible up into 365 daily readings. Of course there are daily devotional books and guides, like the Back To God Hour’s Today, that you can also use. But if you do, make it a part of your spiritual discipline to read the suggested Bible passage so that you actually hear God’s Word as well as someone’s reflections and thoughts.
It is always amazing how often something that you read in God’s Word in the morning can apply so exactly to something that you experience later that day. For example, on a particular day two pastors were on the phone and one of them said that he was getting ready to conduct the funeral for a teenaged girl in his church who had died from cancer. To encourage him for this difficult task, his colleague told him that he had just read Isaiah 43 as part of his personal devotions that morning and from memory he quoted these comforting words over the phone: “Fear not; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Isaiah 43:2). When he was done, there was silence on the other end. Then the other pastor said, “You won’t believe this, but that’s exactly the passage that she asked me to preach on at her funeral.” All the other could say was, “No way!”
As you recall this story today, you may find yourself wondering: “What would that young woman from Newfoundland who survived Hurricane Florence think if she were to actually open the Bible that she grabbed before the storm took her house and read those same words: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Would she finally understand that the Bible is not just a religious talisman but the very voice of her heavenly Father speaking to her heart? Imagine how her life would change!
Finally, bring your Bible along to church. Many churches now put Bible readings up on a screen for all to see. Other churches provide Bibles in the pew. But there’s something to be said for opening your own Bibles and making notes in it, or highlighting certain passages that really speak you. Our goal should be to get to know our own Bibles so well that we can say with Jesus, “It is written.” The best way to achieve that kind of Bible literacy is to constantly work with your own copy of God’s Word.
In the wilderness, well into his fast, Jesus may have looked helpless and alone and defenseless. That’s what the devil counted on. Indeed, in his humanity, Jesus was very alone and very weak and extremely vulnerable.
But he was neither helpless nor defenseless. He had, as Paul writes in Ephesians 6:17, “the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God.” He used that sword and because he did, as Matthew tells us in his account of the temptation of Jesus, “the devil left him and angels came and attended to him” (Matthew 4:11).
You can expect the same when you rely on God and regularly read his Word. So bring your Bible along in your life! And be ready to say with Jesus, “It is written!”
Order of Worship
OPENING OF THE SERVICE
Welcome and Announcements
Opening Song of Praise: PH #244
Call to Worship: Psalm 100
Song of Response: PH #420
God’s Greeting: "May the grace and peace of God our Father and of our Lord Jesus Christ be on us. Amen."
Hymn of Praise: PH #253:1,4
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession followed by: PH #420
Assurance of Pardon: Colossians 1:13-14
God’s Will for Our Lives: Exodus 20:1-17
Hymn of Response: PH #19:2
SERVICE OF THE WORD
Prayer for God’s Leading
Scripture Reading: Matthew 4:1-11
Scripture Text: Matthew 4:4a (“Jesus answered, ‘It is written.’”)
Sermon: "Bringing Your Bible Along In Life"
Hymn of Response: PH #276
SERVICE OF PRAYER AND OFFERING
Offertory Prayer followed by: PH #290
CLOSING OF THE SERVICE
Final Song of Prayer: PH #634
God’s Blessing: "The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all"
God’s people: "Amen"