“Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
These thoughts are attributed to Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist, writer and philosopher in the sixth century BC. Sun Tzu is traditionally credited as the author of The Art of War, a widely influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and East Asian philosophy, military thinking but has also influenced business and even the legal profession.
Keep these thoughts in mind as we think about the Scripture we just heard from the Gospel of Luke. And a thank you to Joanne Leitch (Paul Williamson) for helping us to hear the scheming, conniving and battle of wills going on. This is a story of two enemies and of subtle intrigue with one side set on deception and lies and with another who knew himself and his enemy well enough not to be seduced and defeated.
Remember: “Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
It was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Luke told us that in the previous chapter. From the very beginning of his ministry in the public square, Jesus knew things about himself and what he no doubt had been learning throughout his years as a youth and young man. Recall the comment Luke made after Jesus, as a twelve year old boy, spent three days with the teachers in the temple in Jerusalem — teachers who were amazed at his understanding of the Scriptures and his answers to their questions. Luke told his readers that Jesus grew in wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and with all the people. (Luke 2:52)
What did Jesus know about himself?
Let me link for us three Scripture passages:
In Luke chapter 3 when Jesus was baptized:
“One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy. ” (Luke 3:21-22 NLT])
In Luke chapter 4 when Jesus was tempted:
“Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness,
And then at verse 14 immediately following this story of temptation when Jesus goes back home to Galilee:
“Then Jesus returned to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit’s power. Reports about him spread quickly through the whole region.” Luke 4:14 NLT
Jesus understand from the very beginning of his public life (and certainly before as well) that his human life was saturated (infused) with the God life of the Holy Spirit. He trusted his life to the Spirit’s leading in his experiences in the wilderness (think also Gethsemane in the dead of night) and in his preaching, healing, and setting people free ministry. Luke has Jesus being led in the desert so that in his wanderings in the desert wilderness it was clear that he was under the Spirit’s influence and guidance. Jesus was continuously under the guidance of the Spirit. This is a picture of Jesus being on the offensive (and not being defensive) as he was led by the Spirit to confront the devil.
Jesus also knew he was God’s dearly beloved Son who brought the Father great joy! The Holy Spirit confirmed Jesus’ identity at his baptism. Knowing who he was and to whom he belonged made all the difference when the devil tempted him — as we will see in a moment.
Jesus also knew this about himself — that his life with God was formed from the very beginning of his life as a baby (I have no doubt his mother and father told him at some point as he was growing up about the strange and wondrous circumstances surrounding his birth and their early family experiences, in Egypt as refugees for instance). His life with God continued to develop as a boy and as a young man who heard and read the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament) constantly and consistently as he matured in mind, body and spirit. He knew that the wisdom of life with God was found in those Scriptures.
So now Jesus goes into the desert wilderness where he is led about by the Holy Spirit. This wilderness is not an idealized place of beauty or tranquility a la a Disney nature film. Instead the wilderness was seen as the realm of chaos — the domain where the order, beauty and abundance of God’s kingdom was utterly absent and where forces roam — forces that are aligned against God and God’s people. So Jesus knew something dangerous was going to occur.
The temptations Jesus was given were “real” to him in his humanity. They were not mere fantasies of the mind of which the human Jesus was incapable of giving in. They were temptations that touched the very centre, the deepest depth of Jesus’ being. There were three temptations put to Jesus by the devil.
Three temptations that Jesus needed not only to be aware of at the beginning of his ministry but he needed to defeat them for his sake and for the redemption of the world.
Eugene Peterson, writer of The Message translation of the Bible, put together a book titled The Message: Conversations With Its Translator. In it he makes comments as if in conversation with his readers about various passages throughout the Bible. I found his notes on the temptations of Jesus clear and concise. Here is how he (pages 1488-1490) outlines what he calls the core of each temptation.
The Scripture in The Message translation tells us this:
“For forty wilderness days and nights Jesus was tested by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry.
The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: “It takes more than bread to really live.” (Luke 4:1-4 MSG)
Peterson comments on this temptation:
What is the core of the first temptation? There’s certainly nothing wrong with getting something to eat when you’re hungry. Jesus got hungry. You get hungry. I get hungry. So how can it be a temptation to get some bread, whether by miracle or by money?
The temptation is to put bread first and God second, to put the need for bread at the center of our lives and our need for God at the edge.
Jesus said he would not do it. He said his need for God preceded his need for bread. He said the word of God was basic to his life; that bread was also necessary, but secondary. He said that he would attend to God first and bread second.
Next, the Scripture in The Message translation tells us that
“For the second test the Devil led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Devil said, “They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole works.”
Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.” (Luke 4:5-8 MSG)
Peterson comments on this temptation:
Spread out beneath Jesus were glorious but godless civilizations, full of injustice, inequality, poverty, and crime. And the Devil tempted him: “Worship me and I will give you all these kingdoms. Rule them as you see fit, establish your justice and peace and love in every government on the face of the earth. Make me your god and I will make you effective in the world.”
What is the core of [this second] temptation? The temptation is to bypass God in order to do something good. The temptation is to be so obsessed with doing the right thing that we are willing to get rid of God in order to do it. The temptation is to be impatient with God’s ways — those quiet, suffering, sacrificial, loving, patient ways that never violate human dignity. God works silently and often secretly in society. The moment we want to make things better in the world and do it efficiently and effectively, God becomes the bottleneck. Bypass God and establish law and order, peace and justice immediately.
Jesus said he would not do it. He said he wouldn’t get rid of God in order to do God’s will more efficiently.
And the Scripture in The Message translation tells us in the third temptation that
“For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, “If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that ‘he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t so much as stub your toe on a stone’?”
“Yes,” said Jesus, “and it’s also written, ‘Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.’” (Luke 4:9-12 MSG)
Peterson comments again:
What is the core of this temptation? There’s certainly nothing wrong with letting God perform a miracle on your behalf. How can it be a temptation to stage a little excitement for the bystanders and show how wonderful things are with Jesus?
The temptation is to put excitement first and God second. The temptation is to think of our lives as humdrum and ordinary, and God as the one who will make them exciting. The temptation is to look at God as entertainment.
Jesus said he would not do it. He would not use God to make his life interesting. He said he would patiently let God make him his instrument.
When we know ourselves and make space in our lives for God to connect with us we become increasingly sensitive to the subtleties of temptation. It’s interesting that these particular issues with which the Devil tried to entice Jesus were not temptations of violence or cheating or sexual promiscuity. (These are for another time.) They were more sensible than that. In fact, they were very sensible. It is reasonable and prudent, is it not, to take care of ourselves, to take care of our basic life-needs? Of course, it is. But, here’s the rub, it is only after we have looked after ourselves, then we are told that that is the time we can do something for God. That is the time we can give to God. Until then, we think we can and ought to be able to do everything ourselves.
Eugene Peterson again sums it all up for us:
They are temptations to treat God as the entertainment in our lives, putting excitement into the drone of our existence and interpreting everything that’s ordinary and routine as the absence of God. They are temptations to make the world a little better on our own but eliminate God for the sake of efficiency.
If Jesus had said yes to any one of these temptations, he would not be our Savior.
And if we say yes to any one of these temptations, we diminish God in our lives. And in diminishing God, we diminish ourselves.
I continue to learn the older I grow that God is not finished with me yet. I continue to learn that human beings are very precious to God indeed. I believe God believes that human beings are capable of being faithful to God. I believe God believes that human beings have immense capacity for the promotion of good in the world. In fact, human beings will give their lives and even die to remain faithful and to promote good. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13 NRSV).
“Every battle is won or lost before it is fought.”
Jesus knew that the manner in which he won the battle for the souls of humanity was all important. He knew that trusting in the Holy Spirit to lead and guide him in and through all his experiences whether in or out of the wilderness was a similar trust you and I could possess. He knew that our understanding the Scriptures and believing that we can rely on God through them was critical to our life with God. Jesus knew as well that God calls us beloved because he, Jesus was called the beloved and laid down his life for all humanity in love and for love.
We are five days into the Christian season of Lent. Many people, Christian or not, often use this season to reflect on their lives, perhaps more than any other season in the year. One reason to reflect is to know yourself, who you are, whose you are, and to think about the ways to connect your everyday life — your going-to-work, washing-clothes, doing-errands, fixing-the-car — kind of day with an extremely gracious God who invites us to make space in our lives for God.
Today, we (you and I) have another opportunity to learn from our Lord Jesus Christ. So, we listen carefully to this story at the beginning of his long journey to Golgotha, to the cross, to his crucifixion. As students of Jesus, we listen carefully to learn how he lived his life with God so we too might live our lives in similar ways with God. We listen carefully to the one who knew himself very well, who knew his enemy and knew that that knowledge made all the difference in his life and for the world. May we not only listen carefully but also walk in the ways Jesus walked with God because that too will make all the difference in our lives and yes, for our world as well.
Friends, may this be so for me and for you. Amen.