1st Sunday in Lent
March 1, 2020
“The Battle of Two Words”
Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon is today’s well-known Gospel lesson from Matthew chapter 4.
My dear friends,
Words have tremendous power. As Sting, lead singer of “The Police,” once sang, “Poets, priests, and politicians all have words to thank for their positions.” He’s right. Kingdoms have risen and fallen, relationships built and torn down, reputations made and lost simply by the power of words. Encouraging words to people who are down can motivate them to rise up and achieve their goals. Conversely, destructive words to people who are down can have a devastating effect.
C.S. Lewis, a man of many words, once said about the power of words, “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” That’s a good point, and that’s why with a subject as common and basic as the temptation of Jesus, the words opposed to one another are not 6-syllable, multi-layered, complex theological terms. Instead, the two most powerful words in play are two of the most basic words in any language. The temptation of Jesus is a battle of two very basic words: “if” versus “is.”
“If”…what a powerful two letter word. By definition, “if” means “something that is not certain: something that could either happen or not happen.” “If” is a favorite word of Satan. In the temptation of Jesus as found in Matthew 4, that is the word Satan uses in all three temptations: from verse 3, “And the tempter came and said to him, If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread;” from verse 6, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you”; and from verse 9, “(Satan) said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
If, if, if. That is one of Satan’s favorite words. “If” is a doubt word. “If” is a conditional word. Satan and the old sinful Adam inside each of us work a tag-team on your heart and life that is pretty effective through a word like “if”: “but what if,” “if only,” “things would be better if.” Look at the destructive power of “if” in our state and world. We cannot pray in our schools because what IF we offend someone’s sensibilities. We can’t give people off anymore for Good Friday because what IF someone doesn’t celebrate Good Friday. Like prayer in school, Christian voices are being either shouted down or shut out because what IF you offend someone of another faith system.
Or maybe “if” for you is personal. IF only you could quit that sinful obsession, or IF only you could get motivated to attend Bible study and worship more often or IF only you could do better with your money, at work, in your marriage. If, if, if. It’s a very destructive word.
And maybe that’s why it appears a surprisingly few number of times in Scripture. Here’s a fun fact for you. There are 774,746 English words in the Holy Bible; Hey…I didn’t count…a computer did. The word “if” appears 1,678 times. That may seem like a lot, but it isn’t. By comparison, the word “love” and all its various forms appears almost 1000 times.
In Matthew 4, Satan uses the word “if,” but Jesus uses the word “is.” Now “is” appears in the bible 7,123 times! “If” is a conditional word, but “is” – the 3rd person singular present form of “be” – is a definitive word. “Is” is a definite word.
That is why and how Jesus uses it when he quotes Deuteronomy: “But (Jesus) answered, “It IS written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4); Jesus said to him, “Again it IS written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7); Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it IS written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (4:10). When it comes to God and the power of His Word, there is no room for doubt and vacillation in a word like “if.” God prefers powerful words, definite words, life words, like “is.”
How do I know “is” is a life word? Well, what is the 1st person singular present form of “to be?” I AM…recognize that? Also, consider the following uses. From the cross as He accomplishes the all-availing sacrifice for our sins, Jesus cries out “It IS finished” (John 19:30). Prior to his crucifixion, on the night when He was betrayed, Jesus took bread and said very clearly and very emphatically, “Take, eat, this IS my body” (Matthew 26:26). In the same way also, Jesus took the cup, gave it to the disciples, and said equally emphatically, “take and drink, for this IS my blood of the new covenant” (26:27-28). To the paralyzed man in Mark 2, Jesus told him, “Your sins ARE (plural form of “is”) forgiven” (2:5). And just in case you needed one further assurance, Jesus said in John 14, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house ARE many rooms…if I go and prepare a place for you, I WILL come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (14:1-3 ESV).
How is the battle of “if” and “is” going in your life right now? This Lent, how many “ifs” do you need to repent of? How many things are up in the air in your life because of “if”? How many of those could be resolved when you remember the power and truth of “is:” God is loving, God is with you, God is watching over you, God is constantly forgiving you in the name of and for the sake of Jesus, God is not done with you yet, God is working all things for good in your life.
Be very aware this week and always of the true power of words. IF you allow Satan to work at will in your heart and life there will be only sadness, despair, and anxiety. Be vigilant at all times! Satan doesn’t come shouting for your soul; it’s more like he touches your shoulder and tells jokes until you give it to him on your own. Know instead the true power of IS – the sin-forgiving, temptation-resisting, hope-restoring power of such a simple 2-letter word. Leave your “ifs” behind today and watch as God makes eternally good on the “is-ness” of your life in Christ Jesus in whom you have redemption, the true and only forgiveness for all your sins, and that IS a powerful truth now and always.