First Sunday in Lent February 25-26, 2023
“The Ugly One” Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Two weeks ago, when I told my Sunday Morning Bible Class that Pastor Michael Paulison was coming the next Sunday to preach and teach, one of the folks said, “Rats, I’m going to be gone.” And then they added, “He’s really good.” I consoled her though. I mentioned that the next time she is in church I’d be back in the pulpit.
When Pastor Mike was here, he encouraged us with all the good that is happening at the orphanage and school that he leads in Haiti. But there was something very evident when he spoke about all the obstacles that are faced by the people in Haiti and at the orphanage and school – it is obvious Satan is alive and well.
The chaos and violence in Haiti are just what the devil wants. You know the devil is working when little kids have to walk different routes every day from the compound where they live to places they need to go because they must avoid the people who want to bring them harm. Yes, the devil comes to steal, kill and destroy.
Today, the first Sunday in Lent, is the account of the devil who faces Jesus in the wilderness, a place devoid of beauty. In these 11 verses, the evil one is given three different names, all describing his work. He is called the devil, which means “slanderer”. He is called the tempter. Also, Satan – “adversary”.
What other names does he have? Do you know some? Here are some: Accuser, Liar and the Father of Lies, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Lucifer, Great Dragon, Prince of this World, The one who Masquerades as an Angel of Light. He is known as The Antichrist and Beelzebub – the dung god, The lord of the flies. There are many others as well. Do you know what they all describe? One who is ugly. He is ugly and he makes everyone who is connected to him ugly.
Jesus says of him and his followers, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)
He is the ugly one and he makes people ugly. Oscar Wilde wrote a graphic picture of what evil does to a person in his book “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Dorian Gray was born handsome and he became a model of moral virtue. He was complimented by others for his remarkable social graces. Parents would tell their children that they should model their lives after him. One artist even painted an exquisite picture of him.
Initially, Dorian loved the painting. He woke every morning to admire it. He would end his day studying it, looking at its perfection. But then life changed for Dorian Gray. The devil came calling. Temptation’s voice couldn’t be silenced. Once a model of purity he became a person of filth. He found every opium den in London. His appetite for sin was wide and varied and was insatiable.
Dorian then began to hate the picture. He no longer looked like that perfect portrait. Now he had a puffy face, and diseases in his body made him weak and weakly, and his eyes, once clear, were glazed. He hated looking at the portrait, if only he could look that way again. If only the portrait could absorb the marks of his sin!
And that is what happened. Before long, his youthful glow returned. The more he caroused at night, the healthier and handsomer he became. But on the wall, the painting slowly became etched and lined with the wickedness of Dorian Gray. What a life!! Each day, people marveled at his virtue and eternal youth. And by night he wallowed in every vice, with no recrimination. The now-ugly painting on the wall absorbed every evil.
But Dorian could no longer look at the horrid picture. So, he hid it in the attack. The resemblance between the young Dorian Gray and the monster in that painting was all but lost. When he looked at it, it spoke to him of his wickedness. It was his judge, his accuser. It never lied. It drove him mad.
One night he couldn’t take it any longer. He took a large knife, ascended the stairs into the attic and attacked that awful picture of that man who had assumed all his evil. As the story goes, the next morning the servants in his house were looking for Master Dorian and only found a dead wretched, ugly old man with a knife through his heart.
Dorian Gray, once handsome, moral, an example of a full life became ugly. Who made him ugly? Well, he did. But the ugly one, the devil, Satan, the tempter, the deceiver, was behind it all.
What do you see in the work of the devil as he seeks to destroy Jesus and His work? You see how ugly is the evil one, but you’ll see how strong and focused and unbending is our Lord Jesus. Take some stones and make them into bread to take the hunger pangs away? No. “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) Jump from the highest point in the temple and receive the adoration that is due you? No. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matthew 4:7) Bow the knee to the devil and as the reward receive all the kingdoms of the world? No. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” (Matthew 4:10) The devil looked for weakness and Christ, the true Lord, showed strength. How beautiful.
The devil is darkness; Christ is light. The devil ugly; Christ is beautiful. Pastor Mike mentioned that the devil has an individual strategy for our fall and failure; Jesus Christ has an individual plan for our salvation, strength and life. It is interesting to see how the people of Israel, as spoken of in the Book of Exodus, had a progression of miracle, followed by water, followed by testing. The same thing happened in Jesus’ life. Miracle, water, testing. For Israel, God’s chosen people, He took them from slavery in Egypt by means of the Passover miracle, then He opened up the Red Sea for them and then they were in the desert for 40 years, being tested, and failing way too often. In the life of Jesus you have God’s miracle of His birth, then some time later you have His baptism with the voice of His Father speaking, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”, and immediately after the water episode, “Jesus was led by the Sprit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1). Israel failed; Jesus didn’t.
It is pure beauty in everything that Jesus did in that awful desert. The temptations were real. But His obedience to fight all darkness was unfailing.
Isn’t the bride at a wedding gorgeous? Everyone rises when she enters. They watch how she comes down the aisle. They notice her dress and hair. At the weddings I perform I use a certain prayer given to me some 30 years ago. Louis Evans wrote the prayer that asks, “Bless this loving wife. Give her tenderness that will make her great, a deep sense of understanding and a great faith in Thee. Give her that inner beauty of soul that never fades, that eternal youth that is found in holding fast the things that never age.”
Our beauty can’t be just external, it must become internal. It is given to us from Jesus Christ. It comes from having the beauty of soul that never fades. It comes from knowing that Jesus is faithful to us and we rely upon His battle fought for our cleansing, redemption and eternity. Our beauty, deep inside, is a gift from Jesus.
In the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God”, the beauty of what God does for us is evident:
Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill; they shall not overpow’r us.
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected;
But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected.
(656 LSB, verses 3, 2 first two stanzas)
To this point in the sermon, I have said two things that are important. The devil is dirty and ugly and looks to bring his ugliness into our lives. Jesus is beautiful by every action He has ever taken. He faces the devil and He wins. It really isn’t a fair fight. The Son of God versus a fallen angel – Jesus will always win.
I need to ask you something – Are you beautiful? I’m serious. Beautiful? Yes, you are. Beautiful because of Jesus. Beautiful in Jesus. You are declared holy. The Bible calls us the Bride of Christ. He married us. Talk about us marrying up!! In the Revelation of St. John the picture of our beauty is spoken of like this, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2) That is us – given a beauty from our Redeemer.
The ugly one stays ugly. Our Beautiful One, our Savior, is our treasure. And we are given an inner beauty of soul that never fades. Good news!! Amen!!