By The Rev. Sherry Deets
1 Lent – March 9, 2014
At Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly voice announces, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And it seems that almost immediately afterwards, Jesus is tempted by the devil, who treats Jesus as if the reality of his identity is the question: “If you are the Son of God…” Are you really? Can you prove it? Jesus’ responses show him pondering an entirely different question: What does it mean for me to be God’s beloved son? How shall I live out that identity in the world?
I think this idea of identity is key to understanding this week’s biblical readings, and particularly those from Genesis and Matthew. Each tells a story of temptation, and while we may be inclined to describe the content of these temptations in terms of status or power, I’d suggest instead that they are actually more about identity.
Let’s start with Genesis. Notice that while the serpent offers Adam and Eve the promise of ultimate, God-like knowledge, at the outset of his exchange with the woman the serpent suggests that God is not trustworthy. “Did God really say…?” the serpent begins, sowing the seeds of doubt, and then asserts, “You will not die,” contradicting the words of God.
Having undermined Adam and Eve’s confidence in God, the serpent then invites them to establish themselves — that is, craft their own identity — independent of their relationship with God: “when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Who needs God, after all, when you can be “like God” all on your own? And just insecure enough to fall for the serpent’s ploy, they do indeed attempt to define themselves apart from God but end up only defining themselves over and against each other in scene that is as tragic as it is familiar.
Now back to Matthew. Again, while the “content” of the devil’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each again is primarily about identity. Notice that the devil begins by trying to undermine the identity Jesus had just been given at his baptism in the previous scene. “If you are the son of God,” functions to call that identity into question. As with his exchange with Adam and Eve, the devil seeks to rob Jesus of his God-given identity and replace it with a false one of his own manufacture. Notice, too, that Jesus resists this temptation not through an act of brute force or sheer will, but rather by taking refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God, a relationship that implies absolute dependence on God and identification with all others. Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.
As Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner explains, “After being baptized, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent 40 days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.” Only after those 40 days is Jesus finally tempted by the devil. But this is no ordinary devil. It’s not a guy with horns and a pitchfork. It’s not a serpent. There’s really no indication it’s a physical reality at all. The Greek word used here for the devil is diabolos, which means, literally, the Slanderer.
Now, and I’ll speak for myself here, but when I am in the wilderness, all alone, the loudest voice slandering me is my own. It was those times I beat myself up and told myself all kinds of lies about how I wasn’t good enough, worthy enough, talented enough, loving enough. About how I simply wasn’t enough. It seems like when we’re out in the wilderness, and there’s nothing to rush toward, to distract us, and no other voices save the ones in our heads, we, like Jesus, wind up facing our demons, and in doing so, we come face-to-face with ourselves and the lies we tell ourselves.
It is not just the devil that seeks to steal our identity. Each day we are besieged by countless advertisements that seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity, and inadequacy, undermining our God-given gift of identity with the promise that if we buy this car or use that deodorant or make our teeth brighter we will be acceptable. The message of the consumer-consumption culture is simple: you are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. That’s the great temptation, really. That we will believe those lies — whether they come from us, our peers, or our parents — that we are something other than beloved sons and daughters of God. Jesus offers us a way out, a way to safeguard our identity by lodging it in God’s good gift and promise.
But Jesus does more than even that. He also demonstrates just how deeply God loves us by going to the cross. Jesus did not die on the cross in order that we might be acceptable or to make God loving. Jesus died to show us that God already loves us and has declared that we are not just acceptable but also treasured, priceless beyond measure.
It’s said that when Martin Luther felt oppressed by his conscience or plagued by doubt, fear, or insecurity, he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, “Away with you Satan! I am baptized!” A reminder of the promise inscribed on our foreheads at Holy Baptism: that God has declared us worthy of love, dignity, and respect and has pledged to be both with us and for us throughout all of our lives. We are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Each of us has our own unique wilderness exam. Only you know what devils have your number, and what kinds of bribes they use to get you to pick up. All I know for sure is that a voluntary trip to the desert this Lent is a great way to practice getting free of those devils for life–not only because it is where you lose your appetite for things that cannot save you, but also because it is where you learn to trust the Spirit that led you there to lead you out again, ready to worship the Lord your God and serve no other all the days of your life. Amen.
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