Lent 1: Who we are in the wild
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But he answered, “It is written,‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I want to start today by playing with you one of my most favorite youth group icebreakers. It's called two truths and a lie. Here's how we're going to do it: turn to a person next to you and introduce yourself by telling that person two true facts about yourself and one complete lie, in any order, and see if they can guess which of the three statements is the lie. Take a moment to think of your three things....
...Ok, ready? Share with your neighbor and see how well you do!
...So how did you do? How many of you guessed correctly? How many of you had a hard time coming up with a lie?
It's hard, I think, to tell a convincing lie about our identity to someone who knows us well. By contrast, however, it's pretty easy to tell ourselves lies about our own identity, especially when we are feeling doubtful, broken, or vulnerable. It's pretty much the way of the world, to get us to believe that we are not good enough or our lives are not good enough: that we would be better if we achieved more, or bought this fancy made-for-TV gadget, or if we hung out with the right people, or if we looked different or had a different career. We are constantly shaping and reshaping ourselves to figure out our identities, piecing together our senses of self, and are sometimes incredibly vulnerable to telling ourselves lies about who we really are.
We begin Lent every year with the story of Jesus out in the wilderness. In Matthew's gospel, this encounter between Jesus and the tempter takes place in chapter four. Now the first three chapters of Matthew's gospel, up to this point, have been concerned with establishing Jesus's identity. First, Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy, securing Jesus's identity in the line of David and tracing his identity all the way back to Abraham. Then Joseph has a dream in which Jesus is revealed both as "the one who will save his people from their sins," and "Emmanuel" which means, "God-with-us." The wise men arrive on the scene next, looking for Jesus, the king, and then Mary and Joseph and Jesus eventually settle in Nazareth, to fulfill the prophecy that the messiah would be a Nazorean.
The last identity story that we read about Jesus before he is cast into the wilderness is his baptism. Jesus comes to Jordan River to be baptized by John. Upon rising from the waters, the skies open, and a voice from heaven says, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased." This statement of identity is the fulfillment of all of the other names that Jesus has been given so far. Jesus is not just the savior, he is not just the presence of God with us, he is not just the king of the Jews. Jesus, in his most fundamental identity, is The. Son. Of. God. The beloved Son of God. This identity gives Jesus his authority, his sense of purpose, and his urgency of mission.
All of this identity talk is important if we are going to understand exactly what happens between Jesus and the devil in the wilderness, and why it is important for us.
After three chapters of identity-establishment, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he fasts for forty days and forty nights. Forty, in the Bible, is a number used to indicate a whole or complete time, usually a time of trial. Noah and the ark floated on the water for forty days and forty nights. Moses fasted for forty days in the presence of God on Mount Sinai before receiving the law. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years. (And we take a forty day journey from Ash Wednesday to Easter - it's not an accident that Lent is forty days long!)
So when the devil shows up, Jesus has been fasting and facing the trials of the wilderness for a significant time. He is hungry. He is tired. He is beaten down by the sun by day and the cold of night, fending off the elements and the creatures of the wilderness alike. He is, by all counts, completely vulnerable at this point, not just to his surroundings, but now, to the presence of temptation.
Three times the devil offers Jesus things that are, perhaps, not his to offer.
"Jesus," he says, "I know that you are hungry. How about you use some of your power to turn rocks into some tasty loaves of bread?"
"Jesus," he says, "I know that you are feeling vulnerable. How about you throw yourself down and use your power to summon angels to catch you?"
"Jesus," he says, "I know that you are feeling helpless. How about you just give yourself over to me, and I promise that I will give you all the kingdoms of the world?"
Jesus is quick to resist these things that the devil tries to offer him. Now, to be fair, basic physical needs, empowerment, leadership: none of these are inherently bad things. In fact, Jesus will spend the rest of his ministry taking care of the physical needs of others, empowering the powerless, and showing that true leadership comes from sacrifice, even suffering unto death. So I'm not sure that the true temptations in this story are food, power, and leadership.
I think that the trial and temptation of Jesus in the wilderness has to do with something deeper: the temptation to doubt his very identity and relationship to God, the source of his being.
Did you notice that when the devil begins his questioning with the taunt, "If you are the Son of God...?" It is flat-out bullying.
"If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread....otherwise maybe you aren't who you say you are. If you are the Son of God, jump and let the angels catch you...otherwise maybe you don't have as much clout with the heavenly host as you say you do. You know, it doesn't seem like you're the Son of God, so let me offer you a deal. I'll give you all the riches and power that come with being the Son of God, if in exchange, you worship me and give me your loyalty."
For Jesus, the deepest trial and temptation offered to him is the chance to deny who he is. The devil seeks Jesus out at his most vulnerable and challenges him to forget himself. To forget that he is a child of Abraham and king of David's line; to forget that he is the one to save Israel; to forget that he is the incarnate presence of God in the world; to forget, above all, that God has called him a beloved child and blessed him to do the work of God in the world.
Whenever we are in a wilderness place in our lives, we, too, are tempted to forget who we are. Sometimes the wilderness looks like the institutional armchair and IV pole in the room where you receive your chemotherapy. Sometimes the wilderness looks like an empty recliner in the living room where your husband used to sit when he was still alive. Sometimes the wilderness looks like another negative pregnancy test, or the wall of the doctor's office that you stare at when you receive confirmation of a miscarriage. Sometimes the wilderness looks like a day planner full of so many assignments and projects that you don't know when you'll find time to eat or to rest. Sometimes the wilderness looks like a vast desert of unemployment. Sometimes the wilderness looks like a dark horizon of depression. Or sometimes, the wilderness is simply that feeling of being a little tired, a little unsure, and little too aware of the aches and pains of the world.
Whenever we are in the wilderness, we are tempted to forget that God created us and called us God. We lose touch with the identity, "beloved child of God" that is given to each of us in baptism, just as it was given to Jesus at his baptism. In the wilderness, when we are vulnerable, we start to believe the lies that our basic needs, our agency, and our gifts are somehow things that we can and should secure on our own. We start to believe the lie that we belong to ourselves and our own interests.
Theologian Henri Nouwen once said, "Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection....When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions....Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the 'Beloved.' Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence."
If Lent is a season of getting back to basics of faith and discipleship, then it is hard to get much more basic than remembering and recovering our identities as beloved children of God.
Three times the devil challenges Jesus’s very identity, and three times Jesus responds with words of scripture that speak the truth about God's provision and protection for his children. We, too, cling to scripture and to faith to remind us of God's faithfulness and of our intimate, unbreakable relationship to our creator.
Before we can take on spiritual disciplines like fasting, prayer, or acts of generosity and justice, we first remember that God has made a covenant with us. God promises never to leave us or forsake us. God promises that we are beloved. God promises that we don't need to do anything to make ourselves beloved children. We have been created in God's image. From this most fundamental identity, we can then answer the call to serve God and love neighbor, selflessly and without fear.
Whatever your wilderness is today, whatever lies you are tempted to believe about your identity, hear the good news:
You are a child of God.
You are beloved.
You are created in God's image.
You belong to God, and God is always faithful.
This is your identity, your truth. And no wilderness can ever take it away.
Thanks be to God.