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First Sunday in Lent, March 9, 2014

The chorus of a song written by Jessica Andrews goes, “I am Rosemary’s granddaughter, the spitting image of my father, and when the day is done, my momma’s still my biggest fan. Sometimes I’m clueless and I’m clumsy, but I’ve got friends that love me and they know just where I stand. It’s all a part of me and that’s who I am.”

The most important thing about us is our identity – who we are. God made us to be a particular person, to serve God in particular ways. This song reminds us that a large part of our identities is wrapped up in our relationships. We are parents and children and grandchildren. We are spouses and friends. We are team members and company employees. It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe ourselves without some reference to our relationship to others. And that is as it should be. God made us to be relational beings. Our particular connections to God and to our neighbors describe who we are.

So who is Jesus? What kind of person is he? What is his vocation? How will he carry out that vocation in the world? We already know something about that. The birth narrative tells us he is the Messiah, come into the world to be God-with-us. The wise men’s story refers to him as the Messiah and the king of the Jews. John the Baptist says he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Finally at his baptism, we hear God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

That’s great, we say. Jesus is in good with God. We want a Messiah God approves of. We want a king whose identity is in relation to the creator of the universe. If the Messiah is related to God, he must be one powerful person, and this God-with-us must be here to free us from Roman domination and make us a powerful nation again. (You notice we have forgotten all about being blessed to be a blessing to the world). We know something about who Jesus is now, but we would really like to know what Jesus is like, what Jesus will do for us – where, as the song says, Jesus stands.

That is what we learn in today’s story. Right after his baptism the Holy Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. What a way to test your character. We would all rather have a Holy Spirit that leads us as far away from temptation as possible (Richard I. Pervo). But the desert time for Jesus is a learning time. When he goes into the desert, he is like Israel. He struggles with his identity in relationship to God as Israel did. He is in a place where he is completely dependent on God as they were. When Jesus goes into the desert, he is also like Moses, a comparison Matthew has used before to indicate that Jesus is the new liberator of Israel. Moses fasts for 40 days on Mount Sinai until God gives him the commandments and Moses becomes the law giver he is meant to be. Jesus fasts for forty days to learn about the Messiah he is supposed to be.

When Jesus comes out of the desert, it is not with a set of new laws, but with an empty stomach. And who is there to meet him but the devil. It is important to remember that it is God who is the source of the temptation because it is necessary for Jesus to confirm his identity and purpose. Israel always held that there was only one God, who was more powerful than anything else; even Satan is a subordinate character, sent to do God’s bidding (Fred Craddock).

Jesus endures three temptations, and the word is “endures”. Though the passage has Jesus immediately answering the devil with quotes from Deuteronomy about his relationship with God, he must have struggled mightily not to use the power he knew God had given him. The temptations have to be real and enticing for Jesus to be just like us in our humanity. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil says, “prove it. Use your power to take these stones and make bread. Satisfy your own hunger and for that matter the hunger of everyone else in Israel. If you are the Son of God, then prove that God has that special relationship with you and will not let anything hurt you. Throw yourself off the top of the temple and reap the benefits Psalm 91 talks about. Show that you will be kept safe at all costs. If you are the Son of God, prove you have the power of God to rule. Here, all the kingdoms of the world are yours if you will just worship me.”

This tug of war on the devil’s side is about the physical, the things of the earth. Jesus is tugging on the side of the spiritual. He will not do anything the devil says, because that is not who he now knows himself to be. Jesus’ mind is on things of God. It is God who has empowered him and God who will direct him. Jesus will not make bread out of stones. The word of God that he has heard is more important than anything else. And the word that he has heard is to be dependent on God’s divine grace to satisfy his needs. He will not throw himself off the top of the temple to make certain that God will keep him safe. He will be vulnerable, trusting God to take care of him in whatever way God sees fit. He will not take the kingdoms of the world the devil offers because he does not control his own power. That is for God to do. He will not worship the devil because it is God with whom he is in relationship; God whose steadfast love has been with Israel from the beginning.

Jesus says no to the devil and yes to God. He resists the temptations. He is loyal and faithful to the one who gave him his vocation. He will not live in a world of certainty and use of unlimited power, but of trust and vulnerability.

So Jesus the beloved Son of God has come out of the desert knowing who he is and what he is to do. He is to live in relationship with God and with his neighbor. He is to preach the coming of the kingdom of God. He is to use his power, as God gives it to him, to heal and cast out demons and feed the 5,000 – not because he made bread out of stones but because God multiplied the loaves. He is a spiritual liberator, not a physical one.

So what do we think of this Jesus who comes out of the desert and chooses dependence over independent use of his power. We think he is not at all the Messiah we expected. He is not a political leader or a magician who can fix everything that is broken or a smooth talker that everyone will approve of. He will heal some but not all; he will escape when the crowds want to make him king. He will make the religious leadership so angry that not only will God not keep him safe, God will let him be crucified to show how much God loves us. In his dependence on God, he is too much like us. In his faithfulness to God, he is too different .

Adam and Eve wanted to control their own destinies, to create their own identities instead of accepting God’s for them, and that is our temptation too, as it has always been for humanity. We want to wrest control from God, to take our own lives into our hands, turning away from our dependent relationship with God to an independent and inevitably selfish identity that promotes what we want above what our neighbors need.

We cannot resist temptations as Jesus did; we are bound to fail some of our tugs-of-war and end up helpless in the mud. But the good news is that through divine grace and the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven.

This Lent is a good time to examine who we are and whose we are. What are our important relationships, and is God at the center of them? What do our relationships say about our character and our vocation? Are we acting in a way that pleases God and blesses our neighbors? Open your heart to Jesus and his love for you. Hear him when he tells you that you are his brother or his sister, related to him through God’s mercy forever, and act in the world based on that knowledge. As we continue to act faithfully, we will find God’s love, our soul’s desire.


- The Rev. Ann Barker


Works Cited:
David Lose, “Identity Theft” in Dear Working Preacher blog post, March 3, 2014
Richard I. Pervo, Tuesday Morning, vol. 16, no. 1, p.20
Fred Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1992), p. 153