We are now back just after Jesus’ baptism. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the temptation of Jesus, but Matthew and Luke in particular give us this back and forth dialog between Jesus and the devil. This 40 day period in the wilderness is what we are observing each year in Lent and it echoes the 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites experienced. While the narrative speaks of wilderness as a physical place, it is also an interior landscape. We can find ourselves in an interior wilderness without ever leaving familiar physical spaces.
Jesus is tired and he is hungry. Luke sets these temptations at the end of his time there. The devil shows up and in his first attempt to steal Jesus’ identity, he says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Now for many years I read this as Satan questioning Jesus’ identity – you know, like “If you think you’re so hot, show me you’re really the Son of God and make this rock become bread.” But after I learned Greek, I found out the wording was much more subtle than that. In Greek there are two words for “if” – an “if of uncertainty” and an “if of certainty.” The “if of uncertainty” is more along the lines of “If I win the Powerball, I’ll go to the Cayman Islands.” (Hey, it’s cold outside here in Maryland, I can dream right?). That’s a long shot by anyone’s calculation – an “if” whose outcome is uncertain. The “if of certainty”, on the other hand, has a known outcome. “If I file my tax return on time, I won’t have any penalties.” That outcome is known and certain … the only uncertainty is if I can get my act together in time and file by April 15th (OK … this year we have until the 18th … but you know what I mean). This this is the “if” being used by Satan – the “if of certainty” – and we can translate that as “since.” So his first temptation could be “Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” That’s a much sneakier attack! Think of all the implications. “Since you are the Son of God, you have the power to do that. After all, your Heavenly Father wouldn’t want you to starve would he?” The temptation is for Jesus to misuse his identity rather than to rely on God. He keeps his focus in his reply, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil shows him all the kingdoms and tells him “all this can be yours if you worship me.” This temptation is to throw away your identity in God for something fleeting which does not last, but Jesus is like us in seeing that the world that needs help. How tempting it would be to take charge and set things right … you know, since you are the Son of God. Again Jesus quotes scripture, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Finally, the devil decides to try and beat Jesus at his own game. Taking him up to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem – the Holy of Holies – he says, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” “Go ahead, Jesus, crowd surf the angels … your Heavenly Father wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.” Proof indeed that the devil can quote Scripture with the best of them. Again, the temptation here is to redirect Jesus’ trust away from God and to trust his own self and the angels, who are also created beings. Jesus replies, “It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Each one of these was a subtle attempt to steal Jesus’ identity as Son of God and replace it with a false image by redirecting his trust. We are also beset by similar attempts to steal our identity as children of God. It may not be in turning stones into bread, but it could be the temptation of power, financial security and wealth, or avoidance of pain or death. We are assailed every day by these temptations – attempts to redirect our trust. This being an election year, we’re getting this from those who are trying to gain our votes and fear is a common tactic. Anytime you can strike at the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Emotional Needs – and that’s all about safety and security – you get people to go back to their primitive brains and react from there. So filling you full of fear about terrorists or economic collapse and then telling you to redirect your trust away from God and vote for them because they have the answers is quite a winning strategy, isn’t it?
We are also assaulted by messages every hour of the day by advertisements which play on these same fears. We all fear death and the ravages of aging, so buy that “little blue pill” or that “age defying make up” and you’ll look younger and be more attractive, right? But this is only a ploy to get you to put your trust in some product rather than in your identity as beloved of God. These temptations, these attempts to steal your identity, are subtle, pernicious, and constant.
This is why we need our faith and this community – to keep reminding us of who we are and whose we are in the face of so many attempts to steal away the truth. Our minds and hearts have a hard time accepting our beloved status – why would God want to be in relationship with us? But the truth is our Creator loves the Creation – and that love relationship is real – real enough for Jesus to come among us, live as us, die and rise for us. Each week we come here to be reminded of our real identity through the Word and Sacrament. We need this to be reminded of who we are and whose we are and that, in the words of St. Paul, nothing, absolutely nothing, in all of creation can separate us from the love of God which is ours in Christ Jesus.