Identity Theft Matthew 4:1-11
If you are like me, you did not grow up with the tradition of Ash Wednesday and Lent, the 40 days of preparation for Easter. The richness of the liturgical calendar and these ancient Christian practices have often been abandoned by Protestants for fear of being too Catholic. I have a vivid memory of being a young teenager and overhearing a Catholic friend talking about Lent and me thinking, “What does Jesus have to do with that fuzzy stuff that collects in the dryer?” Turns out, not much. I have come a long way since then. I believe this season of Lent that we begin today is a powerful invitation to all of us to become the containers that carry the God Good News of our Savior’s love. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Lent always begins here, with the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. So as we here this text from Matthew, my questions is this. Why did the Holy Spirit send Jesus into the wilderness, immediately after his baptism, to fast for forty days and be tempted by the devil?
These words Satan and the Devil and temptation have become so loaded, so big, so heavy, that maybe we miss how ordinary this all is. The Greek word that we translate as temptation means to be tested, to account for oneself. The Greek word that we translate as Satan means an adversary. It was the word used for a prosecuting attorney in a court of law. And the word Devil means one who accuses and questions in a particularly confusing and deceptive way. Satan and the Devil simply represent all that is within us and around us that is trying to pull us away from who we are in God. Temptation is the daily testing ground where we refine and return to our identity in God.
Did you notice how the voice of the deceiver always begins by questioning Jesus’ sacred identity, “If you are the Son of God…”? The great confuser questions us and challenges us in the very places where we are most vulnerable, where we are insecure, where we are most afraid, where we are most hungry. Satan whispers into our hearts’ unsure places, “Hey, the good life is over here. I can fill that void you feel. I can satisfy that hunger to be somebody.” Of course, Jesus knew and invites us to know, that we already are somebody.
I have a friend named Wiley who has been wandering in the wilderness of Georgia’s death row for over 40 years. I try to visit him at least once a year. On a number of occasions he has shared with me the story of when he renounced Satan and discovered who he is. It goes something like this, “Jesus found me here and told me that I am not who the world and this prison says I am. I am not even who the chaplain says I am, for he agrees that I should be killed. Jesus showed me that I am actually loved by God, as I am, and that I need to love back. From that day, I have been free.”
After that encounter with Christ, Wiley suddenly felt like he needed to learn how to crochet. So, he ordered some books and taught himself. He began to make crosses and gave them away. He got so good, that he learned how to make little animals. But his mainstay was angels. Everything he made, he gave away. Then one day a new Governor came in and said that there could no more arts and crafts in the prisons. So Wiley fashioned some crochet hooks out of some broom wire. He saved his money to buy some towels from the canteen and in the darkness of night, he would de-thread the towels and make the angels, which he continued to give away. Everything that he made and gave away was a way of saying, “Away from me Satan. I hear you, but I am from God, I am of God, and in God I will put my trust.”
In a moment, you all will be invited forward to receive the ashes. Either Margaret or I will repeat these words from Genesis: “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a truth we don’t like to talk about much. It’s a truth that we often keep buried in the basement of our brains. And like all truth, it can set us free. Friends, you and I are going to die, so with that truth before us, how do we live? Can we, like Jesus and like Wiley, give our lives away instead of clinging to them, and be waited on by angels? Can we lose our lives in order to find them? Can we simply smile at Satan, stripping him of his power, and fill the voids in our hearts with the God who created us? This is the journey of Lent. What needs to be honestly named so that it can be released and replaced with what truly satisfies? What needs to be brought out of the darkness and into the Light of God so that, as Mary Oliver says, we might fully live “this one wild and precious life”?
To be like God
The very first question Christians have historically asked, from the earliest forms of baptismal covenants to the present, is: “Do you renounce Satan and all his works?” (Some third- and fourth-century versions added, “and all his pomps.”) Though we use someone different language in our current ritual (“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin?”), the point is the same. The first Sunday in Lent is a clarion call for all present to declare renunciation of all other powers as the first act of faithfulness to the Christ who calls us to follow.
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 ubiquitous.
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,” that is, 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.
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!” And perhaps that’s our task this week, Working Preacher, reminding our people 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.
In light of this, perhaps it would be helpful to invite people to call to mind just one time when they felt inadequate or unworthy this past week and, with that attempt at identity theft firmly in mind, then remind them, clearly and strongly, that God has declared in Jesus that they are enough, actually more than enough, as God has accepted them as God’s own beloved children.
Temptations are not always just lures to evil or to selfish actions. They can also be a proving ground, a testing to discover who we truly are. (see Greek below) Jesus discovered that his identity was to be found in serving others and not himself (stones to bread temptation), rather than a spectacular showoff (jump from pinnacle temptation), not a political ruler (kingdoms of the world temptation). These temptations helped him to gain confidence and to move forward with integrity.
The Greek word usually translated “tempted” as in Jesus “to be tempted” (Matthew 4:1) can also be translated “test,” “try,” or “attempt.”
Here are a couple examples of ordinary words turned into negative religious language. The word translated “devil” (Matthew 4:1) literally means “slanderer, accuser.” The word translated “Satan” (Matthew 4:10) literally means “adversary.” Satan was their term for the prosecuting attorney in a court of law.