February 17, 2013 – Lent 1, Identity Theft
To listen to the recording, click here: Identity Theft
If you’ve ever lost your purse or your wallet, unless you are in the habit of carrying lots of cash around, your greatest loss probably wasn’t the money you were carrying. I can’t speak for everyone, but for a lot of people the greatest loss would be all those things you carry with you that prove who you are. You have a driver’s license with your picture on it to prove that you are you, that you can drive, and how old you are. You might carry your social security card that has the number that identifies you on most official documents. You might have credit cards with your name on them that authorize you to spend money, whether it exists or not. You might have membership cards to the library or to a school or to any number of organizations. So that by losing that wallet, or that purse, you have lost the proof of your identity. And by finding your wallet, or your purse, another person can step into your identity and essentially become you, spend your money and go into your clubs and all manner of things that can cause you huge problems. It’s called identity theft, and it’s kind of a new problem, just one more thing we have to beware of in this world that already threatens us in so many other ways.
Identity theft is a pretty new phenomenon, but worrying about who we really are is nothing new at all. People have always worried about proving who they are, proving why they are worthwhile, why people should respect them. Most of the evil in the world has been caused by people trying to prove who they are, trying to establish their superiority over others or acting out the resentment that builds when they feel inferior. People commit murder out of jealousy. Friendships are destroyed when someone feels betrayed. Parents abuse children when they feel out of control, and children grow up feeling that they somehow deserved the abuse. Nations slaughter other nations to prove they are the ones who are truly human. And the root of these evils is the terror of creatures who don’t know who they are. In this world, without God, people are scrambling over one another, hurting one another, destroying one another, to find something that will tell them they are worthwhile, that they are known, that it makes a difference for them to exist. And without God there is no answer to those questions unless you can prove yourself, prove that you can do something important, that you have some unique power, that you are somehow better than the next person. When humankind rejected God, they lost hold of their identity, and they have been scrambling in the dark to find it ever since.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrote, speaking of Jesus, that we do not have a great high priest – that is a person who intercedes for us, and who establishes our righteousness before God – we do not have a great high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. He is saying, among other things, that Jesus has faced that threat to his identity, that he has faced the terrible question of whether he might just be nothing and nobody, just a biological accident that has no real purpose or value. Have you ever faced losing something that makes you feel whole? If the people that love you best stopped loving you, if you were no longer able to do anything creative or productive, if you lost all the things around you that remind you of where you came from, would you still know who you were? Most of us face all those things in the course of our lives, and certainly as we grow older. I think we are all tempted to fall into that trap, through fear, of seeking our identity in anything and everything but God. And because that fear torments us, so the writer to the Hebrews tells us, we know that Jesus also had to face that basic human fear.
And in the temptation in the desert, I think that this threat to his identity is at the heart of the way the devil is tormenting Jesus. This time of testing in the desert happens right after Jesus’ baptism. Jesus went to the Jordan River, where John was baptizing, and after John baptized Jesus, when Jesus came up out of the water, the skies opened and everyone heard a voice coming out of the heavens that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased.” And then, Luke tells us, right after the baptism the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness, all alone, and he fasted there for 40 days. And with extreme understatement Luke says that he ate nothing during those days, and when they ended he was hungry. He would have been physically very, very weak, and we all know that when we are weakened physically it is much harder to be strong mentally or emotionally or spiritually. It was a perfect time for the devil to come along and put Jesus to the test, and so he did.
He challenged Jesus to command a rock to become a loaf of bread, which would have probably seemed like a sensible thing to do if you were starving. But Jesus was ready with an answer, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” And the devil made all the kingdoms of the world appear before Jesus, and he said, ‘This is all mine; just worship me and I’ll give it to you.’” And Jesus said, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone.’” And then a third time the devil brought Jesus to the topmost peak of the Temple, and he challenged him, “Throw yourself down off this roof because “It is written” (and I can just hear the devil thinking “ha! two can play at that game”) “It is written” that “He will command his angels to guard you so that you won’t even strike your foot against a stone.” And if you were listening carefully just now, the devil was quoting psalm 91, that we read this morning. But Jesus was ready again with his response, “It is said, ‘You shall not put your God to the test.’ And Luke says that at last the devil ran out of patience for the time being and went away.
The thing about all those temptations, is that they were all about one thing. Every time the devil came back with another test, he said, “If you are the Son of God…” Every single temptation was a challenge to that voice that had spoken to Jesus from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son.” “Are you really the Son of God?” the devil taunted him, when he was at his very weakest, when he was alone, without friends, without any possessions to prove his status. “Are you really the Son of God? Prove it. Provide food for yourself – why would the Son of God lack for food? Take charge over the kingdoms of the world – shouldn’t they be yours, if you are the Son of God? Throw yourself down from this height and prove to yourself and everyone else that God will come to your aid….if you really are the Son of God.” After 40 days of hunger and loneliness, the Father’s voice must have begun to fade into the distance, and the strident challenge of the devil must have assaulted Jesus, as a true human being, with that fear that we all face. The difference is that Jesus did not give in. He held onto the knowledge of who he was and is. As the Son of God, of course he could have commanded a stone to become bread – he fed 5000 people with a few loaves and a couple of fish, that would have been nothing at all. As the Son of God, he could have assumed authority over all the kingdoms of the earth; in fact, that right was already his. And as the Son of God, he could have displayed his identity by throwing himself from the peak of the Temple, and everyone would have known at once who he was. But he didn’t do any of those things, because he passed the test, and the test was to hold onto who he was in God, and not give into the fear that called on him to prove himself.
When you read the gospels, one of the things that shines out in every story or scene, is that Jesus was absolutely solidly sure of his relationship with the Father. It was the core of his being, and the source of every word he said and every thing he did. He said, “The Father knows me and I know the Father.” He said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” And he said, “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.” Those are just a few examples of the truth the Jesus proclaimed over and over and over again – that he was the beloved Son of the Father, and that all he did proceeded from that relationship. The reason his ministry was full of power was that he won the battle against the devil’s identity theft. The assurance that he held onto in the face of temptation is the reason he was able to carry out his mission to make the Father known to his creation, as he told Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Identity theft might be a modern-age phenomenon, but the devil’s assault on our identity is the same old trick since the serpent convinced Eve that God didn’t want her to eat the apple because he wanted to keep her in the dark. God created mankind in his image, we were begotten out of the overflow of the eternal love of the Trinity, but we are tempted day in and day out to forget God and his love, and we get caught up in the fruitless struggle to prove to ourselves and to the rest of the world that we have value, that we matter. Persons hurt and kill one another, and nations go to war; we enslave one another and we allow ourselves to be enslaved in so many different ways – the world tells us, “You owe it to yourself to do this, to have that, to be associated with these people or to avoid being associated with those ones….that’s how you’ll prove who you really are.” And it’s that same old voice of the devil saying to us, “If you really are children of God…” It’s a very effective trick, because it begins by looking like truth and humility. Look at yourself: how can you call yourself a child of God? Look at what you just did – or didn’t do – how can you say he loves you? And our fears are reawakened, so that we turn away from God. And then there are only two destinies for us – despair, or the endless strife and violence of trying to prove our identity on our own.
The good news is that Jesus won the victory over every evil, over every strategy of the devil, over every fear and anxiety that torments people. John wrote, in the first chapter of his gospel, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” In other words, God sent his Son to us, so that through Jesus, we may hear the same voice from heaven that he heard on the banks of the Jordan, “You are my beloved child. I am pleased with you.” The salvation that comes through Jesus doesn’t just mean that we get out of being punished for being bad; it means that God has revealed to us that he has chosen us to be adopted as his beloved children. The identity theft that the devil pulled off in the garden has been prosecuted and completely disgraced. The endless terror of having to prove who we are is at an end.
And now as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, who for our sakes held onto his identity as the beloved Son of God, we share his mission to bring that good news to all those people who are still living with that age-old terror, who are still wearing themselves out, day after day, and year after year, trying to become Somebody, when the God of the Universe has already called them to be his beloved child. Believe that that is true – and then share that good news with the people around you. Tell them they are not defined by their wealth or their intelligence or their attractiveness, by their hard work or their reputation or their influence. Tell them by loving them with the love that Jesus loved us with – love that is without pride or envy or condemnation. And maybe first it will be good for us to hear the Father’s voice again for ourselves. Believe this and hold onto it: You are his beloved child, and he is pleased with you. You were adopted into his family at your baptism, but he called you before you were even born. Nothing you can do can make your identity any more real or important – how could you ever be better than to be the beloved child of God? And nothing you can do can make that identity any less real or true –nothing in all of creation, past present or future, can separate you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.