March 10, 2019, Do I Know Who I Am (Luke 4:1-13) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000124
When I travelled to Ireland with my daughters last year, Lucille gave me a very nice gift of something I’d never heard of. It was what you’d call a clutch, a handy little purse for carrying money and all the small essentials like your drivers license and passport and credit cards and things. The thing I’d never heard of is that it was made with an RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, blocker, which meant that nobody around me could read the electronically-stored information I carry around, like the little chip on my credit card, which holds all kinds of personal data. Most of us spend quite a bit of time and energy these days protecting our personal information. We’re very careful about sharing our personal information, we keep our passwords updated, and we shred our documents – ten years ago, did you know anyone who even owned a document shredder? – but now it’s becoming a common household appliance.
Identity theft is a relatively new phenomenon, but worrying about our identity 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 and violence in the world happens because people are struggling to prove who they are: either trying to establish that they’re better than somebody else, or else reacting with resentment and frustration because they feel put down and devalued. Racism, genocide, warfare, the violent political divisions we see in our own country right now: the root of so many evils is the terror of men and women who don’t really know who they are.
In this world, people who don’t know God, and an awful lot of people who do know him, condemn each other, make fun of each other, tear each other down, just to find something that will prove to the world, and to themselves, that they’re the ones who are right, that they are valuable, that it makes a real difference that they exist. (Unlike the other guy.) When humanity decided, at the very beginning, that they would rather do things their own way, thank you very much, they lost hold of their God-given identity, and they have been scrambling in the dark to find it ever since.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is able to sympathize with all of our weaknesses, because he was tempted in every way, just as we are. We know that Jesus was the one man ever who was without sin, but we sometimes forget that he fought all the same battles we face: doubt, and fear, and anger, and grief. That means that just like we do, our Lord Jesus had to come face to face with the terrifying possibility that he might just be nothing and nobody, just a biological accident with no real purpose or value. If the people that love you were gone, 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 at some point in the course of our lives. We are all tempted to fall into that trap of seeking our identity in anything and everything but God. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus faced those same human fears.
Out in the desert, in the story we read this morning, this threat to his identity is right at the heart of the strategy the devil uses in tormenting Jesus. This happens right after Jesus’ baptism, when the skies had opened and everyone had heard a voice coming out of the heavens that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am pleased.” But right after that, the Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness, all alone, and the devil came to him and everything he could to make Jesus doubt the words he had heard.
Luke says that Jesus ate nothing at all for forty days, and when they ended he was hungry. That is quite the understatement. Jesus was literally starving. We all know that when we are physically weak, when we are tired or hungry or sick, it is so much harder to be strong mentally or emotionally or spiritually. Those are the times when our temptations and our fears loom very large, and very, very powerful. Those are the times when the devil shows up at the door.
The interesting thing about the word for devil, the word that Luke uses in this story, is that what it literally means is the slanderer – which means, the one who tells lies about who you are. Some people read this story and assume that there was a literal demonic person present, that horns-and-tail kind of figure we see in pictures, who was tempting and tormenting Jesus. Other people believe that the devil is figurative – a representation of the inner struggle Jesus was facing. But it doesn’t really make any difference. Either way, we know that Jesus was facing one of the most brutal tests of his life, and that the heart of the battle was the question of his identity.
“If you are the Son of God…” Every 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, and his own fears whispered, when he was at his very weakest, when he was alone, when there wasn’t one thing he could point to, to prove who he was. “Are you really the Son of God? Prove it. Take that stone and make yourself some bread – why should 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, as the devil’s challenge kept hammering away, louder, more insistent. Jesus was a true human being, who suffered those fears and doubts that we have all faced. The only difference is that Jesus didn’t give in. He remembered the words of the Father. He held on to 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. He refused to give in to the fear.
We should never think it was an easy victory. But when we read on in the gospels, one of the main things that shines out, is that certainty that Jesus knew who he was. It was the core of his being. It was 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.” “I do nothing on my own,” he said, “I speak only as the Father has taught me.” Over and over and over again – Jesus proclaimed that he was the beloved Son of the Father. The reason his ministry was full of power was that he won the battle against the devil’s identity theft. That is the reason he was able to say to Philip, on the night before he died, “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 nothing new. We were formed by the hands of God, made in his image, according to his perfect will, the product of the overflowing, eternal love of the Trinitarian God. The Psalmist sings, “you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb – I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” And yet, we are tempted day in and day out to question that. We doubt that God and his love have anything to do with us. And along with the rest of the world, we get caught up in the fruitless struggle to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we have value, that we matter. Or we give up and give in to despair.
It’s that same old voice of the devil saying to us, “If you really are children of God…” And if you think about it, it’s a very clever trap, because it begins by looking like truth and humility. Look at yourself: how could you possibly call yourself a child of God? Look at what you just did – or didn’t do – how can you say he loves you? All our fears and our shame sound so reasonable, and we have a harder and harder time hearing the still small voice of God, until we begin to believe the lie.
The good news is that Jesus already won that battle. He won the victory over every strategy of the devil, over every fear and anxiety and doubt that torments mankind. Jesus stood on our behalf in that terrifying gap between pride and despair, and he offered us the third way – the way of life. 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 – the right, just think what an audacious thing that is to say – who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Through Jesus, we hear the Father’s voice saying to us, “You are my beloved child. I am pleased with you.” Most of us were taught as children that Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven, but the truth is so much bigger and so much better than that. Salvation isn’t just a presidential pardon; it is an invitation to belong, to be beloved children forever. The identity theft that the devil pulled off in the garden has been prosecuted and completely disgraced. The need for mankind’s endless scrambling to prove who we are is at an end.
And yet, we’re still scrambling. Turn on the news any time of the day or night, and we see the ongoing struggle – not just the obvious struggle of wars and violence, but the constant pressure for us to be good enough, wealthy enough, powerful enough, attractive enough, or at least to be richer and more powerful and attractive than the next guy. People look at their fellow human beings as threats, instead of as brothers and sisters created by the same God. We define ourselves by our race or our gender or our religion or our nationality or our political affiliation or our age bracket, huddling in our fearful little tribes, hurling insults and accusations over the walls we have built to keep “them” out and “us” in – or is it the other way around? We have heard the whispering of the Slanderer – “If you are the children of God…” and we have been taken in.
But we have the answer for him. We have the good news for all those people out there who live every day with that age-old terror, who wear 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. And maybe we need to begin by reassuring 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, nothing you have done, nothing you will ever do, can make your identity any more real or important – how could you ever be anything better than the beloved child of God? And nothing you can do can make that identity any less real or true – because nothing in all of creation, past, present, or future, can separate you from the love of the Father in Jesus Christ our Lord.