Lent 1 A: Identity as Gift and Promise

Matthew 4:1-11

Dear Partner in Preaching,

I’m going to boil the heart of this passage down into one, probably pretty familiar, saying: You only know who you are when you realize whose you are.

I usually mention this in terms of Baptism, and I’ll get there in this passage, I promise. But for now, I want to reference some research I read a long time ago (and so can’t remember the source, though I suspect it might be Seth Godin’s Tribes). Essentially, it contended that while we typically think of identity as something we forge on our own, most of our sense of ourselves comes from the community we belong to, our family of origin, and the folks with whom we hang out. In this sense, identity is always given, even borrowed, not simply created.

A quick example. No one wakes up one day and says: “You know who I’m going to be? I’m going to be one of those crazy people who paints my face, wears a costume, and goes wild at football games rooting for my team.” Instead, you hang out with friends, watch lots of football, decide to go to a game, discover someone has brought body paint, and then all of a sudden realize you are one of those persons! You could say the same about the women in purple and red hats at restaurants, or bikers, or Trekkies, or just about any of the other groups we associate with and from which we derive a lot of our identity.

And that’s what makes Baptism so powerful: we are adopted into a family of faith and, even more, told that we are God’s beloved child and therefore have infinite worth. Yes, yes, you’ve heard that before. But can you really hear it too often? I mean, the good news we hear on Sunday morning that we are God’s children, that God is with us, that God values and loves us and promises to use us… Well, depending on the way your week is going, this can be pretty hard to believe by Sunday and, quite frankly, sometimes it seems pretty dubious by lunch on Monday!

Okay, all good. But what, you may be wondering, does Baptism have to do with this week’s story about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness? Just about everything!

Just before this passage, keep in mind, is the story of Jesus’ baptism that we read about two months ago – the lectionary does that, following a theological rather than narrative logic. But reminding folks that Jesus is baptized – and hears God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” – is crucial to understanding how he navigates this temptation.

Because, when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forgot whose we are and therefore to forget who we. Because once you don’t remember who you and whose you are, you’ll do all kinds of things to dispel the insecurity that attends any human life and to find that sense of security and acceptance that is essential to being happy.

That, I believe, is Adam and Eve’s problem in the Genesis story. When the serpent comes, he doesn’t start out with a temptation but instead sows mistrust in Adam and Eve – and let’s remember that this one isn’t on Eve; Adam is there all the time and just can’t seem to find anything to say. In particular, the serpent tries to undermine the relationship of trust between God and God’s children. “Did God really say,” the serpent asks, misrepresenting and undermining God’s instructions. “You will not die,” the serpent asserts, suggesting that there are things God knows but isn’t telling. Only when this primary relationship has been undermined are they susceptible to the temptation to forge their identity on their own, independent on their relationship with God, and so take and eat the forbidden fruit.

Jesus’ encounter with the devil is, by contrast, nearly the opposite. The devil also tries to undermine Jesus’ relationship with God by suggesting it is not secure, that he should test it by throwing himself off the mountain, or that he should go his own way by creating food for himself, or that he should seek the protection and patronage of the devil rather than trust God’s provision. Yet at each point Jesus resists, not simply by quoting Scripture in general but by quoting Scripture that reminds him of God’s trustworthiness, the need to depend on God for all good things, and consequently of God’s promise to care for him and all God’s children.

Adam and Eve, victims as much to original insecurity as they are original sin, forget whose they are and so lose themselves in the temptation to secure their identity on their own. Jesus falls back on his relationship with God, reminding himself whose he is and so remembering who he is, a dependent, but beloved, child of God – dependent on the providence, care, and protection, of the God who has promised to do anything to care for him and all of us.

There are so many temptations in this world, Dear Partner, most of them coming not as apples hanging from a tree but rather subtle messages that seek to undermine our identity and invite us to forget whose we are. So many commercials suggest we are inadequate. So many headlines suggest that there is not enough to go around. And so many politicians – of all parties – contend that we have a great deal to fear. In the face of these identity-obscuring messages, we have the opportunity to root our folks in the same baptismal promise that safe-guarded and empowered Jesus. This is the baptismal promise that reminds us that God says we are so totally enough, that there is plenty to go around, and that we need not live in fear.

Our identity comes from the people with whom we hang out and is always received, rather than created. It comes, that is, always as a gift and a promise. And that’s why it’s so important to remind our folks that you only know who you are when you realize whose you are, and then to tell them that they are, indeed, God’s beloved children and invite them to hang out at church and be surrounded by the family of faith that will keep telling them that they – and indeed all of us – have value, worth, and purpose. Thanks for sharing this incredible – and incredibly important – promise, Dear Partner. It’s never been more important.

Yours in Christ,

PS: One quick idea – invite your folks, and maybe especially your seniors, to find someone, and maybe especially a youth, to say, “You’re special and I’m glad you’re here.” Just a thought!