Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Sense of Self

Matthew 4:1-17
My how time flies! Rev. Kent Siladi* last week in his sermon was quick to point out that in the Gospel of Matthew, the narrative of Jesus’ early years is scant with detail.  He’s born in sleepy Bethlehem, he fled with his parents as an infant and lived in Egypt as refugees, he returns and grows up in Nazareth, comes to the Jordan River about thirty years later to be baptized by his cousin John That’s a whole lot of living in just three short weeks.  It’s like fast-forwarding a DVD 8 or 10 Xs on your DVD player to get to the good part.  But we need to rewind just a minute. 

Last week was an important one for Jesus as far as the Biblical narrative in Matthew goes.  His baptism is critical because it is here that God reveals Jesus’ true identity.  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt 3:17)  Now Jesus and every one around him know who he is.  They may not know the complexities and responsibilities of what being the Son of God means, but there is no mistake in this theophany that Jesus is the son of God, beloved and loved, set apart from all the rest to proclaim God’s kingdom here on earth. 

But all to soon the waters of his baptism dry and he was whisked away into the wilderness.  Doesn’t appear that he was able to bask in that glory for long. Today’s story reveals even more about the character and identity of Jesus as Son of God.  Today we find Jesus in the wasteland, the hot and dry forbidden wilderness just east of the Jordan.
Stanley Spencer
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”  Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

WOW!  Sounds like a Scripture Bee, a competition doesn’t it?  Who can quote the most accurate scripture? The devil quotes scripture and Jesus one ups him.  It almost sound like a comedic riff from the old BBC series ‘Monty Python and the Flying Circus’.  We might be lead to think this story is about resisting temptation and apply it to our lives.  But I believe that it is more about Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the way in which he embodies resistance.
HaSatan, the Satan arrives in the wilderness too, alongside of Jesus.  How convenient of him!  And the testing begins.  If you are the son of God, or maybe since you are the son of God, how about turning these hard rocks into some delicious and warm bread?  You know you’re hungry.  You see the devil is challenging Jesus identity.  He tries to instill doubt into Jesus head.  He comes across as Jesus’ friend, so offering a bite to eat to a famished Jesus was the most natural and first thing that a friend, I mean, the Devil could conjure up.

Why Jesus you could turn all of these stones into plenty of loaves and alleviate hunger throughout the world!  Think about it.  Knowing Jesus’ heart and his penchant toward social and economic justice this would have pleased him and his God.  But Jesus’ character remains strong.  He does not give in to this rascal and become resolute in proclaiming that the word of God is what you need to sustain your life.

Then, from the wilderness Jesus was whisked to Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple.  Hundreds of people would have been milling around the temple, the temple is a large place and it was THE place to be.  Standing on the pinnacle Jesus would have been in sight of thousands of Jerusalemites and the devil says to Jesus, ‘If you really are the Son of God, or since you are the son of God like you claim to be, go ahead, jump, throw yourself to the wind!  There’s nothing to worry about, angels will come to your rescue and ever so gently catch you.’ 

But the devil was no publicity agent and Jesus didn’t need a life defying, dare devil stunt to prove anything.  Jesus said, ‘Don’t test God’. ’  Jesus is now leaning way deep into his identity as the son of God.  The second quick fix that Satan offered was halted, but he had one more up his devilish sleeve.

The final test was concerning his power and authority.  ‘Jesus,’ the devil calls out, ‘you can have it all; all the kingdoms of the world will be yours, all you have to do is to worship me.’  Now honestly, this was a good offer.  I’m sure there were plenty of people, Jesus too, who wished the end and destruction of the Roman occupation of first century Palestine.  To live as an oppressed people only breeds despair and anger; a sense of helplessness that perpetuates itself from one generation to the next. 

Jesus had a chance to change all that just by dropping to his knees and worshipping HaSatan.  But NO!  Jesus states, ‘I worship God and serve only God.   The testing is over and Jesus sense of self, as the Son of God the most high is solidified.  Now he is ready for his ministry.

We don’t know to what depth that the human Jesus had been tempted; there were no witnesses in Matthew’s Gospel account.  We do know that he was tested mightily and that he chose God.  He placed complete obedience and dependence on God at a time when he could have taken the path of least resistance and gotten so much more.  This was a test of his character and indeed he passed.  He truly was the Son of God.

I wonder how we would have faired if we were in Jesus position.  I mean in one sense Jesus had it easy.  He knew exactly what he was dealing with.  The Devil!  There was no guesswork involved.  Evil stood up against him and it was recognizable.  And we know that during his lifetime his character was tested over and over again which brought him to the cross and ultimately his resurrection.  He embodied resistance.  He did not waiver.  His heart and eyes were always on God bringing justice and compassion, the kingdom to earth.

Being face to face with the devil is a test of our character too although I would venture to say that our temptations, our devils, the tests of our character are not so obvious.  They are ambiguous which is why it is difficult for us.  At every turning point these tests can twist us away from God and weaken our own Christian identity and character.  We can lose our sense of self, a sense of who we are fundamentally as a child of God. 

But the good news is that we don’t have to bear these tests alone.  We are all in the same boat.  The person sitting next to you faces similar trials each day like you.  Not one of us here will live a life that doesn’t come face to face with temptation.  That’s a given.  And sometimes you will be strong and sometimes your character will falter and your sense of self will get lost. I know…it’s the same for me.  That’s the nature of our humanity. 

But the even better news is that our sense of self as a child of God cannot ever get lost.

And what does that mean?  It means that always and forever you are a child of God in whatever actions you take or decisions you make.  Named and claimed in the womb God pointed to you and said, you are mine! Understand that your sense of self will never be lost no matter what happens to you because of that.  It means that Jesus identity revealed as the Son of God has resisted the powers of evil and has redeemed you forever. 


*Rev. Kent Siladi is the Conference Minister for the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ.

No comments: