Sermon texts: Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7 and Matthew 4: 1-11
As a pastor, one of the most interesting educations is the process of learning how people are connected and related by either blood or marriage. Some of this information is pretty apparent, based on last names or who you sit with in the pews or who you look like. But some of those connections are multilayered and can only be solved with a decoder ring.
In my last call I served four congregations in rural Somerset County and even after a few years I was still discovering connections and relations. The interesting thing was that those family connections crossed congregations. There was cross pollination. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, parents…sometimes attending different congregations. The family trees were more like a family web connecting the members of those four churches. And wouldn’t you know, there are people here at Zion connected and related to some of the folks I served back in Somerset. It’s a small, small Lutheran world.
Our relationships are so very important, especially because they define our identity. Identities are thought of as highly personal, something that we have molded, grown, and discovered by ourselves. And while that sounds reasonable, our identities are really rooted in our connections to other…in our relationships. I am not a pastor without a congregation. I am not a son with parents. I am not a citizen without a country. I am not a hockey fan without the Washington Capitals.
Everything that I say about myself, about who I am, involves other people and objects. My identity is formed by my web of friendships, attachments, and loyalties. These things connect me to the world, just like marriages and kinship connected everyone back in my churches in Somerset. Today I will call this idea “relational identity.”
Relational identity is a lens that we can use to understand this week’s lesson, specifically the ones from Genesis and Matthew. They are both stories of temptation. And while it’s natural to define these temptations in terms of power, status, and food, I’ll suggest that the temptation is really about identity.
In Genesis we have the well-known account of Adam, Eve, and the serpent. The serpent whispers a promise of ultimate, God-like knowledge to Adam and Eve, suggesting that God isn’t all that trustworthy. The serpent sows seeds of doubt and then contradicts God’s word. “Did God really say that? Oh…you will not die…”
After eroding their confidence in God, the serpent invites Adam and Eve to make their own identity—an identity separate and independent from their relationship with God. “When you eat of the fruit your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” After all, who needs God if you can be God all by yourself?
Adam and Eve swallow the sales pitch hook, line, and sinker. They try to establish themselves apart from God, and later they will try to define themselves against each other in this classic drama.
Alright, that’s Genesis. On to Matthew.
The devil’s temptations are pretty straightforward. Have a hungry Jesus turn stones into bread. Have the Son of God call on God’s angels for safety. Have the King of Creation exercise power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth. Once again, let’s look at these temptations through the lens of identity.
Immediately, the devil begins to undercut the identity that God just proclaimed at Jesus’ baptism. The devil uses a phrase again and again to call his identity into question: “If you are the Son of God…do this.” Just like in Eden, the devil is trying to steal a God-given identity and replace it with a false narrative of his own creation.
Jesus throws off these temptations, not by using force or willpower, but by seeking refuge in his relationship with God and his identity found there. Jesus shows his absolute dependence on God.
Jesus will depend on God’s word and grace, and he will continue to be hungry. Jesus will find safety in God’s promises and will risk vulnerability like everyone else. Jesus will worship God, pledge himself to God, and will not seek power apart from God. In all things, Jesus finds refuge in God during these temptations. How can we do the same?
The issue here is identity theft. And I’m not talking about hackers trying to steal our social security numbers or our credit cards. The devil wants to steal the identity we have as children of God. He’s helped by the endless advertisements that bombard us trying to create a sense of insecurity and inadequacy—undermining our God-given identity with the notion that if we just buy the right product then we will be acceptable and happy.
The message we are confronted with is simple: we are not enough. We are not skinny enough, strong enough, smart enough, young enough, or rich enough to deserve the best life. We need help.
That’s the message I see and hear in our media and it is a lie. It is a demonic attempt to steal our identity in a way that is far worse that what we’ve been trained to fear with our sensitive personal information. But Jesus shows us how to take refuge in the place where Adam and Eve fail. It is the gifts and promises of God—our relationship with Divine, our God-given identity as God’s beloved children.
Jesus shows us just how deeply we are loved by going to the cross. He shows us on Calvary that we are priceless beyond measure, treasured beyond belief.
“Away with you Satan! I am baptized!” That’s what Martin Luther famously said when he felt plagued by fear, insecurity, and doubt. May the same phrase work for us when we feel tempted to ignore God and strike it out on our own. “Away with you! I am a baptized child of God!”
Earlier this week we remembered that baptismal identity with ashes covering the spot where the sign of the cross was made with oil on our brows during our baptisms. In those waters, the same water that Jesus was drip drying from as the Holy Spirit guided him into the wilderness, in those water we find gifts of love, respect, and dignity. We have a pledge that God is with us, no matter what.
So remember God’s promises. Remember your identity. When life has you cornered, when the devil is whispering lies and temptations in your ear, when you are plagued by all the doubts life as to offer, remember that you are covered by God’s promises through your baptismal waters. For we are all children of God. That is our true identity. AMEN