“Who Tells You Who You Are?” Colchester Federated Church, First Sunday of Lent (Luke 4:1-13) March 10, 2019
When I was in Seminary I helped run youth groups at my field education church, and the middle school group happened to be mostly girls. For one of our events we hung out, ate popcorn and other assorted movie snacks, and watched the movie Mean Girls. Afterwards I expected them to want to talk about the movie, and was surprised when they wanted to hear what high school was like and if there were girls who were ever mean to me? This is the true story that I shared with that youth group.
There was a group of popular girls that I was part of in high school—we were basketball players, volleyball players, and cheerleaders. Now after some painful foot and ankle injuries, years of AAU and travel teams, seeing the handwriting on the wall with varsity playing time, and mostly just being in physical pain and not having fun anymore—I quit playing volleyball and basketball after my sophomore year. Instead, I became part of the Wadsworth High School Speech and Debate Team competing in the category of United States Extemporaneous Speaking. We competed in tournaments all around Ohio almost every Saturday, and our season lasted around 6 months. In my two years on the team I got pretty good and loved every minute of it. I qualified for the State Tournament both years, finished 8th in the whole state my senior year, and just missed qualifying for the National Speech and Debate Tournament.
Though one group of people who weren’t enthusiastic by my success were my friends. Over Christmas break my junior year one of them sent me an email on behalf of the rest of our group. She stated that it was bad enough that I was on the Speech and Debate Team for the reputation of the group. (It may be shocking, though Speech and Debate was not the coolest activity in high school.) But now, she wrote, I was even hanging out with those nerds and missing too many Saturday events with the girls. So you need to make a choice—either keep hanging out with those Speech nerds or choose your real friends (who aren’t going to kill your popularity, Lauren.)
I chose my Speech and Debate friends.
So I looked at this group of middle school girls and told them that the truth is not everyone will be nice to you in high school or in life. There really are people who are mean, it’s not just in the movies unfortunately. Sometimes people who you thought were your friends give you ultimatums. We can’t always control what’s happening, but we can control how we respond. That’s where our power lies. And to respond well, it helps to know who you are inside and what you value in yourself and others. Ultimately when we face moments like this it helps to ask who tells you who you are and who you want to be?
Because Lent begins with a story about a person’s identity. In some ways, facing temptation in the wilderness is not just unique to Jesus. This story also deals with Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and the Messiah. Dealing with issues of our identities and other people trying to define who we are or how we should be in the world aren’t unique to Jesus either. Our power lies in how we choose to respond.
Sometimes we go down a path that we know is right and other people can’t see it, even people that we love. Sometimes we do things that we know is being true to who we are and who God created us to be, and other people don’t understand. It takes courage to silence some of those voices who would ultimately lead us astray. And to focus on the voice of the Ground of our Being. So beginning Lent in the wilderness with Jesus helps us to know how we can be true to ourselves and listen to the One voice who tells us that we are beloved no matter what. To hear the voice of God in our hearts silencing those other voices of temptation who would lead us off the path we need to be on.
This morning we encounter Jesus right after his baptism in the Gospel according to Luke. Still basking in the glow of God’s acceptance, still shaking the waters of the Jordan from his body—led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. Lent begins with a weak and famished Jesus and a gloating, deceitful Satan facing each other. Now however we conceive of the devil (whether we think of a literal being or a metaphor), evil does exist in our world. By whatever name we choose to call it, evil exists. And temptations can trip us up on our paths. So our story is open to interpretation, though it presents scenarios that continue to play out in our world and in our own lives on some levels.
In the First Temptation, the devil goes right for the jugular. The tempter says, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Remember that Jesus just heard seemingly for the first time that he is God’s Son in the waters of Baptism. The tempter calls that holy moment of divine identity into question: “If you are the Son of God.” Lutheran Minister Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us that God’s first move is always to name us and claim us as God’s own. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God claims us as beloved. But soon other people and institutions and our society try to tell us who we are and to whom we belong. Bolz-Weber writes, “Capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation . . . So if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.” Jesus responds in this moment of vulnerability by quoting scripture: “One does not live by bread alone.” He passed his first test by not doubting his identity and value as God’s own beloved.
In the Second Temptation the devil leads Jesus up and shows him all the kingdoms of the world. The devil makes a power play: “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” If Jesus right then and there ruled all the kingdoms of the world, he would have ruled justly and shown mercy. He could have set things right. But where would his power have come from? Even though Jesus was good to his core, could he have ruled justly if he had to bow down to evil in order to gain power? Jesus declines by telling the devil that God alone should be worshipped and served.
In the Third Temptation the devil takes him to Jerusalem, to the highest point on the Temple. The tempter again calls Jesus’ identity into question, “If you are the Son of God” and tells Jesus to throw himself down. For it is written in scripture: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” This is a test of heroism and what kind of Messiah Jesus will be. Is he going to be the warrior king, the super hero who can leap from buildings in a single bound and be saved at the last instant because he is God’s Son? The kind of Messiah people were expecting and looking for? Or is he going to be a Messiah folks never imagined possible, the Son of God who will suffer and die on a cross? Jesus says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus passed the final temptation by seeing through evil’s call to test God, and the devil leaves him for now.
In the end, Jesus didn’t teach or heal to prove that he really was God’s Son or God’s self-revelation in our world. He didn’t need to have a chip on his shoulder because he already knew who he was. He knew to whom he belonged. Jesus was grounded in his identity as the Messiah, the Son of God—affirmed by God in the waters of baptism. Instead, Jesus worked his wonders to meet people right where they were. To help them see themselves as God’s beloved children, to see themselves with the compassionate eyes of God. To understand that their identity defied any labels that others would try to place on them. Just as Jesus still meets us right where we are, abiding with us no matter what tempts us to stray from God’s naming and claiming of us.
So yes, this First Sunday of Lent presents a story about Jesus in the wilderness dealing with evil and temptations. But there’s a great deal here that pertains to you and me. Because we can ask ourselves if we have moments where we doubt our identity as God’s beloved children? Do we have moments where we could get a lot of power but would make a deal with the devil (if you will) in order to be in that position? Do we have moments where we test God or think that we can go it alone, and don’t even need God in our lives? What is it that tempts us—what plants doubt in our midst and causes us to stray from God’s life-giving ways? Who tells us who we are?
For our sakes I pray that it’s not the mean girls who we thought were our true friends. And I pray that it’s not the co-worker who’s belittling and not a very nice person at the end of the day. And I pray that it’s not family members who are nothing but critical. And I pray that it’s not anyone who doesn’t have our best interest at heart. And I pray that it’s not ultimately another human being at all who tells us who we are and who we need to rely upon for our God-given identity.
I pray that God is the one who tells us who we are. I pray that you know that you belong to God. God has named you and claimed you as God’s own before anyone else even attempted to tell you who you are and to whom you belong. You are beloved. Let God be the one to tell you who you are, always. Thanks be to God. Amen.