There are certain chapters in the Bible that seem to grab our attention from the first verse. Today we have such an example. In fact, even before the first verse, just from reading the chapter heading that shows-up in various Bible translations, we are given a moving preview of what we are about to encounter: something with drama, suspense, and various attempts at seduction. We are offered a small and enticing insight into the text that follows: An account of Jesus and his arch-nemesis filled with exhilaration and thrilling anticipation. The heading at the start of Matthew Chapter 4 could just as easily be the title of a blockbuster film, a dramatic play, or even an action-packed television show.
“The Temptation of Jesus” is a story title that grabs our attention, and because its contents offer broad appeal and important meaning for Christian faith, the account from Matthew 4 is told often in various Christian churches around the world. However, while the story is – and should be – re-told with each passing year, especially during the liturgical season of Lent, the natural consequence is that with repetition we often become tempted to assume we already know all there is to know about this narrative. In many ways, instead of hearing the story as a profoundly meaningful piece of Scripture, we treat it like an old “re-run”, and think, “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one before”.
But of course, the basic plot of Matthew 4 does seem quite simple and straightforward on the surface level: First, Jesus is told to turn stones into bread, but Jesus resists. Then, Jesus is told to throw himself from the top of the temple, but again, Jesus resists. And finally, Jesus is told to bow down and acquire earthly power, but once again, Jesus resists. Simple and straightforward, right? And so, as the story itself seems quite easy to understand, the overarching message seems to be quite simple to grasp as well. All in all, the text seems to say: 1) Be like Jesus, and do the right thing. 2) Be like Jesus, and do not do the wrong thing. And so on, and so forth. End of story.
While I would differ from those who oversimplify Matthew 4, there is nothing inherently wrong with highlighting the moral aspect of resisting temptation, for this story has indeed helped people in various life situations to resist temptations in their own lives and “do” the “right thing”. However, there is much more taking place here. The story brings forth something much broader, and much deeper that I believe we give it credit for. When we read the account of Jesus’ temptation in and of itself, we often receive the simple and straightforward impression that temptation is merely about what we have done or left undone. However, if we read Matthew 4 in the context of what took place just before it, we receive a slightly different message. In other words, when we read Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel together as one, we are shown that temptation is not solely about what someone does, but is more about who someone is. In other words, what we learn is that temptation is not merely about what we do, but it is about who we are.
And so, if we try to remove the commonly-held assumptions built-up through years of hearing this “re-run” story repeated year after year (...or, if we resist the temptation to think we already know all there is to know about this part of the Bible!), we come to realize that the temptation we read about in Matthew Chapter 4 is not necessarily a lesson about what we should and should not do on moral grounds. In a renewed appreciation for the depth of this text, we are given a reminder of who we are and who we are called to be as people of faith created in the Image of God. All together, in this account, we learn that temptation is not simply about choices, but at its center, it is about identity.
BAPTISM & TEMPTATION
If we look directly before Chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel and consider Chapter 3, we are reminded that Jesus’ baptism took place immediately before the account of temptation in Chapter 4. This binding relationship between baptism and temptation is important, not only because we have two baptisms in worship this morning (...and family members might be tempted to think about after-worship baptism parties rather than the service itself!), but because the baptism that takes place in Matthew Chapter 3 has a huge impact upon the temptation that occurs in Matthew Chapter 4. Like any book of the Bible, we cannot simply jump into a particular chapter without reflecting upon what took place immediately before it.
And so, as we recall, in the 3rd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is baptized by John, and as Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens open wide and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Immediately after Jesus is baptized, the heavens open-up and God identifies Jesus as the Son of God, the one whom God loves and is delighted. And so, in what I fully understand is a quick and oversimplified account of the text, what we are shown is that through the act of baptism identity takes center stage. In other words, who Jesus is takes precedence over and above anything else.
What is quite incredible about this passage is that, even though Jesus was being prepared to be sent out into the world, his Father did not give Jesus a long list of instructions to follow. It is quite surprising. God did not provide Jesus with any lessons on how to turn water into wine, God did not demonstrate how to heal the blind, and God did not give Jesus a practice session on how to feed 5,000 before he would have to face the real thing. And of course, God did not give Jesus a pre-match scouting report on how to best conquer the Devil. Instead of telling Jesus what to do, God reminded Jesus of who he was. Identity took precedence. As God said to Jesus on the day of his baptism, “you are my child, I love you, and in you I am well pleased”.
Before Jesus is sent out into the world, God tells Jesus who he is. And this sense of identity was essential to Jesus mission and ministry. It was critically important, for as we move from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4 in Matthew’s Gospel, directly after Jesus is baptized he is led into the wilderness and faces the attempts of temptation. Immediately after baptism came the threat of temptation. And while it is tempting for us to focus on what the Devil tried to tempt Jesus to do, the more serious temptation in the story is who the Devil tried to tempt Jesus to become.
We may recall that, in Matthew 4 verse 3, the very first line used by the Devil to tempt Jesus is: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread”. The key word here is “if”. If you are the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread”. In this very first statement, the Devil immediately challenges Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. The words of attack and assault come firing at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, then prove it!” “If you are the Son of God, then do what I say!” “If you are the Son of God, then show me some magic tricks!” It is almost as if we can hear the words: “I dare you, Jesus. I dare you”!
The Devil puts Jesus’ identity into question, and by doing so, this tempter tries to seduce Jesus into questioning his identification as the Son of God. But of course, even after 40 days and nights of hunger and loneliness, Jesus resisted. And while he resisted for a number of reasons, most importantly, it was because Jesus knew who He was. And because Jesus knew who he was, he responded with the words that “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. And I must say, this response from Jesus is quite awesome, for it shows that Jesus resists temptation not out fear of punishment and not due to a long list of strict rules or training lessons given out by his Father, but Jesus resists because he remembers the words given on the day of his baptism, those beautiful and life-giving words that affirmed God’s abounding love. It was Jesus’ identity, given through baptism, that allowed him to resist temptation. And this, I believe, is an incredibly important lesson for us today.
While God seemed to know that Jesus was going to be tempted at various stages during his ministry, God refused to give him practical advice or a “how to” guide as to how temptation could be beaten. In all seriousness, one really would have thought God would have spoken to Jesus like a Father typically speaks to a son going off on his own (sort of like a child going off to university!), like warning him about the temptations of being “out in the wild”, or threatening to pull him out just as quickly as he was put in! Yet this is not what happened, and this is not how God spoke. All God did was remind Jesus of who he was. God said, “Jesus, you are my son, and in you I am well pleased”. Jesus was not told what to do, but he was reminded who to be. This was God’s move, and it was a brilliant one, for God knew there is no greater danger in life than to forget who you are, and especially during times of struggle, there is no greater temptation than that which allows us to let others define our identity and tell us who we are.
THE TEMPTATION OF LOST IDENTITY
There are so many forces in our world today that threaten to tear away at our identity. These forces come to us in many shapes in forms, and among other realities, they often tempt us to believe two things: First, we are tempted to believe that we are somehow not good enough. And second, at times we are tempted to believe that that we are better than what we actually are. While these two temptations are different, they are both incredibly serious for our lives.
First, at times we are tempted to believe that we are not good enough, or that we are incomplete in some way, shape, or form. Similar to the temptations pushed upon Jesus in the wilderness, as well as the temptations placed upon him on the Cross, we too are often showered by various forces that try to make us perceive ourselves in ways that are destructive. We all know what this feels like. What we notice in our world today is that we are often bombarded by destructive messages, and it comes to us through magazines, newspapers, and television with a proclamation that we need to be something different from what we already are.
We see this reality every day! In fact, we see it so often that sometimes we do not even realize we are seeing it! With each passing day, we are told how we can “improve”. If you lose a bit of weight, only then will you be more beautiful and popular. If you have a nice car or fancy clothes, only then will you be more accepted. If you have the best cell phone, only then will you be more appreciated. The list goes on and on! Women are told that they have to look like the women on TV and fashion ads. Men are told they have to sing like the guys in the music videos. These messages are thrown at us each day through popular culture: Women are told they need tight clothes like Beyonce or Rihanna, and men are told they need muscles like the guys playing for Bafana Bafana!
With each passing day we are told that we need to be all sorts of things, and the list goes on and on. Through it all, the overarching message we hear is that we are not good enough the way we are, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not wealthy enough, and not powerful enough. We are given various unattainable examples of what we “should” be like. And the end result is that, in addition to falling victim to advertising from companies that seek to capitalize on our insecurities, we no longer see ourselves as loved and accepted for who we are, but the lens of self-perception is a growing list of faults and imperfections that need to be somehow be corrected. In other words, we lose track of who we are as loved and accepted Children of God, and instead, we obsess over what we are not.
But of course, there is a dangerous opposite to this all as well, and it is our second temptation. Just as it is tempting to believe we are not good enough, another difficult temptation is to believe that we are better than we actually are, or that in some ways we are better than others.
I suppose that just as we all have experience in being told that we are not good enough, at times we all have experienced the temptation to believe that we are in some way better than those around us. We see this each and every day when so many in our society are marginalized and rebuked. We have countless examples: women, children, the LGBT community, those with special needs, women and men with mental challenges, people of diverse faith perspectives, the poor, our various indigenous populations around the world, political minorities, and those affected and infected with HIV and AIDS. We cannot ignore the harsh reality that human history is filled with occasions where one powerful group determined that they were better than those who were not so powerful, and the results were acts of division, oppression, exploitation, violence, and even murder and genocide. And of course, such actions continue today in every corner of the globe.
How often do we look at others and think we are “better”? How often do we measure ourselves against others and are convinced that we are in some way “superior”? How often do we see the mistakes of others as more serious than our own? How often do we focus solely on being an autonomous “self-made” individual that we fail to focus on our ubuntu-inspired community responsibilities? And of course, for those of us who gather on Sunday mornings as a community of faith, if we are open and honest with ourselves, we realize that these types of selfish and overly self-righteous thoughts are especially tempting for those who are baptized, as it is all too common for those “inside” the walls of churches to believe that they are somehow more righteous than those outside. When we allow the inclusive, welcoming, and incredibly accepting act of baptism to be another wedge that divides people, then we are in desperate need of forgiveness.
Just as our identity as Children of God is meant to raise us during times of despair, it is also intended to provide humility during times of arrogance. And thanks be to God, when we gather for worship on Sunday morning it should not be difficult to be humbled, for as we recall, to open each service we are reminded of our faults, and shown that no matter how many wonderful deeds we may perform each week, we in no way have any reason to boast. The very first things we do during our worship is confess that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves”. Then, we state in the presence of God and one another that we have “sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone”; and we confess that “we have not loved God or each other with our whole hearts”. And as a result, we ask God to “forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways to the glory of God’s Holy Name”.
And so, while so many of us so-called “religious people” fall into self-righteousness and claim to somehow “speak love” through words of condemnation and moral superiority, such a confession during our worship service is – among other things – meant to keep us grounded, and it reminds us of our various limitations, for all fall short of the glory of God, all are imperfect, and all are in desperate need of forgiveness. It is due to such realities that we have no reason for arrogance or a sense of absolute certainty on the ways of this world, yet instead we are bound together as One people in our immediate communities and throughout the world, for we know that all of us are broken, and all of us are in desperate need of repair.
GOD'S RESPONSE TO OUR TEMPTATIONS
With all this being said, we are left with these two temptations surrounding our identity: The first is to believe we are not good enough, and the second is to think we are better than we actually are. And so, God’s response to the first is to remind us that we are graciously forgiven and perfectly loved and accepted. And God’s response to the second is to show us that we need forgiveness, and we are incapable of sustaining life on our own. And this, I believe, shows the incredible message of the Gospel: The proclamation that we are set free through the amazing grace of forgiveness by no amount of our own effort or doing, but we are also captive to our ongoing mistakes and bondage due to our continued brokenness and deficiencies. We are both realities. We are fully liberated, yet we are also deeply incarcerated, all at the same time.
While some traditions distinguish between “saints” and “sinners”, and try to differentiate between those who obey God and as those who do not, we are shown that both describe our human nature in an equally profound manner. In other words, we are both “saint” and “sinner”. Yes, these two realities that may seem to be opposite and contradicting, and for those hearing it for the first time, it seems a bit confusing and too much to think about so early in the morning! However, they do exist equally at the same time. On the one hand God accepts us for who we are, but of course, on the other hand, God never allows us to stay the same. And so, we are forgiven through the love of God received during baptism, yet we also confess our need for forgiveness because we continue to fall to temptation. This cycle repeats itself each and every day in our lives.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
And so, with all of these complicated thoughts (hopefully!) somewhere in our minds, we are left with the “so what” practical question of our Lutheran tradition: “What does this mean?” What does this mean for all of us two-thousand years after Jesus was first baptized and faced with temptation? Or, I remain a bit humble myself and ask if any of this means anything for any of us whatsoever?!
In my humble option (as someone who also falls to temptation on a regular basis), what this all means for us today is that, because of this cycle of confession and forgiveness that defines our identity as Children of God, we are able to act out our calling in the world with boldness and humility. As people who are both forgiven and fallen, we act with boldness, yet we are also called to be humble. In other words, just as baptism and temptation shapes our identity, boldness and humility guide our actions. In practical terms, as a response to being loved and accepted by a gracious God, and through the faith that allows us to believe that our sins are forgiven, we boldly seek to transform the oppressive systems in our world to promote life in its fullness, yet with humility, we recognize our own place within such structures, and the ways we continue to benefit from them. In addition, in response to what God has freely done for us, we boldly take a stand and speak out against those who have acted unjustly against the poor and marginalized members of society, yet with humility, we listen when others are speaking such words of critique to us.
With God as our Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer, our identity flows from this amazing grace, and our reaction to such undeserved love consists of boldness and humility for the sake of the world. This is who we are, and this is what we do. While there are many areas of our lives that inevitably shape who we are and have an impact upon what we do each day, and while we are all “works in progress” who continue to change each and every moment depending upon time, place, and those whom we are surrounded with, it is only God who can define us, and it is only in God that our true selves are found. When we refuse to allow the world to define us, and we refuse to believe that any amount of purchased “stuff” can make us complete, we can learn to embrace our identity as created in the Image and Likeness of God, and our hold and humble actions are close to follow.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry outside forces tried to tempt him, and the same took place at the end. Immediately after he was baptized, at the end of his life as he hung on the cross, and in various instances during the years in-between, Jesus was given the option of throwing-away his identity and allowing others to define who he was. Yet even in the midst of struggle and pain, he stayed true to his identification as God’s Son, and his actions reflected this faithfulness. And so, with everything being said today, we – of course – cannot be Jesus, but like Jesus we are called to be mindful of who we are as people deeply connected to God and intimately attached with one another. For us and countless others both “inside” and “outside” the church walls, “who we are” is Children of God who require forgiveness, and through grace by faith we so graciously receive it. We are people of various shapes, sizes, colors, and beliefs created by a common creator who cannot help but shower us with grace regardless of whether or not we deserve it. No one, or no thing can take this away from us. This is our identity. And it is from this overall sense of “I am because we are” identity found through interconnectedness with God and one another that all of our bold deeds and humble beliefs flow.
As we prepare for Khaya and Aaron to come forward and receive their new identities found in the sacrament of baptism, not only do we celebrate this step in their young lives, but we also reaffirm the reality of baptism in the lives of so many here today. When God claims us as God’s very own, baptism is not something that once happened in the past, but it is an ever-present reality that continues to shape us, guide us, connect us, and profoundly strengthen us into the future. The reality of baptism allows us to love God, love others, and yes, learn to love who God created us to be as members of this global community. But also, baptism reminds us of the temptations that often follow, and how we are called to resist the urge to place limits and restrictions on God’s amazing grace, and to never allow baptism – or anything else we witness through the Church, to be something that divides, but something that opens-up boundaries, tears down division, and embraces both unity and diversity through the grace we all have received.
And so, for you and for me, on this day of baptism and temptation may we all reaffirm that God claims us – all of us – and all of the world as God’s own, and even in the midst of our constant need for forgiveness, we trust that we are loved, and that in us God is well pleased. May we reaffirm that even in the midst of our struggles, and regardless of how often we fall to temptation, it is God who sets us free to be who we are called to be, bind us into One, and do what we are called to do. And in response to this gracious gift, may the divisions, labels, and classifications given to us by the world be washed away by the waters, and through the Word may we be given a new sense of identity. As new people, may we be given hope, peace, and a new vision that calls us together in harmony with all of creation, gathers us in, and sends us out to promote peace and justice, and by God’s grace, to transform neighborhoods both near and far into places and spaces of goodness and love.
This is the Good News given for us, and this is the good challenge laid down in front of us. This day, and every day, may this comfort, and may this challenge, be with us always. Amen.