Sunday, February 10, 2008

Tempting God's Beloved

Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
RCL, Year A: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

“Jesus was not Superman.”[1] Thus says Tom Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham. While Wright is right, it’s also true that many Christians do treat Jesus like Superman – as if Jesus only appears to be like us when actually, beneath the disguise of his humanity, he’s an “all-powerful,” “computer-age super-magician.”[2] As widespread as such a view may be, the Gospels present a very different portrait of Jesus. Without negating his divinity, they underscore the fullness of Jesus’ humanity, including his confrontation with the universally human experience of temptation.

We see that in today’s Gospel reading. After 40 days without food, it must have been agonizingly difficult for Jesus to resist the urge to make bread out of stones. Not only could he have fed himself; he could have fed every hungry person in Palestine. It must have sounded appealing to jumpstart his ministry with an act so sensational that it would have commanded universal attention, proving irrefutably the God-ordained character of his vocation. And it must have been almost irresistibly enticing to assume his identity as Lord of the world without having to deal with all of that messy business of suffering and dying. Who wouldn’t want an easier, softer way?

Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted as we are. And so, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it, “Our High Priest is not one who cannot feel sympathy for our weaknesses. On the contrary, [in Jesus] we have a High Priest who was tempted in every way that we are, but did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 TEV).

It’s reassuring to know that we aren’t alone, that our Lord endured all of the feelings and the temptations that we experience, that he’s no Superman. As fully human, Jesus was vulnerable to self-doubt and to questioning the grounds of relationship with God. And that’s precisely what the devil is targeting in today’s Gospel reading.

The reason for the devil’s hostility, and the key to our Lord’s resistance to the temptations, lies in Jesus’ baptism. You may recall that after Jesus rises up out of the waters of the Jordan, a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17 NRSV). It’s hard to imagine a clearer affirmation of Jesus’ identity than this. He is God’s Beloved. He is the One in whom God takes unconditional joy and delight and the One who, in the words of John’s Gospel, “is close to the Father’s heart” (Jn. 1:18 NRSV). Being the Beloved of God is the core of Jesus’ identity and the unshakeable bond that unites him intimately to the creator and lover of all that is.

So it’s no accident that the first thing that happens after this powerful affirmation is that the devil tries to get Jesus to reject his identity as God’s Beloved. If the devil can do that, then God’s plan for the world’s salvation will wither before it even has a chance to put down roots. And so two times, the voice of the tempter calls Jesus’ God-proclaimed identity into question, saying, “If you are the Son of God …” It’s a subtle attempt to cast seeds of doubt in Jesus’ heart and mind. Maybe he didn’t really hear that voice from heaven after all. Or perhaps he did, but maybe his identity as God’s Beloved is conditional. Maybe Jesus has to do something special to prove that he really is the Beloved. Or maybe he has do something to prove that he’s worthy of such an identity. Maybe it’s true that there’s no such thing as unconditional love.

For Jesus, life after baptism means confronting the voice of the Tempter and the lies that call into question his identity as God’s Beloved. Life after baptism is difficult for Jesus. In the midst of opposition, conflict, and misunderstanding, it’s a journey that goes all the way to the cross.

Life after baptism is also a difficult journey for every Christian. For like Jesus, we, too, are tempted to reject our true identity. We, too, are tempted to buy the lie.

As Christians, the truth of who we are comes to us through that sacramental foundation of the Church we call Holy Baptism. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit in our baptisms and marked as Christ’s own forever. Through baptism, God adopts us as sons and daughters. And as our Prayer Book so beautifully puts it: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble” (BCP, p. 298). Our baptisms tell us in no uncertain terms that we, too, are God’s Beloved. Our baptisms are outward and visible signs of the bold promise that God will never leave or forsake us, and that nothing we do can ever change or revoke the bond God makes with us.

But almost as soon as the truth of our baptisms begins to sink in, the voice of the Tempter is right there, trying to persuade us that it’s all just a big lie. After all, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be false. Sure, grace abounds, but only for those who really deserve it. Of course God loves you, but only if you’re very good. Indissoluble bond in baptism? What rubbish! God can always change His mind. If you really screw up, then God will throw you out with the trash. It’s best to face reality on reality’s terms: there’s no such thing as unconditional love.

If thoughts like these have ever crossed your mind or troubled your soul, then you’ve heard the voice of the Tempter.

The late Roman Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen sums up the temptation we face very well. He writes:

" … the world is filled with ‘ifs.’ The world says: 'Yes, I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much.' There are endless ‘ifs’ hidden in the world’s love. These ‘ifs’ enslave [us], since it is impossible to respond adequately to all of them. The world’s love is and always will be conditional."[3]

The temptation to call what God says about us in our baptisms a lie, rejecting God’s unconditional love for the world’s conditional love, is the most insidious of all temptations. For nothing is more foundational than our relationship with God. And that relationship takes shape in one of two ways: we either trust the One in whom we live, move and have our being, or we distrust and perhaps fear or even hate Him. If we buy into the lie that we can’t trust our baptisms, if we buy into the lie that God signifies (in the words of H. Richard Niebuhr) “a power that is jealous of its rights, that is suspicious of its creation, that is as ready to deny it, to condemn it to destruction and to damn it to everlasting grief, as to affirm, maintain, and bless it,” then our posture towards ourselves, others, and the world will sour into distrust, suspicion, defensiveness, chronic anxiety, and perhaps even paranoia and neurosis.[4]

Jesus Christ shows us that life just doesn’t have to be this way. For in his rejection of the devil’s lies and in his faithfulness and loyalty to the kingdom of heaven, Jesus gives us the assurance that we, too, can trust God and the promise God makes in our baptisms.

My friends, as we journey these 40 days of Lent, don’t buy the lie. Trust the truth: we really are God’s Beloved. Like Jesus, we, too, are close to the Father’s heart. As God’s adopted sons and daughters, God takes unconditional joy and delight in us. We are precious in God’s sight. And not even our worst moments or our most heinous sins can change that.

So remember who you are. Remember your baptisms. Remember the indissoluble bond God has made with you. And remember that no matter where you find yourself – whether close to home or wandering far off the path in a distant country – the door to the Father’s house is always open.

[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone 2nd Edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 42.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Image Books, 1992), p. 42; emphasis in text.

[4] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Harper & Row, 1963), p. 119.

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