1st Sunday in Lent
March 9, 2014
Matthew 3: 13-17 and 4:1-11
We’re destined to talk about temptation today, did you get that? But I cannot talk about Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness without the story of his baptism. And I hope to convince you that you should not ever think about temptation without thinking about your baptism, either. That’s because it is in baptism that God claims you as God’s own child and calls you beloved. The truth is that I think that being named as God’s beloved is a key part of Jesus’ ability to answer all the wiles of the tempter.
We don’t talk much about the Devil these days. And I must admit that I don’t usually see evil personified in a specific character with a red suit and a pitchfork. But I am pretty clear about how the evil in the world can rob us of our best intentions, of the things we treasure most, and of the joy of living as beloved of God. It seems that every time we try to put something good in place, the whole universe works against us. And just as we are beginning to gain confidence in our purpose in life and the purpose of our faith, someone or something is sure to knock us down and make us question everything all over again. You can call it whatever you will, but there is evil in the world that works against us and can really hurt us. And just as strong as the evil is from the outside, we are pushed just as strongly from the inside to build ourselves up at the expense of others, to grasp and grab to make ourselves more secure, and to take care of ourselves first.
In this story of Jesus meeting the devil, we see all the possibilities of the temptations that will confront him in his life and work hereafter. They are temptations to put his own agenda first instead of trusting that God is truly in charge and that nothing can happen that is not in God’s power to redeem. The first comes when he’s hungry – the temptation to use his power for his own comfort. But Jesus chooses to live by the same standards of all who are hungry, and not to satisfy himself just because he can. His second temptation is whether or not to trust God for his safety. This will certainly be a continuing temptation, as crowds turn on him and he is ushered away. At the end, he goes forward into death, trusting that God’s life still awaits. The last temptation is pretty dramatic, with Satan claiming that all the kingdoms of the world belong to him and that he can give Jesus all the wealth and splendor he could ever want. This is the final irony, as Jesus’ earliest announcements in his ministry are that the Kingdom of God is here. God’s kingdom looks a whole lot different than the tempter’s kingdom, a kingdom in which all are sheltered, fed, and loved. Jesus turns him down flat. I’d like to think of his answer delivered with a sneer or an ironic laugh.
Again, like the Transfiguration story, this one can easily be something we watch from the sidelines, cheering Jesus on, and oooh-ing and ahhh-ing at his brilliance and his confidence. But the devil begins every temptation with “if.” “If you are the Son of God…” That title belonged to nearly every tyrant and emperor in the ancient Middle East. But Jesus shows us what the true child of God – the Beloved of God – can do. Jesus’ confidence comes from what has been named in his baptism. He trusts that he is the One, the Anointed, the Beloved, and he does not settle for anything less than what his mission is: to bring the presence of God into the world at his time in history, to assure the weak and hopeless that God hears them, to set sinners free by God’s mercy. And at the end of it all, to rise to the new life that is promised to every believer, the first fruits of God’s life, through God’s steadfast love and mercy.
It’s your gift too. That Belovedness, that promise that you are forever part of God’s family. It is conferred on you at your baptism. All your striving to be good enough, all your guilt about your failures, are equally useless in winning God’s love. It’s yours as a gift. You have been invited to be part of God’s Kingdom right here on this earth, and your hands and heart are part of God’s plan to change the world to be more compassionate and more just. Your uniqueness is your gift to this community and to the world. God chose you long before your parents did, and called you to be God’s own.
If that doesn’t make you feel good, come talk to me, I’m not done with you yet. You can live your life with the freedom that comes from knowing that you are in exactly the right place with the right gifts to make a difference in this world. If you really believe that, it makes it much easier to trust that God will be with you when decisions are hard, when you’re not sure of the right path, or when you just cave in and do what you wish you hadn’t. It is Jesus’ amazing trust in God’s power, and his confidence that the same power was at work in him that shows us that he was and is God among us.
Almost every one of us knows what it feels like to be in the wilderness. It can be so scary. But never forget that you are not alone. Jesus has been there too. The power that saved Jesus from disaster is the same power that saves us. And he shows us that as God’s own beloved, we are always in God’s loving arms, with angels to minister to us when we think we can’t go on. Amen.