Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Identity theft gets a lot of press right now, but it is nothing new. I think it is the operative dynamic of the gospel story of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
In the chapter just before our gospel reading, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John. As Jesus was praying, the Holy Spirit descended on him like a dove, and a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus hears that he is not only God’s beloved child, but that God delights in him. His public ministry has not started. In fact we know nothing about his life before his baptism except for the birth narratives and a short story from his twelfth year. But before Jesus has done any miracles or preached any sermons, God names him “beloved son” and is pleased with him.
Then, Luke tells us, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Not in the way that we usually think of temptation. In the gospel, the tempter attacks Jesus’ very identity. Using the scriptures from which Jesus has learned of God’s love and abiding presence, the devil dares Jesus to prove his belovedness by saying “If . . . .” “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. . . . If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.” The Psalm we just heard promises that God’s special ones will be protected by harm by God’s angels. “Are you really a special one?” the devil insinuates. The tempter even tries to steal God’s identity. Looking out over the kingdoms of the world, the tempter whispers, “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, will worship me, all this will be yours.”
“If” is such a subtle word. “If” calls into question. “If you really are the Son of God,” implies that maybe Jesus is the Son of God, but maybe not. How could Jesus know for sure? Maybe he heard God say those precious words, but maybe he only imagined it. “If” demands proof. “If” can be a subtle destroyer.
This essential identity theft is not unique to Jesus. We live in a world that questions our identity all the time. And if it’s not a message we get from others, we tempt ourselves to question our eternal value as God’s beloved children. If I were more . . . . If I were richer, smarter, happier, taller, shorter, thinner, healthier. If I had more . . . . time, money, better health, more energy, a partner—can I tell you how very unsubtle the message was to me when I was growing up that I wasn’t enough as a person. I needed a spouse—in the words from the movie Jerry Maguire—to complete me. I got married when I was 19 years old to the second person I dated because I bought that lie. For some reason we feel that we need to be more than we are to be enough. That is the temptation that steals our identity. Brothers and sisters, you heard it when you were baptized and we hear it again every time we baptize someone into the household of God. You are beloved. You are a child of God. You are a child of God’s promises and God delights in you.
In the wilderness, in response to the tempter, Jesus claimed scriptures to maintain God’s true identity and his own. I encourage you to do the same. Learn the promises of God starting with Jesus’ responses and the Psalm we heard this morning. About that Psalm—the 91st Psalm: the Psalmist doesn’t dare us to jump from high places so that we can experience the thrill of being rescued. Nor is the Psalmist inviting us to stomp all over lions and snakes as a litmus test for being one of God’s special ones. In the exaggeration of hyperbole, the poet sings of God’s abiding presence and protection of our souls. Let me tell you the story of Bill Bloom, a volunteer member of the ski patrol, who was buried in an avalanche. Because God had previously rescued him from addictions to drugs and alcohol through a 12 step program, he turned to prayer and thanksgiving for having had a second chance in life. And when his mind began to fade and he knew that he would most likely die, he prayed the serenity prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Whether he lived or died, he trusted God with his life—with his eternal spirit. He knew that neither danger nor death could separate him from God’s presence or love. He was safe, even if he died. Bill was rescued after being buried for 40 minutes. Common wisdom would not have expected him to survive after 15 minutes. He lived to tell his story—and what he tells is that his experience of God’s love and protection would have been true either way.
Jesus chose to anchor his identity in God’s words at his baptism. He was the Son of God, the beloved. God’s pleasure rested on him. He did not need to fear anything—not even starvation. He did not need to control anything—he didn’t need political power to have authority. He did not need to prove that God would always be with him, even in mortal danger.
When we know ourselves to be beloved, we do not have to earn God’s pleasure—we already have it. We don’t have to fear anything—we are free to be courageous and bold, knowing that nothing can separate us from God’s love or God’s presence, even death. Being a beloved child of God does not mean that we will never be in danger, or know sorrow, or experience pain. It means that none of those things can change our identity as beloved children of God, nor can they separate us from God’s love and presence.
This morning we sang one of my favorite songs from the Taizé community, “Nada Te Turbe” (“Nothing Can Trouble”). “Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten, God alone fills us.” The original Spanish words can more nearly be translated: Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who have God have no need. Only God suffices, or God alone is enough.
You are God’s son or daughter. You are beloved. In you God is well pleased. You are enough because you belong to God. And God will always be more than enough to keep you safe. That is your identity, beloved. Don’t let anyone—not even yourself—tempt you to think otherwise.