“Get out of here, Satan,” Jesus told him. “For the Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”
(Preached on Sunday, March 5, 2017)
Cartoonist Bill Watterson in one of his Calvin & Hobbes comic strips penned the following dialogue:
Calvin: Do you believe in the devil? You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation, corruption, and destruction of man?
Hobbes: I’m not sure that man needs the help.
This rather strange story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by Satan after 40 days of fasting demonstrates how we like to imagine an outside agency for the temptations to which we so often fall prey as human beings. We yearn to have someone else we can blame for our failures. As comedian Flip Wilson used to famously say: The Devil made me do it!
The story also demonstrates truly how the temptations we face more often than not come from within us and from the culture and the world around us, more than from some outside scheming, manipulating, evil power. This is because the most important temptations we all face are the temptations regarding how to live out the truth of our identity. Jesus’ power came from the fact that more than any other human being he clearly understood who he was and he clung to that knowledge and truth about himself.
That truth is couched in the first two temptations. “If you are the Son of God…” Remember at his baptism Jesus heard a voice from the heavens proclaim: “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.” Clearly that news had a profound impact on Jesus (as it would on any one of us). Matthew tells us that immediately after his baptism, immediately after hearing that proclamation, Jesus went into the wilderness to mull over what those words meant.
After mulling this over for 40 days, Jesus was tempted with how to live out this truth. The first temptation he faced: do something because of that truth. If you are the child of God, show that you can do something. After all, that is how we prove our worth; that is how we demonstrate who we are to others; that is what God wants of us, right? God wants us to use our talents and skills to do good in the world? So, Jesus, if you are the Son of God, do something good with all that power! Change these stones into bread and feed yourself first. Then feed the world!
The second temptation was to do something amazing that will get people talking about him. If you are the child of God, do something miraculous! Jump from the pinnacle of the temple to demonstrate your trust in God. God will surely save you and protect you, after all, you are the Son of God! God will send angels to bear you up before you strike the ground. Just imagine the spectacle it will cause when the crowds see you plummet earthward, expecting you to crash and burn, only to see you gently float down to the ground. Why they will speak highly of you for years, even centuries. They will sing your praises without a doubt. Do something, Jesus, to get the people talking about you!
And the third temptation was to take all the power and possessions in the world. Just think of it, Jesus. If you claim your power, claim what it rightfully yours as God’s beloved child, then people will respect you and come flocking to your cause. After all, people want to back a winner! If you have power and prestige, lots of wealth and property, then the masses will flock to you. They will love you and speak highly of you. You will have it all! You will have the world!
Just think what you can accomplish.
But Jesus says, “That is a lie!” That’s the greatest lie and it makes you and me enter into relationships of violence and destruction. “No,” Jesus said, “I know who I am. Because before the Spirit of God sent me out to be tempted, that same Spirit came upon me and said, ‘You are my beloved Child. You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests.’” Jesus heard that voice and he clung to that voice as he lived his life. As people praised him; as people rejected him; as people sang ‘Hosanna’; as people crucified him. Jesus held onto the truth. “Whatever happens, I am the beloved of God, and that is who I am.”
Because Jesus had heard that voice and knew himself beloved of God, he knew he could trust God. He knew he did not have to rely on his own power to do good – God would do good through him. He knew he did not have to do miraculous things so that people would adore him and talk highly about him – God already adored him and spoke highly about him – better than anything anybody else could ever say. He knew he did not have to reach out and take things to have them – but God would give him everything that he needed. He knew all this, because he knew himself loved by God and that knowledge is what he clung to all through is life and ministry, no matter what came his way.
Friends, that is the same place we can find our power. For the same temptations Jesus faced, we face. And the same thing that was said of Jesus is said of us. We, too, face the temptations to do it all on our own. We are tempted to do good things in our own power. We are tempted to seek the good words of others. We are tempted to grasp and claim what we need at whatever cost, by whatever means. And none of these are bad things, in and of themselves. We are to do good. It is nice for people to speak well of us. God wants us to enjoy the world and all that is in it. They become temptations and they become bad for us when we let them dictate to us who we are and when we strive for them under our own power.
But who we are is not dictated by any of these things. Who we are has been determined by God our Creator and Divine Lover. Each of us has that divine voice speaking deep inside us proclaiming our true nature: beloved daughter, beloved son, beloved child of God. That voice is there. It has always been there since our creation in our mother’s womb. It is like those radio signals that NASA sends out into space in the hopes of making contact with intelligent life – it is always there, but we need to tune to the right frequency to hear it. When we do that and we hear that voice, not just in our head, but in our guts and in our hearts, then it will grab hold of our entire being. Then our lives begin to become more and more what they were created to be – the lives of the beloved children of God. That’s who we are and when this takes hold of us, then everything we do is nurtured by this knowledge. Every day this spiritual knowledge transforms our lives.
We will still have rejections and losses, but we live them no longer as persons searching for our identity in those things. We live them as the beloved of God. We live our pain and our anguish and our successes and our failures as those who know who we are. That is our first love. And it is grander and deeper than any other love we know. Everyone who ever loves us, loves us because God first loves us, and their love is only a partial reflection of that love. God’s love for us is the first love, the primary love, the unconditional love that was there before our birth, is there through all of our life, and will be there beyond our death.
No other love is so encompassing. When we know this love deep in our soul, then we can more freely love others. We can recognize, even when they love us poorly, in their love a hint or glimpse of that first love. And we can forgive them for loving us poorly. Every time we have a temptation to become bitter or jealous, to lash out, to feel rejected, we can go back and say, “No, I am the beloved daughter of God.” And even though I am rejected, that rejection should become for me a way to reclaim the truth. It should be like a pruning that helps me to claim more fully and deeply the truth of my be-loved-ness. And if I can hold on to that and live in the world, then I can be free to love other people without expecting them to give me all that my heart desires.
Because God has created you and me with a heart that only God’s love can satisfy, every other love will be partial. Every other love will be real, but limited and painful. And if we are willing to let the pain prune us, to give us a deeper sense of our be-loved-ness, then we can be as free as Jesus. Just as he did, we can walk through this world and proclaim God’s first love wherever we go. That is the life of a child of God.