Who Do You Think You Are?



“Who Do You Think You Are?” by Rosanna McFadden

Good morning!  This is the first Sunday of Lent — the 40 days prior to Easter which the church has traditionally set aside to focus on prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — or acts of service. It’s also a time for teaching new converts about Christ and the church in preparation for baptism.  If you were able to be here Wednesday evening for Ash Wednesday, or if you have read the first page of the March Connection newsletter, then you probably have some idea of where we’re headed in the weeks leading up to Easter.  We’re going to be talking about the character of Jesus: who the Bible says Jesus is, who Jesus — in the words of the Bible — says that he is, and who we believe that Jesus is.  It should go without saying, but because I’m a preacher, I’m going to say it anyway: that these ways of knowing Jesus don’t all have equal weight.  What the Bible says and what Jesus says should be our standard and rule for determining who Jesus is.  We’ll be publishing scripture reference for the week to come in the bulletin, and I love to see people following along in their own Bibles: it keeps you informed and it keeps me accountable.

But our reflection about who Jesus is should never stop with determining what the Bible says about Jesus: that is a productive scholarly and theological exercise, but the point of that exercise is to determine who we say that Jesus is.  Because who we say and believe Jesus is, should have a profound effect on who we are and our relationship to Jesus and to other people.  Because that, friends, is what our faith is about: our relationship to Jesus and what that means for our relationships with other people.  I can’t overstate the importance of this.  We may not always be consistent, let alone perfect, with how we live out our faith, but if you believe, for example, that Christ came to forgive our sins, and we are to follow his example, than you have to believe that we are called to forgive other people — even if it’s really, really hard.  That’s why we each need to wrestle with what we believe about Jesus Christ, because it shapes who we are; this includes if we don’t believe in Jesus Christ: that will misshape who we are.

This Lent we’re going to be spending some time in the gospel of Luke, as well as dipping into John.  Lent begins with a story which is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  I want to look at this story through the lens of Who does it say that Jesus is?  If you have your Bible with you, I am in Luke chapter 4, verses 1-2, which tells us three things, right off the bat: 

1. Jesus is full of the Spirit and has been led by the Spirit  

2. Evil is personified as a being who talks to Jesus  

3. Jesus hasn’t had anything to eat for forty days, and he’s hungry.  

That is a pretty significant trio of things to know, and they are inter-related — let me put it a little differently:  Even though Jesus has been filled with the Spirit, evil is something he has to deal with, and Jesus has human needs.  Agreed?

I read a wonderful commentary on this passage by Lori Brandt Hale.[1]  She recalled the Sunday when her son, a gregarious almost four-year-old, heard this text during Children’s Church, while she was in main worship with the adults.  After church, her son asked, “Hey Mom, what do you know about the devil?  Hale thought, “Should I start with Augustine?  Should I couch my answer in general terms of conservative and progressive or liberal interpretations of the text? Is he ready for process theology? Am I ready for process theology?”  And then she looked at her son, and remembered he was three years old.  So she asked, “What do you know about the devil?”  And her son said, “The devil talked to Jesus”  yes . . .  “And the devil was mean.”  And as she was musing on what her son might understand about the Devil being mean, and what her son might understand about the nature of temptation, he went on, “If I were in a store and you and Dad were in a different aisle, and there was candy, the Devil would say, ‘You should take some.’”

That is a fine lead-in to considering how the Devil tempted Jesus.  After all, Jesus was not tempted to do bad things.  There’s nothing evil about candy; I think this kid, like many of us, likes candy. Turning stones into bread to feed himself and other hungry people might not be such a bad thing for Jesus to do; later in his ministry, Jesus will take a few loaves of bread and bless them and feed thousands of people.  The next temptation is that all the kingdoms of the world would give glory to Jesus.  Isn’t that what the church is supposed to be working toward — to go to all nations?  And the final temptation is for Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, so God would rescue him.  Of course God would rescue his Son, right? 

Temptation is usually more complicated than just doing something bad.  We may convince ourselves that we’re justified in doing the wrong thing, because we have good intentions, and want a good outcome. Often the wrong thing has to do with our allegiance, or where we put our trust and faith.  In ourselves?  In some kind of supernatural solution? I have talked to a number of you over the past week who have expressed concern for and solidarity with the people of Ukraine whose country is being invaded by Russian troops.  If I knew a way to stop that invasion, I would want to do it.  The US might have the military force to stop that Russian invasion; maybe it would be possible to assassinate him, but at what cost?  What consequences do we set in motion when we try to find “easy” answers and shortcut the process?  Evil doesn’t magically go away because good people have good intentions.  In fact, good people with good intentions are an easy target for some kinds of temptation. 

Take the second temptation, to have all the kingdoms of the world give glory to Jesus.  That’s a great idea, right?  Think of all the time and cost and risk that would save all of our missionaries and evangelists.  Of course, there’s the fine print: Jesus would have to give his allegiance to the Devil: a trifling matter.  Only it isn’t.  Jesus isn’t interested in personal acclaim — that is, basking in the glory of the kingdoms of the world.  Jesus’ mission is to bring God’s kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.  It must be and must remain God’s kingdom, or the whole project goes terribly wrong.  If our allegiance is misplaced, then we are doomed. It’s worth pointing out that even this temptation is based on a lie: the devil says, “to you I will give the glory [of these kingdoms] and all this authority, for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.” (emphasis added)  OK, that’s a lie.  But if we’re blinded by the temptation of this good cause, we could end up playing for the wrong team. 

Jesus countered all three of these temptations: physical, political, and spiritual, in the same way: he quoted words of the Old Testament law: all from the book of Deuteronomy 8:3, 6:13 and 6:16.  Not only does Jesus know his Torah, but these passages are all about the allegiance which the children of Israel owe to God.  Jesus is not only countering specific temptations, he is asserting and reasserting the general principle that he is faithful to God and God alone, and any shortcut which takes him from the path which God has set before him is a way which he cannot and will not go.  Jesus the person is synonymous with Jesus’ purpose.  The devil quotes scripture, too, which is a very seductive way to reel in a potential Messiah who wants credibility with religious leaders.  Jesus is having none of it.  It turns out resisting temptation is more subtle and more complicated than turning down that second piece of cake; it means understanding God and God’s purpose, and how our actions fit in to that purpose.  Remember the theologian and her three year old who thought temptation was like being in the candy aisle, and having the devil say, “You should take some.”  His mom asked him, if the devil told you that, what would you say?  And he answered, “Thank you.”

So the questions I will be asking through Lent are: who do you say Jesus is? And who do you think you are?  I hope you would agree that this account of Jesus’ temptation affirms that Jesus is human.  He was hungry, he was tired, he was by himself.  He countered temptation not with superhuman strength, but by understanding what his purpose was in the kingdom of God, and not taking the easy way around difficult situations.  He knew that the way out was through: through his commissioning by baptism, through his ministry of teaching and healing, through persecution and suffering, through death.  He understood these things because he knew the heart of God, and he knew God’s teachings in the law and the prophets.

Who do you think you are?  I bet you have gone through some difficult times.  I that know some of you are in the middle of difficult times right now.  Are you tempted to give up or give in?  If so, that means you are human; there’s nothing wrong with being human — all the people I know are human.  It is how get through that defines who we are.  I believe that knowing and believing in the purpose which God has given us, the assurance of God’s faithfulness and steadfast love, the prayers of our family of faith and the support of people who love and care for us are the things which get us through.  None of these keep us from having to go through the wilderness — that place where we are hungry and tired and vulnerable.  But God is with us in the wilderness; in the words of the Bible and the prayers of friends, and the care of others.  Sometimes the wilderness gives us our clearest vision of God, because other distractions are stripped away.  The wilderness is where we find out who we are: not how strong we are, but who we can rely on when we are weak. Take heart!  God is with us; Christ has come this way before; and we are here to help each other. May God be with you in the coming week.  Amen

[1] Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, pp.44-46