I have a friend named Dennis who lives with a medical condition that his doctors call “Sudden Death Syndrome.” It is a congenital, degenerative heart condition, and at any given moment, his heart could stop. You’ve heard the occasional story of the athlete whose heart just stops while he runs on the basketball court, and who never knew he had the condition? In my friend’s case, they discovered it before anything bad could happen.
He had a defibrillator surgically implanted in his chest. It constantly monitors his heart rate and if there is any irregularity it will deliver an electric shock to the heart in an attempt to return it to normal rhythm.
I asked Dennis what it was like to have a device like this put in. He said that getting the news of this condition he’d apparently had his entire life was pretty scary. But the most surreal part of the whole experience was immediately prior to the surgery, lying on the gurney, waiting to go to the operating room, when he had to sign some final paperwork, including a “limited warranty” card on the defibrillator. “Limited warranty?”
The defibrillator is slightly smaller than the size of a deck of cards and is implanted just underneath the skin in his chest. He’s shown me the spot, and if you look closely from the right angle, you can just make out the shape of the rectangle beneath the skin.
Dennis has an interesting “take” on his device. He says that every morning he will stand in front of the mirror while shaving or brushing his teeth. His eyes will be drawn to the small scar and the spot where the device is and he’ll see the rectangle. He told me that “this defibrillator is my daily reminder that I am not in charge. At any moment, something could happen that would take my life away from me, and I am totally in the hands of God. I belong to God. Whenever I am tempted to think that I am in charge…independent…in control…this reminds me that I’m not.”
We are not in control. And our temptation is to think that we are. This is the idea of temptation that we are thinking about today.
You see, when we hear the word “temptation” we usually go straight to the “bad things we do” category of life. Am I tempted to sneak an extra dessert? To lie about my age? To cheat on my taxes? Yes, those are temptations. But those are merely symptoms of a deeper, broader and more devious temptation. The temptation of power, control and identity.
In the story of Jesus’ temptation found in our Gospel today, Jesus is taken out into the wilderness where he doesn’t eat for 40 days. Scripture tells us that he was famished. Then, the devil appears and begins to tempt him with food. Jesus, of course, resists this kind of temptation. But there is an interesting wrinkle in the story. Please do me a favor and look in your Bibles at verse 3. The devil in the story is challenging Jesus’ identity. He says, “If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become loaves of bread.”
And, in verse six: The devil isn’t challenging Jesus’ ability to get down off the pinnacle of the temple. Instead, he says “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.”
The temptation that the devil is throwing at Jesus isn’t based on hunger or ability, rather it’s based on Jesus’ sense of who, and whose he is.
Ok, we need to pause here, and I need to give you just a moment of church-nerd trivia. Most of the mainline denominations, that would include the us, the Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and other friends follow what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. The scripture lessons we hear in worship come from this “Revised Common Lectionary.” Somewhere long ago, some committee determined a 3-year rotation of scripture readings that we all share. And we cover much of the scriptures over a 3-year period.
Why is this church trivia important? Well, this Gospel story is read today as if it stands alone. But it doesn’t. Immediately preceding this story, in Matthew 3, is the story of Jesus’ baptism. But that is a story that shows up in our rotation of readings early in January, when we celebrate…Jesus’ baptism. So, in our common lectionary schedule it’s artificially disconnected from today’s reading. But really, they’re meant to go together.
Look at Matthew 3. Jesus comes to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. John (understandably) resists, but Jesus insists. And then, when John baptizes Jesus, there is the voice from heaven, (look at it in chapter 3, verse 17) and God says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Read that out loud with me again: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
In this verse, God publically and vocally claims Jesus as his own. Then, immediately, in the next verse, Jesus was led into the wilderness and the devil tempts Jesus by challenging his identity. “If you really are the Son of God…then…”
These two stories, Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ temptation, are intended to go together: God proclaims it in the baptism: “This is my son!” and in the wilderness, the devil questions it, and Jesus affirms it.
Jesus resists the devil’s temptations, because Jesus knows both who he is, and whose he is.
There is much we can learn from this story. First, we know who we are, once we know whose we are. And once we are secure in whose we are, then staying focused on God’s call for our life, and resisting those things that would break our relationship with God and each other, becomes second nature to us.
You see, in our culture, we typically think of identity as something that is self-created. But I don’t think that’s the case. In Seth Godin’s book, Tribes, he writes that most of our sense of identity comes from the community we belong to, our family of origin and the people with whom we hang out.
He gives a great example: He writes about how no one wakes up one day and says: “You know who I’m going to be? I’m going to be one of those crazy people who paints my face, wears a costume, and goes wild at football games rooting for my team.” Instead, you hang out with friends, watch lots of football, decide to go to a game, discover someone has brought body paint, and then suddenly realize you are one of them! You could say the same about the women in red hats at restaurants, or bikers, or Trekkies, or just about any of the other groups we associate with and from which we gain a sense of our identity.
And that’s what makes Baptism so powerful: we are adopted into a family of faith and, even more, like Jesus was, we are told that we are God’s beloved child and therefore have infinite worth.
What does this have to do with being tempted? Well, when push comes to shove, all the various temptations we may encounter stem from the primary temptation to forget whose we are and therefore to forget who we are. Because once we forget who and whose we are, we’ll cave to temptations, in order to dispel our insecurity and to find happiness.
That, I believe, is Adam and Eve’s problem in the Genesis story that was our Old Testament reading. When the serpent comes, he doesn’t start out with a temptation; instead he sows mistrust in Adam and Eve. The serpent tries to undermine the relationship of trust between God and God’s children:
- “Did God really say?” the serpent asks, misrepresenting and undermining God’s instructions.
- “You will not die,” the serpent asserts, suggesting that there are things God knows but isn’t telling.
When this relationship has been undermined, Adam and Eve are tempted to forge their identity on their own, independent of their relationship with God. Then they take and eat the forbidden fruit.
Jesus’ encounter with the devil is, by contrast, nearly the opposite. The devil also tries to undermine Jesus’ relationship with God by suggesting it is not secure. Yet at each point Jesus resists by quoting Scripture that reminds him of God’s trustworthiness, the need to depend on God for all good things, and of God’s promise to care for him and all God’s children.
- Adam and Eve, victims of their own insecurity, forget whose they are and so lose themselves in the temptation to secure their identity on their own.
- Jesus falls back on his relationship with God, reminding himself whose he is and so remembering who he is, a beloved child of God, dependent on the love, care, and protection of the God who has promised to do anything to care for him and all of us.
My friends, there are so many temptations in the world. But the primary temptation is to forget whose we are, and who we are and to try and go it alone. We are tempted to forget that we are completely dependent; that we are not in charge; that we are not in control. It is to forget that God has created community to surround and shape us.
Temptation happens when we forget the promises and the claim that God makes on our own lives, in the waters of our baptism.
For when the water was poured over your head, and you were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever, God spoke the words: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
That is your identity.
You are child of God.
And you belong to God.
Rely on that, and no temptation can overcome you.