Read the Genesis text here: Genesis 2/3
Read the Matthew text here: Matthew 4:1-11
Who are you? How would you define yourself? And as you think about how you would answer this question notice how often the words you choose represent a relationship. I am a son, a father, a husband, a pastor, a musician, a teacher, a child of God – but not one of them is something I can be all by myself. My identity is bound up in relationships of various kinds. There is a very popular assumption that is part of our culture that we can forge our own identity all on our own, apart from anyone and everyone else. This is the myth of American “rugged individualism.” I don’t need anybody else – I am a self-made man/woman – NOT! It is a lie. We are who we are only in relationship with others.
And this includes our relationship with God. I am a child of God by virtue of my relationship with God who called me, who loves me and who initiated the relationship in the first place. And this relationship is nurtured and fed and sustained by our relationship with others. In other words, (to burst another popular cultural religious lie) we cannot be a Christian all by ourselves. We are Christians in relationship with God and other believers who make up the church universal and local. The “I am spiritual but not religious” excuse is simply nonsense. My relationship with God requires me to be in relationship with others. And as I am a part of a community of Christ, fed and nurtured, challenged and participating, reaching out to others in Christ’s name then my relationship with God is strengthened and it grows.
It all comes down to this – what is the Christian faith ultimately about? What is the core of Christianity? It is relationship! That is it – pure and simple. It is not about following rules or being good, it is not about being spiritual, it is not about believing all the “right” things – our faith is about relationship. And these relationships go in two directions – us and God and us and each other. If we draw a diagram this would take the shape of a cross – that is not a coincidence!
Now with this understanding let’s turn to our lessons. The Genesis reading gives us the opportunity to again hear the story of the fall and original sin. “You can be like God,” tempts the serpent. But this temptation is not just about power. The serpent is subtly suggesting to humanity that they do not need a relationship with God. “You can do it all on their own! God is not to be trusted, so break the relationship and achieve your destiny as an individual.” But it is a lie. Breaking the bonds of relationship has terrible consequences - it leads to hate and conflict and pain and suffering. From this story onward the story of the Bible, the story of God’s involvement with human history is a story of how God continues to work towards restoring this broken relationship between the creation – humanity – US - and God; and between the creation, humanity – US – with each other and all of creation.
In our Gospel text Jesus is tempted in the wilderness in the same way. “IF you are the Son of God” – IF – The tempter is calling into question the heart of Jesus’ identity and subtly trying to manipulate Jesus into replacing this identity with one of his own creation. IF – then, turn these stones into bread; cast yourself down; grasp the power that is yours by right! Can you hear what is behind these temptations: “You can do it on your own – you don’t need God! Why should you, God’s Son, be hungry, take the initiative and feed yourself; why should you, God’s Son, be vulnerable; why shouldn’t you, God’s Son, seize all the power of the world?” But in every case Jesus responds by reaffirming the importance and centrality of His relationship with God. In his responses he is clearly stating this – “My life is dependent on the word of God; my commitment to my relationship with the Father means I do not test God; and I accept what God gives humbly and gratefully.” Not only that, but Jesus’ response also reaffirms his commitment to his relationship with humanity: “Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry, dependent on God’s Word and grace for all good things. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and allegiance only to the Lord God who created and sustains him.*”
This is not the end of temptations for Jesus. Jesus will confront all of these temptations again and again throughout his ministry even to the end as he hangs on the cross – IF you are the Son of God, come down from the cross! And so do we. We are also constantly bombarded with the temptation to go it on our own. “You don’t need God – You don’t need anyone else. You can be our own person all by yourself!” But this is also a lie. We do need our relationship with God and we do need each other! It is only by reliance on these foundational relationships that we can possibly hope to move forward in our lives. For example - “Each day we are besieged by countless advertisements that seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity, and inadequacy, undermining our God-given gift of identity with the promise that if we buy this car or use that deodorant or make our teeth brighter we will be acceptable. The message of the consumer-consumption culture is simple: you are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. And here’s the thing: it’s a damned lie, a demonic attempt at a kind of identity theft far worse than the one we’ve been trained to fear. And Jesus offers us a way out, a way to safeguard our identity by lodging it in God’s good gift and promise.
“But Jesus does more than even that. He also demonstrates just how deeply God loves us by going to the cross. That’s right -- Jesus did not die on the cross in order that we might be acceptable or to make God loving. Rather, Jesus died to show us that God already loves us and has declared that we are not just acceptable but also treasured, priceless beyond measure.
“When Martin Luther felt oppressed by his conscience or plagued by doubt, fear, or insecurity, he would sometimes shout out in defiance, echoing Jesus’ words today, “Away with you Satan! I am baptized!*” This promise inscribed on our foreheads at Holy Baptism, inscribed each year in ashes on Ash Wednesday is this: that God has declared us worthy of love, dignity, and respect and has pledged to be both with us and for us throughout all of our lives.” It is God who works to restore our relationships, through Christ. And no matter what, we cherish this gift and hold fast to the promise!
* Indicates a quote from David Lose essay – “IdentityTheft” – His essay also provided the title!