1 Lent C—3/10/19
Deuteronomy 26:5-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-12; Luke 4:1-13
Pr. Scott Kramer
If you’ve been baptized, what did you sign up for?
For many Christians, baptism is about the beginning and the end. After all, the Bible says, “Those who believe and are baptized will be saved.” Get yourself baptized, and you have it made in the life to come. But is this not faith based on fear rather than love?
In this church, we reject religion that is fear-driven, in favor of faith that is love-driven. At Jesus’ own baptism, a voice was heard: “You are my son, the beloved. In you I am well pleased.” This is what baptism is about: the assurance for you and for me and for all people, that you are loved…unconditionally.
So, what does it mean, to be God’s beloved? Hearing these words of assurance, what should beloved, baptized people of God expect after that?
If Jesus’ life is any indication, one uncomfortable answer is that we can expect to have a target painted on our back. In today’s story, Jesus catches the attention of the devil himself!
He finds himself in the wilderness, and there he faces a barrage of temptations. The temptations in this story seem like something out of a superhero story, and nothing that any of us would encounter: Turning stones into bread—anyone here faced that temptation? The temptation to rule the world? Or, how about the temptation to jump off a tall building and land safely? Superman!
And yet, all of us have faced these temptations. In fact, we probably face them every day.
“If you are the Son of God…” sets up the temptations that follow. The word “if” can also be translated “since.” Since you are the Son of God… The devil in this story doesn’t doubt that Jesus is Son of God. He may, in fact, be more convinced that any of us! But being convinced of Jesus’ identity is not the same as following his teaching and example.
Whether or not we believe in an actual spiritual being called the devil, we surely recognize the temptation: You’re special. You’re different. You’re entitled.
Think about how this story started. A voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism: You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased. If I were in Jesus’ place, I think I know what I’d be thinking. “I’m special because I was baptized. I’m special because the voice said I’m loved. I’m special.” In this story, the devil is not saying, “Don’t listen to God.” No, he’s saying, “God says you’re special, and you are. Make the most of it!”
Suddenly the temptations that Jesus faced are not something out of Captain Marvel or Ironman. No, these are not about superheroes; they are the most ordinary, everyday temptations that most of us face every day—so ordinary that we often don’t even recognize them as temptations.
How are you special? Most of us would be embarrassed to answer the question. “Who, me?? I’m nothing special! I’m just an ordinary person.”
In fact, I might say, “I’m not worthy. I’m not good enough.” But is this not an especially self-destructive way of caving into this same temptation to believe that we are exempt. Sure, God says, “You are my beloved.” But that’s for other people.
But this conversation between Jesus and the devil is not about that. This is about the thousand different ways that I am tempted to believe that I am exceptional, entitled to certain privileges–deserving. That’s the temptation that Jesus faced.
One way to explore this question is to follow the devil’s lead and fill in the blank. “Since you are the Son of God…” he says.
“Since I am baptized, I’m favored by God. Since I go to church, I’m preferred by God over those who don’t. Since I obey the law, I’m special. Since I’m white, I’m special. Since I have a higher education, I’m special. Since I’m male, I’m special. Since I’m American, I’m special.” All these are ways we create distance between ourselves and others, putting ourselves above others.
We don’t need to face the kinds of temptations to power and glory that the devil describes. We don’t need to read about the latest scandal of politicians or tycoons yielding to it, either. We can recognize the very ordinary, everyday temptation to believe that we are special, entitled, privileged–in how we think about and relate to other people.
One example of how this is true is our beliefs about wealth and poverty. We’ve begun a video series on Sunday mornings called “12 Neighbors.” If you missed this morning’s conversation you can go online and see it yourself for free. The short video introduction is on “Understanding Poverty.” Early in the video Fr. Greg Boyle says:
We have this notion, you know, if you ask any wealthy person, “Why are you wealthy?” and the only thing they won’t say is: sheer dumb luck. They’ll say hard work, and I’m really smart, and my character is such, but the largest piece of the pie by far is just sheer dumb luck, and so, some people win the zip code lottery, and some people win the parent lottery, or the education lottery, and some don’t win any lottery at all.
Here again is a timeless story: The temptation of God’s own people to believe that poverty is simply a consequence of laziness, or character flaws, or failure to use available resources. Many of us, especially those who have had many advantages, do believe deeply in hard work, moral character—these will not only keep me out of poverty but will earn me the good things in life.
Our journey through Lent begins and ends with a different assumption: We are not special. We are something far more than that: we are beloved. We have done nothing to earn God’s favor and can do nothing to earn it. It is simply a free gift.
Dear friends, what was true for Jesus is true for us: to be baptized is to have a target painted on our backs. To follow Christ means to enter the wilderness and face the temptations he faced. We do so with confidence, knowing that our hope is not in ourselves but in the very Spirit who led Jesus through the wilderness, through the temptations, and finally, to the cross. Through it all, we have no assurance of being special–only this: “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Period.