There are some passages you end up preaching on a lot. One of them is the temptation of Jesus. It comes up every year for the First Sunday in Lent. (It’s from a different gospel every year, but it’s pretty much the same story.) So, you try to find different ways to hear the text with new ears. This year, what really stood out to me was the first part of the devil’s temptation: “If you are the Son of God.” So much of what the tempter tries to accomplish is based on trying to get us to question our sense of self and value. (Also, a note on the devil: in this story, the devil seems to be a physical being. When I use the word devil, or tempter, that’s not really what I’m imagining. Even without believing in a physical devil, I very much believe that we are often tempted, internally or externally, to forsake God’s ways and choose our own ways.)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“If.” Such a small word, but capable of so much meaning. “If.” It’s one of those tiny words that can completely change a sentence, a conversation, a thought. The word if can turn a statement into a question, a certainty into a doubt, a conviction into a hope.
“If you are the Son of God,” begins the devil. The tempter doesn’t start right with offers or temptations for Jesus. No, the tempter is much smarter than that. He starts instead with that pesky word “if.” “If you are the Son of God:” turn these rocks into bread, seize power for yourself, prove your own worth. “If you are the Son of God.” The devil starts his assault on Jesus by sowing seeds of doubt, or at least by trying to do so. He calls into question Jesus’ very identity.
That same uncertainty can spring unbidden into our lives as well, as that tiny word if turns statements into questions. If you’ve done enough…If you’ve saved enough…If you’ve studied, or tried, or worked enough…If you’re enough…
If. Two letters that can take us from a place of security to a place of uncertainty. Two letters that can question our purpose, our value, our very identity. It’s constant. So constant that we might not always notice it anymore. Advertising, social media, the news, politicians: we’re constantly being told what we might be, what we might have, if only. They want to tell us that we only have value if. If we have certain things. If we live in the right house or drive the right car. If we eat the right things and exercise the right way. If we get good enough grades and go to the right school. If we come from the right countries or support the right policies.
And once those seeds of doubt are there—that is when the tempter strikes. That’s when the devil tries to get Jesus to forsake God and to give up on his mission. And that’s when we are most tempted, too. To measure our personal value by the things we have or the things we achieve. To judge others based on those same barometers. To think that the size of our house or paycheck, or the grade on the transcript is what defines us. To base our sense of worth on our money, or worldly success, or power over others. And to make decisions driven by those insecurities.
These temptations of Jesus—to turn stones into bread, to accept glory and power from what the devil has to offer, and to test God—they are all tied to this basic test of identity. Does he know who he is? And does he accept, believe, and trust who he is? Or does he feel the need to prove it by grasping at power?
Jesus doesn’t give in to these temptations, because Jesus knows better than to accept the devil’s “if.” Knows better than to take this questioning of his identity for granted. Because he has heard the truth from a much more powerful voice.
We always read this story of the temptation of Jesus on the first Sunday in Lent, which makes a lot of sense. Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness; we spend forty days in Lent. Jesus contends with the devil and temptation; we are called to contend with our own temptations and failings. It makes sense. But, it also means that we might forget that the temptation of Jesus comes directly after the baptism of Jesus. It’s the very next thing that happens.
And at his baptism, as Jesus is coming up out of the water, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends like a dove, and we hear this voice: You are my Son, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased. When Jesus goes into the desert, he goes with the waters of his baptism still dripping from his clothes. He goes with the name Beloved still ringing in his ears. He enters this confrontation with evil with the sure knowledge of who he is: the beloved son of God.
With every offer the devil makes, Jesus instead chooses God’s power and God’s purpose. He knows he is the Son of God. He doesn’t have to prove it to the devil or anyone else. It is in God that we find our true identity. And there is no if here.
We too receive from God an identity that is stronger than all the ifs and questions that life will throw at us. In our baptisms, we are told: You are a child a God. There’s no uncertainty, no doubts. Not if, but you are. You are a marvelous creation. You are loved by God. You are a child of God and you are a blessing.
It’s not dependent on any “if’s”. It doesn’t matter if you have a lot or a little. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you earn a lot or a little. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you have five degrees or none. You are loved. It doesn’t matter if you’re old or young, weak or strong. You are loved. There are no ifs with God. You aren’t defined by what you do or what you make or how popular you are. You are defined by whose you are. You are defined as a child of God.
Lest I seem naïve, I know that we are not Jesus. While he resists every temptation offered to him, you and I will not be so successful. I often give in to the temptation to define my own existence. To give in to those ifs and think that I need to prove my worth. To judge myself and my value by things I have or accomplish, and to judge society in a similar way.
But here in this place, at this font and at this table, we are reminded that we are loved and valued—not for what we do, but simply for who we are: beloved children of God. And we can say to each other: You are beloved. You are valued. You matter. No ifs. We can remind each other that there are no ifs, because you are God’s beloved child. And we take that reminder with us, as Jesus took his into the desert. We take God’s love with us when we leave this place. We take the name Beloved with us.
As we begin once more this season of Lent, let us begin as Jesus did during his forty days. Knowing how much God loves us, and how precious we are. Not if. But are. Amen.