The First Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Luke 4:1-13

In seminary, we were taught to look for the little words in the Bible. We were told that the conjunctions and prepositions were often clues to the meaning of the text. Ever since, I’ve always read the Bible with an eye for the “ifs,” “ands,” and “buts.” Little things can mean a lot.

We have one of those little words that is really a great big word in today’s Gospel. “If you are the Son of God,” Satan says to Jesus. And he says it not just once but three times. Three times Jesus is questioned as to his identity. It’s as though the devil is saying to Jesus, “Prove to me who you really are.” It’s a taunt. “If you truly are who you say you are, then you can do such and such.”

It’s a terrible temptation. It’s a temptation of identity. And that temptation comes in two forms. One is the temptation to prove our identity. The other is the temptation to forget our identity. They both have a source in a questioned or uncertain identity, and behind both forms of the temptation is the issue of a doubt as to who and whose we are.

Jesus was tempted to prove his identity by daring deeds, as though there was some question as to who he really was. We all know that temptation. I can remember as a kid how this temptation came to me. “Lipscomb, if you’re so great” (and, of course, I thought I was), “then why don’t you do such and such” and, of course, I thought I could though more often than not, taking on such a dare either got me hurt, or in a lot of trouble.

But that’s what it was: a dare, a taunt, a challenge. And I couldn’t resist the temptation to prove my identity, who I was, or at least, who I wanted to be. And I’m sure I did the same thing to other kids. I’m sure I was probably the “tempter” as much as the “tempted.”

But it’s not just kid stuff is it? As adults the temptation of identity gets more serious and more severe. We work hard to carve out a name for ourselves, to make our mark and our place in the world, sometimes at almost any cost. And all the while, modern society is constantly eroding our sense of identity and self worth. Increasingly, people feel like they are nothing more than a number. Our Social Security number, once just a little worn piece of paper in a wallet, has become the great key that’s needed for countless forms and to open countless doors.

Mass society, with its urbanization and large populations, makes us anonymous. And while we often crave anonymity, and there are some blessings in it, it also means we can become a nobody. As employees in the companies we work for, as clergy in the church and teachers in the school system, there is also the danger of getting lost. While our employers may do their best to create a space for us and some sense of identity within the whole, when it comes to cutbacks and dismissals and that infamous bottom line, it suddenly seems like we are “just another employee,” just another number.

Perhaps the pressure on our identity explains why so many people today try to do things to carve out an identity for themselves. They wear unusual clothes or drive a different kind of car or adopt some extraordinary kind of habit. Even the drive for ethnic identity, the recovery of heritage and language, might be explained by the desire and the need to reclaim the identity that time and society have tried to take away.

But far more important than the pressures of society to surrender our identity for a number, or whatever, is the great temptation that comes and attacks us at the very core of our being. “If you are,” the temptation whispers and we need only to fill in the blank. “If you are really a man,” the temptation often comes to American males. “If you really love me,” it can come to men and women alike. “If you are truly my friend.” You can, as I say, fill in the blank. At the bottom they are all the same. They cause us to question or have to prove who we are. In a sense, it is possible to say that all our sins and failures have their source in a forgotten or distorted identity. We forget who and whose we are.

Our Lord Jesus Christ knew who he was. The temptations came to him just as surely as they come to us. But they met an impenetrable barrier in Christ’s profound awareness of himself as the Son of God. Jesus didn’t need to prove anything to himself or anyone else. He didn’t need to remind himself of who he was. He stood strong.

We too can stand strong because we have been baptized into Jesus Christ. As Christians, we have our identity and our being in Christ. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Those can be our words too.

Who am I? “I am a child of God.” Who am I? “I am a forgiven sinner.” Who am I? “I am a living member of the body of Christ with all the strength and power and grace that such status bestows.

A story is told that during the French Revolution, the boy prince who would have been Louis the 17th was turned over to the most wicked woman in Paris. She was instructed to demoralize him. She was to teach him to lie, to steal, even to kill. The young prince was made to live in the streets, eat trash, and wear rags. But one day, when he was being tempted to do some especially horrible act, the boy screamed, “I will not. I will not. I was born for the kingdom.”

Whenever we are tempted (by those things that are not a part of who we are or what we’re about), may we remember that we too were born in our baptism “for the kingdom.” We weren’t born to be a slave to sin or a “nothing.” We were reborn by water and the Word to live with Christ and in Christ forever. And with such a knowledge of our identity in Christ, we can (by God’s grace) withstand the darkest of temptations.

May God’s blessings and peace rest upon each of you during this Lenten season. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.