January 18 – The Identity Test

January 18 – The Identity Test

The Identity Test – a sermon on Matt 4:1-11

One of my favorite action movie franchises in the Bourne series. I still remember watching the Bourne Identity and being captivated by the car chases, gun fights and character development of Jason Bourne. And getting drawn in by Bourne’s quest to find out who he is.

These early chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, first with the baptism and now with the temptations are asking questions about Jesus’ identity. Through the baptism by John in the Jordan with the dove descending and proclaiming, “He is my Beloved.” Declared by God as God’s own Son. His identity is quite clear to those of us looking on.

Then, Jesus is led, or rather, pulled by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil, and where he must prove his identity. And as we watch from afar, we ask…

Whose temptations are these? Are they only Jesus’ temptations, or are they ours, too? Are these the sort of temptations that all human beings face, or are these temptations unique to Jesus because of his extraordinary messianic role?

An answer begins by realizing that, long before these temptations were Jesus’ temptations – or ours – they were Israel’s temptations. These were the very temptations – and in the same order – experienced by Israel in the wilderness after the exodus from slavery in Egypt. Jesus has inherited the legacy of Israel, and now he goes where they went – into the wilderness – to experience what they experienced – a time of testing. Where they failed, he is faithful. Where they stumbled, he walks surely and unwaveringly along the path of God’s calling. All that God willed to created in Israel has now come to fruition in this beloved son, Jesus.[1]

So for the first temptation, Jesus is presented with some stones. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I can’t imagine how hungry Jesus might be after forty days in the wilderness. I can’t fathom the grumbling of the Israelites as they wandered. But even for those who are most hungry, often times food isn’t the only thing that is needed.

What is the test for the church today? Tom Long suggests that perhaps the temptation is to provide a quick response to the demands placed on it. “I’m bored; give me come excitement in worship.” “I’m a parent; take my children and give them religion.” “I don’t like the way the church spends its money; change it now.”

But we are given every word of God; we can trust every promise of the gospel to nourish and sustain us. Jesus resisted the temptation to make the gospel too small; and by doing so, he embodies, for all of humanity and for every hunger in creation, the whole Word of God, which gives life.[2]

The second temptation… A change of scene… From the wilderness to Jerusalem, the Holy City, high atop the temple. Can you imagine the devil, getting frustrated with Jesus? “So, you want to quote Scripture at me to say that you trust every word that comes from the mouth of God? Well, I can quote Scripture, too. Here is a word from the mouth of God: ‘God’s angels will bear you up.’ Why don’t you try that word out? Jump off the temple and see if God’s word is trustworthy.”

Doesn’t it sound tempting. Using God’s word to prove the devil wrong. The safety will be there… Angels will respond… The problem though, Tom suggests, is that such testing of God comes not from trust, but from the lack of it. Trying out the promises of God to “see if they really work” is a sign not of sure faith but of fundamental doubt. It implies that we are in God’s position; we not only know God’s promises, but we also know how, when, and where God is supposed to fulfill these divine promises. If God doesn’t perform in just that prescribed way, either God must be a liar or there is no God. Putting God to the test dramatically reverses our relationship to God; we are in charge, and God is treated as our servant.[3]

Jesus does not give in to the trap set by the Devil, and we head out for another scene change. This time from the temple in Jerusalem to a very high mountain with all the kingdoms of the world in site. All Jesus has to do is bow down and worship the devil and it all would have been his. Tom Long suggests that this temptation may best be understood as the enticement to achieve the destination of his ministry without undergoing the sacrificial journey, to claim the victory without enduring the struggle. The ministry of Jesus will be hard and messy. It will involve teaching slow-learning disciples the secrets of the kingdom, touching the broken and diseased skin of lepers, facing the opposition of the religious leaders, being blown about in the treacherous winds of crowd opinion, having one of his own disciples betray him, and being forsaken by the rest of them.

Here, early in Matthew Gospel, the devil entices Jesus, “Why not abbreviate the story? Why not cut out the suffering and the painful parts and get right on to the victory? Just bow down and worship me, and you can have what you seek on the spot, today.”

The church faces the same temptation today when it attempts to find some easier and quicker road to ravel than the way of the cross. Whenever we bow down to that which is not God – to nation, or race, or family, or social standing – hoping that this will fill our hearts, we succumb to this temptation.

Long continues: Whenever we attempt to soften the cost of discipleship and pretend that the work of Christ does not involve suffering, then we not only fall to this temptation, we take on, as Peter did later in Matthew’s Gospel, the role of tempter.[4]

So the question begins to shift some, from what these testings have to do with Jesus and his identity. For it is crystal clear, that this is the beloved Son of God. Who knows the path laid out before him, and who is willing to walk slowly towards that cross. But the question is about our life of faith, and what we discover about ourselves.

Testing allows us to discover the nature of something. And in these three tests we discover something about the nature of Jesus. The testing of Jesus, the testings of Israel before him, and the testing of the church today are not primarily temptations to do what we would really like to do, but know we should not; they are temptations to be something other than who God calls us to be, to deny that we are God’s children.[5]

It is like that Cheshire cat that we can’t seem to shake, sitting in the background asking that famous question of identity, “Who are you?”

It’s the question raised not only of baptism, but of temptation as well. For when we respond to the temptations we face, we show others who in fact we are. We reflect our beloved-ness as God’s children.

It’s not an easy thing to do. For when we become more aware of who we are, others too are becoming more aware of who they are. And in this multi-cultural, multi-faith, multi-everything world, it can be hard to wrestle with ones identity with everything else going on around us.

But that is the life of faith, the test of faith, the test of life. There’s a great line in the Confession of 1967 that says – Life is a gift to be received with gratitude and a task to be pursued with courage.[6]

So as we face the temptations that confront us in our search for who we are. May we be courageous and gracious with ourselves and with one another. And may we always remember that we are always called beloved by the God who created us.

Alleluia and Amen.




[1] Long, Matthew, p.35-6

[2] Long p38

[3] Long, p.38-9

[4] Long p.39

[5] Long, p.37

[6] Confession of 1967, 9.17