Testing our identity is the central theme of Lent. Actually, it’s pretty much the central theme of life. And it’s a theme that runs like a red thread from Genesis through Revelation. The Bible is full of stories of people – who they are; who they are in relationship to others; who they are as God’s chosen; what others are saying about who they are; who they are when no one’s looking. It’s not just about their character. It’s more about their identity.
The first Sunday in Lent always begins with the story of Jesus being tested in the wilderness after his baptism. As soon as the clouds part and the voice from heaven declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” he is led into the wilderness for forty days.
This passage from Matthew contains several phrases that are familiar to us even if we aren’t familiar with the Bible.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. ~ Matthew 4:1-11
Often when we think about testing and temptation, we think in terms of status and power. We think about things that tempt us. But that’s not where the tempter goes with Jesus. The tempter goes right to trying to undermine Jesus’ identity: If you are the Son of God. The tempter isn’t questioning whether or not Jesus is the Son of God. The tempter knows Jesus’ identity. He’s testing to see if he can separate Jesus from his God-given identity and replace it with one of his own creation.
Essentially the tempter is saying, “Since you are the Son of God, then turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, or claim your rightful power and dominion.” Each of the tests has a righteousness about them. Turn the stones into bread and feed a hungry world. Throw yourself off the temple and when you’re rescued everyone will know you’re God’s anointed and really listen to you. Rule the world and you can finally bring in justice and peace. If you don’t do these things, then are you really who you think you are?
How and why Jesus resists temptation is important for us. Jesus didn’t resist temptation through sheer will or brute force. Instead he took refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God. Jesus’ life, teachings, and even death are about an interdependent relationship with God and an identification with humanity. Jesus is content being hungry because others are hungry. Jesus will risk and be vulnerable as all humanity is, finding safety in God’s promises. Jesus will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God because true power is defined through our God-given identity.
Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness wrestling with all those things that would undermine his who he was called to be and what he was called to do. Once he stepped into that public arena, the scrutiny and accusations would never cease. And it’s the same for us.
It’s not that the tempter only seeks to steal our identity. Every day we’re besieged by countless advertisements that seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity, and inadequacy. The message of the consumer-culture is you are not enough; you are not acceptable unless. It’s all about undermining our own sense of who we are by telling us we aren’t skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance.
God has already declared us worthy of love, dignity, and respect. God has already pledged to be with us and for us throughout all of our lives. Stepping into the human arena would be the most difficult challenge for Jesus, for in doing so he shows us that, not only are we loved and accepted, but we are also treasured and priceless beyond measure.