Thursday, February 11, 2016
Don't miss the first three words of Sunday's gospel lesson (Luke 4:1-13): "After his baptism." The rest of the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil may be more exciting, but those three little words are what make this episode an instruction for the faithful and not just a fascinating tale of a hero standing up to evil.
I'm not preaching this week, so I have the privilege of exploring lots of potential sermon ideas without ever having to commit to one. If I were preaching, however, this would be my thesis: we are tempted to claim our baptismal identity as God's unconditionally beloved as a sign of our own power rather than a sign of our total and complete subjection to God's power. In conversations with my partner in ministry, Seth Olson, I have come to see this wilderness encounter as an exploration of Jesus' messianic identity. Seth first pointed out to me that this forty-day fast wasn't a vision quest for Jesus. Jesus already knew who he was. That part was confirmed in the baptism that precedes this passage. From that insightful platform, I have wandered my way through these possibilities and find myself convinced (today, at least) that Jesus was in the wilderness to struggle with what it means to hear God say, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22b).
Lately, I've enjoyed asking bible study groups to tell me how they would portray a particular biblical scene if they were the director of a big-budget movie. This is one of those moments that lends itself to the silver screen. Jesus has grown up and felt the call to be a preacher and prophet. He has accumulated a small, local following. He heads out to do what all countercultural religious types were doing back then--receive baptism by John in the Jordan. In that moment, however, all the pieces of his life and his identity that he has known but has been unable to synthesize come together as he emerges from the water, sees the Spirit descending, and hears the heavenly voice. For the first time, Jesus knows perfectly and completely who he is as God's Son. And it is that overwhelming sense of identity that propels him out into the wilderness.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" I imagine Jesus asking to himself over those forty days. The temptations to misuse that identity were real. He could meet his own needs, turning stones into bread. He'd never have to work a day in his life. The power was all his. Moreover, he could take that power and claim a worldly throne. No one could stand up to him. He could overturn the kingdoms of this world and establish what he thought to be God's perfect kingdom. Throughout it all, he could live the rest of his days in isolated, insulated comfort. Nothing would threaten him. He didn't have to be hurt--physically, emotionally, spiritually. Even the angels would protect him. All of that was possible. God's declaration to Jesus showed him that all of that could be his. But that wasn't God's will. And so it could not be.
The words we hear in our own baptism--or, more likely, in the living out of our baptismal identity--are the same: "You are my beloved daughter/son; with you I am well pleased." What will we do with those words? Will we claim them for our own and coast through life expecting everything to unfold just the way we want it? Will we become angry when that "blessed" identity doesn't manifest itself when and where and how we want it? Will we throw ourselves down a road of self-destruction because we know that there is nothing we can do to make God love us any less? God's claim on us makes us invincible, but it also compels us to be vulnerable. We are not our own master. God's unequivocal approval does not elevate us or our interests. Instead, it calls us to humility and sacrifice. It calls us to follow Jesus to the cross.