Given the number of times I’ve said it lately, on my tombstone, it will say, “Do. The. Power. Analysis.” ***
Generally, one of the thing we privileged-types are loath to do is to consider who holds power in any given situation, and how that dynamic affects the results. And yet, power: who holds it, who appears to have it, and who we attribute it to, affects all aspects of our lives.
Like in the Lent 1 gospel, where Jesus goes out in the wilderness and Satan comes to irritate him. You can read this as Jesus using his Power for Good, like Superman (and I preached that once–it’s in the archives.) But this year, I approached it as a power question of a different sort: who do we give power to tell us who we are, and what we are worth?
Here’s what I said. Also, do the power analysis, please and thank you.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
March 10, 2019
Lent 1, Year C
If you are…If God loves you….If you are that powerful, prove it! Prove yourself!
When I was a kid, for a period of time in elementary school, I recall that it was very important to boast about how many Big Macs you could eat in one sitting. That was the status measure in the cafeteria. Not how rich you were, or how tall, or how many cool stickers you had—how many Big Macs you could eat.
No idea why this was. Proximity? Their stability as a measure of currency? I just knew that if I wanted to have ANY FRIENDS AT ALL, I needed to figure out a way to eat at least one whole Big Mac. Which was, for me, a tall order.
My whole identity rested on this. Whatever childhood status I could muster.
Of course, that’s a ridiculous way to measure yourself. For starters, it’s a good way to end up in cardiac arrest. Also, there is no way those kids were all telling the truth.
Also, that’s a really faulty frame for identity. None of us can be measured in something so trivial as fast-food. And yet, so much of what we consume tries to tell us that indeed, our worth, our identity is measured by things like this.
Watch any ad anywhere, and you will get the message that unless you purchase this product/experience, you are not this particular type of person. Buy this shampoo and you will be beautiful! Buy this soda, and you will be cool! Buy this pair of jeans, and you will be young again! Buy this car, and you will be…a mysterious person who can wax philosophical about creativity and freedom while appearing rich and unburdened! (Car commercials are confusing.)
There is a lot in the world that challenges our sense of identity, especially as we live in a world that persists in ranking those identities based on these arbitrary things. And that’s where the gospel this week fits in. Because this story of the Temptation in the Wilderness is all about identity.
For context, it’s important to remember that immediately before Jesus goes into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River. John the Baptist, under protest, baptizes him, and everyone sees the Spirit descend, and the voice from heaven proclaim him to be God’s Beloved Son.
The next thing that happens is that Jesus heads out into the desert to fast and pray. Geographically, this makes sense—the Jordan River runs to the east of Judea and Galilee, and is bordered in the south by the desert, before the elevation rises and you approach Jerusalem. So, there’s desert all over—anywhere Jesus went after the Jordan was going to be desert. In a way, he didn’t have a choice. But also, this stretch of praying and fasting was a time-honored way to communicate with God, after such a powerful experience.
And after we are told that 40 days (or Bible-speak for “A long time that I am not willing to count, because Math Is Difficult”) has passed, the devil appears, and starts to bother him.
Like I’ve said before, we hear mentions of Satan with 21st century ears, primed with images of the red guy with the pitchfork and the pointy ears. But the culture of Jesus’ day didn’t have that dualistic of an understanding of good and evil. Ha-Satan was essentially a generic adversary—rather than a supernatural Sum of Evil that rivals God in power. (In their interaction here, Satan is a sly talker, but you don’t get the sense that he really poses a threat to Jesus. He’s just obnoxious.)
Anyway. Three times, the devil tries to mess with Jesus, saying “IF you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread! Throw yourself off the Temple! Worship me and take all the power for yourself!”
What’s striking is that, aside from the “Worship me!” request—what the devil is suggesting is on fairly solid ground, scripturally. Of COURSE Jesus can turn stones into bread! He’s going to multiply loaves and fishes later on! Of course he could fly from the Temple tower—he magically got himself out of an angry crowd in this same chapter! Even seizing all the power for himself—he definitely shouldn’t worship the devil. That’s clear. But…isn’t he the King of Kings and God incarnate? Maybe there’s a workaround here?
(Also, please note the devil is quoting scripture to back up his points. Which is why PROOFTEXTING IS BAD DONT DO IT.)
The sticking point here is the IF. If you are the Son of God, prove yourself! If you are who you say you are, prove yourself to ME! The devil wants Jesus to question who he is, God’s love for him, so that the devil can see proof of his identity.
And each time, Jesus says no. No, he doesn’t need to do that. No, he knows exactly who he is, and doesn’t need anyone else’s validation. He was there when John poured the water. He was there when the dove came down. He heard the voice from the sky. He knows exactly who he is. He doesn’t need the devil to comment on that.
Jesus’ strength here is rooted in his faith in his baptismal identity. He knows he is the Beloved Son of God, and nothing the devil can throw at him can change that—no magic trick, no sly questioning, nothing. The same is true for us—who we are, fundamentally, is children of God. Beloved, cherished, unique children of God, made in the image of our Creator. And nothing: absolutely nothing can take away from that core identity.
Over our lives, we face various temptations that would tell us that we need to prove ourselves. Prove ourselves worthy of respect, prove ourselves worthy of forgiveness, worthy of dignity, worthy of love. We hear the various voices of temptation in our ears from our world, telling us that really, if we just worked a little harder, bent a little more, then the world would validate us enough, and we could derive our identity from that instead. But this is the devil whispering sly lies into our ears again.
Our worth, our dignity, our loveableness rests entirely, and only in our identity as Children of God. We don’t ever have to do anything else. We don’t ever have to be anything else. We don’t ever have to buy anything else or achieve anything else. All the forces of the world that ask us again and again to prove ourselves worthy of love and dignity cannot take away the essential truth spoken by God at our baptism: we are God’s beloved, and with us God is deeply pleased.
Lent is a chance for us to rest soundly in that core identity, to let the world’s temptations to be something newer, better, shiner, go, and to relax into the knowledge that God has assured us that we, and the rest of humanity, are already cherished and precious.
***In toto, it will read, “Here lies Megan Castellan, beloved human, viewer of original Hamilton cast on Broadway, wearer of red shoes, first of her name, righter of wrongs. Do. The. Power. Analysis.” My descendants will have to shell out for this tombstone.