Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Identities and Stuff

Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1 A, March 9, 2014

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
We are surrounded by advertisements. Wherever we go in public, whatever we read online or in print, ads are there. Now even the residential trash cans in Moline will have ads on them!

The videos that we stream online and the television shows that we watch live are also full of advertisements. In one hour of prime time television, there are at least 40 commercials, each of them unique. I know because I counted. Some of these advertisements simply sell their products or services, but others try to sell you more. Consider these three:

Rice Krispies' current ad shows a happy family making Rice Krispy treats. The mother has two adorable children who are eager to learn from their doting parent. Mom shows them how to press the Krispy treat into a plastic Easter Egg and leave the center hollow for M & Ms. Then the mother shakes the egg, making the candy inside jingle. The children squeal with glee. This commercial is not only selling a rice cereal - it is selling idyllic family time. 

Pacific Life has a commercial narrated by a recent college graduate. She describes how when she was ten, her parents agreed that if she earned grades to go to college, they would help pay for her education. Her father invested in Pacific Life so that he would have the financial resources to provide for her college degree. And this young woman was able, with her father’s financial help, to earn a degree in marine biology. Now she can research the same whales that are in the Pacific Life logo. This commercial is not only selling financial investments - it is selling educational success. 

“Sue” was given a Straight Talk cell phone and the accompanying plan. Now that her cell phone costs half of what she used to pay, she feels rich. So rich in fact that she hired a French bakery chef for the PTA bake sale. The commercial shows her utilizing her cell phone to receive credit card payments for the wonderful cupcakes that she has on display. This commercial is not only selling cell phone plans - it is selling a new way of life. 

Indeed, research shows that this is a somewhat new trend in advertising. Companies no longer focus their advertising on the merits of the products or services; instead, they create the image of a new livelihood. These commercials make you believe that they can make you better if only you spend a little money. 

Sure, families have great times making Rice Krispy treats, but the family makes the happy memories, not the cereal. Investments are important for affording a college degree, but money does not make a student successful. Cell phones can make communication easier, but they do not make anyone rich. Can a simple product or service change your identity?

The Gospel
A similar question based on today’s gospel - Can a simple temptation from the devil change your identity? Jesus says no. This passage takes place right after Jesus’ baptism, which we heard in January. At Jesus’ baptism, just like at the transfiguration that we heard last Sunday, God proclaims from the heavens, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Therefore, at Jesus’ baptism, all learned that Jesus was - and is - God’s beloved Son.

Then Jesus almost immediately goes into the wilderness. He fasts for forty days, so he is physically weak, literally starving, and possibly emotionally worn out as well. Although Jesus is only beginning his ministry, he knows what will come in the end. He might be questioning if he is ready for it all. If the devil has any chance of overpowering Jesus, this is it.

We often think that the devil is trying to get Jesus to sin, but I think that his temptations run much deeper. Tricking Jesus into sinning wouldn’t accomplish much, but tempting Jesus to walk away from his identity as Messiah would. If Jesus didn’t have to save the whole human race, his life could be a whole lot easier. If Jesus walked away from his divinity, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die. The devil wants Jesus to deny his role as Son of God. 

Each time that Jesus quotes scripture to prove the devil wrong, he is proclaiming that: He is the Son of God. He is the Messiah. He is saving his people. Nothing that the devil can do or say will ever change that. 

This temptation in the desert shows to us who Jesus is. Even after 40 days of fasting when he is weak almost to a breaking point, Jesus is still able to defend himself against the slyest tricks that the devil sends his way. No matter how worn out he is, his mind is still sharp. Jesus quotes scripture to defend himself in a way that few people can. Seeing Jesus like this, we know that he will make it to the cross, and he will lay down his life for us. No devil can stop him.

Our Temptations and Our Identity
We may not always be so gifted. Unlike Jesus, we are able to fall under temptation. So many of those products and services on the market are so alluring! Companies tell us that we can’t live without their stock, and we believe them. Even I have fallen into this trap. Recently, when my computer broke, within two days I had purchased a new one. How can I work without a computer? Sure, I preached from a hand-written manuscript that week, but even so I used another computer to do my prep work. I used my smart phone to check Facebook. 

We will certainly succumb to temptation from time to time, so I ask you: Does your stuff really change your identity? Does the type of cereal you buy really create family time for you? Do your investments create college degrees for you and your family? Does your cell phone enable you to hire a French chef? The answer is no. No product can change who we are, not even the Bible. The Bible is a source of inspiration and a tool for learning, but the Bible without God is nothing.

We have only one identity that matters. We are children of God. God loves us so much that God claims us as God’s own. No amount of the devil’s power can change this. Our God will always love us no matter what, and Jesus has already died and been resurrected so that we will live. The only thing that the devil can do is tempt us to doubt the truth of this. 

We are children of God. We are a testament of how Jesus is active in our lives. The devil has no power over Jesus, and may the devil also have no power over us. Amen.

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