Ash Wednesday rolled around, after a pretty unpleasant Tuesday. Most of my day had been spent trying to wrangle an unwilling sermon into something coherent, and finding my brain wiped out of energy by 2 in the afternoon – even though I’d taken multiple light days over the weekend. I was frustrated about my decreased capacity, since in graduate school I never ran out of mental steam so fast; discouraged that the sermon would be no good and that I wouldn’t make a big difference; and the whole day, craving to just go home and watch TV or play a game, but instead forcing myself to stay at work. I wasn’t over-the-moon excited, then, about beginning a season of fasting and self-denial.
So as I began the journey of Lent Wednesday morning, it seemed like a good idea to read the story of Jesus’ temptation. After all, that’s where the 40 days of Lent came from…so it seemed as good a place as any to start, even if Jesus’ temptations would be so much different than mine. Except, as I’d soon realize, they weren’t.
I started to read those familiar verses in Matthew 4… “Jesus was driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil.” And of course, the great antagonist appears and starts with that first temptation to turn stones into bread. But this time in a way I hadn’t been before, I was captivated by the way the tempter opened his dialogue:
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
Wait – those verses sound awfully familiar. Sure enough, I glanced up and saw the very ending of chapter 3, the Baptism of Jesus, where the heavens open, the Spirit descends, and the Father declares,
“This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!”
The contrast was so stark and obvious, though I’d never seen it before. The loving, proud Father had just, JUST publicly proclaimed to the world, “This is my beloved Son!” Not two verses later, the devil appears and tempts, saying, “If you are the Son of God…”
It’s as if God says, “I am so proud of you,” and the devil immediately whispers, “Prove it.”
At my ordination to pastoral ministry, my father gave me a charge. The text he used was the very same one I’d just read – the words “This is my beloved Son” from God to Jesus. As the students from my youth group presented me with the different stoles that symbolized the liturgical seasons I’d preach through in my role as a pastor, my dad shared with me which each one was a gift “from,” each of which saw me as a beloved son…one from my church. One from him. One from my late mother. He insisted with each that same great voice of pride, spoken by him, spoken by the church, spoken by my mom: “This is our beloved son!” Each and every one were so very proud of me, they assured. I left with a waterfall of tears, multitude of embraces, a check for thousands of dollars as a gift, and the words spoken over and over again – “You are our beloved son, and we are so very proud of you.”
I walked out of that church for the last time as a member, went on a vacation to Maine, then moved to New York. The next day, I walked into my new pastor’s office for the very first time. And right away, the whisper started: “Prove it.”
I wasn’t tempted to make stones into bread to prove I was the son of God – but I was tempted to work miracles to prove I was the son of God. I walked past a closed church, full high school of unchurched kids, broken homes along the main street, and constantly heard a voice in my head: “If you really are that beloved son, prove it. More people should be coming to church. More people should be converted. And if they aren’t…then are you really the beloved son?
The tempter’s next tactic with Jesus was the spectacular: “If you are the Son of God, jump off the temple.” After all, what a show of power – if God miraculously saved Jesus, it would really show who he was! I wasn’t tempted to jump off the steeple of my church to show I was the son of God, but I was tempted to prove myself with the spectacular. “You see that pulpit?” whispered the voice. “Every sermon has to be incredible. It better be making a difference. If you’re spending hours laboring on those every week, and no lives seem changed, then are you really that beloved son? Shouldn’t the new young pastor be starting programs, recruiting families? What if everyone who said you were the beloved son was wrong?”
Again the tempter’s final challenge to Jesus was different than mine; I have not necessarily been tempted to bow down to the devil in return for all the kingdoms of the world, so that’s good. But I certainly have been tempted to give in and worship someone else when I feel like I’ve failed in the previous two areas; namely, myself. “See how badly that sermon went? How useless that day was? How little a difference you made? You may as well just call it a day early. Go home and make yourself a big meal. Indulge and watch TV and play some games. Don’t bother reaching out to anyone.”
Comparing Corinth to a wilderness isn’t fair. I’ve been so well loved and supported by so many, God has worked in so many miraculous ways, and there is much I’m enjoying about my new life. But the contrast of voices rings a bell. Jesus went from the heavenly voice of God to the silence of the desert; I left a sanctuary full of people who knew me my whole life and walked into my empty home, and empty office, with no voice to keep me company but the one whispering in my ear telling me I wasn’t doing a good enough job, and that maybe everyone had been wrong. I test as a 3 on the Ennegram, which means I’m an “achiever”; I find self-worth in feeling like I’m doing a good job, and my great fear is that I’ll fail, and therefore be not valuable or worthless. Accordingly in a job where it’s hard to measure results, everything is intangible, it can be easy to have a deep fear that I don’t deserve the loving affirmations of “beloved son” I have been laden with.
But the words I found the most strength in that Wednesday morning were not Jesus’ quotations of Scripture in response to the devil; they were actually the same words that had been used to challenge and condemn me. Because those same words, uttered by God, “This is my beloved Son,” were spoken before Jesus’ temptation. Spoken before his ministry, before the cross, before any results, productivity, accomplishment, or hard work on his part. Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved Son had nothing whatsoever to do with what he did, what he accomplished, how successful he was or what results there were; he had the identity of God’s beloved Son, because God loved him, before and apart from whatever he did.
If Jesus’ standing before his loving Father was not dependent on what he did, than neither is mine.
In my short time here, I’ve watched God turn stones to bread. People have come back through the doors of the church that hadn’t for years, new visitors have joined the church, I’ve already been privileged with my first baptism. I’ve watched God do the spectacular. New youth and children’s programs are launching, I have felt fantastic about some sermons, and the positive energy in the church is palpable. I’ve resisted the call to worship anyone else, including myself, and been blessed by God to find a strong, consistent, healthy rhythm; I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in for several years, I’m developing a strong community of great friends, I am deeply loved by my people and despite the occasional challenge of living alone God has made it a precious and growing season. He has worked many miracles. As I drove back from the gym Thursday night, the swing from my Tuesday night was dramatic; I was recounting in my mind every incredible thing God had done in only the past week, and I had a lot to remember. God’s done incredible things in Corinth.
But the greatest miracle of them all is that no matter what miracles he may work in me or in Corinth, I am his beloved son; before and apart from anything I do, before and apart from anything that happens while I’m here, before and apart from my own accomplishments and achievements. I am his beloved son, and that can never be taken away or changed, not by failure, not by sin, not by shortcoming, and not by Satan.
How freeing Christ’s last words in that temptation were: “Go away, Satan!” And then he left the desert and began his ministry. Some would be blessed, some would believe, some would respond, some would not; but whatever happened, Christ’s victory over temptation showed that great truth: he was God’s beloved Son, and no one could ever change it.
And neither can I.
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