Thursday, 18 February 2016

True Identity (Luke 4.1-13)

There are times in our lives when we are fairly confident who we are.  We are confident about our identity, where we live, and what we are doing.  There are other times when we are not so sure.  For example, if we find ourselves out of work or perhaps in retirement – old routines and old certainties are lost and we may wonder ‘who am I now?’

                More and more we are required to prove our identity – at the bank, at the solicitors, and even now at the church.  The Immigration Act 2014 makes it unlawful for the marriage of any person who is not a UK national, a Swiss national or a national of a country in the European Economic Area, to be solemnised, in the Church of England, by banns or common licence.  So I now have to check the identity of every couple coming to hear their banns.  There’s a 14-year prison sentence awaiting any vicar who wilfully ignores this Act.

                 1Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, 2where for forty days he was tempted [tried, tested] by the devil. To do what? For me it’s not so much tricking Jesus into doing naughty things as testing Jesus about his true identity.  Will Jesus embrace a false understanding of what it means to be Son of God?  What vision has he got for being the Messiah, and what means will he be prepared to use to achieve it? 

                Firstly, Jesus is tested about his use of power to satisfy his own needs. ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’  How will he use his power in days to come? Then it’s:  If you’ll worship me, all the kingdoms of this world will be yours.  Leaving aside whether the devil could fulfil that promise or not, it’s actually idolatry. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only Jesus retorts. Finally, put on a show to convince everyone.  Do something spectacular, something to wow the crowds: Throw yourself off the temple roof and let God’s angels catch you.  The devil is trying to get Jesus to deny who he truly is and to embrace a false identity. 

                We may have great sympathy with a Woody Allen character who complains: ‘If only God would give me a sign.  If he would just speak to me once. Anything. One sentence.  Two words. If he would just cough.’  But, if we are praying: Go on God, why don’t you do something spectacular to convince my sceptical friends – we might be playing the devil’s role in such a moment, wanting Jesus/God to be or to do things contrary to his true identity?

                In chapter 22 of this gospel, in Jerusalem before the last supper, we read: Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot …. [and he] … went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. Jesus hadn’t lived up to Judas’ early expectations, Jesus hadn’t behaved in the ways Judas thought he would or should.  So he betrays him for 30 pieces of silver.  Who knows, perhaps he thought he could force Jesus’ hand, force him to do something spectacular.  But sadly, if that was the case, he was wanting Jesus to act in a way contrary to his calling, contrary to his identity as Son of God, Messiah.

So, what about ourselves?  How are we tested in our own identity as Christians?  That, I think, is a very good question for the beginning of Lent.  Who has God called us to be?      St. Paul writes: If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [2 Cor. 5.17] Paul had a great mind but he is not saying ‘I think therefore I am’, rather it’s: ‘I’m loved therefore I am - a new creation, I have a new identity in Christ, a new way to live.’

                Identity can be so misused if I define myself by my job or my family, my nation or tribe. The best Lent book of recent times - Graham Tomlin’s Looking through the Cross (2014) – discusses the issue of identity.  He tells us of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna who was executed under emperor Marcus Aurelius in 155AD.  When pressed at his trial he said: ‘if you pretend not to know who I am, I will tell you plainly: I am a Christian.’   He didn’t identify himself as a native of Smyrna, or even as a bishop but simply and plainly as a Christian.

                Of course, I can misuse my identity as a Christian too, use it as a badge to separate myself from others, define myself over and against others.  Tomlin writes of the importance our Christian identity being forged in the cross (page 95):

‘A new identity that emerges from identification with Jesus on the cross is one that places me in the same relation to others as the crucified Jesus has: called to offer myself for the good of others, to that same self-sacrificial love displayed on the cross.  If the cross points us to a God whose most essential characteristic is love, then our new identities are bound up in that same God – we are to be re-made around love, re-defined as those called to a life of love and self-giving.’

This is a high calling, there is nothing wimpish about being a Christian whose identity is forged in the cross.  Those that think that Christianity is a crutch for those who can’t face the challenges of life have fundamentally misunderstood it.   But let’s be encouraged this morning - Jesus said: In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. [John 16.33] And in Romans this morning Paul has told us that we can trust God to keep all of God’s promises: Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Freed to live, without restriction, in the new identity he has won for us.