March 5, 2017
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States. It is a faceless and devious crime with all the trademarks of Satan’s creative work. Some have compared the experience to rape. Without notice, it claims a victim, on average, every two minutes. The annual cost is a staggering $16 billion and rising. Silently, and with cunning, a hacker on the prowl can infiltrate your files and take over your life with relative ease, decimating your finances, destroying any sense of self and leaving little hope that justice will ever be achieved.
In the Gospel story for this first Sunday of Lent, Jesus encounters a form of identity theft, or at least an attempted robbery. After his baptism in the Jordan, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he endures forty days and nights of fasting and prayer before Satan arrives to take advantage of his weakened state. With inducements that will compromise Jesus’ integrity, Satan tries to rob him of his identity as the Son of God.
Testing character through trial and temptation is a recurring theme in scripture. Adam and Eve were tested – and failed miserably. Ancient Israel failed repeatedly, as do we. But Jesus overcomes, and it is his example that we look to today as we enter into our own 40 day period of discipline and prayer. In the days and weeks ahead we are to model both the conditions in the wilderness and Jesus’ responses to Satan’s propositions, as we re-affirm his true identity as the Messiah, The Christ, and our own, as beloved children of the same Father. Lent is an opportunity to grow deeper into Jesus’ true identity, to “put on Christ” as The Apostle Paul says, and become Christ for each other.
With each temptation Satan proffers, he invites Jesus to turn his trust away from God. Turning stones into bread would sate Jesus’ hunger, but it would also establish his own abilities, independent of his Father. Satan again tests Jesus by ordering up a dramatic, death defying and unnecessary miracle, for show. Finally, Satan offers Jesus all the power and glory of the world’s kingdoms, if he will give his allegiance and devotion to his Tempter, Satan.
The Tempter tries to coax him into acting out of character. If Jesus accepts Satan’s propositions, he will not be his true self. Temptation, by its very nature feels wrong. We become uneasy, or we should, when temptation calls, because it threatens our fundamental identity as children of God. When we fall into sin, we are not the people God intends us to be. Ultimately, Jesus triumphs over Satan with total commitment to his Father’s will. At each moment of decision, he entrusts his identity and future to God’s character and holy Word. 
But temptation is not once and done. Jesus would have other moments of doubt ahead of him. Nor, is it always about food, security or power. The focus of our desire might be youth, beauty or wealth, or “sex, drugs and rock and roll,” depending on your proclivities. On one level each temptation is distinct, yet on another they are all the same. They all aim to shift our allegiance, trust and confidence away from God and toward some substitute that promises a different, more glamorous identity. We are not protected from doubt, need or desire. As heirs of Adam and Eve we will always fall short in claiming our God given identity.
Jesus’ identity hangs on one, small, but significant word – “if.” “If you are the son of God…” Satan asks, not once, but twice. There is an unstated possibility behind the word “If” that Jesus really isn’t the son of God, that Satan is challenging him to prove himself. But the whole of the New Testament exists to affirm that Jesus is indeed the son of God. God himself had just identified him at his baptism with the words, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” Satan does not dispute this, but he is jealous, and determined to sabotage their relationship.
As he appears in scripture, literature and the arts, Satan is the personification of evil; that abstract force that can wear us down and lead us to conclude that “the devil made me do it.” Jesus is vulnerable after his ordeal, a condition Satan is counting on, but it is not the pesky red devil with a pitchfork who trips us up. Satan, to me, is that inner, dark and imperfect self that acts as my own worst enemy, and I have no one to blame for bad choices but myself. Temptation doesn’t come from some phantom hobgoblin, but from our own broken, confused and often very needy human condition. 
It can be hard sometimes to embrace our humanity. Lent, if we honor it appropriately, will show us just how poor we really are as human beings. To be human means knowing that we are not sufficient in ourselves, that need is a permanent part of our condition and, most importantly, that there is no permanent filling of that void except through relationship with God. In the words of St. Augustine, “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”
Satan’s strategy plays on our vulnerabilities and his game plan works brilliantly at many levels. If we examine the evolution of modern advertising we will recognize a diabolical plan to create in us an even greater sense of inadequacy and need, followed by a promise that the advertised product will relieve our insecurities and bring us joyous satisfaction. We are led to believe that by buying and using a particular laundry detergent, or smart phone, or pill, we will somehow increase our self-worth and be more successful, more desirable and more complete. The temptation is to define ourselves by what we have, or don’t have, rather than through our relationship with Christ.
In the end Jesus rejects Satan with complete confidence in Holy Scripture, which serves him well. His NO to Satan is his unequivocal YES to us and our humanity. When God took the radical step of becoming fully human, he did not dress up as a character to play a role. He set aside his divinity and took upon himself fully and completely, the poverty of the human condition. He was tempted by Satan to betray his humanity by exercising the power of his divinity, and we must not betray our humanity by pretending we have the power of God.
Jesus emerges from his trial in the wilderness confirmed in his identity. The cross he will bear, the crosses we ourselves carry, are signs of God’s total commitment to us; signs that Jesus remains true to his Father, true to himself and true to his promises. Satan tempted Jesus to use his status as God’s Son for his own glory, and Jesus had a choice – to satisfy himself, or the will of his Father, from whom he receives, and with whom he shares his identity. Jesus fully understood the nature of his identity and refused to allow Satan to redefine him in any other terms.
The journey through Lent inevitably leads to the self-sacrificing love of the cross, revealing God’s true nature and ours, made in his image. Each week, at the altar rail, we “become what we receive,” upholding and affirming the identity we take on in Jesus Christ. In knowing our true selves we come to know what has caused God to love us so abundantly. We learn to love ourselves as God loves us, an empowering and life changing awareness. We too are his beloved, with whom he is well pleased.
At the heart of today’s Gospel is the very reason we come together to worship each and every week. Tempted in myriad ways to lose our faith in God and confidence in ourselves, we come to church to affirm our faith and reclaim our identity as beloved children of God. With so many cultural assaults on our core identity, we especially need these coming weeks to remind us of who and who’s we are. Our eyes are fixed on the cross because it is there, in that disturbing and painful image, that we perceive most clearly God’s empowering love for us and the world. 
There is one more significant “If” to consider at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, and a bit of irony. One of the two criminals crucified alongside Jesus questions his identity in the same way that Satan did in the wilderness. He asks Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself and save us.” Well, he is, and he did, and that is what Lent is all about. May it be for us a holy and faith affirming journey of love. Amen
 David Lose, Working Preacher
 Br. R. Esperence, SSJE
 David Lose
 SSJE Eucharistic prayer
 David Lose