Jesus’ resistance to the devil is grounded in knowing himself beloved. (Listen.)
*If.* It’s a very small word with a very big weight, and I hear it all the time. If only I prayed hard enough … If I were a good enough Christian … If I read my Bible more … If I just tried harder … If I really trusted God … How many times have I heard some iteration of this, sometimes from the people I listen to, sometimes within my own head?
If I only did this, prayed that, had more quiet time, read my Bible, ran a soup kitchen and really, truly turned my heart to God, then everything would be okay. My mental health would be great and my chronic condition might clear up and my relationships would all be wonderful. I’d be so much more loving and patient and kind and I’d never be lonely and I’d never be sad and I’d never ever ever ever hunger or thirst again.
And after two years of lockdowns and sickness, and fear both real and anticipatory, the “ifs” are becoming particularly insidious: for many of us are blaming ourselves for not coping too well. For being afraid of physical gatherings. For feeling exhausted after social events. For letting our kids see that we are struggling. For having little capacity for new ideas or conflict. For bursting into tears at the least provocation. For never really wanting to go out.
If only we were better Christians / trusted God / prayed more, we think, we’d be totally fine. God would reward us with health, happiness, or, at the very least, peace of mind. It’s a dilution of the narrative we often hear from big churches and, in a slightly different form, from major corporations and the wellness industry. It’s the narrative which drives some to believe that the blood of Christ will protect them from Covid and that vaccines are unnecessary; that people are to be blamed for their own suffering; and that faith is rewarded with material wealth. And while we here at Sanctuary have largely rejected the excesses of such doctrines, we can still be vulnerable to their little lies. If I just tried harder, if I was a better person, if only I could transform my thinking …
So I’m here to tell you that this is wrong, wrong, wrong: for the Bible tells me so. Even Jesus struggled; even Jesus wrestled; even Jesus was hungry, and suffering, and powerless, and ineffective. To see, let’s turn to the gospel according to Luke.
As you might remember, early on Jesus was baptized with all the people: in the crowd, among us. Then “heaven was opened, and the Holy Breath descended in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven: “You are my son, the beloved; I am delighted with you.”” (Luke 3:21-22).
This happened before Jesus had done anything much. That is, he’d been born and circumcised and presented and blessed at the Temple: all of which demanded nothing from him. A few years later, he’d debated with rabbis in Jerusalem, which tells us that he was growing up in an observant household and learning scripture and tossing around some ideas of his own. But then he’d gone home with his parents and grown up some more. Meanwhile, around him his family was doing stuff, and John was doing stuff, but we are not told that Jesus was doing anything much at all. There was no teaching, no healing, nothing but a choice for God. But that was plenty, for as the voice from heaven said at his baptism, “You are my son, the beloved; I am delighted with you.”
Then this: baptized, filled with the Holy Breath and the assurance of being beloved, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. And there, he is tested.
“If you are the Son of God …,” says the devil: and Jesus wonders. Am I really the Son of God? How can I prove it? What will it take? If I were really God’s child, would I be so famished: for food, for love, for companionship? Would I hunger so much for healing, for acceptance, for physical touch? Would I pray more, work harder, do more with my life? Would I have more friends?
And he wrestles. Jesus Christ, Son of God, baptized and beloved, wrestles. Because this is not a quick multiple-choice test, over in an instant. This is the test that comes during forty days of struggle, prayer and fasting, as he wonders “if …”.
If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, satisfy yourself through your own efforts. Pray harder, and see the results. Change your own thinking, and you’ll be fine.
But then Jesus sees the trap. He remembers that there is no “if.” Already, he is God’s son. He did not earn it. He doesn’t need to prove it. And he realizes that it doesn’t provide a safety net. He might be hungry, but he’s still God’s beloved; still filled with the Holy Breath. And so he steps away from the trap.
But then: “If you are the Son of God,” says the devil, “throw yourself down; God’s angels will protect you.” Again Jesus wrestles. If I am God’s child … am I God’s child? How do I prove it? Surely I have power. Surely I am called to have a serious impact on the world. I might need to cut a few corners, take a few risks, but God will protect me: I’m here to have an effect.
But again Jesus remembers: there is no “if.” Already, he is God’s son. He did not earn it. He doesn’t need to prove it. And it doesn’t provide a safety net. He might be suffering and powerless, but he’s still God’s beloved; still filled with the Holy Breath. Again, he sidesteps the trap.
Friends, we are in the season of Lent, a forty-day period which recalls Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. During this season, many of us engage in more intentional prayer, reflection, fasting, acts of mercy and justice, and meditation on the scriptures. We seek to strip away all that which turns us from God; and we seek to follow Jesus ever more closely. And these are all good things to do.
But as we do them, let us not make the mistake of striving for our own salvation; and let us not berate ourselves for our hunger, our suffering, our powerlessness and ineffectiveness: because these were Jesus’ realities, too. He was hungry and thirsty. He was persecuted and he suffered. He was rejected and denied; and his power was known only in the weakness of self-giving love as he was raised up on the cross.
So this Lent, let us lay down all our “ifs”, and let us take up our identity as beloved children of God. For we have entered into Jesus’ baptism; and so we have been raised with him into belovedness and into God’s delight. Right here, right now, before we’ve ever done anything much. Like Jesus, we didn’t earn it. Like him, we don’t need to prove it. And as it was for him, it doesn’t provide a safety net. God’s children can be hungry, suffering, ineffective and powerless: but they are still God’s beloved; still filled with the Holy Breath.
So let us sit in the wilderness in our hunger, in our suffering, in our ineffectiveness and powerlessness. Let us sit in our fears and our illnesses and dis-eases. Let us sit in our faith and our unfaith; in our exhaustion; in our tears. For we have nothing to prove. God’s love is a gift and God already delights in us. Let us be still, and remember this.
Above us, an eagle soaring. Beside us, brother Jesus and his community. Within us, the Holy Breath. It is a long forty days, no ifs ands or buts. Breathe in, breathe out: and sit. Ω
Reflect: How do you strive for your own salvation? What do you need to let go of? What stops you from simply resting in God’s love?
A reflection on Luke 4:1-13 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary on 6 March 2022 (Year C Lent 1) © Sanctuary 2022. Image shows Christ in the Desert, by Ivan Kramskoi (1872). Public domain.
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