Who do you belong to?

Years before we went to seminary, my family attended a little Episcopal Church in San Jose California. The deacon there was a woman with a wicked sense of humor. She helped the rector impose ashes on Ash Wednesday. We were all there kneeling at the altar rail in this modern church in the round. As many of you have recently experienced, the priest or deacon comes by and makes a sign of the cross with ashes on your forehead. In my case the deacon steps in front of me, sees this vast expanse of real estate in front of her, and with a devilish grin she makes a giant ashen cross from one end of my bald head to the other as she says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

If you are baptized, then you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. That smudge on your forehead on Ash Wednesday is a reminder that you belong to God. It is a re-mark of your identity.

Jesus goes into the desert after his baptism. He too has been marked, but at this stage of his journey, his very identity will be called into question. The devil begins his tempting with the challenge, “If you are the son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Jesus we know was fully human. Yes, at his baptism God declares, “This is my son, listen to him”. But do you suppose that Jesus may have some doubt about his identity at this point? Doubt is part of the human condition, and the devil offers Jesus a bargain: turn these stone into bread, jump off the roof of the temple, and you will never doubt again.

Jesus refuses the devil’s bargain not by acknowledging his power but by acknowledging his dependence upon God. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word which comes from the mouth of God.” Jesus does not respond to the devil by telling who he is. Instead he declares his dependency on the Word of God.

By declaring his dependence upon God’s Word, Jesus is also declaring he is fully human. At the core of every human being is a hole. We are all incomplete. We lack in fundamental ways. Many people foolishly try to fill up that hole with things such as wealth and power, and even various forms of addiction. Adam and Eve tried to fill their own hole with the fruit of knowledge. No matter what we try to put in that hole, the emptiness remains and we fear the dark loneliness that overtakes us.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal remarked that a fundamental characteristic of being human is to have a “God-shaped hole” in our selves. Christian life does not guarantee that your emptiness will be filled up with God. In fact that is just another kind of addiction. Christian life is not about getting beyond our finite limitations. It is about declaring our utter dependence upon God, just like Jesus did. Living not by bread alone but by God’s Word eventually brings us to the knowledge that God’s grace is all we need.

There is a troubling notion about God’s Word here that needs to be tackled. Most of us would agree that the Bible is the Word of God. Most of us would agree that as Christians we should always try to obey what is in the Bible. We would also agree that Jesus is the son of God and Jesus obeys God’s Word.

Yet right here in the fourth chapter of Matthew we have scripture being tossed at Jesus. Instead of obeying God’s Word that is given to him, Jesus disobeys and counters with another piece of scripture. Those who claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God that must be obeyed will have trouble with this passage.

God’s Word is much more than the umpteenth translation of a two thousand year old text on a page. God’s Word gives you life and breath; it animates your soul; it makes the universe run; it was present before the beginning of creation; it is true and if we reduce it to strictly text on a page or spoken words, it will be misused. Obviously God’s word reduced to spoken language can be used for evil purposes as the devil is trying to do with Jesus and as many well-intentioned people continue to misuse God’s Word today.

God’s Word depends upon who the speaker is, who the hearer is, their intentions, motivations, and in general the context. We ignore the broad sweep of the Bible, the history, the language, and the sociology of the ancient times at the peril of our very souls. To ignore the Bible along these lines is to rip the text free of its context. Once we do this we can assign almost any meaning or interpretation we want to the text. This process is going on in churches all over town right this minute.

This passage is not a “Jesus outsmarted the devil again” text. Nor is Lent about giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever your thing may be. It’s all about identity.

Can you turn down a $100M winning lottery ticket and acknowledge your complete dependency upon God’s Word? Can you spend the next forty days accepting the fact that you cannot fill up that empty thing inside you?

The Gospel promises us that Jesus who is “with us always even to the end of the age” has gone before us. He has gone into the most God-forsaken places of the wilderness; he overcomes the most difficult tests of being human; he endures the worst possible pain in an agonizing death. He is human. He is one of us.

Sometimes life deals us a hand we do not want to play. We may get a card that says “betrayal” or “loss of job” or “cancer” or “car accident” or “loss of loved one” or “loneliness” or even “lost.” There is not one of these cards that Jesus has not had first ,and we are assured that he will be with us every step of the way.

So the question is not who Jesus is or even who you are. The question is “Who do you belong to?”