I wonder if every preacher feels a bit of a fraud; either every week or just occasionally. Not just do you find your own life being held to the light of Christ by the words you are inspired to share, but you feel like the congregation should be able to see the gaping holes in it to boot!
Certainly that was my experience on Sunday as I made my first foray back “into the pulpit” since Christmas Day, and it was made worse by the image of identity fraud that I took from the weeks news. The sermon focus’s specifically on Christ’s temptations in the desert, but also makes a nod in the direction of Romans 10:8b-13 and includes references to our desire for folk at St. Peter’s to take time this Lent for a spiritual MOT through attending one of our homegroups.
Since delivering the sermon (see below) I have been particularly struck by a posting from Bishop Alan suggesting we take Six Days in Lent doing something/s that “will nourish your soul”. I’m not sure I can manage that, though getting things straight at home is soul nourishing itself after the last few months! My Lenten soul food will have to be through the final essay required by the University for my Foundation Degree – as yet, not even the research has been started, but more of that another day.
So, identity fraud – see what you think of the image, and whether it helps or hinders you:
We regularly hear or read stories in the news that tell us all about the dangers of identity fraud:
This week we’ve probably all heard the story about a group of Europeans living in Israel who appear to have had their identities used in the assassination of a high ranking Palestinian official. The European’s and their governments are understandably upset that this has happened.
And there are warnings of internet scams using the logo’s of well known groups like Unicef and SOS Children’s Villages to fraudulently gain money from us by creating the misapprehension that we are giving money to help people in Haiti.
Both examples are of identity fraud which is part of some criminal activity, either on the part of a particular nation, or on the part of an individual.
But, we’re all quite capable of undertaking identity fraud ourselves! We do it every time that we try and create an image of ourselves that isn’t strictly accurate; passing ourselves off as something we aren’t, covering up our real characters to create the right impression for a specific situation or moment in time that’s important to us.
Those of us that have dabbled in amateur dramatics may have a legitimate reason for creating a false persona, and enjoy being given the opportunity to be something we aren’t. I vividly remember at the age of 17 being allowed a largely non-speaking part in what I think was an American temperance play called “The Drunkard”. Not much more than a piece of stage scenery, I was able to indulge (with a little help from an authentic glass of gin) a taste for low cut blouses, split skirts and older men that was surprisingly fun and perhaps taught me a little bit about myself?!
But I guess at some times in our lives, we haven’t needed to be on stage to try and create the impression of being something other than we are: like a child in school trying to gain a much needed housepoint by being unusually helpful to a teacher, or lowering themselves to a behaviour level that gets approval from what appears to be the “in crowd”?! Or changing the wording of our CV or our mode of speech at an interview, to create an impression that will impress so that we can gain a job, a promotion or some other position that we think we need, but which might not sit quite happily with our past skills or even our beliefs.
Identity is about character; about being authentic to who we really are. Our true character is discovered by how we react to different situations and types of people when we’re under pressure or think no-one is looking, and how we respond to the challenges that we face in life. It’s not an act, or an image created for an audience, and it changes and develops as we mature and come to a better understanding of what is important to us. Those who undertake identity fraud can’t or won’t live up to the characteristics of the people they are impersonating, because they cannot really understand what it means to be that person, and are only using the identity as a means to a specific end.
In this mornings Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent, the devil is trying to get Jesus to commit identity fraud: is Jesus able to be true to his character as both fully human, and fully God, placed on earth by God as God’s Son? What characteristics will be authentic to both parts of who Jesus knows he really is?
The devil also knows full well that Jesus is the Son of God. But the devil (the same power of evil at work in the world that brought sin into the human relationship with God) wants Jesus to use a set of characteristics that would make him step aside from the identity that God has publicly acknowledged at his baptism.
The devil wants Jesus to be selfish (turning rocks into bread to feed himself), demanding of authority and obedience in the world, and manipulating of both circumstances and those closest to him, to test how important to them he is. The temptations Jesus faced corresponded neatly to the pressures of the world, then and now: they are economic, political and religious.
But Jesus’s character was that of Israel’s rightful king, not bringing about the liberation of the Jews from Rome, but finally overcoming a far more difficult enemy with whom Israel had been grappling for centuries longer – the devil himself. Is it any surprise then, that the first thing that Jesus has to deal with at an individual level after being acknowledged as God’s Son, is the very force that he is actually on earth to overcome on behalf of Israel and thereby the world?
However clever and convincing the temptations were that Jesus found himself aware of, he was able to deflect and defeat them. He understood who he was and what his ministry on earth was so well that he didn’t even succumb to trying to argue with the devil’s ideas. Instead Jesus turned to scripture, dismissing the devils suggestions as not being authentic to his calling, interpreting scripture through a clear commitment to God rather than following the devil’s lead and twisting a scripture out of context to meet his need.
Most of the images in this passage, and the references made to Jewish scripture, we may recognise as harking back to the period following the Exodus when Israel wandered for 40 years in the wilderness; a period when they grumbled for bread, flirted with idolatry and put God to the test. The Jews also understood it as a period of transition; the Israelites changing from their role as slaves, to become a community within the demands placed on them by freedom under God’s direction, and as their identity was formed as a nation of God’s people.
Unlike Israel, Jesus, as that nations new representative before God, doesn’t see himself as exempt from obedience to those commands, and honours his dependence on God for the power and authority with which he will act with humility and justice during his earthly ministry. Jesus takes an initial victory over the power of evil by dismissing it from his own life, and is therefore able to begin his public career knowing that his enemy is beaten on the first field of play that really matters.
So as we enter Lent, that period when are encouraged to review our lives with honesty and humility, I wonder to what extent we can admit to carrying out identity fraud? How much is our identity as a Christian part of our character in private? Or have we allowed ourselves to become prey to the designs of the devil in our own personal wilderness experiences?
The Judean wilderness in which Jesus spent 40 days, is a place of arid rock, thin soils and few people; a location popularly regarded as a dwelling place for demons. Today in Britain, our so-called wilderness areas are probably far more attractive; places of beauty and tranquility where many of us would chose to go to top up our physical and spiritual reserves, possibly where we’re able to hear God better than normal. The demons of temptation are far more likely to appear in the modern wilderness areas of over-commitment, busy-ness, and self-centred sacrifice, or the emptiness of bereavement and illness when we have so much worrying us it is easy to forget from whom we can gain the faith and strength to continue our lives from a new point.
It’s easy isn’t it to lose not so much our faith in Jesus as Lord, raised from death to break the power of sin over us (as we heard in our Epistle) but our memory of what in reality that means for us as an individual. Jesus did not need a continual demonstration of God’s choice of him, which is why he didn’t fall prey to the third temptation, but if my experience is anything to go by, some of us may do. If we do not retain our identity as Christian’s in private, through prayer, scripture reading and through our relationships with others, we lose our focus on God and the fact that he chose and loves us for a purpose.
We are being encouraged this Lent to take a spiritual MOT, to use or join a homegroup so that we can take stock of where we are with God, and how much we’ve failed to withstand the devil’s suggestions – which often amount to us simply not doing those things that keep us close to God. I’ve started with this sermon, and the salutary reminder that we can not do God’s work in our own strength, for as Jesus reminds the devil “we do not live by bread alone,” or as the Message version has it “takes more than bread to really live.”
But, we can not take our personal, spiritual MOT in isolation from the circumstances and relationships that surround us. That is why Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ temptations are set between his baptism and his difficult trip home to Nazareth – our identity as Christians includes not just our relationship with God, but our existence in community with those among whom we live, and grow and worship, and to whom we must talk about his great love for us.
When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, their identity as God’s community was being formed. They messed up and got things wrong, but always re-turned to God, seeking as best they were able to be obedient to what he would have them do, and where he wanted them to go. This year, I feel that has something particular to say to us in St. Peter’s: I personally believe we are moving into a period where we are being given a new identity as a community of Christian’s and it is an experience that leaves us susceptible to spiritual attack – the more we seek to follow where God is leading us, the more we need to be aware, corporately and individually that the devil will try and lead us astray.
Psalm 91, that in the Gospel passage the devil tries to manipulate, is an expression of trust in God’s protection. It does not envisage that we put God’s protection to the test, but that we remember that it exists, at all times and in all places. Even if we’ve been through a time when perhaps we have been guilty of some identity fraud as far as our faith and witness in public or in private are concerned, we remain in the Lord’s sheltering presence, which can be both a refuge from and a fortress against any work of evil. God will respond to our love and acknowledgement of him, whatever lapses we’ve had, because the same God, who Jesus remained so faithful to from that first spiritual battle at the beginning of his ministry to his death on the cross, is our Lord and says to us:
“Because they love me, I will rescue them;
I will protect them, for they acknowledge my name.