Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
This past week, George and I watched the movie “Bridge of Spies.” If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s based on a true story, takes place in the early 1960s. Tom Hanks plays an attorney named James Donovan, who is appointed by the court to defend a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel against espionage charges. Donovan also later goes on to act as the negotiator who secured the exchange of Abel in return for the downed U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, and an American grad student named Frederic Pryor, who was being held by the East Germans. Early in the movie, Donovan is confronted by a CIA agent who tells him that the CIA needs him to tell them everything that Abel tells him in confidence. Donovan pushes back, reminding the agent that to do that would be a violation of attorney-client privilege, at which point the agent tells him, “Don’t go Boy Scout on me now; there is no rule book here.” But Donovan pushes back, saying there really, there’s one thing, just one thing, that makes us all American – the “rule book,” better known as the Constitution, which establishes that we all have equal rights, equal freedoms, equal justice, and equal protection under the law, no matter who we are.
The scene prompted me to think about what it is, exactly, that you could point to, that identifies us as people of the Kingdom of God. I mean, we don’t really have a single “rule book;” the Kingdom of God doesn’t have a “Constitution.” We can’t say the Bible works that way, since we all interpret it in so many different ways. And the same is true about any of the ancient creeds and confessions, since when you, or I, or anyone else, recite them, we can be saying that we believe very different things even though we’re reciting the exact same words. Fundamentalists tried to identify a basic “rule book” a little more than a hundred years ago and failed miserably. And in one way or another, every tradition tries to do the same – in the past couple of weeks, we saw in the news the United Methodist Church going through the painful process of arguing about their own “rule book” regarding who’s in, and who’s out, with regard to their own tradition.
In the end, I think that no matter how noble the attempt to have one might be, the idea of a “rule book” of any kind that would define, and unite, and regulate us as people of the Kingdom of God is bound to fail – because ultimately, I think that what really identifies us, in any meaningful sense, as being part of the Kingdom of God is one thing, just one thing: that God has unilaterally chosen to instill within each of us the Holy Spirit. The very Spirit of God dwells within each of us, whoever we are – regardless of any of our own differences, beliefs, variations – young or old, rich or poor, liberal or conservative, straight or gay, shy or outgoing, any gender, any race – it doesn’t matter. God has chosen to bestow the Holy Spirit upon us, whether in spite of or because of, all our differences. This is at the very core of our baptism signifies – that God has chosen to receive us, accept us, dwell within us. To comfort us when we need comforting, to challenge us when we need challenging, to strengthen us when we need strengthening.
It’s his same indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but in Jesus, that’s at the beginning of today’s gospel text. Luke sets the stage by reminding us in the very first line of this story that Jesus is filed with the Holy Spirit as these temptations begin. As the story unfolds, Jesus is tempted with three things: bread – sustenance. Power and authority, and you can throw wealth into here as well. And safety and security. Truly, pretty much any temptation that Jesus, or we, could ever face is just a variation on one of those three themes. The preacher David Lose has written that what we can see in each of these types of temptation is an attempt to undercut Jesus’ confidence in his relationship with God; to undermine his true identity and to get him to accept an artificial, lesser one.
It’s the same with us, too. When we’re being tempted, it always distills down to a temptation to stray away from our relationship with God and our true identity as a child of God that’s defined by that relationship.
In each of these three instances with Jesus, Satan tries to instill doubt, to undermine Jesus’ confidence in God. Satan tries to get Jesus to feel that who he is, what he is, in his relationship with God is somehow insufficient. It’s lacking something. It isn’t enough as-is. And in each case, Jesus resists the temptation by using scripture to remind Satan, and undoubtedly himself, of his identity as a beloved child of God – and that in that identity, he has enough and is enough. But not only is he merely enough, he’s actually so much more than that – he is precious, and of infinite worth in the eyes of God. And that is everything.
And in the same way, because the same Spirit dwells within us, we share that same identity. Each and every one of us is also a precious child of God. And that is everything.
In countless ways, the world around us tries to make us forget that identity. To forget how precious we are. To think that we’d be better off following another path. The season of Lent is all about taking time, and allowing this one thing, the Holy Spirit within us, to remind us, to refocus us, on our true identity as precious children of God; and reinforcing this truth within us, that there is nothing in this world, nothing, no matter how tempting it may sound, that could possibly compare with what we already have, and already are.
There’s another scene in “Bridge of Spies” where Abel, the spy, has just lost his case. He and Donovan are in a private meeting, and Donovan is going through all their possible options, filing an appeal and so on. As they’re talking, Abel tells Donovan that he reminds him of a man he’d known when he was a child in Russia. He saw this man, along with his own parents, being beaten by a group of partisan border guards. They beat this man and knocked him to the ground, but when they did, he stood back up. This angered the men, so they beat him to the ground again, only this time beating him even harder. But still, the man got up again. This went on several times, beating the man to the ground and the man getting back up each time. The men beating him couldn’t believe it, and in their disbelief, they called him “Stoichi Mujic” – Russian for “Standing Man,” and out of respect for his perseverance and determination, they finally left him alone.
In this gospel text, Jesus is most definitely a “stoichi mujic” – a standing man, standing again and again in the face of Satan’s multiple temptations. In a few weeks, we’ll hear the account of him being a stoichi mujic again – refusing to deny his identity and standing up against being interrogated by Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pontius Pilate. And finally, we’ll celebrate the morning where he was a stoichi mujic once more time – when he removed the cloth covering his face, and stood up against death itself as he rose to his feet in the darkness of his tomb on that first Easter Sunday.
This Lent, let’s remember the reality of this one thing that unites us – the Holy Spirit who dwells in Jesus and who dwells in us, too; and that with the help of that Holy Spirit, we can be “standing people” ourselves – standing up to temptation, and even more importantly, against whatever else the world might throw at us, holding on to our true identity as God’s own beloved.
Thanks be to God.