This sermon was preached at St. John’s United Church, Marathon on Sunday, March 1, 2020. Based on Matt. 4:1-11 for Lent 1, Year A.
The “devil”, or “accuser”, in our reading today belongs not just in the wild place, leering at Jesus, but in any number of places in present-day Canada.
You can hear them by the cash register at Canadian Tire, in the classroom, on the TV, and in our homes.
They might look at your skin colour and ask: Where are you from? Sudbury? No. Where are you “really” from?
They might insist that if you don’t have a status card, well then you’re not “really” Native.
They might roll their eyes and whisper that you’re not “really” white, but you’re not “black” either.
The accuser’s comments are meant to cut deep into your heart, telling you you’re not “really” who you say you are. Trying to cast shadows of doubt on your identity. Trying to make you lose faith in who God created you to be.
“If you are the Son of God…” I’ve always wondered how hard that question cut at Jesus’ heart. Was the devil parroting Jesus’ own doubts and insecurities back at him? Did he ask himself the same question laying on his mat in the dark at night?
Before he’s driven to the wild place of sand and stones and brush, Jesus was at the shore. There was sunlight and water. He stood with John, he was submerged in the biting cool current of the Jordan, and he emerged to hear the voice of God, saying: This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.[i]
God made a claim on Jesus. God made a declaration. Paternity in the ancient world was always established by adoption. Because before we could test our blood or swab our mouths, fathers always publicly recognized their children. (We could only ever 100% establish maternity, since it’s pretty obvious.)
So, on the shores of the Jordan River God declares, look, see, this is my child.
There is no question of Jesus’ identity.
But, after the Spirit chases Jesus into the wilderness to fast and pray, we find the devil mimicking the serpent in the garden, trying to sow seeds of doubt.
This story reminds me of a colonial myth that settler people, especially white settler people, tell about those who are Indigenous to this land.
It’s the “blood quantum” myth. Have any of you heard of it?
Well, for those who haven’t it goes like this…
There is this idea that people are not made up of relationships and community ties; there is this idea that human beings are made up of “per-cents”. There is this idea that you can only claim belonging in a community if your blood is thick enough, weighted enough with connection to that people.
And so we get the idea of “three-quarters Cree” or “one-sixth Irish”.
This idea is harmful. Harmful because it’s communities that decide for themselves who belongs, who is family.
It’s harmful because it tells us that chosen family isn’t important, because it’s not “blood”.
It’s harmful because it perpetuates the lie that adopted children are somehow less our own than children we have a biological connection to.
I may not be a biologist but I know that our blood is just one big messy mash of cells and plasma. Human beings don’t work that way, we can’t be divided up, counting cells out in tidy lines.
But, we have this gross obsession with wanting other people to prove that they belong, to prove who they are.
Danny Senza writes in her book New People, that “When there is a gap—between your face and your race, between the baby and the mother, between your body and yourself—you are expected, everywhere you go, to explain the gap.”
From citizenship tests to… “he’s just going through a phase” to… being “not black enough” but not “white enough” either… there are devils on the street corner challenging us on whether we are worthier enough to carry the mantle of our own identity.
And heck, sometimes we fall into the same trap, because we’ve heard its chorus since we were little, and we find ourselves asking the same questions of others.
“If you are the Son of God….” How arrogant? That’s the great conceit of the accuser, that after God has already said the word the devil tries to invite in doubt.
A doubt that we carry around inside ourselves. Because how differently might we live if we believed with radical abandon that we are indeed children of God.
And, if you haven’t heard recently, let me repeat it, and then say it again for all you in the back: You are a child of God, God has staked God’s claim on you, it’s been publicly declared, and it cannot be denied, reversed or changed. … God has staked God’s claim on you. You are a child of God.
The Apostle Paul is preoccupied with questions of identity. He spends much of his theological writing, when he isn’t working on his Frequently Asked Questions for ancient Christians, focused on our identity as children of God; as inheritors of the promise between God, Abram and Sarai, and as the agents who will multiply God’s blessing in the world.
Paul, uses the cutting edge science of the ancient world, to try and explain the mechanics—the “how”—that allows us to be the children of God. (So, if any of you are interested in discussing Greco-Roman understandings of conception, let me know—we’ll go for coffee—it’s really interesting stuff.)
Paul wanted his churches to understand who they were, to not doubt their identity as children of God, to own it in their hearts and let it mould their behaviour. Because, when we feel secure in the knowledge of who we are it changes how we act in the world.
And when we deeply know that the other, the stranger, the enemy is also a child of God it changes how we act towards them.
Something I really admire about Jesus is that he doesn’t argue with the devil about who he is. Yes, he replies with references to scripture and religious teachings. Yes, he goes head to head with his accuser, but he doesn’t feel the need to justify who he is.
In fact, not once in the Gospels do we see Jesus trying to convince anyone of who he is.
He asks, “Who do people say that I am?” He responds obtusely to Pilate’s charge that he has been calling himself “king of the Jews”. But he never tries to persuade anyone. Instead he embodies his identity and authority without apology.
The blood quantum myth has another harmful effect, one Canadian lawmakers have used to their benefit. The Indian Act and the idea of “Status Indians” has sought the “extermination of [Indigenous] identity in two generations”, according to Chelsea Vowel, by constraining and legislating family relationships. When imperial power and authority gets to decide who is in and who is out, instead of those within the community, it’s an attempt to control, and in Canada’s case, to exterminate.
And, Christians have done this to one another throughout history, thinking we can legislate who gets to be a part of our family using church by-laws and life-style covenants to exclude.
Jesus owned his own identity as a child of God, and called those who follow his example “brother and sister”.[ii]That was his determiner.
In a nutshell, Jesus looks at earthly power and authority and says, “You don’t get to tell me whose in my family. My family are those who are positioned towards the kin-dom of God.”
There was no test. No initiation. No follow-up exam.
He merely asks us to follow him, carrying with us the knowledge that we are already children of God. Because it is the relationship that cements our identity.
And so, when the devil on the corner claims we aren’t “Christian enough” or “Christian at all”, we can know we are children of God, God has staked God’s claim on us, it’s been publicly declared, and it cannot be denied, reversed or changed.
My baby has started copying me. We wipe her face with a cloth after meals, and I’ll often let her hold it, trying to encourage her to begin the practice of cleaning her hands and face after meals. But if I’m holding her, or someone else is holding her, sometimes she’ll take that cloth and try and wipe your mouth with it.
Children mimic the adults around them—it’s their best tool for learning. And as children of God, as followers of the way of Jesus, we too are called to copy the patterns and practices that are modelled for us.
Lent has begun, and traditionally Christians would take up prayer, fasting, and charity as spiritual practices over these next weeks, as a way of preparing our hearts for Easter. I’m going to invite you to do something a little different this year.
I want you to think about the nature of God, our parent, of Jesus, our brother. I’d like you to write down one aspect, and to think over this Lenten season about how you can begin to mimic that behaviour, to make it a spiritual practice in your life.
Like children copying the adults they see around them, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Every day is a new start. But by recognizing the example set for us, and trying little by little to do the same with our own hands and feet we’ll begin to grow more like God, our mother and father, more like Jesus.
And I’ll be checking back in with you, asking how it’s going and letting you know how I’m doing over the next six weeks.
Let’s take this season to steep ourselves in the knowledge that we are children of God and to begin to look for that family resemblance—part nature, part nurture. We all carry the image of God in our beautiful eyes, unique skin and hair, in our muscles and our bones. And we are all able to become more Christ-like by listening to his stories, listening for his voice, and practicing together in this family of God.