Who are you? More specifically, is who you think you are the same as what others in your life think of you? It is a challenging question, I know. It requires a bit of self-awareness on our own part, and a willingness to engage others about ourselves. And, let’s face it, many of us have different identities. At my kids school, I have four different identities. Depending upon who one speaks with, I am either Hannah’s dad, David’s dad, Mr. McVey, or Fr. Brian. All four are correct, though I chafe at number three--that one is the one used of my grandfather or father, you know, the older men in my family! But you get the idea.
Some of us here gathered may be identified with our job. You may be the barber, the engineer, the HR lady, the inventory control person, the plumber, the electrician, the teacher, the nurse, the housewife, or some other job. Perhaps you come from a family that has a well known name, like the Hatfield’s and McCoys or the Rockefellers or the Buffet’s. Maybe you identify yourself by your city. When I lived in central Iowa, I never understood all the jokes about the gated community of Bettendorf. Then I moved to the QCA. We laugh, but we also know that some people identify themselves by where they live. Let’s face it, who here wants to be from Missouri or Minnesota? Many of us here have been identified as mom or dad. Many are identified as grandma or grandpa. A few of us gathered here today have lived long enough to add the appellation “great” to our grandma or grandpa identity. Some of us may be identified by our politics. Democrat or republican or now, independent, are popular identities. And we are not the only culture to struggle over the question of identity, as evidenced by actions and rhetoric in the Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia. Some of us may even identify ourselves by the suffering in our lives? Know anybody with cancer or another disease who is known more for the struggle with the disease than anything else? How about failed relationships? There’s an old scene in Friends where Ross dreads being known as thrice divorced. So, given now you know of what I was asking, does who you think you are correspond to how others identify you?
In many ways, Lent is about our identity. Lent is that season in the Church when you and I are called to reflect upon ourselves and our relationship with God. How does God see me? You may have noticed this year that I have a bit of an edge to my pokings and proddings when you have come in to tell me what you are giving up for Lent. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have heard me ask “and how does giving that up draw you closer to God?” Keep in mind, I am not mocking you when I ask that question. Lent is a sober season, a brutal season. And it is my job to help you draw closer to Him. The world wants to convince us that we are unique. Either we can have it because we are special, or we need the world’s help because we are beneath notice. We are bombarded daily with self-help and get-rich schemes. There is a superficiality that is unacceptable in the Church, but especially during the season of Lent. During Lent, those new to the faith are called to remind ourselves that we are in need of a Savior. Those in the faith for a longer period are called to evaluate ourselves to see if we are maturing. And those estranged from God are called to repentance and a new start with God. All of us gathered here today should be a few days into that evaluation process. Part of the way that we evaluate ourselves is to ask others how they see us. How many of us have done this? How many of us have asked those in our lives whether they see Christ in us? And trust me folks, your friends and family and co-workers are watching you. You and your life may well be the best sermon they ever hear. And none of us, I suspect, wants people standing over our coffin or cremains container saying “huh, I never knew he/she was a Christian.”
Identity, of course, is a theme in all of today’s readings. There are other teachings, to be sure, but one teaching running through the readings is the question of identity. Three people in our readings actually have the identity God intended, though only One ultimately accepted it. Genesis begins with the sin of Adam and Eve. Think about that for a second. Adam and Eve had unfettered, unfiltered access to God in the Garden. Ultimately, seduced by the tempter, they rejected that identity. They ate of the Tree of which God commanded them not to eat. What happened? No longer were they able to accept who they were. They covered their nakedness with fig leaves. Think of how stupid that sounds to our ears. Uh, oh. My eyes are opened. I am going to cover myself with leaves so that God can’t see who or what I am. But how many of us do things that make just as much sense? I am going to make sure everyone knows how much I give so that they think I am a good Christian and that God is pleased with me. I am going to make sure that I help lots of people so that everyone thinks I am a good Christian and that God is pleased with me. I am going to memorize lots of Bible verses so that everyone knows that I read the Bible a lot and thinks I am a good Christian and that God is pleased with me. Lots of us have taken on the airs of modern Pharisees so that, externally we appear as holy and righteous, but inwardly we are rotten to the core. Unfortunately for us, all are trappings, all those external airs we like to show to the world, hide our identity from God as well as fig leaves did for Adam and Eve.
Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, also has to deal with the question of identity. This week, in Lent 1, we read about the so-called messianic temptations. If You are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread. If You are the Son of God, cast Yourself off the height of the Temple. And seeing those temptations fail, Satan tests our Lord by offering Him the easy path to Lordship. If You will fall down and worship me, I will give You the nations. Think of those temptations! The first two challenge Jesus’ relationship with the Father. Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God. And Satan is trying to trick our Lord, as He did Adam and Eve, into disobedience. In essence, Satan, like the crowds at the foot of the Cross in a few weeks, is trying to get Jesus to doubt His identity and to prove it to him (or them). Thankfully and mercifully, Jesus will not be deceived. Frustrated at that failure, Satan offers Jesus an easy path to lordship. The temptation is that there is no real need for Jesus to walk the path that leads to the Cross. He can revel in the false glory of Satan now, simply by choosing a different path. Again, thankfully and mercifully, Jesus chooses the path of obedience to God. We say thankfully and mercifully because, as Paul reminds us this morning in his letter to the Romans, Jesus’ faithfulness allows us to re-enter the relationship with God that He intended. Jesus’ faithfulness allow us to reassume our true identity!
I have danced a bit around the issue of identity this morning, but I have done so intentionally. Our readings today lay out well the human condition and the effort of God to call us back into right relationship with Him. God created us, human beings, to be in full communion with Him. You and I, like Adam and Eve, were intended by Him to understand that we were His beloved sons and beloved daughters. That, brothers and sisters, was the identity that He gave us! We belonged to Him. And much of the rest of Scripture deals with this problem of identity. Once we sinned, how does God see us? He sees us like we see harlots. He sees us for the adulterous creatures that we are. He sees us with so many fig leaves covering ourselves, with tattered garments replacing the glory He gave us. Instead of seeking Him in whose image we were created, we seek to “find ourselves” in our jobs or the wealth our jobs create, in our relationships, in the bottom of a bottle, in any number of idols which lead only to death. We became such an anathema to Him that our spiritual forefathers and foremothers were scared of His voice in Sinai, that they could not see His face even when He called them as prophets, that they over time began to subvert His teachings into what they thought His teachings should be. Hmmm. What do you know? Satan was right. We became like God. In fact, we became creations who thought they could do better than God.
Were this the end of the story, it would be tragic, indeed. Were it the final measure of our identity, you and I would be doomed. We would be known as our failures. As I have spoken today, I hope you have heard the Holy Spirit prompting you about your fig leaves. How do you identify yourself, really? How do those in your life identify you? The great news of Jesus’ success is that how we see ourselves and how others see us need not be the end of our story. If we have identified ourselves wrongly, if we have thought of ourselves as our own masters, if we have equated ourselves with our diseases or addictions, if we have traded our glory for rags, God only demands one thing from us: repentance.
Lent is that time when we reflect upon ourselves. We focus on removing those things from our lives which separate us from our true identity, and we take on those disciplines which draw us closer to our Lord, which is where we find our true identity. Lent is also a time when we concentrate on the love that Christ bore for us despite our sins, despite our failures, despite our rags. Those temptations that He resisted remind each of us of His power to save us and of His love for each one of us. Had He chosen any path but the one that led to Calvary, you and I would still be condemned. Now, however, as Paul reminds us, we who repent and call Him Lord have been restored to God. No longer does He see us with flimsy fig leaves hiding us. No. Now He sees His Son our Lord in us, and us in Him.
Brothers and sisters, many of you come here this day with incredible burdens. Some of us are struggling with particular sins. Some of us are struggling with serious disease and even death. Many of us are struggling in our relationships. And all of us wonder at times or even all the time whether His love extends to us, given all the fig leaves we have fashioned to cover our sins and failures. But just as the story of Genesis does not end with the curse of sin in the lives of Adam and Eve, neither do our own lives! You see, Lent leads inexorably to that wonderful Easter. You and I will watch in amazement and horror of the price Christ paid for our redemption. Better still, we will rejoice in our Lord’s faithfulness to His Son. Why? Our Lord’s obedience and glory is imputed to us, if we but repent. It really is that simple. He really does love each one of us that much.
As a discipline this week, let me encourage you to spend some time listening to God. How are you trying to identify yourself apart from Him? What ridiculous fig leaves have you fashioned to carve out your own identity? Ask around. Ask those who matter to you? Ask those who do not know you well, and pray on what you hear. Then ask yourself, are you content to keep wearing leaves and rags? Or would you rather exchange those leaves and rags for the glory of our Lord? Would you rather your Lord judge you on the the basis of your own identity? Or would you rather Him judge you on the basis of His?