There are two ways to think about what is happening when someone is tempted. The first is to imagine temptation as enticement toward something bad and wrong. This is probably the more common of the two. But there is another way of thinking about it. Temptation could also be seen as encouragement away from something good and right. Lent begins with an opportunity to contemplate Jesus’ temptation, and the second seems more helpful.
Before we get to the text itself, there is a uniquely Lukan detail in the context worth noticing. All three synoptics tell us Jesus’ temptation followed His baptism. Matthew and Mark move the narrative directly from one to the other. Luke, however, interrupts this narrative movement with a lengthy excursus. Immediately after the voice announced Jesus as the beloved Son, Luke inserts His genealogy which goes all the way back to the beginning. Jesus is not only the son of Joseph, and the son of David, and the son of Abraham. He is also “the son of Adam, the son of God.” (Luke 3:38) It is as if Luke wants to be crystal clear about Jesus’ identity before he tells us about His temptation.
This matters for how we read Jesus’ temptation. Instead of focusing too heavily on what Jesus is tempted toward, you might consider what Jesus is tempted away from. And what is that? His identity. “If you are the Son of God…,” the Devil explicitly says to Jesus twice (v. 3 and 9). The message is clear: “You are not really who the Father says you are.”
We have a phrase from this. It is called identity theft. Your hearers are familiar with it. They understand the dangers and the damage that can be caused when one’s identity is stolen. Which is why they work hard to protect their social security numbers, bank account numbers, and credit card numbers. But they may only think about the economic woes caused by identity theft. This text invites you to open their eyes to a different (and much more serious) type of identity theft.
Since the text focuses on Jesus’ temptation (and not ours), it is a good idea for the sermon to do the same. Jesus’ identity was clear from His baptism and the genealogy. When the Devil called Jesus’ identity into question, he was simply doing business as usual. You can hear echoes of his question for the first Adam, “Did God really say?” (cf. Gen. 3:1) In response, the second Adam does not explicitly affirm His God-given identity. Instead, He lives it out through faithful obedience to what God has said and written. Unlike the first Adam, Jesus knew who He was and what it means for daily living (In this light, notice Jesus used the Scriptures to affirm His own identity).
This is where we and our hearers come into the picture. The baptized believers in your congregation have also heard the Father make them His daughters and sons in their baptism. By faith they have been grafted into His genealogy. Like Jesus, they continually face the threat of identity theft as the evil foe tries to create doubts about who they are and how they are to live. “If you are the son of God…” “If you are the daughter of God…” “Did God really say?” Rather than casting temptation in their lives as enticement toward bad thoughts, words, and deeds, help them recognize the ways in which they are enticed away from their baptismal identity. This gives you the opportunity to proclaim again their true identity. You can do this by focusing their attention on the identity of Jesus, the Son of God for us. That is who He is, and that is who He makes us to be.
Which reminds me of something my mom used to say to me when I was growing up. She usually said it when I was leaving the house for something, whether it be a basketball game, a class trip, or an overnight at a friend’s house. She would walk me to the door, or drop me off at the curb, and then say to me: “Remember who you are.”
*One more note about preaching with an identity theft theme. Those who have been victims of identity theft report feelings of violation and vulnerability. If you use this metaphor in the sermon, therefore, it would be wise to ask around in your congregation ahead of time this week to see if anyone has experienced it. This would do two things. First, it will sensitize you to the emotional trauma of those who know this crime first-hand. This might help you avoid saying things that could become an obstacle for some of your hearers. Second, listening to victims of identity theft will help you understand the personal violation these victims have experienced, which can help you speak more knowledgeably to all your hearers about their Christian identity.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 4:1-13.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 4:-1-13