I’ve been thinking about relationships lately. This is for good reason, of course. I spent the first part of last week in Dubuque at the Rural Ministry Conference. It was really affirming. I heard something that I had heard many times in seminary, but it was good for me to hear again. Ministry is all about one thing: relationships, relationships, relationships. Without a congregation to serve (as I’m so blessed to do) I’m just someone with a very expensive Master’s degree and no real purpose. Without Chris, I can’t be a wife. Without Ellen, I can’t be a mom. Without my sister or brother, I’m not a sister. Without Christ, I am not claimed, saved, loved, and redeemed. It seems obvious, of course. But I also thought about those relationships that we take for granted. We figure this person or that person will always be there, and sadly, that won’t always be the case. I think we even introduce ourselves to people based on our relationships. When people first me and we get past the niceties of name, it’s usually a question of “what do you do?” My common answer is “I’m a pastor. I’m a mom. I’m married to Chris. I have a dog.” Do you hear that? Who I am is based all on relationships. My core identity as a baptized child of God is based on that relationship that started when God claimed me in the waters of baptism. Think about who you are. How many of your identities are based on relationships?
Today’s Gospel reading is about a relationship. I know it may not sound like it at first. But, listen again. “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” (verse 4) The devil says to Christ “if you are the Son of God” and what he is essentially saying is “if you are who you say you are” or “if you belong to whom you claim you belong” maybe even “if you really have a relationship with God” then…do this or that. And Satan questions that relationships twice in this reading. Both verses 3 and 6 include the phrase “if you are the Son of God.” In my mind I don’t hear this as Satan refusing to believe that this is true; but I hear him saying this as if he is mocking Jesus. It is interesting that the thing that Satan challenges Jesus on the most (his relationship to God) is what ultimately leads to the cross.
God has created us to be in relationship with one another. I think this is such an important point that I am going to repeat it again. God has created us to be in relationship with one another. There is this billboard that I see everyday when I take Ellen to daycare. It’s on highway 30 just as you’re coming into Clinton proper. I think it is for some sort of social service in Clinton county. It’s for a helpline and it says “parents, you’re not supposed to do this alone.” And everytime I see it I think to myself “are any of us really supposed to do “this” alone whatever “this” may be. Even Jesus, when he sent his disciples out from town to town instructed them to go in pairs. The animals assembled the ark in pairs. Even plants work better in pairs. Here’s a funny story related to that. I’ve heard the story of my parents, being new in their marriage, and they planted a garden in their backyard. They planted your standard “garden” vegetables: tomatoes, squash, onions, etc… and, wait for it, one row of corn. Just one. I don’t think I have to tell you why that didn’t work. (Just in case you don’t know, corn needs to cross pollinate so it needs more than just one row). We are created to be in relationships.
Now, that said, that doesn’t mean that our relationships are perfect. Think about the relationships in your lives. Are they perfect? At times, yes, we can say that they are pretty near perfect. At other times, the brokenness of our relationships becomes abundantly clear and they can be messy, at best. That is exactly what the devil is trying to do in today’s Gospel reading. He is trying to cause the relationship between Jesus and God to become broken, messy, and troubled by doing what the devil does best: offering temptations. Sin is not always as obvious as the devil makes it seem here. Maybe if sin were that obvious, we wouldn’t fall to it as often as we do. But sin often comes disguised as good intentions, doesn’t it?
Now, we know that here, the devil had anything but good intentions. He was trying to tempt Jesus. But, as we all know, Jesus was smarter than that and basically called the devil on his bluff. And the Devil tempts us, doesn’t he, brothers and sisters? There’s the temptation to be a better person. How many of you have seen a commercial on television or heard one on the radio for a weight loss program, hair restoration program, or plastic surgery? And sometimes we may think “yeah, I need to be skinnier, have more or better hair, or I need whiter teeth, smaller hips, bigger feet (or whatever)” and this is the devil’s nice way of tempting us. Can you imagine how those commercials would sound if they all started off like this: “God created you and you are perfect. But you don’t really believe that, now do you? Let’s fix you because apparently you are broken!” I don’t know that those products would be as popular as they are.
Then there is the temptation that surrounds our most valuable friendships and relationships. I see it already in how we raise Ellen. I do, sadly, compare her to the other kids at daycare. I wonder if she is crawling as quickly, saying as many sounds, or if she’ll start walking at the same time as the other kids. The devil has snuck in and whispered in my ear “you’re not a good enough parent.” The temptation is there to compare her. There are temptations in my marriage to compare it to the marriages of my friends. I hear what other husbands do and I either think “thank goodness my husband doesn’t do that” or I think “I wonder how I can get Chris to do what that other guy does.” And sadly, society has made it almost too easy to get out of a marriage when things get too tough. Do you know how much a “simple” divorce (whatever that is) initially costs in Iowa? $185. This makes me sad.
Our friendships come with temptations as well. I know some of you may not know a lot about Facebook but on the site, you have “friends” and these can be people you know in real life or maybe even some you’ve never met. If these people do or say something online or in real life that you disagree with there is a little button that says “unfriend” and just like that, you don’t have to deal with them anymore. So, instead of dealing with people one on one and face to face (as it actually says we should do in the Bible) we can just “unclick” them out of our lives. Temptations, my friends, are everywhere.
Being called and claimed by Jesus doesn’t mean that we will not give into temptation. But, that when we do give in, we can fully rely on God and God’s saving grace to welcome us back into that full and redeeming relationship with God. And here is the logical question that you may be thinking (or at least that I will pose). If I do mess up and give into temptation, whatever that looks like, what must I do to then restore my relationship with God. And as crazy as that sounds, that too is a temptation. When we screw up, we are often tempted to say “what can I do to make this right?” With God, there is NOTHING we can do to make our relationship right again. Only God can do that. Our relationship with God was made whole through Jesus Christ and his saving actions for all of us on the cross. And never once was he tempted to come down off the cross and not save all of us.
We are made to be in relationship. We are made to be in relationship with God, with one another, and with creation. When temptation (sin) gets in the way of those relationships, the only thing that can save us, the only thing that will save us, the only thing that has been saving us all along is Christ. The cross was for me and for you. Part of what we are called to do during this time of Lent is to repent. Repent literally means to turn around. Turn away from those things and people in life that may tempt you and turn instead towards the cross. God is the only thing that can give life and do so abundantly. God, through Jesus Christ, provides us everything we could ever need. Despite temptations, don’t go looking elsewhere for what you need. Everything you need in life comes in what sounds like a math problem: one man, 2 boards, 3 nails, 1 cross, 3 days, 1 empty tomb; eternal life.