6 March – The freedom of the children of God

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Lent 1

Psalm 91
Luke 4:1-13

In a sentence:
All temptation questions our relationship to God; all resistance to temptation claims that we are God’s children

In our gospel reading today, we see playing out something of what has just been put to us by Stanley Hauerwas in his reflections on the mission of the church. Jesus, that is, engages “wittily” with the Devil.

The wit is ironic – the assertion below the surface of Jesus’ responses that there is more going on than first meets the eye. The joke Jesus hears in these temptations is the suggestion that he look for something which has not been lost – his identity. “If you are the Son of God…”, then do this. That is, prove – or test – that you are who you say by making bread from stone or being miraculously caught in free-fall from the pinnacle of the Temple.

For Jesus to have his “wits” about him here is simply for him to know who he is. In his exchange with the Tempter, he is forced to express his identity negatively by saying No to the Tempter’s proposals, but the No is not the point. The point is the “Yes” Jesus implies. For he is confident that he does not, to draw again from Hauerwas, have to prove himself to himself, to others or to God; Jesus doesn’t have to “make the world work”.

If the testing of Jesus here is the same as the testing – the temptations – we experience, then our temptations are about the same thing as his, and about one thing: who do you think you are?

We might do many right things at any moment of decision, but there is only one properly wrong thing. It looks like there are many wrong things as well, but only one of them will present itself as the thing that “tempts” us, or “tests” us, and so which we work hard to justify. We could be irresponsible with our money in a hundred ways, but it is only the one way we choose that we argue most strongly for, for it is the point at which we have to prove we are acting like the children of God. We could tell lies about a hundred different things, but only the one lie we want to tell matters. We could choose from a dozen future options for the congregation, but only one of them is really going to tempt us, is really going to require the necessary rationalisation which will prove to everyone that it is where we are most faithful. At this point – as with our money, or our flexibility with the truth, or our infidelities, or our forward mission planning – we will be “making the world work”, particularly for ourselves, and making God work for us too. We will, in this, be proving ourselves to ourselves, to others and to God.

But to know ourself as a son or daughter of God – this is not to make anything “work”, not to prove anything. If we are a child of God, the work has already been done. We need then only be as children are at their best: without guile. We are only ever tempted at one point: does this which I want to have or to do or to say express that I am a child of God, here and now? A “Yes” to this question cannot be argued, cannot be proof-texted. Children just are and do; there is no “if”.

Our childness, of course, is often compromised. Parents muck it up. Siblings drive us crazy. We are ourselves simply rebellious. In all of this, the “if” is making itself felt. We wonder, am I the child? This is the source of anxiety, fear and self-justification.

To learn to live by our wits as Jesus does – and it is a thing learned – is to learn to see when our being in God is challenged, and to laugh it off.

For we have nothing to prove. In Jesus is proof enough that nothing can separate us from the love of God. All that we do should be proof that we believe this.