On Being Maladjusted to the Status Quo

Posted on September 30th, 2014 by

Human-salvation-creatively-maladjustedThe following is a transcript from September 28, 2014, in Christ Chapel of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN). As part of a Service of Holy Communion for the Sunday Worshiping Community, the following sermon considers Matthew 4:1-11.

When reading the Bible there are certain chapters that certainly capture our attention from the first verse.

This morning we have such an example.

In fact, even before the first verse in the 4th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is heard, just from reading the chapter heading that shows-up in various Bible translations, we are given a moving preview of what we are about to encounter in this particular Gospel passage: “The Temptation of Jesus”.

In this heading alone, we are offered an exciting expectation of a text filled with drama, suspense, and even several attempts at existential seduction.

In this heading alone, we are given a small and enticing insight into the tantalizing text that transpires:

An account of Jesus and his arch-nemesis filled with exhilaration and thrilling anticipation.

The chapter heading alone could just as easily be the title of a blockbuster film, a dramatic play, or even an action-packed television mini-series.

“The Temptation of Jesus”.

Wow! “The Temptation of Jesus”.

It is a story title that takes hold of our collective attention and imagination, and because its contents offer broad appeal and important meaning for Christian faith, the account from Matthew Chapter 4 is told quite often in various worshipping communities around the world.

In other words, it is a good story, and like all good stories, this good story has been told a good number of times.

However, while the story is – and should be – re-told with faithful liturgic frequency, the natural consequence is that with such lectionary repetition we too often build up spiritual antibodies which hinder our continued collective theological insight, as we are too often tempted to believe that we know all there is to know about this specific narrative of temptation.

In many ways, instead of hearing the story as a profoundly exciting and meaningful piece of Christian Scripture, we treat the 4th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel like an old “re-run” and we place our attention back to the popcorn.

But of course, the basic plot of Matthew Chapter 4 does seem quite simple and straightforward on the surface level:

First, Jesus is told to turn stones into bread, but Jesus resists.

Then, Jesus is told to throw himself from the top of the temple, but again, Jesus resists.

And finally, Jesus is told to bow down and acquire earthly power, but once again, Jesus resists.

Simple and straightforward, right?

And since the story itself seems quite easy to follow, the overarching message also seems to be quite simple to grasp.

As the text appears to communicate two primary messages: First) Be like Jesus, and do the right thing. Second) Be like Jesus, and do not do the wrong thing.

One might call it the “how to keep your hands out of the cookie jar” biblical interpretation of resisting physical temptation.

And while the simplistic cookie jar interpretation of Matthew Chapter 4 leaves a lot to be desired, one can indeed recognize that there is nothing inherently wrong with highlighting the moral imperative of resisting physical temptation, for this story has indeed helped people in various life situations and circumstances to resist temptations in their own lives and “do” the so-called “right thing”.

Quite frankly, I can think of many times in my own life when the story of Jesus resisting temptation helped me to keep my own hands out of the proverbial metaphorical cookie jar!

However, there is much more taking place in this tantalizing biblical tale.

Because the story brings forth something much more than mere moralism…

Because, when we read Matthew Chapter 4 in the literary context of what took place just before it, we receive a dramatically different message.

In other words, when we read Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel together as one reading (as was the case long before Bible translators started putting descriptive headings before each so-called section), we are shown that temptation is not solely about what someone does, but temptation is more so about who someone is.

More specifically, what we learn is that temptation is not merely about what we do, but it is about who we are.

And so, if we try to remove the commonly-held keep your hands out of the cookie-jar theological assumptions built-up through years of hearing this biblical “re-run” reading repeated year after year, we come to realize that the temptation we read about in Matthew Chapter 4 is not necessarily a lesson about what we should and should not do on moral grounds, but rather, we are given a reminder of who we are and who we claim to be as people of faith created in the Image and Likeness of God.

All together, in this account, we learn that temptation is not simply about our pious perceptions of idolatry, but at its center, temptation is about the promotion of a particular identity.

Which in turn means, when we speak of temptation as people who identity with the Christian faith, we must also speak about baptism as a means by which such identity is founded and grounded. Because, when we look directly before Chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel and consider Chapter 3, we are reminded that Jesus’ baptism took place immediately before the account of Jesus’ temptation, and one can argue that it was such a baptism that allowed Jesus to resist such a temptation.

And so, as we recall, in the 3rd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is baptized by John, and as Jesus emerges from the water, the heavens open wide and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, whom I love; and with him I am well pleased.”

In an incredible act of affirmation, immediately after Jesus is baptized, the heavens open-up and God identifies Jesus as the Son of God, the one whom God loves and is fully delighted.

And so, in what I fully understand is a quick and oversimplified account of the text, what we are shown in this 3rd Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is that through the act of baptism the formation of identity takes center stage.

In other words, who Jesus is takes precedence over and above anything else.

And what is quite incredible about this passage is that, even though Jesus was being prepared to be sent out to do a great deal in the world, Jesus did not receive a long list of instructions to follow on how he might do it.

It is quite surprising. On his baptism day God did not provide Jesus with any lessons on how to turn water into wine, God did not demonstrate how to heal the blind, and God did not give Jesus a bunch of weight-training exercises so he could more effectively turn tables in the temple. And of course, God did not give Jesus a pre-match scouting report on how to best conquer temptation in the next chapter of the story.

But in what we can safely interpret as a key insight, instead of telling Jesus what to do, God reminded Jesus of who he was.

The formation of Jesus’ identity took precedence over the instruction of Jesus’ actions.

As God said to Jesus on the day of his baptism, “you are my child, I love you, and in you I am well pleased”.

And this sense of identity was absolutely essential.

And it was essential that Jesus was grounded in this baptismal identity, because as we move from Chapter 3 to Chapter 4 in Matthew’s Gospel, directly after Jesus is affirmed in his identity this identity is put to the challenge. For as we recall, in Matthew 4 verse 3, the very first line used by the Tempter to in the plot to tempt Jesus is: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread”.

The key word here is “if”.

If you are the Son of God.  If. If. If. If. If.

If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread”.

In this very first statement, the Tempter immediately challenges Jesus’ identity. The words of attack and assault come firing at Jesus: “If you are the Son of God, then prove it!”  “If you are the Son of God, then do what I say!”  “If you are the Son of God, then show me some magic tricks!”

The Tempter puts Jesus’ identity into question immediately after Jesus’ identity was founded and grounded in baptism, and by doing so, this Tempter tries to seduce Jesus into questioning his identification and letting go of that which made Jesus who Jesus was.

But of course, Jesus resisted.

And while he resisted for a number of reasons, most importantly, the source of resistance was in Jesus having a strong understanding of who he was.

And because Jesus knew who he was, he knew what to do.

His actions were shaped by his identity, and his participation in God’s mission was shaped by his God given values – all of which were made known through his God-given baptism.

So the question then becomes, so what does this all mean for all of us?

And to begin, what this means is that we acknowledge the reality that, just as Jesus faced temptation in his life, there are so many forces in our world today that threaten to tear away at our identity in our lives.

These forces come to us in many shapes and forms, and among other things, they often tempt us to believe two primary thoughts: First, we are tempted to believe that we are somehow not good enough.  And second, at times we are tempted to believe that that we are better than what we actually are.

And while these two temptations are quite different, they are both incredibly important for us to consider.

First, at times we are tempted to believe that we are not good enough, or that we are incomplete in some way, shape, or form.

Similar to the temptations pushed upon Jesus in the wilderness, as well as the temptations placed upon him later on the Cross, we too are often showered by various forces that try to make us perceive ourselves in ways that are destructive.

We all know what this feels like.

What we notice in our world today is that we are often bombarded by destructive messages, and it comes to us from various sources with a common proclamation that we all need to be something different from what we already are.

We see this reality every day!

In fact, we see it so often that sometimes we do not even realize we are seeing it!

With each passing day, we are told how we must be something different than what we currently are.  If you lose a bit of weight, only then will you be more beautiful and popular.  If you have a nice car or fancy clothes, only then will you be more accepted.  If you hook-up on the weekends, then you will be cool. If you have the best cell phone, only then will you be more appreciated.

The list goes on and on!

These ridiculous messages are thrown at us each and every day through popular culture and various political agendas, all so that we can sink deeper into despair and do more – and yes, buy more – in the hopes that it all will help us to be more.

And through it all, the overarching message we hear is that we are not good enough the way we are, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not wealthy enough, and not powerful enough.

We are given various unattainable examples of what we “should” be like.

And the end result is that we no longer see ourselves as beloved and accepted for who we are, but our lenses of self-perception become a growing and distorted list of faults and imperfections that need to be corrected.

In other words, we are too often tempted to lose track of who we are as beloved Children of God, and because of it, we too often fall to the temptation of obsessing over what we perceive to be not.

But of course, there is a dangerous counterpoint to this all as well, and it is our second temptation.

Just as it is tempting to believe we are not good enough, another difficult temptation is to believe that we are better than we actually are, or that in some ways we are better than everyone else.

I suppose that just as we all have experience in being told that we are not good enough, at times we all have experienced the temptation to believe that we are in some way better than those around us.

We see this each and every day when so many in our society are marginalized and rebuked. We have countless examples of women, children, the LGBT community, those with special needs, women and men with mental challenges, people of diverse faith perspectives, the poor, the incarcerated, our various indigenous and immigrant populations around the world, political minorities, and those affected and infected with HIV and AIDS.

We cannot ignore the harsh reality that human history is filled with occasions where one powerful group determined that they were better than those who were not so powerful, and the results were acts of division, oppression, exploitation, violence, and even murder and genocide.

And of course, such actions continue today in every corner of the globe, including the dark corners of this campus.

If we were honest with ourselves, we could count how often we look at others and think we are “better”. We measure ourselves against others and are convinced that we are in some way “superior”.  We see the mistakes of others as more serious than our own.

And of course, for those of us who gather on Sunday mornings as a worshipping community of faith, if we are open and honest with ourselves, we realize that these types of selfish and overly self-righteous thoughts are especially tempting for those who are baptized, as it is all too common for those “inside” the walls of churches to believe that they are somehow more righteous than those outside.

And when we allow the means of grace to be another wedge that divides people as “haves” and “have nots”, then we have most certainly missed the mark.

And so, with all this being said, we are left with these two temptations surrounding our identity founded and grounded in baptism.

The first is to believe we are not good enough, and the second is to think we are better than we actually are.

The first is about being insecure the second is about arrogant.

And God’s response to the first is to remind us that we are graciously affirmed and perfectly loved and accepted.  And God’s response to the second is to show us that we need grace, and we are incapable of sustaining life on our own.

And this, I believe, shows the incredible meaningfulness and value of baptism:

Baptism is important because…

Baptism is a means of God’s grace by which we are both bound and set free…

Set free to live and to learn and to love, but also bound to the captivity of our own ongoing mistakes.

Baptism reminds us that we are both/and…

Because we are both fully liberated because of God, and also deeply incarcerated because of ourselves.

Baptism shows us who we are, and to whom we belong.

Baptism reminds us that no matter how many labels are placed upon us by whatever people in whatever place in whatever circumstance…

In baptism, we hear the voice of God saying you are my beloved, and in your I am well pleased, which is why, in the end, baptism is ultimately the initiation rite by which we begin lives fully maladjusted to the status quo. This is what baptism was for Jesus, and that is what baptism is for us: An initiation rite to live lives faithfully maladjusted to the status quo.

Instead of the status quo of selling ourselves short…

Instead of the status quo of seeing ourselves as better than we are…

Instead of the status quo of allowing our identities to be defined by production, consumption, or even popularity…

And instead of the status quo of allowing such surface-level senses of identities to shape our daily actions and sensibilities…

We are maladjusted to such a status quo through water and word…

As people who are both forgiven and fallen, we act with boldness, yet we are also called to be humble, in contrast to all in our world that is all too common.

As a response to being loved and accepted by a gracious God, and through the faith that allows us to believe that we are affirmed, we live maladjusted to the status quo, and we can boldly live into such baptismal identity by transforming the status quo structures and status quo systems in our world to promote life in its fullness, yet with humility, we recognize our own place within such structures, and the ways we continue to benefit from them.

In addition, in response to what God has freely done for us, we boldly take a stand and speak out against those who have acted unjustly against the poor and marginalized members of society, yet with humility, we listen when others are speaking such words of critique to us.

With God as Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer, our baptismal identity flows from this means of amazing grace, and our reaction to such undeserved love consists of boldness and humility for the sake of the world.

This is who we are in baptism, and this is what we do as participants in God’s mission.

While there are many areas of our lives that inevitably shape who we are and have an impact upon what we do each day, and while we are all “works in progress” who continue to change each and every moment depending upon time, place, and those whom we are surrounded with, it is only God who can define us, and it is only in God that our true selves are found.

When we refuse to allow the world to define us as members of the status quo, and we refuse to believe that anyone else can somehow make us complete, we can learn to embrace our identity as created in the Image and Likeness of God, and our bold and humble actions are close to follow.

And so, to conclude…

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry outside forces tried to tempt him to be someone he is not, and I suppose the same can be said for many of us here today.

Each and every day we are faced with forces that try to make us all something we are not.

But as Jesus remembered who he was, we too are called to be mindful of who we are as people deeply connected to God and intimately attached with one another.

For us and countless others both “inside” and “outside” the church walls, “who we are” is Children of God who yearn for grace, and through such grace by faith we so graciously receive it, for the sake of all others in all places.

We are people of various shapes, sizes, colors, and beliefs created by a common creator who cannot help but shower us with grace regardless of whether or not we deserve it.

No one, or no thing can take this away from us.

This is our identity, shown to us in baptism, which we are reminded of each and every moment of our lives.

When God claims us as God’s very own, baptism is not something that once happened in the past, but it is an ever-present reality that continues to shape us, guide us, connect us, and profoundly strengthen us into the future.

The ongoing lived-out reality of baptism allows us to be initiated into this maladjustment to the status quo, over and over again…

So we may open-up boundaries, tear down division, and embrace both unity and diversity through the grace we all have received.

And so, for you and for me, on this day of remembering our baptism and also remembering the temptations that come with it…

May we all reaffirm that God claims us – all of us – and all of the world as God’s own, and even in the midst of our constant yearning for grace, we trust that we are loved, and that in us God is well pleased.

May we reaffirm that even in the midst of our struggles, and regardless of how often we fall to temptation, it is God who sets us free to be who we are called to be and do what we are called to do.

And in response to this gracious gift, may the divisions, labels, and classifications given to us by the world be washed away by the waters, and through the Word may we be given a new sense of identity.

As new people, may we be given hope, peace, and a new vision that calls us together in harmony with all of creation, gathers us in, and sends us out to promote peace and justice, and by God’s grace, to transform neighborhoods both near and far into places and spaces of goodness and love.

This is the Good News given for us, and this is the good challenge laid down in front of us.

This day, and every day, may this comfort, and may this challenge, be with us always.

Amen.

The Rev. Brian E. Konkol serves as a Chaplain of the College at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. An ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), he holds degrees from Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI), Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN), and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (South Africa). He blogs at http://briankristenkonkol.blogspot.com and tweets @BrianKonkol

 

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