Finding our true identity

 

I thought Duncan’s sermon this morning was extremely helpful. For those of you who weren’t there, he was preaching on Maathew 4:1-11 (the Gospel passage for the first Sunday in Lent) about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. 

He examined it in the light of the immediately preceding verse (Matthew 3:17) where Jesus is assured by a voice from heaven that ‘This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.’This, Duncan reminded us, was Jesus’ fundamental identity – the beloved Son of the Father, and it was precisely this sense of identity which was assaulted by the temptations he faced. ‘Turn stone into bread’ – act as though you, rather than the Father was ultimately responsible for meeting your needs. ‘Throw yourself off a high tower- test God, to see if indeed God will protect you. ‘Worship me and I’ll give you the world’ – seek some other God to help you fulfil what you understand as your destiny.

But Jesus, by prayer and contemplation, and through the resource of the Scriptures, reminded himself that he was God’s precious child, that his identity was rooted in the divine, that God and God alone would care for him, that there was no need to test God for God’s assurance of undying love was more than adequate, that God alone was both the giver and the fulfiller of his destiny.

And so Jesus overcame that round of temptation (though more would follow) and the angels fed him.

Duncan’s point was that the wilderness is not just a geographical location, but an experience in the topography of the spirit. We as those who seek God, however strong or feeble our faith may be, are God’s beloved sons and daughters. That is our fundamental identity which gives joy and hope and purpose. God will meet our needs, God is there even in the wilderness and there is no need to test him, God is the giver and the fulfiller of our destinies.

As today spring is awakening after a long, wind-swept winter, so the realisation that we are loved, cherished, precious breaks over us with a re-birthing joy. Yet each of us knows the wilderness, the place of struggle where we doubt, or deny that identity, or try to forge another identity. Sometimes, Duncan says, we find ourselves not seeking to turn stones to bread, but burdening ourselves with a sack-load of heavy burdens. And I wonder (and this is my thought, not Duncan’s) if sometimes we take bread and turn it into stone, trying to institutionalise what is in fact the Father’s free, creative, moment-by-moment gift.

Each of us will have been addressed by this sermon in a specific ways. I thought about my own struggles with identity as I journeyed towards the understanding that I am indeed God’s precious, loved child.

Here am I as a child, seeing my identity as an enemy of God, who would only know God’s love if I was able to experience the emotional conversion which I saw modelled as normal, and which forever eluded me.

Here I am as a teenager, going through the motions of faith, but feeling a hypocrite, afraid each time I took bread and wine that God would strike me dead.

Here I am as a young adult, convinced that God would love me if only I could be like other Christians, with their certainty and their spiritual experiences.

Here I am trying to fit into roles which I see clearly are not me – mistakenly sensing a call to Baptist pastorate, serving as a leader in various churches while covering over my doubts that that these roles were not for me.

Here I am, questioning if faith is an illusion and sensing a strong pull towards atheism.

But there was a parallel story, a story of recognising in my clearer seeing moments that I am precious, cherished by the Father, a story of gradually stripping away the false identities which I spun for myself and discovering my true, unique, lovely, self, cherished by the Father. Of course I still struggle, and some days I see my true identity much more clearly than others.  But I am so grateful for the point I have reached in the journey

Duncan began by asking us to think about spiritual high points in our lives – the temptation was a ‘high point’ in the life of Jesus, when he overcame, and angels came and served him. I don’t know that there have been many high points in my life, although there have been some, like the day I realised that that old phrase from the Authorised Version of the Bible in the Prodigal Son story ‘fell on his neck and kissed him’ actually meant ‘flung his arms around his neck and kissed him’ and in that sudden realisation sensed as it were the Father’s warm arms around my shoulders.

For me it’s more common simply to sense some understanding about my identity as God’s child awakening in me, live and real to me, like a whisper of grace. And sometimes, in the really difficult times, when I’m sad and anxious and depressed, sometimes then I have the greatest quiet sense of being accompanied and upheld. Finding your identity in Christ may involve a crisis of illumination; it certainly involves a process of God-prompted self-discovery.

John Dempster

(The image is by J. Kirk Richards)

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