God on the Way: The Journey of Identity


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Earl Shaffer, the first person to hike the Appalachian Trail in one thru-hike, on the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine.  

Matthew 4:1-11

Our Lenten theme for 2020 is “God on the Way,” and we’re talking about all the ways and journeys where we encounter God during our lives.  

This Lent, we’re talking about journeys. There’s a lot to draw from, but for our first one, I thought I’d talk about something that many of us have in common: a love of the outdoors. 

Since I used it in our children’s sermon, you now see Debbie’s frame pack there on the left side of the altar. As I was thinking of how I would preach this first Sunday of Lent, I dreamed of summer and thought a lot about frame packs and hiking. Chances are, at least a few of you have been dreaming about similar things lately too. It helps that in the Gospel lesson today, Jesus himself has gone on a bit of a hike through the wilderness. 

We read Matthew’s version of the temptation of Jesus today, but I admit that I like Mark’s best for one very nerdy reason: rather than saying that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism, Mark says that Jesus was driven there. Not “driven” like he hailed an uber, but “driven” as in pushed. Mark uses the same word that he uses to talk about driving out demons here. Basically, Jesus was pushed out onto this journey. 

We’re now in chapter 4 of Matthew; in chapter 3, right before this, Jesus was baptized. He heard the words that we all hear at baptism: that we are beloved. Then God pushes him out into the wilderness to figure out what that means. 

And so, with Jesus, I want us to think about something foundational to our baptisms: the journey of identity — of figuring out who we are. 

At first glance, it seems like something that only children and teenagers do: figure out who they are and who they want to be in the world. And for sure, it’s those times that are probably the most foundational to figuring out our identities. But you know, Jesus takes this journey at 33 as he starts a whole new phase of his life. And we — we do that, too. Regardless of how old we are, we’re also constantly trying to figure out who we are and what our purpose is in this world, at this time, in this place, in these circumstances.

This journey gets more intense, of course, after big things happen in our lives. Someone dies. Someone is born. A relationship ends. We lose a job. We get a new job. We retire. Suddenly, we have to figure out who we are in light of this new information and these new circumstances. Usually, this isn’t fun at all. But sometimes, we manage to figure out just the right journey to take to help us figure it out. 

One such person who took a long journey to figure out who he was in light of new circumstances went by the name of Earl Shaffer. 

Earl Shaffer was the very first person to hike the Appalachian Trail. He began his journey in Olgethorpe, Georgia, on April 4, 1948. He had just finished his service in the army during World War II, and he wanted to, in his words, walk the war out of his system. And so he did — he walked the over 2,100 miles of the Appalachian Trail that year, averaging about 16 miles per day. At that time, there were no guidebooks; all he had was a roadmap and a compass. 124 days later, he summited Mount Katahdin in Maine. He felt bittersweet about reaching the trail’s end, writing, “I almost wished that the Trail really was endless, that no one could ever hike its length.” Earl would go on to hike the trail two more times: once in 1965, and one final time in 1998, at the age of 79. 

After witnessing firsthand the worst conflict humankind had known up to that point in history, Earl had to take a journey to figure out who he was in light of what he had seen. 

Similarly, we are all constantly renegotiating who we are in the midst of changing circumstances. 

Jesus is driven out into the wilderness after he is declared the beloved Son of God at baptism, and he embarks on his own outdoor journey. 

Famously, he meets the old foe, the devil, who tempts him with three different things: first, food, since he hadn’t eaten in 40 days. Then the old devil tempts Jesus to prove himself by throwing himself off the temple in front of people. Finally, the devil tempts him with power. Implicitly and explicitly, the devil challenges Jesus’ identity: if you are the Son of God…” 

After famously refusing the devil’s temptations and holding fast to who he is, angels come and wait on him. Jesus rest isn’t long, though — immediately after he returns, he’ll find out that John the Baptist, the one who baptized him, has been thrown in prison. Then he’ll start calling disciples. 

This journey in the wilderness is formative for Jesus in more ways than one. First, there’s the devil. It’s easy to get hung up on the questions: is there a literal devil with horns and a pitchfork? Is there a literal devil who doesn’t look like a cartoon? Or are the real devils all human, as we might suspect? The real question is, of course: is there an evil that exists outside of us, or is it all internal? This, too, is a question of identity. 

But for now, I’ll tell you exactly what I know: that one, maybe the most famous, traditional Hebrew name for the devil is “ha-satan,” which is exactly where we get our word “Satan.” And ha-satan means, in Hebrew, “the accuser.” 

He is the one who calls out to us at every turn: “you’re an imposter. You’re not who you say you are. God doesn’t love you. How could anyone love you, after what you’ve done?”
Similarly, in the Old Testament lesson for today, Adam and Eve are working through their very new identity. Are they creatures who are dependent on God? Are they trusting, or are they suspicious and defensive? Is God trying to hide something from them? Of course, the serpent feeds the flame: “You will not die, as God said, but you’ll be like God.” 

Don’t be naive, little humans. Eat the fruit.
We’ve all heard the voice of the accuser. You might think it’s just you. It isn’t. Even Jesus. Even the first humans.

If you are the Son of God… prove it. 

You will not die. God is lying. Eat the fruit. Prove that you are strong and independent.

We’re talking this Lent about meeting God on the way, but you should probably know that you might meet this other character on the way, too: the accuser. Whether you believe in a literal devil or not, I can just about guarantee that you’ve heard that accusing voice in your head. It might even be the loudest during those times when you’re trying to figure out who you are again — when you’ve just started, or re-started, the journey to recovery. When you’ve finally landed that new job. When you thought you were over your grief after a death or a lost relationship. These are the times when we can hear the voice of the accuser most loudly, saying things like, “You are an addict and you will always behave like an addict.” Or “You’re a terrible parent.” Or “No one will ever love you again.” Or “Your life is over.” 

Or, perhaps worst: “Why are you struggling? You are weak. You should be over it by now.” 

Beloved, the devil is a liar. 

Perhaps the biggest lie in the garden of Eden is that Adam and Eve were infinite and were capable of knowing how to do everything on their own and didn’t need God or anyone else. 

Beloved, you are not infinite. And you are beloved; God is not lying. 

Much like Earl Shaffer had to walk the war out of his system on the Appalachian Trail, this Lenten journey is here to help us walk the words of the accuser right out of our systems and figure out who we are. These days can lift us up and lead us to life renewed, if we’ll let them. So here we are, beginning our journey. Whatever you need to walk out of your system, I hope you’re able to name it. We may not be going on a literal walk, but we’re going on a journey together, on these Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights. 

And as surely as spring will come, Holy Week and Easter will find us, telling us once again who we are: we are an Easter people. We are a people for whom the accuser never has the last word. We are a people whom God always pursues, always finds, always gives new life to, just as the warmth of spring will bring new life to the earth in due time.

Beloved, we are not infinite. We are beloved. 

So whatever you need to walk out of your system, name it now. And wherever you are on your current journey to figure out who you are in light of the circumstances you find yourself in, you are beloved. You are not infinite, and there is no shame in not having it all figured out yet. The journey is long, and as the sign outside says, God is always on the way.

In short, as I say all the time, God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it. 

So we might as well have a meal, pick up our frame packs, and get to walking. Amen.

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