Readings (NRSV) and Psalm (ELW):
Psalm 91:1–2, 9–16 God will give the angels charge over you, to guard you in all your ways. (Ps. 91:11)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was a chaplain in the Texas Medical Center, it did not take me long to arrive at a vivid awareness of our human struggle to know who we are in the midst of adversity. I knew already that prayer was essential to re-establishing that identity in a hospital room.
As I was being received into the roster of ordained clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I had become aware of the power of the Lord’s Prayer among Lutherans and other catholic Christians. I had been taught that the Lord’s Prayer was to be used only as a model. Prayers were to be prayed from the heart. But when I was with Lutherans I realized that the Lord’s Prayer was being prayed from the heart and needed no paraphrasing or reconstruction. I loved this about Lutherans.
So when ministering as a chaplain, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer and other petitions with patients and families. One could sense the reverence and calm expectation that the very prayer given us by our Lord evoked in the room. The very presence of Christ was in the room.
In a large hospital like Memorial Hermann or St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital, chaplains visit people of all kinds of faith, Jews, Muslims, Baha’i, Hindu and atheists. It didn’t take me long to realize that they too have their sacred texts that call them to a moment of clear identity. For the Jews that text is the Shema. You know it, for Jesus the Jew also insisted that it is the greatest commandment.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
Traditionally these words were to be said by faithful Jews at least twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. That way they would remember who they are.
When I was in my training as a chaplain, I had a lot to learn. When we were called to a situation, it usually meant that someone had died or was dying. That could be bad because the patients and families would learn to take it as a sign that the doctors had given up hope and the chaplains were brought it. Sometimes we would frighten people just by showing up!
On one occasion I had the night shift. That meant that I was the only chaplain on duty. It was near midnight, and a patient was in desperate need of an operation. The surgeons were ready, but the patient was terribly anxious and distraught. If he didn’t have the operation, he would die. If he wasn’t able to calm down, he would not have the operation.
He was a Jewish man from South American. When I entered the room, he was lying in bed in great anguish. His wife and daughter were there with him. When I introduced myself, I felt really out of place as a Protestant trainee. This man needed a Rabbi!
I asked if I might help in some way. Then the man began to declare that he had lost his faith and that God was not there. He was 2,000 miles from home in a strange city with a language not his own. He did not want to die in a foreign land.
The agony was audible. Then suddenly it came to me, due to those years in seminary. This man needed to hear who he is. So I looked him in the eyes and said,
Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
(Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.)
The chaos of the room yielded to silence.
No one said a word.
And then the man burst into tears, but these were different tears. As the man wiped his eyes, he looked out at us, saying “Thank you, thank you. Then he announced, “You can take me. I will go with God.” (Yo voy con Dios.)
In this case, the man survived to return to his home. But whether he survived or had died, he would have been with God.
The words of the Shema are given in the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 6. Deuteronomy 6 and chapter 8 are exactly where Jesus goes when he is beset by temptation. Jesus knows who he is from baptism, when the voice says,
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22b)
Jesus is the Son. Just prior to the story of the temptation we are given a genealogy of Jesus that goes all the way back to Adam, who is also called Son of God. The contrast could not be greater. Adam, the Son, has succumbed to temptation and left the human race in ruin for our lack of understanding as to who we truly are. Jesus, who is also a Son, faces temptation and prevails paradoxically because he clings to his identity as a faithful Jew.
The devil asks twice with a misleading question, “If you are the Son of God.” It is this condition that is meant to challenge Jesus to prove that he is the Son by means other than those qualities given in the Shema: to love “God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
To each temptation to move Jesus away from faithfulness and loyalty to God, Jesus responds from the context of the Shema.
When tempted to make a loaf of bread from a stone, “Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'” (Luke 4:4, Cf. Deuteronomy 8:3) Jesus avoids the human desire to satisfy his own needs by turning from his own desire to love God with his whole heart.
The tempter then shows Jesus all the power and might of this world. He offers him a Faustian deal. If he will bow to the devil’s power, the devil will give him all that is his. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13.
“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'” (Luke 4:8)
Finally, the tempter takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Jerusalem temple. He then tempts Jesus again with the conditional clause, “If you are the Son of God.” This time Jesus is challenged to jump from the highest point of Jerusalem and to test God, whether God will rescue him in a public event that would give Jesus immediate recognition. But Jesus refuses to put himself in such a place by risking his life, that is, his “soul.”
That will come as a matter of course, as Jesus remains true to his identity, stays on course to his destination of Jerusalem, and is executed on the high point of a hill at the top of a cross. By so doing Jesus puts his complete trust in God who will raise him from the dead and confirm what the voice at baptism and at the transfiguration proclaimed, “You are my son.” “This is my Son.”
Dear brothers and sisters, in our baptism we too have heard these words. “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Our identity is not established by what we can achieve in a moment or a life-time.
Christian identity is established through the hearing of the gospel.
“The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart”
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8b-9)
It is in this gospel that we learn who we are as a people who trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We have given up on using this life’s resources including our own personalities, resources and gifts to establish an identity that has nothing to do with what God call us to be.
In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “And lead us not into temptation.” This is not a prayer to God to keep us from sinning so that we can continue on our own power, our own identity, and our own vanity.“Save us from the time of trial,” is not a prayer to keep us from the small and large infractions that we humans commit on a daily basis. There is much more at stake here. “Lead us not into temptation” means “do not let me stray from the reality that I belong to you, O God.” This is the strength that belongs to us as baptized believers. For once we trust in the God who makes us who we are, we will always know the path to restoration, forgiveness, and mercy. And we will be able to bear witness to that great love of God in Christ Jesus with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our might.