Human beings are meaning makers. With our big and complex brains, we are able to take in and process a lot of information. We are also able to think about the information we take into our brains in an abstract way. It is what makes us distinct from other creatures.
Take my cat for example. My cat also takes in a lot of information through his senses. In many ways he is much more gifted than I in how he uses this information. He can leap from the floor to the counter to the top of the refrigerator in seconds. He can hear me putting food into the cat food dish even when he is tucked in and sound asleep way in the back of an upstairs closet. But in other ways he is much less complex than you or me. He smells food and eats it. He sees a mouse or a cat toy and chases it. He is cold, he feels the heat of the fire and he sleeps in front of it. He hears a loud noise that makes him feel unsafe and he hides beneath the couch for protection. He knows who feeds him, gives him water, cleans his litter box and treats him gently and he curls up next to his caretakers for companionship and warmth.
But I don’t think he spends time thinking abstract thoughts. I don’t think he wonders why he’s here. I don’t think he asks if there are cats on other planets in other galaxies. I don’t think he wonders where we came from and if there is a God. I don’t think he worries about whether there is life after death or if the mouse he just killed has a family to take care of and feed. He doesn’t stay up at night worrying about where suffering comes from and why it exists. He doesn’t wonder if he is good enough or smart enough or any other of the enoughnesses that can be worried about. He eats, drinks, uses the litter box, sleeps, plays, and seeks affection and that is enough for him. Meaning making is not part of his make-up.
But taking care of our basic needs is not enough for you and me. From a young age, human beings ask big questions about our world and seek to make sense of our place in it. And the way we answer these questions and make sense of the world and our place in it is through telling stories. Through storytelling, we assign meaning to our experiences to better understand what we are experiencing. It is these stories that create our reality for better or for worse.
Our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and our community and culture also tell us stories that create and shape our reality for better or for worse. The truth of this is frequently brought home to me through all the children’s books I read to my kids. I still have a number of books that were read to me as a child more than 45 years ago. Some tell stories I am glad to have my children hear. Some have not stood the test of time and no longer tell stories that I would want to shape the reality of my kids. No, I don’t want my kids to go to the jungle and capture a monkey to keep as a pet, as happened in the original Curious George stories. Nor do I spank them or wash their mouths out with soap as frequently happens in the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. We tell different stories today because we live in a different reality.
And we live in a world of competing stories, and the one who controls the story often controls the power. That is why there is such a great battle going on over what story is taught to our children about enslavement and the treatment of people of color in this country. White people have controlled the story for hundreds of years and through this control have controlled the systems in which we all live. People of color have a different story to tell and are asking everyone to listen. The battle is over whose story will form our reality, our understanding of who we were and therefore who we are and who we will be. Some of us believe that adding the narratives of people of color to our historical narrative will help us be a more just and compassionate country today and in the future. Other’s feel threatened by the inclusion of new voices and new stories. Stories and storytelling have great power.
We are surrounded by stories, both those we tell ourselves and those told to us by others. Some of these stories are life-giving and some are not. Some help us live into our higher ideals. Some do not. It is our task to become aware of the narratives that guide and shape our lives and to decide which one’s we will allow to shape our lives and which ones we will shed. Will we choose life-giving narratives that help us live into our higher ideals or not?
The Christian story is presumably a narrative all of us worshipping here today wish to have shape our lives. This is one of the reasons we gather together week after week, year after year. We see the value of the Christian narrative. We understand the life-giving nature of this story and we want to be formed by it that we might be guided and shaped by it.
This is why we have a liturgical calendar in the church. This is why we have different seasons of the church year. It is a way for us to tell ourselves our story, the Christian story, again and again. And as we hear this story, as we live our lives, the story shapes and forms us and we make sense of our experiences in light of this story. The Christian story gives meaning to our lives and our lives give meaning to the Christian story. There are many other stories we could listen to and follow, but in following Jesus, in being a part of this Christian community, we are saying that this story is the most important story for us. We are saying that we want our lives, our realities shaped and formed by this particular story. We are saying that this is the story that we want to give purpose and meaning to our lives.
And so, we enter the season of Lent. The part of the story in which Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem, suffering, death, and ultimately resurrection. The part of the story in which suffering, pain, death, and evil itself seem like they are going to win but don’t. The part of the story where love wins. God wins. The part of the story when we catch a glimpse of the world as God intends it to be.
And we begin with the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Jesus has been baptized and God has spoken to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus knows who he is and more importantly whose he is. He is filled with the Holy Spirit and the Spirit leads him into the desert to be tested by the Diabolic One. He eats nothing for 40 days and is famished. He is at his point of greatest vulnerability. This is when the Diabolic One brings him his greatest tests.
The Diabolic One offers Jesus a different narrative by which to live his life. He offers Jesus a storyline in which Jesus, not God, is at the center. He offers Jesus a narrative in which worldly power is more important than the power of God’s love. The Diabolic One knows very well who Jesus is. He isn’t questioning Jesus’ identity or trying to get Jesus to question his own identity. He is trying to get Jesus to live out his identity as Son of God in a different way. He is trying to get Jesus to display his identity in self-serving ways that would undermine his identity as the Son who relies on the good gifts of the Father. He is trying to change Jesus’ narrative. And Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
Jesus is so centered and grounded in another story that there is no way the Diabolic One can redirect him to a different narrative. Jesus responds to the Diabolic One with quotes from Hebrew Scripture that show an awareness of the source of his life and identity. Jesus’ responses are rooted in an underlying narrative that he is dependent on God rather than self for life, glory and identity. Jesus resists the temptations of the diabolic one because he holds a stronger and more life-giving narrative: God loves him, God loves us, God loves all of creation and the power of this love is stronger than any other power the world might create. This love gives life. The powers the Diabolic One offers are temporary and only lead to death.
To the extent that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity, the temptations of the world, the stories of the world, will hold little appeal for us. To the extent that we mistrust God, we are open to the temptation that it is all up to us, and we better take matters into our own hands.
Now I do understand that holding onto the narrative that trust in God is the source of true life is a lot harder for us than it was for Jesus. We are not Jesus. I get it. I certainly know I am not Jesus. I succumb to narratives that I don’t want to succumb to far more frequently than I want to admit. The same is probably true for you as well. I don’t think God expects us to be Jesus. Only Jesus needed to be Jesus. But I do think there is still a lot we can learn from our story of Jesus for today.
What are the narratives that shape our realities? What are the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what our purpose in life is? What stories and narratives do we need to let go of in order to be who we really want to be? What stories and narratives do we need to listen to in order to be who God is calling us to be? Each of us must decide, just as Jesus had to decide, whose narrative will prevail, God’s or the Diabolic One?
And as you struggle to figure out which narratives will inform your life, as you wonder which to choose, ask yourself these questions, “Does this story that I tell myself or that the world tells me bring more love into the world or does it diminish the love in the world? Does this story inspire me to care for my neighbor or harden my heart against them? Does this narrative help the dream of God for this world or hinder it?” And when you chose the wrong story, ask for forgiveness, come back to this community and listen again. For we will keep telling the story to one another as long as we have breath, and eventually we’ll get it and it will truly become our story too. Amen.