A friend of mine plays trumpet professionally. Years ago, he was playing first trumpet with an orchestra over in Asia when the opening piece was Pictures at an Exhibition. Now, this is easily one of the most difficult pieces to perform for a first trumpet. The opening notes are the sound of the trumpet and only the trumpet. (hum the tune) It may sound easy, but it’s not. The whole rest of the performance rests on these opening notes.
The concert was held in a huge outdoor stadium. Large enough that there was a jumbotron for the people in the nose-bleeds seats. The conductor walks out. The audience applauds but then gets quiet. The conductor raises his baton and looks at my friend. And just as my friend takes a deep breath, ready to play, his stand partner leans over to him and whispers….”Man, if you mess this up…”
If you mess this up. If. It’s a small but powerful word. It puts everything that follows it into question. If you. If you mess this up. Which means…you could mess this up. There are no guarantees. It is a word that stirs up doubt.
I recently heard the story of a man with a teenage daughter. They had just had one of those “stormy father-daughter arguments.” He tells it like this, “It blew over quickly, resolving itself in tenderness and understanding. But at the height of the squall, I said to her…”Now you listen to me! If you’re my daughter you….” If you are my daughter? If you are my daughter? Flesh of my flesh, heart of my heart, my cherished and beloved daughter. I could hardly have used words more destructive than to raise doubts about her identity.”
If you are my daughter. If. It’s a small but powerful word. It puts everything that follows it into question.
If. According to Luke, that is the devil’s word. He uses it to plant a seed of doubt in Jesus’ head about to whom Jesus belongs. “If you are the Son of God…” the devil hisses at Jesus. Just a chapter earlier, Jesus had been baptized. And as you might recall, the heavens opened up and a voice from heaven spoke to him – You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” See, that is the voice of God – it makes clear and claiming statements – you are. You are my Son.
But the devil. The devil makes deceptive, destructive, and doubt-filled statements – if. If you are the Son of God…It pokes at one’s identity. If you are that person…I mean, maybe you are or maybe you aren’t.
The devils tests and tempts Jesus three times. If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread. If you are the Son of God, worship me, and I’ll give you authority over the whole world. If you are the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of the temple and God’s angels will rescue you.
Each time, the devil is trying to poke holes into Jesus identity. To get him to doubt himself. To question who he really is. And that can be the worst kind of doubt there is – self-doubt. To wonder who you are and if you belong.
Corinne and Herb Chilstrom – the former Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, had a son Andrew, who was adopted. But Andrew was weighed down with a darkness that so many suffer from but is hard to see. One night, Andrew took his own life. In the middle of her panicked grief over the loss of her son, Corrine pounded her hands on the kitchen table and shouted – “Adoption! These kids never feel like they really belong in this world. Who will ever understand?” She didn’t know where those words came from, but she later learned how prophetic they were. How many adopted children are haunted with questions about where they belong and to whom they belong. And who of us whether adopted or not struggle with where we come from and who we belong to.
The things the devil was tempting Jesus to do were not inherently bad things. More bread for a hungry world? Yes please. Jesus having authority over the world; God’s angels protecting and lifting up Jesus. These are not bad things. (But Jesus is being asked to prove who he is. and Jesus knows his identity is already given in the voice at his baptism). But Jesus knows that we need more than bread from stones. Jesus knows we need more than power and authority. Jesus even knows we need more than being rescued and saved.
One cannot live on bread alone. One needs more than just power. One needs more than just being rescued. This is true. I learned this from some people who were homeless. Ironically, those who most need bread, and some power, and a little rescuing.
Years ago, there was a story in the Star Tribune on the topic of the people who are homeless in Minneapolis and who panhandle on the streets. In the article a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless people were interviewed. They were the ones everyone knew. The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money? That sort of thing. What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest. Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol. Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much needed insulin. But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes. For someone to look him or her in the eyes as if to say, “I see you. You exist. You are not invisible to me.” They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.
We need more than just bread. More than just power. More than just rescuing. Even homeless people. They are much more than their cardboard sign. They need to be seen. It’s a big deal to meet someone’s eye, especially a stranger’s eye. Don’t we all long to be seen? For someone to look us in the eyes. We need an identity. We need to know who we are. That we belong to some one. That we’ve been claimed. So, if you’ve ever wonder who the devil is, or what the devil is, or how the devil acts in this world…maybe the devil is anything that calls us to question our identity and the identity of those around us. To question whether we or they belong to God and if we or they are worthy of love.
If we begin to doubt who we really are, whether we are beautiful, if we belong, if we matter, if we’re lovable. If we begin to doubt that, than the devil is alive and well in the world. And if we treat people as if they are less than. If we treat others as if they don’t belong, as if they aren’t beautiful, as if they don’t matter, as if they aren’t loved, then the devil is alive and well in us.
We can “if” ourselves to death. Before we even get out of bed in the morning, we may have “iffed” the day away, worrying about measuring up, performing, keeping up appearances, achieving success, earning love, earning our keep. But friends, Jesus is the one with the power to make us who we are, to claim us as God’s very own. Know this: You are named. You are claimed. You belong here and you are deeply loved. You are the beloved children of God. No ifs about it. Amen.
 Tom Long, Whispering the Lyrics, p. 21.
 Corrinne Chilstrom, Andrew, You Died Too Soon, p. 17.