What does it mean to be the Son of God?

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1st Sunday of Lent, Year C: Feb. 17, 2013
Deut 26:4-10; Ps 91:1-2, 10-15; Rom 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Several years ago, while I was in seminary, I had a chance to watch Joel Osteen on television for the first time. I had heard of him, this Evangelical Protestant preacher with a growing following; but I hadn’t seen him. What would he be like? What would he say? Standing near a great, turning frame of a globe, he told his listeners that they were children of God; children of the King; royalty! And I thought: Great; good message! Because this is indeed what Christ has made us in baptism, adopting us into his Sonship, making us adopted sons and daughters of God. It’s an important message, and one that we need to be reminded of again and again.

And then he proceeded on to apply that message. Being a son or daughter of the King means—that you are a winner! What?, I thought. He explained that we should be having lots of success in our earthly endeavors: material success, relationship success. And I thought, no, that’s not what being a son of God usually leads to. Just look at Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. Joel Osteen clearly had a very mixed-up view of what it meant to be the Son of God.

And we hear a similarly mixed-up view from the devil in today’s Gospel reading.

It may be that the devil was himself confused. He doesn’t know everything, after all, and it could be that he wasn’t quite sure who this Jesus was, what he was like, or what he had come to do. The devil may not have known, as we do, that Jesus was true God and true man, and that he had come, above all, to lay down his life for the salvation of the world and to rise as the firstfruits of the Resurrection. Satan may not have known any of this; he may have been genuinely confused and trying to find out who Jesus was and what he was all about.

Whether the devil was confused or not, he certainly presented a confused picture in what he said while trying to tempt Jesus. Consider the picture that emerges in his words:

  • The Son of God will use miraculous powers to satisfy his own physical hunger.
  • The Son of God will desire the power of all the kingdoms of the world; and he will be ready to worship Satan to get it.
  • The Son of God will desire to have a demonstration of his special relationship with God in front of the whole world; and he will be ready to throw himself down from a dangerous height to get it.

What a picture of a Son of God! That doesn’t sound anything like the Jesus we know, does it?

But it does sound a little like the distorted image of God that Satan presented to Adam and Eve back when he was tempting them in the Garden of Eden. What was it that he said about eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? (Which they had been forbidden to eat.) “God knows… that… your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is bad.” (Gen 3:5) Part of the temptation that he was dangling in front of our first parents was that they would be more like God: but the God that he depicted, who they would be more like, was one obsessed with power and knowledge and with hording it all for himself and who was ready to coerce and deceive to achieve this. Through their sin, they did become more like this false picture of God; while they became a lot less like the way God truly is, for he is loving and generous, faithful, good, and holy. They had been created in his image!—and then they became a lot less like him through their sin.

But where Adam and Eve fell, our Lord Jesus stood strong against the devil’s temptations. And in his replies, we hear a very different picture of what it really means to be the Son of God. What is this picture?

  • First, we note that he quotes Scripture again and again, in order to refute the devil’s lies. The Son of God knows the truth that God has revealed; and he stands strong in it, which enables him to easily cut through the smoke and mirrors of the devil’s lies.
  • Second, he responds, “One does not live on bread alone”—a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy that concludes, “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut 8:3) The Son of God is sustained by his living, minute-to-minute relationship with God the Father.
  • Third, he refuses to worship the devil, even for an instant. He will not do evil in a futile attempt to make good result; he will not be compromised or deceived. He knows that only God is worthy of worship; only God is worthy of being our top priority.
  • Fourth, he is secure and completely trusting in his relationship with the Father. He will not try to manipulate the Father into performing a public miracle to save him from physical harm and validate him in front of the world. Instead, he turns to the Father for strength in this moment of temptation.

And thus the true Son of God emerges as a true victor over the temptations of the devil. Not as a winner in the earthly sense, with lots of bread to eat and all the world’s power and a public miracle showing how special he is. But rather as a true victor, as conqueror: not deceived by the devil’s lies as the first Adam had been, not compromised, not entrapped and enslaved; but rather inwardly strong and free and holy, with his relationship with the Father sustained and stronger than ever.

This is what it means to be the Son of God. And Christ calls us to follow him in this way—we who have been adopted as sons and daughters of God in baptism—not to be winners in the earthly sense but victors in the spiritual battle. Not to cut ourselves off from God in moments of temptation by falling into fear and distrust of him; but to turn to him, to believe in him, to trust him, and to receive the strength and deliverance we need through our living, minute-to-minute relationship with him.

And so it is that this Lent we once again follow our Lord Jesus into the desert for 40 days, to draw closer to God the Father, and to engage in spiritual battle. The forms of Lenten fasting that we undertake will make us less like winners by earthly standards; and they may even make us more vulnerable to being tempted or pressured into sin, as we become weaker in the physical, earthly sense. But these are moments for us to follow our Lord Jesus in turning to God the Father: “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust.”

And thus “in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly—through him who loved us.” (Rom 8:37) This is what it means to be a son or daughter of God; this is what it takes to be a victor.

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