Topical Scripture: Matthew 4:1-4
I want to tell you a story I’ve shared very seldom in public, about the football which changed my life.
Of all my friends growing up, I was the youngest. This meant that I was picked last for the kickball games and baseball teams. When you’re in first or second grade, that’s a big deal. Your friends aren’t impressed with your grades, just how far you can hit a ball. And so I grew up thinking that I wasn’t a very good athlete or performer. That was OK—my family was very supportive, I had good friends, and my childhood was happy.
But everything changed one day in the seventh grade, during physical education. We were playing football. I remember the day like it was last week. It was early fall, and the weather was just turning crisp. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky that day.
I was put on the offensive line, because everybody thought I couldn’t catch or throw very well. Larry Montgomery faded back to pass, the ball was tipped into the air, and I caught it and ran for a touchdown. From then on I was a wide receiver, and eventually the quarterback. I discovered I did have talent, and soon, more friends as well. And I learned a lesson that day: life rewards performance. Our culture says: You are what you do.
I have often wondered how different my life would be if I’d dropped that football.
From that day on, life was about catching more footballs. My trumpet became a way to perform, and being first chair became very important to me. Making the best grades I could, leading clubs, getting school awards. The more footballs I caught, the better people liked me, and the better I liked myself. I discovered a performance-based identity.
Then, when I was fifteen, I was invited to church, where I heard the gospel and soon made Christ my Savior. But before long I discovered a performance-based spiritual life as well.
Bible studies, prayer meetings, youth group activities; bus ministry on Saturdays, knocking on doors, inviting children to ride our bus to church; witnessing at school, going on mission trips, being part of the “inside” group. Catching more footballs, this time for God. Performance-based faith.
As a high school senior, I accepted a call to ministry, to be an even better disciple and to make others into disciples. So in college I became the preacher on the ministry team, and got to lead various clubs and organizations. Then to seminary, to a pastorate, and eventually to teach on the faculty. From there back to the pastorate.
Always catching more footballs. Performance-based faith.
Jesus and performance
There are advantages to performance-based Christianity, of course.
We performers work hard at what we do. I was at bus ministry every Saturday, and my friends and I brought hundreds of children to church. I learned a great deal about the Bible and Christian doctrine. I took part in significant mission trips and ministries. Performers perform.
And performers are rewarded. I got to preach the youth sermons, and eventually became the youth minister at my church. I felt good about how people saw me. Performers get to lead the organizations, to preach the sermons, to win the awards. If our society punishes those who fail, it certainly rewards those who succeed.
But, is this performance-centered spiritual identity really what Jesus had in mind for us? Let’s see.
Jesus has spent forty days with his Father in the wilderness.
This was an area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, 35 miles by 15 miles. The Old Testament calls it “Jeshimmon,” which means “The Devastation,” and the name fits. Mark adds that Jesus was “with the wild animals” (Mark 1:13).
The area is filled with contorted strata, where ridges run in all directions as if they were warped and twisted. This is a desert, full of rocks and sand, sun-blasted, parched, cracked, dusty hills and valleys. “Death Valley” conjures the right picture.
In this place we see the enemy “approaching,” and we sense the stealth with which the attack begins. Ryan has a pet snake; when he feeds him, the snake comes up behind the food and pounces. So with the enemy here.
“If you are the Son of God”—the Greek grammar should really be translated, “Since you are the Son of God.” Prove it—”Tell these stones to become bread.”
Satan knows the power of Jesus’ word. He doesn’t tempt him to touch the stones, just to speak to them.
Stones to bread, because the stones of Jesus’ wilderness looked so much like bread. Both were small, round, whitewashed. And Jesus was very hungry, having stretched his body to the very limits of physical endurance. I miss a meal and can’t wait for the next one—Jesus missed 120 of them.
And of course, Jesus could have done this. The same power which spoke the universe into creation, which spoke demons out of demoniacs, which spoke Lazarus from the chains of death to the victory of life, could so easily speak to these stones and mold them to into bread.
And he did do this later. With his words he turned five loaves and two sardine-like fish into a banquet for 5,000 families, and still later made another banquet for 4,000 with his spoken word.
But Jesus answers, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God'” (v. 4).
This is a temptation to use his abilities without trusting in the Father who gave them to him. To use his gifts for himself, apart from the provision or plan of God. To use his talents to serve himself, not his Father or his Father’s purpose for his life.
Jesus’ response comes directly from Deuteronomy 8, a passage describing how God provided for his people in their wilderness wanderings by feeding them manna, bread from heaven. The point is clear: God will meet our needs, if we will let him. We are to trust him for our bread, our purpose, our significance. To find our personal worth and value not in what we can do, but the fact that we are loved unconditionally by God.
At its root, this is a temptation for Jesus to perform for himself, to meet his needs apart from the word or will of God. To define himself by what he did. Type-A personalities, high performance orientations, people with a deep need to accomplish, will always be susceptible to this temptation. I know.
The peril of performance
Is this good or bad for our souls?
Here’s what Abraham Maslow, the eminent psychologist, thought about performers like me. He said unhealthy people put action before identity. In other words, they see themselves as their performance. If I have money, or look good, or my kids go the right school, or I have the right friends, I am a worthy person. If I lose money, or looks, or my kids have problems, or my friends leave me, I am an unworthy person. I am what I do.
I learned a very important fact a few years ago: I am not what I think I am; I am not what you think I am; but I am what I think that you think I am. I become what I think you expect of me.
And that’s a mistake. Why?
Performers lack peace.
We can never perform enough. There is always another football to catch, another award to win, another promotion, or client, or grade, or scholarship, or girlfriend or boyfriend. There’s always more we must do to be OK with ourselves. When you base your self-esteem on what you do, the pressure to perform is constant, and it can be intense.
We should feel great after a good performance; but, strangely, the good feelings don’t last very long. The next day brings the next performance, and we’ve got to be ready. We’re only as good as our last solo, or ball game, or board meeting, or sermon. Life offers little peace to performers. Perhaps you know how that feels.
Performers wear masks. If life is a performance, how you perform depends on the people you’re trying to impress. A football fan and an opera audience are different. I found that I had to be one kind of person in church, another at school. The rules changed from place to place, and I had to change with them.
And so I found myself creating a closet full of masks. One mask for church, another for my musician friends, another for the guys on my sports teams, another for school. I began to lose touch with who I am, in my attempts to be what you wanted me to be.
And we performers live in fear that our masks might not work. That you might find out what we’re really like, and not like us any more. So we have to wear our masks tightly, at all times. Are you wearing yours this morning?
Performers compete. In fact, for performers, all of life can be one giant competition. We can’t listen to other speakers without comparing ourselves to them. We can’t watch someone else play ball, or sing in the worship services, or teach a class, without competing with them inside.
And so performers can miss the best parts of life. So much of what makes life worth living isn’t a performance or a competition. Playing with our kids, going to ball games, hiking a mountain, relaxing with friends, loving people. But you have to watch us, or we’ll turn all of that into performance. Our kids have to be the best in the game; we can’t relax and be ourselves with our friends or even our family. We still have to impress you. We can’t drop the guard or let down the mask.
Nowhere is this more true than in our faith. Christianity becomes a set of rules and actions—things to avoid, things to do. The better we perform, the better God likes us. After all, the General always sends the Marines to do the toughest jobs, right? We’re the few and the proud, the elite. There’s not much joy in our faith, but that’s the price we pay for success.
Are there ways in which you are a performer?
So, what help is there for performers? The answer lies in doing what Jesus did: live by “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” See yourself as God’s word says that God sees you. And how does the Bible say that God sees us?
Consider the most famous verse in Scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only beloved Son” (John 3:16). God loves you. As you are, where you are. With all the bad and the good, all the failures and fears and neuroses and problems you brought to church today. As you are, the way a father should love his child—unconditionally and absolutely.
You are the child of God. You are not what you do. You may need to tell yourself this twenty times before today is done—do it. You are not what you do. You are not how you look, or what other people think about you, or what you possess. You are the child of God, loved beyond words by him. God loves you, and likes you, right now.
One of the most powerful anecdotes I know concerns the man who stood at a busy street corner and asked those who came by, “Who are you?” Hundreds answered him, and every single one did so by saying what he or she did. “Who are you?” “I’m a teacher,” or a lawyer, or a homemaker, or a pastor.
The next time someone asks you who you are, say, “I am the child of God, loved by my Father in heaven.” That’s what the word of God says. And God is never wrong.
Robert McQuilkin used to be the president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary in South Carolina. A few years ago he retired to care for his wife, Muriel, a once-brilliant woman now lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease.
The amazing part of the story is what is left of Muriel. It is not her mind, for she no longer can speak in complete sentences. It is not her vanity, or her sense of social graces. The disease has stripped her like a banana, peeling away the bright coverings until only the meat of her personality remains. And what is left? Love.
The one sentence she can still put together, correctly and frequently, is, “I love you.” Just before Dr. McQuilkin retired to devote his attention completely to her, she developed the habit of slipping out of the house and walking to his office—one mile away. When she was sent home, she returned, as many as ten times a day. She simply wanted to be with the one she loves.
One evening while preparing Muriel for bed, Dr. McQuilkin found her feet bloodied from the repeated journeys. The family doctor, when he heard that, choked up and could only say, “Such love.”
So it was with Jesus. When they stripped him of his clothes and his dignity, they found bloody feet and bloody hands. Such love, for you and me.
Was he right about you?