1st Sunday in Lent
Texts: Matthew 5:1-18;
A NEW IDENTITY
We are going off the lectionary, the assigned scripture readings,
for this season in Lent. We are
following a different lectionary of sorts, one suggested in Brian
McLaren's latest book We
the Road by Walking. It's basically fifty two plus
sermons that follow a year-long telling of
the Christian story like the lectionary we ordinarily use. But for
Lent he suggests reading through
the entire Sermon on the Mount -- which we will do over the next
I like this idea for a couple reasons. One is that Matthew's Sermon
on the Mount falls in an
awkward place in our assigned lectionary, so that we almost never
read much of it. This is the
biggest mistake, in my opinion, of the lectionary, because the
Sermon on the Mount is among the
most important teaching of Jesus. And so my second reason for liking
this switch involves Lent
originally being a time of instruction for the adults being
instructed for their baptism at the Easter
Vigil. If we were to choose a manual of instruction for being a
follower of Jesus, we can do no
worse than the Sermon on the Mount.
So here we go on a five week journey. McLaren suggests the theme in
the first 18 verses of "A
New Identity." I think his main point can be summed up in these
couple of sentences:
The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us
something important about
him. Like all great leaders, he isn't preoccupied with himself. He
puts others -- us
-- in the spotlight when he says, "You are the salt of
the Earth. You are the light of
the world." Yes, there's a place and time for him to declare who he
is, but he
begins by declaring who we are. (1)
I think McLaren is right about this, but I think it also goes a bit
deeper in this way: Jesus came to
give us a new identity by introducing us to a new identity of God
our Creator, our heavenly
parent. We come to have new identities because we come to see a new
identity in the God who
lovingly made us.
As a background story to keep in mind, I suggest one of the
pre-eminently Christian sagas of our
time, the Harry Potter series. As the first of the seven
books begins, (2) Harry is about to
eleven years-old, living with his aunt and uncle, who treat him
outrageously like an outsider to
their home, favoring their own son Dudley. And all that Harry knows
about his parents are that
they died senselessly in a car crash, leaving him orphaned. He lives
with an orphan identity in a
home where he is not really wanted, constantly feeling as an
On the night that Harry turns eleven, that all changes. The
half-giant Hagrid shows up to reveal to
Harry that he is a wizard, slated to go to wizarding school in the
fall. But even more shockingly
he finds out that his parents did not die senselessly in a car
crash. They died trying to save him
from the great evil wizard Voldemort, who Harry somehow did in,
vanquishing his dark powers.
More on how that happened in a few moments. But, for now, keeping in
mind that story image of
having your entire identity shift as you find out something new and
different about your parents'
I think that this is what Jesus is doing for us: giving us a new
identity by revealing to us nothing
less than a new identity of the God who made us, our heavenly
parent. The assumption in human
communities up to that time was the opposite of what Jesus gives us
in the Beatitudes. All human
beings, including the Jews, thought they knew who God was: God is
the powerful being who
blesses those who are powerful in their earthly lives, and curses
those who are not powerful. So
for Jesus to begin his teaching by announcing the opposite --
namely, God's blessings on those
who aren't powerful -- that first and foremost questioned the very
identity of God as someone on
the side of the powerful.
McLaren sums things up well. God was assumed to be on the side of
Do everything they can to be rich and powerful.
It's a great description, really, of Harry Potter's aunt, uncle, and
cousin. It was a great example in
Jesus' time of the Roman citizens who held the power. The Jews,
meanwhile, had the identity of
the orphan outsider to power. So how would they hear Jesus'
announcement of God's blessings
to the outsiders? That God was truly a God who blesses the left-outs
rather than the powerful-ins,
the have-nots rather than the haves?
Toughen up and harden themselves against all feelings of loss.
Measure success by how much of the time they are thinking only of
themselves and their
Are independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher
status in the social pecking
Strike back quickly when others strike them, and guard their image
so they'll always be
But here is the tricky part. Is the new identity of God simply that
of truly being on a different
side, the side of the outsiders? Is it simply the identity of a God
who's on our side if we are
among the left-out, the have-not? Is that the new identity of God
which changes our identity?
We will answer that question next week, as we get into the next huge
surprises that Jesus shocks
us with. For today, let's end with the new identity that marks each
of us. At the close of the first
Harry Potter book, Harry finally gets to talk with his wise teacher
Dumbledore. He is wondering
about the truth of his identity, which is marked by a scar on his
forehead. It's a lightning shaped
scar that is the mark of the same curse that killed his parents, who
died for him, while he
miraculously survived. Harry asks about this truth on which his
identity depends, invoking the
"The truth." Dumbledore sighed. "It is a beautiful and
terrible thing, and should therefore be
treated with great caution. However, I shall answer your questions
unless I have a very good reason not to, in which case I beg
you'll forgive me. I shall not, of course, lie."
Brothers and sisters in Christ, you and I are marked in our baptisms
with the cross of Christ on
our foreheads which changes our identities forever, for we are
marked by the love of God
through Jesus' death for us. Too have been loved so deeply will give
us protection, power
"Well . . . Voldemort said that he only killed my mother because
she tried to stop him
from killing me. But why would he want to kill me in the first
Dumbledore sighed very deeply this time.
"Alas, the first thing you ask me, I cannot tell you. Not today.
Not now. You will know,
one day . . . put it from your mind for now, Harry. When you are
older . . . I know you hate to
hear this . . . when you are ready, you will know."
And Harry knew it would be no good to argue.
"But why couldn't [Voldemort kill] me?"
"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort
cannot understand, it is
love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for
you leaves its own mark. Not a
scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply, even
though the person who loved us is
gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very
How does this love give us a new identity? More next week.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, February 22, 2015
1. Brian McLaren, We
Make the Road by Walking, p. 129.
2. J. K. Rowling, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [Scholastic Press,
3. Brian McLaren, We
Make the Road by Walking, p. 128.
4. J. K. Rowling, Harry
Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone [Scholastic Press,
1998], pages 298-99.