March 6, 2022
Part of life with a three-year-old is that she loves the stories, songs, and princesses of Disney. We’ve been on a rotating kick of movies—right now it’s Beauty and the Beast—but a while ago we watched Moana, a story about a Polynesian daughter of the chief who has to rescue her island from the evil that is finally reaching their shores. Like so many Disney movies, it’s got some great music, but there’s one song that I’ve had in my head for a while now called “We Know Who We Are.” In it, the memories of Moana’s ancestors sing about their voyaging prowess and how they would sail from island to island, exploring new lands and seeking adventure.
Part of Moana’s story is that she is caught between two stories. The first is the one her father and the islanders tell: the island is their home. It provides everything they need, and there is no need to go beyond the reef. They are content and safe and uninterested in seeing what might be out there. But the other story is the one Moana finally hears from her ancestors—that they were voyagers. They explored the seas and were gripped by the horizon that would motivate them to do great things. One reason the song has been sticking with me is that it says something really, really true: our stories tell us who we are, and that shapes how we act in the world.
Think about the stories your family has told about how y’all came over here. I know many of your stories involve coming from the Old Country and striking out in the wilderness, the kind of pioneer can-do spirit that motivates you to wake up every day and work hard, because that’s what the story tells you who you are. Or I think about the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a nation—underdogs and lovers of liberty who stand up for what’s right even when it’s hard, always going forward to a better and better future. Or even the competing stories that Russia and Ukraine are telling about Ukraine’s own history, stories that are used to argue for absorption or independence. The stories we tell about who we are matter, because they shape how we act in the world.
The story that the Israelites told themselves is what we heard in our first reading this morning. It’s unique, because this passage is a piece of liturgy—words people would speak during a worship service. The Israelites, once they’ve settled in the land, are told to remember every year when they harvest their first crop to name who they are: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramaean.” Whatever else they might be, the key parts of their story point back to the fact that they are, at their heart, wanderers, liberated by God, and saved to be a light to the nations. That story shaped who they were.
Well that story continues as we hear about Jesus in the wilderness. Remember that this story takes place hot on the heels of when Jesus was baptized—when the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended on him like a dove and God spoke the words “You are my Son, my Beloved.” Jesus had a story told to him about who he was, and it was a story of belovedness by God. He had a mission, and he also had the love and support of God behind him the whole way. And he needed that story to help him when he was in the wilderness.
Satan’s words to him are all about undermining that story. “If you are the Son of God…” he keeps saying. “If, then you could do all these things. You could use your belovedness to your advantage. You could have everything you wanted.” But Jesus knows that’s not the story he’s been told. It’s not who he is. And he knows who he is.
Jesus is the one who trusts in God’s provision. He could turn stones into bread—as the beloved Son of God he had that kind of power. But that was not his story. That’s not who he is. He’s the one who knows that God will provide what is needed, and he doesn’t need any bootstraps and no-one-will-do-it-for-you attitude to know that God will provide what’s needed. He knows who he is by the story he tells.
Jesus is the one who trusts in God’s plan and leadership on earth. He could easily have listened to the story of his own greatness—he is the Son of God, after all—and seized the power of ruling all the kingdoms of the world for himself. But that is not his story. That’s not who he is, because he knows God is the one who will lead the world to righteousness through love, justice, and peace. Jesus knows who he is by the story he tells.
And Jesus is the one who trusts in God’s ongoing presence. He doesn’t need to test God’s love for him by swan diving off the Temple. He knows God is with him, even when it doesn’t look like God is keeping him from harm. He trusts that whatever happens, God is guiding him to where he needs to be. He knows this because he knows his story. He knows who he is by the story he tells.
So what is our story? Who are we? What do our stories tell us about who we are? Consider the stories we have about our families, our country, our church: the ones that repeat our values and what is important, how we treat others and what we do when something goes wrong in our lives, the way we welcome others and the way we listen to those we disagree with. What do our stories say about who we are? And just as important—which stories are more important? The stories that shape us?
When the Israelites were told to repeat the story with the first harvest every year, it wasn’t just a mindless repetition. It was a way of ingraining the most important story into their minds. Who they were as God’s people was the most important story to shape their actions, because when we are faced with scarcity, worry, the stress of change, the pressures of the wilderness—like Jesus in his forty day fast—that’s when we find out which story is the most important. That’s when we find out what story really shapes who we are and how we act in the world.
So this Lent, as we take on disciplines of prayer, fasting, and charity, let’s let that pressure remind us of who we are. Let’s repeat the liturgy that we use to say who we are—“we believe in one God.” Let’s hear the story of who we are and repeat it to ourselves, our children, and our congregation. Let’s let that story guide our actions, because we know who we are. We are God’s beloved children. We are empowered to trust in God’s provision, God’s sovereign control, and God’s everlasting presence. Let’s remember that story, and trust God to do the rest.
Thanks be to God. Amen.