Last Sunday Esther and Brie were in Sacramento, so I actually got to go to a movie theater and see a movie. I’d been wanting to see Free Solo for a long time and knew I wouldn’t have another chance to see it in the theater, so I went to see it at Laurelhurst Theater. It did not disappoint.
The movie is a documentary about Alex Honnold, a professional rock climber who free solos El Capitan in Yosemite, meaning he climbs the 3200 ft. cliff with no ropes, harnesses, or safety equipment of any kind. One mistake, one slip, one distraction, and he’s dead. It’s absolutely mind boggling to watch the film and see just how high up he is, balancing on the tiniest little dimple in the rock.
Much of the movie is really about Alex Honnold the person, though, not just this one monumental climb. The question, understandably, on everyone’s mind is, “What kind of person attempts something like this?” At one point he gets an MRI to see if he has some kind of mental disorder. They find that there’s nothing out of the ordinary about his brain chemistry, except it takes a lot more to activate the parts of his brain that feel fear than it does for most people.
One of the most interesting storylines running through the film is the dynamic between him and his girlfriend, Sanni. She’s torn between supporting him in his dream, and desperately hoping that he won’t attempt the climb. She’s understandably terrified that he’ll fall to his death.
At one point in the film, Alex is describing the difference between him and Sanni, and he says “For Sanni, the point of life is happiness, to be with people who make you feel fulfilled and have a good time. For me, it’s all about performance.” For Alex, life is all about accomplishment. It’s about achieving. He isn’t content to be content, he needs do something spectacular. At another point in the film, he says that to free solo you have to be perfect, because one wrong move and you’re dead. “And it does feel good to feel perfect…for a brief moment,” he says.
For Alex Honnald, perfection is something attainable, but it’s something that must be earned. His worth must be earned. His worth must be earned.
This temptation exists for all of us: the temptation that our identity – who we are, what we’re worth – is dependent on what we can accomplish. We aren’t good enough in and of ourselves. We are only good if we succeed. If we fail – at work, in our relationships, in the goals we’ve set for ourselves, in our recovery – we are worthless.
This is also the temptation Jesus faces in the wilderness. Just before our story from Luke this morning, Jesus is baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist. After he’s baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). This happens before Jesus’ ministry has started. Jesus hasn’t done anything yet, and yet, here, before he has accomplished anything, before he’s done anything to earn God’s love and acceptance, God the Parent says, “You are my child. You are the Beloved. I’m pleased simply in you being you.”
Then the Spirit leads him out to a place where there should be no temptation to do anything, to achieve anything. The Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where there’re no people, there’re no responsibilities, there isn’t even any food! No distractions. Jesus is supposed to simply be. He’s supposed to sit with the beautiful words of affirmation and love he has heard from the Parent following his baptism. God has said, “You haven’t done anything yet, and still you are loved, you are my child, you are a source of joy to me.” Before he can start his ministry, he must let these words sink into his very core. Because it’s out of this identity as God’s child, God’s beloved, that his ministry will take root and grow.
The words spoken over Jesus at his baptism are spoken over us at our baptism as well. Or maybe we could say they’re spoken over us before our baptism, but in our baptism we accept them, believe them, trust in them. In baptism our lives are joined to the life of Christ, so that we are in him, and the words spoken to him are spoken to us as well. Galatians 3:26-27 says, “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” In baptism we are clothed with Christ, and in Christ we are children of God.
Just as Jesus receives the Holy Spirit following his baptism, so many other baptisms throughout the New Testament are accompanied by the Spirit. Speaking of this, Paul says in Romans, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” (8:14-17).
Through baptism we accept what God has said to Jesus and what God says to us, that we are beloved children of God, that our lives aren’t defined by what we do, but by the unconditional, insurmountable love of God, who is our Maker. We were created out of an overflow of God’s love, we are the result of love, we are born in love. In the waters of baptism we wash away the lies we’re told by society about what makes us worthy, what makes us loved – lies that say we have to look a certain way, we have to weigh a certain weight, we have make so much money, we have to achieve so much…we have to be perfect. In baptism we die to all those lies, we’re washed in God’s love, we emerge as children of the Most High. Through baptism we proclaim that we believe our Creator when our Creator says we are beloved as we are. And we pledge to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, who will continue to lead us in the way of life, just as the Spirit led Jesus from his baptism on.
But our baptism is the beginning, not the ending. And, while we may have washed the lies away once, they keep coming back, clinging to us, sticking to us. Notice that our reading today ends with the devil departing “until an opportune time.” The lies keep coming back, telling us we need to earn our adoption into God’s family, telling us we misheard God.
Just as the tempter asked Eve in the Garden of Eden, “Did God really say that?” so the tempter appears to Jesus in the wilderness and says, “Are you really the Son of God? Are you really beloved? If you are, you better do some things. You better prove it. If you’re the Son of God, make stones into bread and prove that God works through you. If you’re the Son of God, throw yourself off the top of the temple, and prove that God loves you because if God loves you God will save you, right? Or you could admit that maybe you aren’t God’s child. Maybe you misheard. Maybe it’s all a fairytale. Why don’t you just worship me – that is, accept the way things are, don’t worry about changing the system. Don’t worry about living a different kind of life. Don’t worry about doing things God’s way. Stop following the Spirit and follow me instead. I can give you a fast track to the top, to the place of power. Then you’ll know your worth. After all, life isn’t about being loved, is it? It’s about accomplishment. It’s about power and influence. You’re only as good as your performance, and you’ve got to be perfect. But don’t worry, I can help you get there,” the devil says.
One of the saddest parts of Free Solo is when Alex Honnold says that he never heard “I love you” growing up. It seems undeniable to me that there’s a correlation between his not ever being told “I love you,” and his obsession with accomplishment. He says two of his mom’s favorite phrases growing up were, “Almost doesn’t count,” and “Good enough isn’t.” “No matter how well I do at anything, it’s not that good.” If there isn’t recognition and acceptance for simply being who you are, you need to earn that recognition. And that seems to be what Alex Honnold is all about.
You might be thinking, this sounds nice – not the part about Alex Honnold not hearing “I love you” from his family, the part about God loving us as we are, the idea that don’t have to prove ourselves – but there are some other Scriptures that seem to say something different. What about all that stuff Jesus says about discipleship, about becoming a servant to all, about picking up our crosses and following him, about selling our possessions and giving to the poor?
I was just reading from Luke 14 this week, and Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.” It sure doesn’t seem like it’s enough to simply be, it seems like God does require a lot from us, right? It seems like we have to do stuff. It seems like our place in God’s family is, after all, dependent on what we can achieve.
Well, that’s a fair question. There is, definitely, a cost to discipleship. The important difference between Jesus’ description of discipleship, and the devil’s temptations, is what comes first: are our actions born out of our identity, or is our identity born out of our actions?
The devil says our identity is born out of our actions. We have to achieve, we have to accomplish, in order to become beloved of God. “If you’re the Son of God…” make bread out of stones, throw yourself off the temple. Then, if you’re good enough, God will catch you. The god the devil portrays is a god who isn’t with Jesus but stands outside of Jesus, waiting for Jesus to prove himself before god will step in and legitimize his identity.
But Jesus says our identity comes first: we are beloved of God, we are children of God, and so we will trust in God, we will follow God. Like Jesus, we will follow the leading of the Spirit because we trust that God will never leave us. Even in Jesus’ difficult teachings on discipleship, we’re asked only to follow Jesus. Jesus tells us to pick up our crosses and follow him. We walk the road together with God. Like a mother teaching her children how to work in the garden, or a father teaching his kids how to bake bread, God invites us to work with God, because God wants us with God always.
God never asks us to do anything alone. We are never alone. All that we do is in God and with God. The devil tells us that we must, in one way or another, achieve God’s love in order to be accepted, but the Gospel tells us that our acceptance has already been achieved through God’s love. It’s God who achieves, not us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life,” Ephesians 2:8-10 says. Good works are the biproducts of our life with God. This is clear from the life of Jesus.
Jesus will go on, in a way, to do the very things the devil tempts him to do, but he’ll do them at God’s leading and not the devil’s – he’ll work with the Parent, not outside the Parent. In our story this morning, Jesus doesn’t turn stones into bread, but later in his ministry he multiplies 5 loves and 2 fish to feed 5,000 people – in other words, he does make bread to feed the hungry.
He never throws himself off the temple, but he walks on water and doesn’t sink, and he surrenders himself to the authorities to be beaten and crucified only to have God raise him from the dead – in other words, he does place his life in the hands of the Parent.
And he is given all glory and all authority, but not because he worshiped the ruler of this world, but because he was obedient to God. Philippians tells us that Jesus “became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11).
The devil would have Jesus achieve to prove God should love him, should accept him, but Jesus knows that all that he’ll achieve is because he is already beloved of God, already accepted by the Parent. All that Jesus does and accomplishes is in collaboration with God. It all comes back to his identity, rooted in God before any of this started, spoken over him at his baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
The question for us is: can we hear those words this morning and believe them?
Close your eyes, and hear God speak these words to you: “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Keep your eyes closed, and let that sink in for a minute. You are God’s child. You are beloved. You bring God great joy as you are. You don’t need to do anything (or stop doing anything) first. You don’t need to achieve anymore, and what you have achieved hasn’t earned these words: “You (insert your name) are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Pause. (You can open your eyes)
God will work through us. We are asked to make sacrifices, to do difficult, prophetic work, but not in order to earn God’s love. We’ll do it because God loves us, because we trust that God is always leading us into life.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus said. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” he says elsewhere. Even in his difficult teaching on discipleship, Jesus is clear: the goal is that we might save our lives, and not lose them in the endless rat race of trying to prove our worth. Instead, we can let go of it all, and rest in the words of God spoken to Jesus, and spoken to us in Jesus, “You are my child, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
May we hear those words today, and let go of the lies that tell us differently. Amen.