a sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent
Madison Avenue advertisers learned how to sell us all kinds of things through “FUD Marketing.” But they weren’t the first ones by any means.
In my previous life, I did product marketing and I was always interested in the story of Listerine. It was invented in the late 1800’s and was originally intended to be used as a surgical antiseptic. It was applied to the skin, or used to scrub floors and tables before surgery. A few years later, the company who made Listerine started selling a diluted version of the product as an oral antiseptic. It was advertised the way most products were advertised in those days. There were claims about how effective it was a killing germs and testimonials from doctors and dentists about the benefits of using it as a antiseptic. Good, solid, basic product marketing.
But then in 1920, the company that made Listerine changed its approach. Instead of talking about how much better it Listerine was at killing germs, it started talking about how good it was as a cure for a brand new ailment, halitosis, which was a just a made up marketing word for “bad breath.” Instead of using doctors and dentists to talk about how good it was, they would tell stories of love lorn young men and women who wanted to get married, but couldn’t because they had bad breath. Of course, once they started using Listerine, their mouths were suddenly fresh and clean and they were soon marching down the aisle. And Listerine became a huge success in the market place.
Listerine was one of the first mass produced products that was sold by appealing to our fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Instead of presenting the actual benefits of the product, the advertiser tries to appeal to our sense of inadequacy or lack of trust. Our fear of inadequacy can ge extremely powerful motivators.
What if I’m not handsome enough? Maybe I need a new suit. What if I’m not cool enough? Maybe I need that iPhone. What if I’m not strong enough, or sexy enough, or rich enough? Maybe I need that car, or house, or new outfit.
Of course, as today’s readings show us, Madison Avenue didn’t invent F.U.D. Marketing. Satan did. Consider Adam and Eve in the garden. Two people living in the most perfect place on earth. Their every conceivable desire was fulfilled. They had all the delicious food they could possibly want. The temperature of the place was an always-perfect 75 degrees. They were on a first name basis with God. There was absolutely nothing they lacked.
Then one day, they come across the serpent who makes a perfect appeal to their fear, uncertainty, and doubt. “If God loves you so much, why doesn’t God let you eat from that one tree? What’s God holding out on you? And if God is hold this out, what else isn’t God telling you?”
What else indeed?
In spite of the fact that they lived in the very definition of perfection; in spite of the fact that they lacked absolutely nothing, in spite of the fact that they were not only created in God’s own image, but that God pronounced them as “very good” – in the beginning, Adam and Eve were afraid. And because of their fear they disobeyed the one commandment God gave them.
Of course, the Creation story has been interpreted in thousands of ways for thousands of years. It’s the foundation of the whole notion of original sin, the idea that human beings are born sinful simply because we’re human. But if nothing else, this story also teaches us that before there was original sin, we had “original insecurity.” And it is our insecurity – our fears, our uncertainties, our doubts – that cause us to stray from God.
Fast forward from the story of the Garden to the story of Jesus in the desert, where the devil makes another appearance. The same insecurities are in play. “IF you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” And in that one little word, “if,” Jesus is confronted with all of the questions any of us have had about who we are and who we belong to. Am I a good provider; will I have enough food to feed myself and my family? Does God love me; can I count on God when I’m in trouble? Will my friends also love me; or do I lack the money, the power, the prestige to make it in the world? Jesus was confronted with the same fear, uncertainty and doubt that all of us are. Is it really enough to simply be human?
But Jesus knows that God fills every hole, every void and inadequacy. He knows that his food comes from God, and that he is beloved by God. And so he is able to resist his fear, uncertainty and doubt and turn his life over to God. In the end, Jesus realizes that all that he is – his life and everything that’s in it – is totally, utterly dependent on his relationship with God.
Now the point of this Gospel story is not that Jesus was perfect and so he was able to resist temptation. But Jesus was tempted, just as we are tempted. And Jesus struggled with his humanity, just as we struggle with our humanity. And Jesus was utterly dependent on God, just as we are completely, totally, utterly dependent on God.
Of course, all of us struggle from time to time. Our identity can change over night, and we lose sight of who and who’s we are. The loss of a loved one, a pink slip at work, the breakup of an important personal relationship, getting married, a pregnancy, the birth of a child. It’s during these and many other life events that we struggle most with who we are and who we are called to be. That’s when we’re most likely to forget that our identity isn’t defined by the things we have, or the cars we drive, or kind of stuff we buy, or even by whether or not we use mouthwash.
Instead, we are identified by our relationship to God. We were marked when we were baptized and are sustained by the Eucharist. We are identified by God’s abundant love for us, regardless of what anyone else might think. We are identified by our love for one another, and our service to those who have the least to give us in return.
Lent is the time when we reflect on who we are and who we belong to. Just as Jesus was starting out, he struggled with who he was, just as all of us struggle. But he never let fears define who he was. As we begin our journey this Lent, may we also remember through all the transitions of our lives that God is all we ever need in the face of our fear, uncertainty, and doubt.