Sunday, February 17, 2013

First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-13
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan, and was led in the Spirit in the wildernessÖ

Let me begin by saying that I am neither adamantly for nor against fasting during Lent. In other words, I donít believe that it is something that we are required to do and I believe there is some value to the practice, so I leave it to your conscience. Those of you who have been reading my devotions for a long time know that I normally encourage you to do something during Lent that makes a difference in your life, but that I also suggest that it might be something new and faith-filled rather than something to be given up.

Many will begin some sort of devotional reading. Others will set aside time for prayer. I saw one post today that calls for everyone to do ďA Picture a Day,Ē and they give a list of words to inspire each personís photographs. The purpose is to be more attentive to the world around us. I have committed to giving up Facebook games, an activity that takes way too much of my time on a daily basis, but I know I should fill that time with something that will draw me closer to God. To be honest, even though it is Ash Wednesday, I have not yet decided what I will do.

I was struck by todayís text as I was preparing to write. Luke says, ďAnd Jesus, full of the Holy SpiritÖĒ He didnít decide to go out into the wilderness; He was led by the Holy Spirit. He didnít fast by choice; He fasted because it was Godís will for Him. How do we relate that to our own experience?

Godís will is for us to be healthy, so many of the fasts we choose are a good idea. Those who give up soda, chocolate, coffee often find themselves feeling better and a few pounds lighter by the end of Lent. Unfortunately, many of us look forward to Easter Day when we can splurge once again on those things weíve given up. What did the practice do to change our lives? How were we transformed by the experience?

We tend to choose to give up those things that we know are bad habits, and thatís not such a bad idea. But Jesus didnít fast in the wilderness because eating was a bad habit; He fasted because God led Him to the wilderness to discover His power and authority. He became weak to reveal His true strength. He wasnít starving on the first day, but He was hungry by the fortieth.

In the Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus spent forty days being tempted by the devil. And then we see the final confrontation when the devil hits Him hard. We donít know what sort of temptation happened along the way, but in the end the devil attacked His stomach, mind and heart. Jesus answered each temptation with Godís Word. Thatís where He found His power, authority and strength.

So, as we are led into our own wilderness by the Holy Spirit, what is He calling you to give up? Led by the Spirit, our fasting will not be a burden but a blessing that leads us to the revelation of Godís power, authority and strength in our own lives. The devil will attack our stomachs, minds and hearts, but with Godís Word we can overcome and weíll be stronger for it in the end.

It is very easy for us to get caught in the burden of fasting and lose touch with the reasons we do. It is easy to get stuck in the law of the Lenten fast and miss out on the grace that brings change and renewal. Even worse is forgetting the intention to lead us to a deeper relationship with God by demanding that we do this by our own choice and power. Right fasting will commit our stomachs, minds and hearts to Godís Will and His Word.

I think modern Christians prefer to have more control. We like choice. We like to do things that make sense, and have multiple purposes. A forty day cleanse is good for our physical health and it can have spiritual advantages, too. But even Jesus wasnít given a choice in His wilderness experience. He was led by the Holy Spirit. He obeyed. Perhaps God is calling us through todayís texts to listen to Him and follow in His footsteps in a radical way. Giving up chocolate and coffee and even video games has become almost clichť. What new thing is God leading you into? What new place will you go if you follow Him? How will you be transformed by the experience?

We might prefer to be guided by our own stomachs, minds and hearts, but last week we heard the command of God on the mountain to the disciples, ďListen to Him.Ē We follow this week with the lesson of Jesus in the wilderness speaking Godís Word to overcome the temptations of the devil. Perhaps this Lent should be a time of listening to Jesus, and using Godís Word to overcome the temptations we face. We might think they are chocolate, coffee and video games, but perhaps there are greater temptations that we face which we do not even realize. The worst of them might just be our insistence that we are in control.

In todayís Old Testament lesson, Moses tells the people what God would have them say when they present their first fruits at the temple. Each person says the same thing year after year? We ask the question, where is the heart? Where is the individuality? We want to say the words that burn inside us, not a prescribe verse or prayer. Some even reject the use of creeds and the Lordís Prayer for that reason. They want to pour out their hearts to God in their own words and follow their own guidance about their life and work in this world.

There is certainly a place for individual prayer and God gives us the freedom to make choices. However, in this scripture we learn something more important; we are reminded that everything we have comes from God. We say the prescribed words because we are bound together by Godís gracious acts, in the past, present and future. We might wonder how the Exodus has affected our lives, but even acts that seemingly have little or nothing to do with our lives are part of the story of God and they are part of our relationship with Him.

The words spoken in the Old Testament lesson are meaningful to all of us. All believersówhether the first to enter into the Promised Land or the generations that follow up until todayóare identified by what God has done. He gave them a creed to remember their past as they thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on their hearts and in their minds forever. In the creed they remember that they have the land and the fruit of the land because God set them free by His grace and power. They knew that they did not have anything except that which God had given to them. We follow with the same understanding.

We werenít slaves in Egypt, but we are slaves to sin. We werenít led on an exodus out of Egypt, but God has saved us from death. We cried out, ďand Jehovah heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression; and Jehovah brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders; and he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.Ē Our story is definitely different than that of the Israelites, but not really. Their words are still relevant to us.

And their temptations are ours, too. They, too, were threatened by temptation of stomach, mind and heart. They complained about a lack of food. They turned to other gods. They tested God in their wilderness. Donít we do that, too? Despite all God has done for us, the devil can come and tempt our stomachs, our minds and our hearts. The more we turn to Godís words, however, the easier it is for us to overcome the temptation.

As Paul writes, ďThe word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faithÖĒ The word is near to us; God is near to us. Do we have the strength and courage to face our temptations as Jesus did? Do we know Godís Word well enough to turn the devil away when He tries to tempt us away from Godís will for our lives? Iím sure we could all work on that, and perhaps thatís a way we can journey through Lent. But for now, we have words that we can speak to turn away the devil: ďGod heard our cry and He saved us.Ē

It doesnít matter who we are or what we try to accomplish during this Lenten season. Whether we fast from those habits that we know are bad, or we take up some devotional practice, we can seek that greater relationship with God because He has saved us. There is no distinction between believers; Jesus is Lord over all who believe with their hearts and confess with their mouths.

There might be good reason for us to fast, whether it is food or other things. But we are reminded that the temptations we face go beyond our stomachs (or our flesh.) We are tempted to turn away from God with our minds and our hearts. We are tempted by the possibility to have it all if only we worship the world. We are tempted to turn from God by demanding proof of Godís promises. Jesus could have easily turned the stones into bread, but that was not the bread that gives life. Jesus could have ruled the world, but He knew that it was not intelligence or reason or knowledge that would fulfill Godís plan. Jesus knew that God would protect Him until the right time, but even faced with the promises from Godís Word, Jesus refused to test God.

As we enter into our own wilderness, what temptations will we face? Perhaps it is enough to give up chocolate or coffee or video games for a season, but only deals with the temptations of the flesh. How are you tempted in mind and heart? How is the devil trying to get you to worship the world? How is the devil trying to get you to test God? Is Godís Word in your mouth and in your heart so that you can overcome those temptations?

The Psalm for this week tells us that God will protect those who love Him from the sting of the snake and the teeth of the lion. Some Christians even prove their faith by wrestling with poisonous snakes or taking other chances. Some Christians prove their faith by giving something up for Lent. Jesus did not prove Himself to be the Son of God by turning stones into bread or by testing Godís faithfulness with foolish actions like jumping off the roof of the Temple. Jesus proved He was the Son of God by dwelling in the presence of God and relying on His faithfulness.

And so during this Lenten season, let us remember that we do not choose to go into the wilderness, we are led there by the Holy Spirit. And though it is a place of temptation, we need not fear because we are not alone. We, like Jesus, are filled with His Spirit, and He will help us through. So, while it might do us well to fast, letís approach this time with Godís Word in our mouth and in our heart so that we can overcome all the devilís temptations that attack our stomachs, minds and hearts. We have nothing to fear, for God has already heard our cry and saved us. We already dwell in the secret place of God; we abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

We have the words to remember our past as we thank Him for the present and move into the future, so that His story will be written on our hearts and in our minds forever. We have the words by which we have life and by which we live: ďWhosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.Ē

And though on this Ash Wednesday we bury the alleluias for the season of Lent, I have to say it one last time until Easter: ďAlleluia!Ē

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