Sunday, February 25, 2007

First Sunday in Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13 He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High Shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, but Lent does not begin with Sunday. It begins with Ash Wednesday, when we approach the throne of God with our sin and lay it before Him, seeking forgiveness and absolution by His grace. Before Lent came Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, or Pancake Day, or Carnival or Fastnacht Day. That day before Ash Wednesday has become a time to party. To many it is a day to let go and get wild before they begin the Lenten fast. Many of the traditions that come with this pre-Lent celebration have to do with cleaning out the house of banned food stuff. Things like oil were not allowed during the Lenten fast, so they were removed on Fat Tuesday. In England they still hold pancake dinners and races.

I grew up with donuts. Of course, the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition is for a specific kind of donut – the fastnacht, a potato donut that is deep fried and often eaten with honey or sugar. Our family did not make donuts. We usually went to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street to buy a dozen of our favorite kinds. However, we always had donuts. It was not until I met Bruce that I learned about the homemade kind. Bruce’s mom always makes fastnachts to share, so when Vicki was just a baby I asked her for the recipe. Though I have not managed to make them every year, I do try to continue this tradition in our house.

I make quite a few donuts – twelve dozen this year. I give some to each of the kids to share with their friends at school and some to Bruce to share with his co-workers. I usually give some to neighbors or share them with friends. It does not take long before twelve dozen donuts are gone. They are usually surprised that I make something so good and so complicated. “You made these?” they always ask. I then explain why we make the donuts, telling them about a tradition that has been part of our family for a long time. Making these donuts is a part of who we are, just as Mardi Gras is part of one culture and pancakes are part of another. It wouldn’t be Fat Tuesday without them.

Of course, traditions are not always a good thing. It is very easy for us to get caught in the attitude of ‘I gotta’ and lose touch with the reasons we do this. It is easy to get stuck in the pattern of “this is how it has always been done before” and miss out on the grace that brings change and renewal. Even worse is forgetting the intention for which it was created, letting it become rote – misunderstood and without heart. This is what often happens with creeds. They become little more than words that are recited week after week and not taken to heart. Even though those words are the foundation of what we are in Christ and who we are in God’s kingdom, they are meaningless because they are something ‘we gotta do” rather than a statement of our faith in God.

That was my first impression of this week’s Old Testament passage. Moses writes for the people what God would have them say when they present their first fruits at the temple. It seems like this would make taking the offering something without any real heart. Each person saying the same thing year after year – where is the individuality? Where is the thanksgiving for unique gifts? There is certainly a place for that. However, in this scripture we learn something more important. We learn that everything we have comes from God through that which God has done in the past, in the present and in the future. We are bound together by God’s gracious acts, even acts that seemingly have little or nothing to do with our lives.

Would the Exodus mean anything to those who come a generation or two later? Would it mean anything to those who come a thousand years later? In this passage God establishes that it is meaningful to them. Where they are – whether the first to enter into the Promised Land or the generations to follow – they are who they are because of what God has done. He has given them a creed to remember from whence they have come, so that His story will be written on their hearts and in the minds forever. By remembering that they have this land – and the fruit of the land – because God set them free from oppression and led them to that place by His grace and power, they will know that they do not have anything to offer except that which God has given to them.

Some people would rather not use creeds to define the relationship of God with His people. They are seen as too limiting, too rote for a true relationship. Yet in our scriptures this week we see the speakers all looking back to the Word as was given by God and experienced by His people. When offering the first fruits, the people were to give it in the knowledge and praise of God for what He has done for His people. They were not to give the offering based on their goodness or accomplishments, but on God’s goodness.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke’s version of the temptation in the wilderness. When Jesus has been baptized, He was led by the Spirit to the desert where the devil tempted him for forty days. Our Lenten tradition is based on this forty day period. It is to us, as it was to Jesus, a time of facing our temptations and recognizing the source of our strength – God’s Word and that which He has done for His people. Jesus fasted for forty days, which is why so many Christians fast during Lent. Fasting helps us identify with Jesus, to understand Him better and to connect in a physical way though Jesus is not physically present.

Jesus was faced with three temptations, all of which we have faced at one time or another. I think the easiest for us, especially during Lent, is the temptation to fill our bellies. When we are fasting, particularly if we have chosen to give up something we love for the forty days, we hunger for it even more, especially at the end of forty days. How many people gorge themselves with chocolate on Easter Sunday because they have given it up for Lent? We justify our actions because we have been so good giving it up for so long. Notice that the devil does not come to Jesus until He was famished. The temptation was not during the forty days but at the end – what will you do with your power once the fasting is over?

In the first and third temptations, the devil taunts Jesus and questions His identity. “If you are the Son of God…” He is manipulating Jesus to prove Himself. How many of us keep ourselves busy with the work of the kingdom as a way of proving ourselves faithful? We think that if we are busy enough with good works then we will be assured of who we are and whose we are. Unfortunately, we get so caught up in the busy-ness of life that we often miss what is most important. We are tempted to fill our time and use all our resources on ministry that we forget to praise God and confess our faith in Him. It is honorable to do good works, to satisfy a need, to share what God has given. Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone.” There is more to life. Good works do not save.

Jesus answered the devil’s temptations with God’s word. When presented with the possibility of ruling over the entire world if only He would worship the devil, Jesus answered “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Who are we serving when we get caught up in the busy-ness of our lives? Are we serving God, or are we serving our egos or the demands of the world around us?

The third temptation is addressed once again to the Son of God. The devil tells him to throw Himself off the roof of the temple. The angels of God are just waiting to protect Jesus from any harm, so why not prove to the world that He is the Son of God. Jesus was tempted to take a chance with His life to prove God’s blessing on His life. Don’t we face the same temptation? The world sees prosperity as proof of blessedness and dis-ease as proof of sin and rejection. If someone is suffering, then they must have done something wrong. If they are happy, healthy and wealthy then they must have done something right.

Some Christians have even established their doctrine on this idea. It is a theology of glory – righteousness is defined by a manifestation of blessedness. They take God's Word and fit it to meet their needs and desires. They seek God's power for all the wrong reasons, to bring wealth and fame and power, rather than to glorify God. Jesus knew the temptations we would face today; He faced them Himself in that wilderness experience. Satan did not just offer Jesus a loaf of bread, a kingdom or angelic protection. He was offering Him an incredible ministry of miracles, authority and power. Satan was trying to prove Jesus was nothing more than any other man, easily tempted away from God's will to a self-centered ministry.

Other Christians try to prove their faithfulness by testing God’s promises. 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. Yet Jesus reminds us that we are not to put the Lord our God to the test.

Jesus did not prove Himself to be the Son of God by turning stones into bread or by testing God’s 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. He was secure in His calling to save the world. The proof was not in what Jesus did. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry, to rule over the nations or to be a famous preacher. Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God because He dwelt in the power of the Most High God, turning to God’s Word and God’s promises as the foundation of all that He was to do. He came to die, to bring forgiveness and healing to a world that was sick and dying from sin. He was Immanuel, God with us, and from then until now God no longer lives in a temple. Instead, He lives within the hearts of those who believe.

First He gives the gift, and then we confess our faith. We believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths because God first loved us. Through grace, we dwell in the shelter of the Most High, resting in the shadow of the Almighty. He is our refuge and our fortress. In Him we can trust.

In the Epistle lesson, Paul reminds us that our faith in Christ is not just a heart thing or a head thing – it is both. Jesus Christ is Lord and as Lord He is the foundation on which a new covenant – and a new relationship – is built. Paul looks to the past – to the scriptures – to explain this new covenant of God. The people of the past personified wisdom as the manifestation of God, Paul identified Jesus as that manifestation. The past established what would be, and Jesus fulfilled the promises.

Everything that we are – our strength, our hope, our peace – is found in Jesus Christ. He is Lord. We dwell in Him. Our salvation is dependent on our love for God and our love for Jesus, but it is also built on our knowledge of God as He is manifest in the flesh of Jesus. We dwell in Him but dwelling in Him does not mean that we should test His faithfulness. God will protect us, save us, empower us. However, we see in Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness that we can be tempted by things that appear good. We need to rest in that which has been given to us – our past, God’s Word and His promise – and with His strength we will be able to discern what is right and do what is truly good.

Someone once said (and many continue to say), “It does not matter what you believe, only that you are sincere in your belief.” This might sound good, a way of tolerating other people in a world where there is such diversity. Yet, the scriptures are very clear when they tell us that it does matter what we believe. Jesus is Lord. Salvation comes from no one else. We can’t earn heaven by doing good works, even if we fill our schedules with the busy-ness of ministry. We can’t prove ourselves to be faithful by our actions. We are called to live in the assurance that God is faithful. He has given us faith, and by His grace we are saved. His Word is on our lips and in our hearts. We won’t be put to shame because He is faithful, but we need not test God on this.

We who are not Jewish can not identify with the statement of faith that is found in today’s Old Testament lesson. The Exodus is not our story, nor is the taking of the Promised Land. However, it is part of who we are in Christ, because it is part of who He was as a man in flesh and blood. We remember, but that is just part of the story. We have another story – the story of Christ – on which our faith is built. He is the fulfillment of the promise, it is in Him and through Him our salvation comes. Though we have our differences, all who call on Jesus’ name and believes in Him will be saved for He is Lord of all. It is on this promise everything we have and everything we give is founded. So as we offer ourselves and as we offer our gifts, let us do so with the story of His grace on the tips of our tongues so that we remember that everything we have is His.

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