Sunday, February 29, 2004

First Sunday of Lent
Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach.

Felix, our cat, is an indoor cat. Well, we want him to be an indoor cat, but he desperately wants to be outside. He stands near the door and meows, waiting for the opportunity to run out the minute he has the chance. We occasionally take him out for a walk, giving him limited freedom to eat some grass and lie in the sunshine. He usually stays very near to the house, lying on the patio or creeping a few feet into the grass. Once in awhile he decides to take off, to see how far he can run away before we catch him to take him inside.

Whenever he makes one of these great escapes - either through the door or when we have him outside - he suddenly realizes that he is too far from home and turns around. He usually ends up running back into the house and to a favorite comfort spot. There was a time when he managed to get behind our neighbor's house across the street. He was so frightened by not being able to see the house that he came right to me and let me carry him home.

Cats, like people, need to feel secure. Sometimes it is difficult in this world. We watch the news and see stories about murder and kidnapping, theft and arson, and we wonder if we are safe. We live in gated communities and purchase security systems for our homes to stop any criminals that might want to harm us in some way. Yet, with all these precautions, we never feel quite safe enough. When we are faced with a frightening situation, we want to run inside like Felix and hide in our own comfort spots. We won't feel entirely secure in this world. Evil exists, security systems fail, people get hurt. It is a fact of life that the things of this world are vulnerable.

The Psalm for today speaks of the only reliable security - living in the shadow of God. For the Jews, God's presence was in the Temple. It was there a believer could find refuge from the cold, hard world. Being in the Temple was being under the wings of God.

We would like to think our own temples - our churches - are secure, but we can't even be sure we will be safe inside our worship centers. It is horrible to hear stories of churches that are burned or vandalized, but even more horrific are those reports that come out of areas where people are killed who seek sanctuary. In some places it is dangerous to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, but even when there is no peace in the world, there is peace in Him.

A story is told of some soldiers entering into a church. They raised their guns and told the people they planned to kill all the Christians. Anyone could get up and leave if they wanted, but those who refused to recant their faith would die. A number of people got up and left, leaving only a few fervent believers in the sanctuary. When the half-hearted believers were gone, the soldiers sat down on pews and asked that the service go on. It was too dangerous for the soldiers to be seen worshipping the Lord Jesus. They had to be sure those who were there were true.

Unfortunately, in our world today it seems that most people think the manifestation of faith is prosperity. There are those who preach that a faithful believer will have good health and great wealth, proof of God's hand in their life. Some even read the words that are found in passages like that from the Psalm and expect that no matter what they will be protected. After all, God has promised that the angels will guard and protect those who believe. Yet, the scriptures are not suggesting that we should tempt fate. God has provided a much greater salvation than from a lion and snake.

In the passage from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving instructions for the first fruits of the Israelites' freedom. They have finally reached the promised inheritance that was given first to Abraham and then to Isaac and Jacob. Jacob settled in Egypt with Joseph and his other sons. They stayed there for hundreds of years until they had suffered greatly under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. God finally sent Moses to deliver them into the Promised Land. In their new home, given by God, the people were called to present the first fruits at the dwelling place of God - a place chosen by God Himself, that He might settle in the midst of His people so that they would live under His shadow. Eventually that place would be the Temple, and later the hearts of men.

The gift was given. It was only then that the people were called to give back to God, for they had nothing to give before they received their inheritance. They settled in the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Then they praised God with their gifts, giving back to Him what He had first given to them.

That's the only way it works with God. We have nothing to give. We have no way of living a life of faith unless God first gives us the seeds on which our faith is built. We have nothing to say about salvation. We cannot gain for ourselves the gifts of God. They are freely given by Him who is the Lord over all the earth.

This is what Paul tells us in the passage from Romans, "But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach." The scriptures tell us that God is near, dwelling in our hearts. Only then can we go on to the next part and give the first fruits of faith, "because if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." God first gives the gift and then we respond to that which has been given, speaking the Word of God by confessing our faith in the One who is our salvation.

In this passage we see once again the promise that God will bless those who love Him. What is that blessing? "Whosoever believeth on him shall not be put to shame." In another translation it says, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." What will we be saved from? Will we always be secure? Will we never face the evil of this world? Will the liars, thieves and murderers stay far from our homes? Perhaps. Perhaps not. When we live in the shadow of the Most High, we need not worry about what might happen in this world, but rather rejoice in the salvation we have been given through faith in Jesus Christ. God has not promised us a rose garden. We may face persecution. We might suffer at the hands of the lion or the snake. To believe otherwise is to take the Word of God and twist it as did Satan in the wilderness.

After Jesus was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, He was led into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He was there for forty days, eating nothing. Though He was alone, He was not far from God, always dwelling in the presence of His Father. At the end of the forty days He was hungry. Satan came and taunted Jesus. "If thou art the Son of God, command this stone that it become bread." Jesus answered with the Word of God.

Again, Satan taunted Jesus. After showing Him all the kingdoms in the world, he said, "To thee will I give all this authority, and the glory of them: for it hath been delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it." Again, Jesus answered with the Word of God.

A third time Satan taunted Jesus. "If thou art the Son of God, cast thyself down from hence." In this temptation, Satan quoted the scriptures. "He shall give his angels charge concerning thee, to guard thee: and, On their hands they shall bear thee up, Lest haply thou dash thy foot against a stone." He twisted this scripture to tempt Jesus into tempting fate. Our faith is given, not to test God but to love and worship Him.

Again, Jesus answered with the Word of God. Each time He faced Satan's taunts, Jesus had an answer that came from God. He dwelled in the shadow of the Most High and the Almighty dwelt within Him. In that He was secure. He certainly did have the power to change stones to bread, to command over the nations of the world and to call the angels to His aid. Yet that moment was neither the time nor the place. Satan took God's Word and twisted it, claiming for himself the authority that he did not have.

Unfortunately, this twisting even happens within many churches today. 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.

Jesus proved He was the Son of God, dwelling within the presence of God and secure in His calling to save the world. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry, to rule over the nations or to be a famous preacher. 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, 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.

We are just like Felix, seeking comfort when we are afraid, running to hide when we do not feel secure. Unfortunately, too often we seek to find security in our alarm systems and the locks on our doors, when the only real security we have is in God. He is trustworthy. Though we may suffer at the hands of thieves or murderers, just like the Israelites did at the hands of Pharaoh, we can know that there is a salvation that is greater than this world.

We can know this promise is true. "Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name. He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble: I will deliver him, and honor him. With long life will I satisfy him, And show him my salvation." Thanks be to God.

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