March 10, 2019

A Matter of Trust

Passage: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-16; Luke 4:1-13

20190310 Sermon Rev

 

Today we begin the season of Lent, a time of preparation leading up to Holy Week and Easter.  In the early church this forty day period was a time of preparation for baptism.  In Medieval times it became a season of public penitence so that persons who had committed egregious sins could be restored to communion in the church.  Now it is used by believers for deepening faith and strengthening belief.  We make this 40-day journey through a darker season as a way of preparing to receive and share more fully in the contrasting resurrection light of Easter Sunday.

 

This year, Lent begins with two wilderness stories.  From the Old Testament comes the story of the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness after their exodus – their escape – from a life of slavery in Egypt.  The reading from Deuteronomy 26 describes a ceremony they are to perform after arriving in the land promised to them.  During the ceremony they are to remember their enslavement, escape, and wilderness experience.  From the New Testament comes the story of Jesus in the wilderness where for forty days he is tempted by the devil.  We read this story every year on the first Sunday of Lent.

 

Let’s look a bit closer at Deuteronomy 26:1-11. [1]  The children of Israel who had lived as slaves in a foreign land and had been badly mistreated had been set free by God.  Now they are living in the land promised to them.  They are bringing baskets filled with their bountiful harvests and presenting them to God and the congregation so that God’s work can be done on earth.  The story they are to tell during the ceremony is the story every Israelite could repeat and one which continues to be a foundational story for the Jews.

 

My ancestor Jacob was a wandering Aramean who went to live as a foreigner in Egypt. His family arrived few in number, but in Egypt they became a large and mighty nation.   When the Egyptians oppressed and humiliated us by making us their slaves, we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors. He heard our cries and saw our hardship, toil, and oppression.   So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and powerful arm, with overwhelming terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders.   He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey! And now, O Lord, I have brought you the first portion of the harvest you have given me from the ground. [2]

 

In order to move into the future, the people are commanded to take another look at the past.  God provided a safe journey.  With Egypt behind them, they stumbled through the wilderness toward their new home.  Israel’s story, their confession of faith, reminded them of their former low status and God’s mighty deliverance.

 

Their response is to be gratitude and generosity.  They acknowledge that everything they have comes from God.  God is their deliverer, protector, and provider.  The celebration includes the Levites – Israelite people who do not have land and cannot grow grain.  It also includes the immigrants among them.  This offering of part of their harvest is a chance for sharing the wealth.  The offering comes from God’s bounty, and is distributed to those who have nothing.  Repeating this ceremony each year, remembering their story of deliverance, and sharing generously remind them that they are the people of God, that they can trust God.  As we read the Old Testament, we discover that the times they forget this story are not the best of times for them as a people.

 

We too do well to remember and retell our stories.  We all have stories that drive us to do what we do, to be who we are, to find and claim our identity.  What are the stories that ground us in faith; the stories that remind us of God’s deliverance, protection, and provision; the stories that strengthen our trust in God?

 

One such story could be the one found in Luke 4:1-13.  Jesus has just been baptized by John.  The Holy Spirit descends on him and a voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the one I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Instead of getting on with his ministry, though, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert where he fasts and prays.  Jesus is full of the Spirit after his baptism.   Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  The story doesn’t say that the Spirit leaves Jesus there.  We can conclude that the Spirit is with Jesus during what happens next.

 

During his time in the wilderness, Jesus is presented with several personal and political options for his mission.  For Jesus, wilderness is not only a physical place but a spiritual place – to be tested and transformed.

 

Luke reports that Jesus is tempted by the devil.  Most of the images we have of the devil don’t actually come from the Bible.  The devil is the opposition, the tempter, the adversary or accuser.  The devil is the other voice, not God’s voice.

 

Jesus is asked – taunted or dared might be better words – by this adversary to satisfy his physical needs, to grab onto earthly power, and to prove his invincibility.  The tempter offers Jesus food.  This reminds us of the Israelites in the wilderness demanding water.  When given water, they demanded food.  When given manna, they demanded more.  When given quail, they continued to complain.  Their fallback response was to abandon God, saying “Let’s go back to Egypt, at least there even though we were slaves, we knew what to expect.

 

But Jesus is faithful, quoting scripture – Deuteronomy 8:3 – and saying:  One doesn’t live on bread alone.  This temptation is about more than food, it’s about all manner of material items.  In Deuteronomy, this phrase, One doesn’t live on bread alone, is part of a warning to remember and trust God in times of prosperity as well as in times of scarcity.  So Jesus responds to the tempter with the truth that we don’t live on material things alone.

 

Later on Jesus teaches his disciples to pray:  Give us this day our daily bread.  This is a reminder that daily provisions are gifts that God gives freely to us, not obligations that we demand from God.  The tempter asks Jesus to forget that God provides, and challenges Jesus to take matters into his own hands

 

How do we view material possessions?  Do we see them as something to be hoarded or as gifts from God?  Like the children of Israel, we also remember what God has done and respond to God in gratitude and generosity.  Setting aside time for worship reminds us that all of our days belong to God.  We give of our time, talent, and money to the church and to the wider community as an acknowledgement that all we have comes from God.

 

Next, the tempter offers Jesus power.  This reminds us of the Israelites demanding a king.  Even when warned what would happen if they had a king, they persisted.  They soon found out that giving power to an earthly king was not the solution they had hoped for.  They discovered that total power corrupts totally.

 

But Jesus is faithful – quoting Deuteronomy 6:13 – and saying:  Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.  Jesus refuses to worship the tempter instead of God.  Jesus also refuses to accept the kind of power the tempter is offering.  The power and authority of this world is a power of dominance, not a power of love and non-violent service.  The power the tempter offers is not “take up this cross” but “take up this sword.”  But Jesus is not about conquering using worldly power.  Jesus is about saving the world using godly power of love and service.

 

Although working through political structures and trying to influence policy makers on all levels to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are worthwhile and faithful activities, we cannot put our complete faith and trust in them, in political structures and policy makers.  We can appreciate our country and do nothing to betray it.  We can align with a political party and support a particular candidate.  We can choose to obey the laws of the land.  But our allegiance is to God and God alone.  Our greatest commitments are to love and serve God with everything we are and in everything we do and to love other people as we love ourselves.

 

The last thing the tempter offers Jesus is survival.  This foreshadows Jesus’ death.  Jesus faces this temptation again right before his arrest when he’s praying in the garden of Gethsemane.

 

This time the tempter tries to use Jesus’ tactics by quoting scripture – Psalm 91:11-12 – to him:  He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you, and On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.  The tempter demonstrates that knowing scripture and being faithful are two different things.  Many actions can be justified by using, often misusing, scripture.

 

Once again Jesus is faithful – quoting Deuteronomy 6:16 – and saying:  Do not put the Lord your God to the test.  This refers to a time when the Israelites questioned if God was with them.  In times of questioning God’s presence, some would worship idols and other graven images.  Worshiping someone other than God is an incredible temptation to the Jews in Jesus’ time, as well, and to the early Christians.  Those who do not participate in emperor worship face isolation, discrimination, and in some cases, death.  The temptation is to do anything possible to survive.

 

For us, it’s rarely, if ever, a matter of personal survival.  It’s more a matter of trust.  Do we try to save ourselves, or do we trust God to work in and among us?  However, survival does seem to be one of the greatest temptations the church faces today.  What are we willing to do or not do in order to survive?  Are those actions faithful?  How do we trust God to work in the wider church and in our congregation?

 

Psalm 91 is a testimony to a life of trust in the midst of uncertainty, fear, and danger.  For the psalmist, God is the source of life and rest.  God protects like a shield, like a mountain, like a safe house, like a loving home.  God protects from diseases, arrows, destruction, evil, even death itself.  These are metaphors for trusting God, not guarantees of success and survival.  The world is imperfect.  Violence and accidents happen every day.  Psalm 91 should not be bent to support a prosperity theology.  This psalm does assure us that God is with us in suffering.  We worship Emmanuel, God with us.

 

In the wilderness, Jesus experiences three temptations, each more intense than the last. [3]  Three times Jesus deflects the temptation with a scripture applied creatively and with authority.  He is able to reject comfort, power, and security as motivators for his life.  Instead he embraces risk, vulnerability and suffering for a cause much larger than himself.  He will trust in God, the source of his identity and recipient of his allegiance.

 

We too are in relationship with a God who is deeply committed to our well-being. [4]  God’s faithfulness frees us to confess and to trust, and to experience and anticipate God’s saving work in our lives.  During the season of Lent, we discover once again that its gift lies not so much in the depth of our confession as in the depth of God’s commitment.  When we enter the wilderness of wandering and temptation, God’s hand delivers us.  We confess our trust in a saving God.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

 

[1] Some thoughts on both passages are drawn from https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/lent1c

[2] Deuteronomy 26:5-10, New Living Translation.

[3] Becky Horst, “Temptation in the Wilderness,” https://www.goshen.edu/devotions/temptation-in-the-wilderness/

[4] “Worship Resources, Lent-Easter 2019,” Leader: Winter 2018-19, MennoMedia, p. 39.

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