Texts: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Romans 10b-13; Luke 4:1-13
Lent, who needs it? This isn’t everyone’s favorite season. The weather is fickle. Snow, wind, rain, with intermittent pale sunshine. Flowers on the altar are forbidden. The color is deep purple, if there’s any color at all.
Our host church in Friday Harbor seems to have opted for something like sackcloth. And the songs of Lent – ew! And it lasts forty days!
I’ve known people who skipped church altogether for the five weeks of Lent. It’s just too restrictive, too melodramatic. There’s too much soup and bread. And if you’re Catholic, no meat either. That’s what Carnivale means after all – carne is Latin for meat, and levale means to put away.
Fact is, a lot of Christian churches ignore Lent entirely. This is particularly true among Protestant churches whose minsters choose their own bible texts for preaching each week. Who wants to preach sin and death without a single praise God or the forbidden alleluia (shhhh!) for five weeks straight? Six if you count Palm-Passion Sunday.
But looking at the bible texts today, you actually don’t see a focus on sin and death. What you do see is three accounts of people claiming their faith. Think of that word claim. In the early days of this country that was a word widely associated with mining.
To stake your claim meant taking all you had and committing it to a search for something precious and valuable. The poorest person had as much right to stake a claim as the richest. It’s a pretty apt word for the lessons appointed for this first Sunday in Lent.
Deuteronomy 26 is the restatement of an instruction given as part of the law in the book of Exodus. The commandment was very simple. To give God the first tenth of all the land’s bounty in an act of thanksgiving for God’s provision. In Exodus the people had not yet entered the promised land of milk and honey to begin cultivating it. This makes the commandment a bit anachronistic although we might instead consider it anticipatory.
Deuteronomy was written hundreds of years after the Exodus and moves the first fruits offering into the formal Temple setting. Now each person, coming before God with this offering was required to recite a brief narrative of Israel’s history with God.
By that time many people had come to view their annual offering as little more than a payment to the temple priest. A ritual act with little or no meaning. What does God need with food anyway, if God is pure Spirit?
The writer of Deuteronomy re-invested the ritual with a more precious meaning, joining it to the people’s sense of identity. It is about remembering who they are as God’s people. Children of a wandering Aramean, of aliens, of slaves in a far off land. Children who had nothing to call their own, whom God blessed with everything on earth, in the sea, and in the sky. Reciting their history with God, helped the people remember and claim their inheritance of faith.
It is also about remembering Israel’s claims about who God is. Mighty and terrifying. Mysterious and powerful. Gracious and worthy of respect.
Giving the first fruits to God was, in comparison, a tiny gesture of thanks. It was an act of faithful witness, an attitude of trust in God’s bountiful provision. And first fruits giving is a cycle of righteousness and justice - sharing the goods I possess brings goodness in return.
In the gospel today we hear a story that is commonly referred to as the temptation of Jesus. But it is a potent story about identity. Who is Jesus after all? He is the Son of Man, to be sure.
He is fully human as his dire hunger showed. But isn’t surviving forty days while eating “nothing at all” also evidence of his divinity?
Jesus was not alone in the wilderness. During his time there he was both filled with, and led by, a spirit of holiness. But the devil was there too. When put to the devil’s test, who does Jesus claim to be?
The nature of the temptation seems to be concerned with how Jesus will wield the power that is forming within him. The devil tests Jesus cleverly, entirely within the context of his faith as a Son of Israel. The devil knows the narrative of faith. There is a subtle nod to the serpent in the garden, questioning the woman about her understanding of God’s provision. There’s a suggestion that obedience to God is optional, and perhaps not in your best interest.
Jesus also knows the story. But he does not refer at all to God’s voice from the cloud on the mountaintop, “This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.” Jesus does not use this power. He responds to the devil by claiming his identity as a child of God.
God’s word is written on his heart. It is from the heart that Jesus responds. He is fed by God’s word, serving God only, and trusting God entirely. His final words “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’” are enigmatic. Was the devil putting God or the Son of God to the test? Perhaps both.
Paul wanted the Roman Christians to fully claim their identity as followers of Jesus. “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” The verse “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” isn’t a litmus test for determining who’s got a reservation on the fully booked ferry to heaven. It is a summary claim of who Jesus is in God, and who we are in him.
Paul says over and over, Jesus is Lord to the glory of God. This means that when we say Jesus is Lord we claim the same lineage of faith as God’s people, Israel. Jesus is God speaking to us and teaching us. Jesus is God dwelling among us. Believing that God raised Jesus from the dead is our claim that no matter how dead we are, through Jesus God can raise us too.
And that is all we have to say about sin and death on this first week of Lent.
By the way, Lent comes from a root word meaning springtime. The deepest hope of this season is that whatever tiny seed is planted in your heart now will grow into something nourishing and beautiful. Amen.