There’s an unapologetically somber tone to our Lenten services. Lent, after all, is a season of penitence. You may recall from the Ash Wednesday service that Lent is a season when those who had been excommunicated–denied communion for one reason or another–were invited to pray, fast, repent, and return to commune with brothers and sisters in Christ. The season meant something to them, and I hope with all hope that it means something to us.
Because if we live a self-aware life, even in fleeting moments, we realize where we fall short. If we’re paying attention to our thoughts and intentions, our actions and inactions, we see pretty quickly our imperfections–unless you live into the prayer “God’s will be done” in every moment of every day. Because I don’t, as much as I would love to. My confessions are as earnest as yours. I promise. So we come to this holy season with humble and faithful obedience, aware of our mortality and imperfection. This humility takes us off any high horse we might have been on and brings us to our knees before our Almighty God.
And we might wonder “Why?” Why do I have to or need to feel penitent? Why can’t I just skip church this week or this month and put my time, talent, and treasure into whatever I feel is most important right now in my life, in the life of my family? Now is when we might start to get squirmy. I start to feel guilt coming on, that guilt from all the “shoulds” building up. But hear this: we have the power of choice. We can do what we feel we’ve got to do. Like I tell my kids, you decide what you’re going to do, but know that your decisions have consequences.
Cue our lesson from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy may be constructed as one book of laws and exhortations from Moses, but scholars tell us that this is a compilation of 150 years’ worth of writing. As such, it’s still considered part of the law of Moses, and I find it fascinating how these teachings find relevance in the lives of the faithful.
The lesson we have today focuses on when the Israelites have settled into the promised land, the land of milk and honey, and are given instruction on harvesting their first fruits. We may jump to the conclusion that they’re taking their gifts to the altar, giving them to God as an offering to God alone, but we’d be mistaken. The instructions are carried out in obedience to God, yes, but the reason for taking the first fruits is to provide for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the Levites who don’t have their own land, who aren’t self-sufficient. Those blessed by God know that the land they’ve settled, that they’ve come to “possess,” is theirs only by God, and if God commands them to provide for others as they have been provided for, so be it. God has proven to be faithful; the gift of land is certain yet conditional. It is theirs if they continue to be faithfully obedient.
In Deuteronomy, there are about 30 instances of the Israelites being instructed to remember and teach their stories, as if it were known that once they were settled, were comfortable, that they would be at risk of forgetting who they were, where they had come from, and who God is. If they forgot their story of once being an immigrant, of having made it through the wilderness, of having been protected and provided for by God, they were at risk of being protective of themselves only, of being competitive, of seeing all resources as theirs alone, of not providing for the other at the margins–the consequence of such behavior being exiled from the promised land.
Remember, I’m talking about ancient Israel, but this is part of our story, too. We bring our offerings to the altar in faithful obedience. We include the marginalized. We remember our deliverance. We celebrate a meal. We do so proclaiming a faithfulness to God through Jesus Christ. For us who confess Christ as Lord, who call upon the name of Jesus Christ, who believe in our hearts in the Resurrection, there is salvation. It’s not a one-time thing, this salvation. It’s an ongoing commitment, the ongoing retelling of our story of deliverance, of redemption, of practicing hospitality, of following the way of Jesus.
According to the gospel of Luke, Jesus is led by Spirit to the wilderness, where he fasts for 40 days, tempted all the while by Satan, the Adversary. Satan tempts Jesus with scripture to provide food, power, and deliverance. Jesus counters back with scripture in ways that truly say, “Not today, Satan.” Jesus knows the Word of God, is the embodiment of the Word. As he is fully human, he is not immune to temptation, nor is he immune to suffering. Jesus’ story in the wilderness is part of our story, too, collectively and individually.
Jesus doesn’t avoid the wilderness, putting it off until later or avoiding it altogether. He goes through it. At no point is God not present–in the person of Jesus and in ways beyond our understanding. As our ancients expressed an understanding that God sees us and hears our cries, like them, we believe that God pays attention, feels compassion, and is active in our lives through love and care, from which we are never separated even in suffering and death. Our understanding of God comes through our experience of Jesus Christ. This wilderness story is one of many that tells us Jesus has been there, too. He always has a way of having gone before us, and it is entirely of our own free will that we follow him.
We follow him in acts of love that provide for widows, orphans, strangers, and others without means to provide for themselves–through pantries, fostering, programs, assistance, mentoring, and advocacy. We do this because we know that it is not of our own position of privilege and power that we experience abundance: nothing is ours that wasn’t God’s first. Yes, that’s a strong theological claim, and you can disagree with me on it, but you would be hard-pressed to change my mind. I know I’m not the first person on this planet, nor do I believe I will be the last. I’m not powerful enough to lay claim to absolute ownership or possession to anything, despite what my ego might say and how we have to navigate our lives in this world.
And how we navigate our lives in this world reveals a lot about what we believe about who we are and whose we are. Do we live into our stories as a people of faith? Do we know our individual story as a child of God?
I said that I would offer us prompts to help us find words to use to benefit our own understanding so that when we have the opportunity to share our love of God with others, we don’t freeze. This week, the prompt (until I send the new one out on Wednesday) is “trials overcome.” If we really want to know who we are as Christians and who we are as a child of God, we can think about a major trial we’ve faced in our lives. What did we do? To whom did we turn? Did we make it through on our own? Where was our understanding of God in that picture then or now?
Or think about an everyday aggravation we face. Why does it bother us so much? Why is it there? What is needed to solve it or accept it? Chances are the situation is mostly out of our control, but our response to it and how we handle it speak volumes. Are we called to turn swords into ploughshares and get to work? Are we to turn the other cheek? Do we need to bring offerings to the altar? What witness are we in the situation?
In whatever trial we’re facing—big or small—chances are there’s not one right way to respond except with love of God. Is it loving? Is it life-giving? Is it liberating? Or does our response tempt us with satiating self-sufficiency, power, or dominance? If we truly are a people fed, provided for, and protected by God, our actions will speak to that, our lives will reveal that, though probably not all the time.
That’s why we go through the season of Lent, why we fast and pray—not to be gloomy or downtrodden but because we’re doing the hard work of amending our lives to live more fully in the resurrected life of Christ, the ultimate expression of the love of God. Though we may not understand how, especially when we’re in the middle of those times that try our souls, we have written upon our hearts in faith the words the psalmist shares as if spoken from God, guiding us to make it through whatever challenges we face:
“Because (you are) bound to me in love,
Therefore will I deliver (you);
I will protect (you), because (you know) my Name.
(You) shall call upon me, and I will answer (you);
I am with (you) in trouble;
I will rescue (you) and bring (you) to honor.
With long life will I satisfy (you)
And show (you) my salvation.”
This means everything to me. I hope it means something for you, too.