First Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The devil didn’t show up with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a stack of porn videos when he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Turns out neither God nor the devil have much interest in the sins that rally our guardians of morality to march on Washington, boycott consumer products and bombard television networks with letters of protest. The stakes here are much higher than wardrobe malfunctions, nasty words and irreverent behavior. Real temptations, those that go to the very depths of our being don’t entice us to choose evil. Most of us are smart enough not to do that. For those who aren’t, the devil doesn’t need to waste his precious time tempting them. They will find the way to hell on their own. The devil typically appears as “an angel of light,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. Rather than openly advocating evil, he promises an easier, more cost effective way to achieve the good. That is precisely the tactic he uses on Jesus. “Why wait for God to provide bread when you can have it now? Why waste your breath preaching a kingdom for which all must wait when there is a military solution that can bring it into existence today? Why spend years forming faith through teaching the practices of discipleship when with one flying leap you can perform a miracle so grand that no one can possibly doubt you? The cross is a slow, inefficient and unreliable way of establishing the reign of God. Do it my way! It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s easier.”
I think that perhaps the greatest temptations we face are impatience and laziness. In the corporate world, you are expected to demonstrate immediate results in the most cost effective way possible. Don’t expect financing for a new business unless you have a business plan supported by raw data demonstrating that your company will begin paying off by a date certain-and not in the distant future. We expect elected officials to have some tangible accomplishments to show us within the first one hundred days in office. Such impatience finds it hard to tolerate a God who waits 400 years to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. What is wrong with a God who waits until a woman’s ninetieth year to give her a child? Why did Jesus find it necessary to terry two full days while his friend Lazarus languished on his death bed? The God of the Bible appears to operate in a way that is costly, inefficient and time consuming.
The ancient practices of Lent are similarly impractical. Does anyone really believe that prayer prevents hurricanes, earthquakes and blizzards? What can you show for having fasted? How can a single person giving alms make even a small dent in hunger throughout the world? The answer to all of these questions is simple. Practicality is not the point. Lenten disciplines were not designed to change the world. They were designed to change us. More specifically, they are designed to help us overcome lazy resignation and learn patience and persistence in faithful discipleship. Prayer, when it is modeled on the prayers of scripture, teaches us to love and long for the reign of God above all else. Fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Giving alms trains our hearts toward thankfulness and generosity. The practices of Lent are tools we give the Spirit for the work of transforming our souls. Of course, transformed people inevitably transform the world around them. But that world transforming energy is a fruit of the Spirit, not the work of our own hands. It is driven by the sometimes hidden purposes of God and not by our impassioned notions of what the world needs. So let us begin our Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and alms, confident that God is at work in us and in the world bringing to fulfillment all that has been promised in Christ.
This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan. There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:11,17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. You might call it a sort of “creed.”
The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.
In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. This, by the way, is where I got my inspiration for this year’s Lenten theme: “The Joy of Repentance.” The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.
We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12). Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.
But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.
You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life.
In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.
Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Free will has nothing to do with it. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.
We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has not been an empire yet that has been able to hang onto its vast holdings. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power for securing the peace and security for which we yearn.
Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omlet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t, at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will take it in a New York minute. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick it up?
Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. We cannot predict the effects of our words that so frequently lead to hurt and misunderstanding despite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.
Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.