First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Dear fellow ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ,
grace and peace to you from the one at the center of the story. Amen
The season of Lent is a time of storytelling.
During this 40 day period
we tell the stories of Jesus’ last days
leading up to the greatest story of Easter morning.
We tell these stories every year during this season,
we tell them because they are important to us,
we tell them so that new people might hear them,
we tell them to remember who we are and whose we are
because stories form our identities.
We start with our reading from Deuteronomy,
I love this passage because it combines the power of storytelling with worship.
In this passage
Moses is instructing the Israelites
before they enter the promised land
on how to worship God who is giving them the land.
It is clear that Moses is concerned
that once the people settle in
and start working the land
and providing for themselves through farming
that they will forget God.
Moses says some variation
of “the land that the Lord your God is giving you”
six times in this short passage,
he has a right to be worried
it’s a very human temptation
to forget God
when it appears that we can take care of ourselves through our own work
even though God made it possible for us to work in the first place.
So Moses prescribes a ritual for worship
designed to both praise God
and remind the worshipper of God.
When the land,
a gift from God,
starts to produce
the Israelites are to take the first harvest,
put it in a basket,
bring it to the temple and give it to the priest
who will put it before the altar of God.
Seems simple enough,
but there is more,
in addition to bringing the first fruits
the worshiper is to retell the story of the people and God
"A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me." Deuteronomy 26:5-10
The story puts the act of offering in context,
the ability to offer these first fruits
is only possible because of God’s saving actions and gracious gifts.
Telling the story this way
makes sure that God stays at the center of the story.
Worship is designed to keep God as the main character
in the story of life,
and let’s be honest
we need all the help we can get
we humans love to think that it is all about us,
and when we start to make ourselves the center of the universe
we get into trouble very quickly.
It is this human inclination
that the Devil plays on as he tempts Jesus in our gospel for today
and Jesus resists
by keeping God at the center of the story
In his first attempt
the Devil plays on Jesus’ pride and hunger
by saying “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
Now imagine if Jesus were living with the perspective
that he was the center of the universe-
he would be insulted at the Devil’s questioning of his identity
and authority as Son of God,
and being hungry it would make sense to prove the devil wrong
by creating some bread,
seems like killing two birds with one stone.
But keeping God at the center
Jesus, even though he is the Son of God and is very hungry answers:
“It is written, ‘one does not live by bread alone.’”
So the devil tries another common weak spot for humans,
he offers power,
all the kingdoms of the world.
In exchange for allegiance that is.
We only have to look through history
at the various dictators
to know how this temptation might have played out.
But again Jesus keeping God at the center
answers: “It is written, ‘worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
And now the Devil knows he’s working with a really tough case
and so in his last attempt
he combines a question of Jesus’ identity
with quoting scripture,
playing Jesus’ own game saying “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘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.’
there you have it,
the word of God straight out of Psalm 91,
how can you argue with that? The Devil implies
this tactic has worked really well for the Devil over the years
playing on the pride of people
who then pressure other people
saying: “If you are a Christian, you will go and do____ something very un Christ like”
and by backing up their claim with scripture
people fall prey to the desire
to prove that they are Christian
rather than to act like Christ.
but yet again Jesus sees through the devil’s ploy
and keeping God at the center of the story
responds “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
At this the devil departs-
but not for good, just until another time when Jesus is ripe for temptation,
a time like this one where his defenses are down.
That’s when the devil likes to tempt us,
not when we’re at our strongest,
but when we’re at our weakest,
those times of struggle
where we desperately desire a certain outcome
because we are so overcome with the events in our lives
that we’ve started telling our story with ourselves at the center
we are so focused on ourselves
that we give into temptation
and start testing God saying things like:
“God, if you’re really there I’ll know because you’ll make the one I love all better.”
or “God, if you’re really compassionate make all this pain go away, right now.”
Of course that way lies madness,
because God doesn’t work like that,
God is not a cosmic vending machine
where if we insert our prayers like dollars
our desired outcome will be dispensed.
And how do we know God doesn’t work like that?
Through all the stories of how God has acted in the past,
the stories where again and again
God chose to work through death to bring new life.
So how do we make it through the tough times and resist temptation?
the stories of how God has acted in the past
and promised to act in the future.
In worship we hear the stories,
and we give to God in recognition that in the great story of life
God is the main character to our supporting role,
and we celebrate the life God has given us.
And fortified by the story,
gratitude and communal celebration
God sends us back out into the world,
to live through death into new life. Amen
Pastor Emily Johnson preaches weekly at Christ Lutheran. These are manuscripts of her sermons given at Christ Lutheran. Feel free to engage with them in the comments section of the blog.