Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Milk and Honey, Bread and Stones

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13
February 14, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Our first reading on this first Sunday of Lent is from Deuteronomy, a retelling of the laws God gave on the Mount of Revelation, Mount Sinai. Here we see Moses, near the end of his ministry, as he warns the Israelites not to become complacent in the promised land they are about to enter. They will cross the Jordan into Canaan, but Moses will not go with them. So he calls them to remember their history, and to celebrate God’s grace in leading them to this land, to celebrate with thanksgiving and bringing their best gifts.

The story lifts up the central meaning of stewardship: offering to God the first returns of our labor as an act of worship and thanksgiving, and as a symbol of the dedication of ourselves and all our possessions to God. There is special mention of the care for the priestly tribe of Levites, landless servants of God, and the “sojourner“ perhaps, in today’s terms, “refugee.”

Let’s listen to his message in Deuteronomy 26: 1–11
When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your 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." You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

The Gospel tells of Jesus’ temptation. Jesus has just been baptized in the Jordan River. He immediately heads to the wilderness, the place where prophets and mystics go for inspiration or refuge. Jesus fasts and prays for forty days, and Satan, the adversary, turns up to offer other options. But Jesus rejects each in turn. Let’s listen for God’s word in Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, "One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "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.’” Jesus answered him, "It is said, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This past Wednesday, as we gathered for the imposition of ashes, and prepared ourselves for this season, I had the privilege of offering ashes to all kinds of different people. My friend Peg and I were at Air Play early in the morning, then at the chapel at CGH in the afternoon. We saw some friends, and some complete strangers, some people who knew exactly what Ash Wednesday is, and some others who had no idea, but still were interested in having ashes on their foreheads, and in having prayers offered for them.

Then of course, we had our service here. There’s something very powerful about this act of rubbing ash on our foreheads. The ash is a little bit gritty, no matter how fine it is, and there is an oily feel to it. There is a kind of spiritual connection, even intimacy, in the ritual. We Presbyterians are sometimes a little uncomfortable with rituals. We can be a bit stuffy, even austere, and maybe too wordy. And maybe we rely too much on words.

It feels safer, doesn’t it, to stick to talking about spiritual things? Personally, I would rather discuss temptation, sin and repentance from a distant and clinical perspective. Most of us prefer not to spend too much time thinking about our own death, or about the eventual death of those we love. But Lent reminds us that we are finite, and that we make mistakes, and that we sometimes need to repent and seek forgiveness.

To be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, is to be reminded that we don’t have all the time in the world to repent. We don’t have all the time in the world to forgive or seek forgiveness. Death comes for each of us eventually. I was thinking about repentance the other day, and I was trying to remember the first time I was consciously repentant, truly sorry for having failed.

It was a simple thing – I was about five, and my mother asked me to watch the baby for just a few minutes – just a few minutes! Mom walked out of the room and I stood there staring at my baby sister. She was just laying there, on the bed, not doing anything. I think I watched her for about thirty seconds, before I turned around and looked at a book. It was a big book of splendid pictures of the birds of North America. While I stood there entranced with the beautiful birds, my baby sister rolled off the bed onto the floor, exactly the way my mother had said she would IF I DID NOT WATCH HER!

I felt terrible. I’d had ONE job – watch the baby! – and I failed to do it. My baby sister, of course, when she rolled off the bed, started crying loudly, and I started crying too. To tell the truth, I was not worried about my sister, who was fine. I wasn’t worried about being punished. I was truly repentant. I felt terrible about letting my mother down.

It’s a small event, not much in the grand scheme of life. There have been many, many moments of repentance since then that matter much more, as I’m sure you can imagine.

I hope that you can say the same of yourself – that as you look back across your life, no matter how old you are, you can identify and remember experiences of genuine repentance.

We may try to persuade ourselves that penitence, feeling truly sorry for our wrong-doing or our failure to do something, is an old-fashioned and outdated concept, unnecessary, really, in a culture that emphasizes self-esteem and the “faux-pology.”

But as the Israelites learned, turning away from self and toward God, turning away from wrong-doing and toward obedience, is a crucial part of our human journey. It took time for them to turn toward the God of the covenant – two generations! – before they entered Canaan land. And the Promised Land was always there, always the promise – God had not taken it away from them. Now, they were about to receive it – about to cross the Jordan River and walk into the land of milk and honey.

This was not because of any particular action they had performed, not because they’d finally gotten the formula right to please God, not even because they’d finally become completely obedient to God. I think it was because they were at last ready to receive the milk and honey, and to value their freedom and their new home for all that it meant to them. They were finally ready to leave the wilderness and receive the blessing. Moses would not go with them, though he had led them to this point. But he wanted them to remember and to re-tell their story, to never forget.

It is a story that resonates with all people in some way:
Homeless and wandering, they moved to another place, where they were strangers.
They suffered in body, mind and spirit so they cried out to God for redemption.
God redeemed them and set them free, and brought them to a new place, 
a place of peace, a place of bounty, and a place of thanksgiving.

It’s not an accident that Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy while he was in his own wilderness. Jesus was precise and nimble in responding to that temptation, that hissing voice that offered bodily satisfaction in bread, that appealed to ego, holding out the power of empire, that insinuated that he needed to provide proof of God’s provision for him.

It must have been tempting, the appeal to self – satisfaction, to self-aggrandizement, to self-serving. Isn’t it always?

Our very nature is to rely on self: our own wisdom, our own desires, our own plans. And God’s very nature is to keep calling us out of the wilderness of self and back to the Promised Land, back to the covenant, back to the milk and honey, back to the table of plenty.

In this Lenten season, as we contemplate repentance, we turn away from that which is harmful, and set our path toward that which is good. Our repentance is not some empty, tragic drama of tearing our hair and beating our chests, but a recognition that we have failed to live up to God’s best for us.

We have turned away toward something that looked attractive and lost sight of God’s claim of love. We have been lost and alone, out in the wilderness, and we have known what it is to be a stranger. We have known what it is to suffer, in body, mind and spirit and we have cried out to God for redemption.

Through Christ, who was tempted but knew no sin, God has redeemed us and set us free, and brought us to a new place, a place of peace, a place of bounty, and a place of thanksgiving. We turn to God, ready to be led out of the wilderness, ready to be broken open so that we may release our past and receive God’s gifts, to trade our stones for bread.

We are dust. We are mortal. We don’t have all the time in the world. But in Jesus Christ we receive eternity. Through him, we have life. He invites us into this new way of being, Turning away from self and toward him, toward life that honors God and loves neighbor, that focuses us on something greater than ourselves and joins us into one body. Through Jesus we receive the strength and light we need to accomplish all that he asks.

And through the gifts of the font and the table, we see our lives in a new way. Time collapses here at this table, for here, our past wilderness, present joy, and future hope collide into one moment of grace, when we are lifted up by the Spirit into the presence of Christ. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Someday, each one of us will die. But today, we are alive.

Today, we are on our way to the promised land.
Today, there is bread, there is a cup, and there is this community.
Today, through Christ, we are forgiven.
Today, through Christ, we are set free.
Today, we come to the feast.
Thanks be to God for the feast!

Thanks be to God!


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