First Sunday of Lent, Year C, February 17, 2013
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I don’t think Moses ever heard the saying “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” If he did, he certainly didn’t listen! Today’s first reading is proof of that. The reading starts after the Hebrew people had been wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In those forty years they’d been through tough times—hunger, thirst, weariness, war. They’d grumbled and rebelled, and then come back to God. And now, at the beginning of Chapter 26, they were almost to the land that God had promised them. In fact, they were so close to the Promised Land they could throw a stone to it: all that separated them was the Jordan River. And there, standing in the wilderness looking at the land God has promised them, Moses gives them some final instructions.
Included in those instructions is today’s reading. Notice that Moses isn’t talking about how to capture the land. Nor even about how to plant and tend the land after they’ve gotten it. No, Moses wants to make sure they know what to do with the first harvest after they’ve captured the land, settled in it, built houses, planted fields, tended their crops, and harvested them. They don’t even have the land yet, they’re still in the wilderness, but Moses is telling them what to do with their crops. They are to take the first fruits of the fields—the best part—and bring it to the temple and give it to God. Then they are to have a party.
I know enough farmers to guess at the reactions of the people listening. The first fruits? Before you’ve paid back your loans? Before you’ve stored up enough for next year’s seeds? Before you’ve put away enough to get you through the winter? But what if it’s a bad harvest? What if the price falls and you barely scrape by? That harvest is your entire yearly income! Surely, the sensible thing to do is to make sure you have enough to get through the year and start the next, and then give what’s left over. And, have a party? When only the first part of the harvest is done? There’s so much work to do! We’re too busy! We don’t have time to worship God, we’ll just do it after all our work is finished.
But that’s not what God commands. The first fruits, the best of the harvest, and a party. Don’t stop to worry about providing for the future. Don’t be distracted by all the things that need to be done. Trust that God, who has brought you out of slavery, through decades of wandering in the wilderness, will give you what you need, as he has always done. And don’t give grudgingly, because you have to. Give with joy, and as you give, remember that everything you have—the land that allowed you to grow those crops—came as a gift from God, which you did nothing to deserve. God has provided what you need, and listened to you when you were hurting. God was with you in slavery and now, in freedom, God is with you still.
It’s about trust. Now, failing to trust God is a common human problem. Whatever our job, we don’t tend to want to trust God to provide for us. We would rather go our own way. We have earned our money and our possessions through hard work and diligence; we need it, to provide food and clothing and shelter and computers and cars and the latest smartphone. Then, once our mortgage is paid and our credit card bill is paid and the utilities and cable bills are paid and our pantry is full and the gas tank in our car is full and all our wants are fulfilled, then we’ll take a little out of what’s left over and stick it in the offering plate, or give it to our favorite charity. If we do it the other way around, if we put God and our neighbor first when it comes time to open our wallet, there might not be enough left for us! We might not have enough for everything we need! God might not provide for us!
That little voice in the back of our heads, telling us that we need to look out for ourselves before anything else, is hard to ignore. After all, it is true that God might not provide everything we want, or think we need, and he might not provide it in the way we want him to. Consider that by the time the Israelites came to the Jordan River they had spent forty years wandering in the wilderness, eating strange food they didn’t like, with no way to store anything up against future need. They regularly grumbled that they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt, because at least there they’d had food they liked and always enough of it. God had provided what they needed but not what they wanted, and the ultimate goal—a land of their own—took a long, long time to reach.
Consider also Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness from our Gospel lesson. Jesus endured hardship and temptation. Even being God’s Son didn’t mean Jesus had a perfect life free from trouble. Hunger, thirst, heat and cold, Jesus suffered it all. And as if that wasn’t enough, the Devil came to tempt him. What could it have hurt to make himself some bread? After all, as I’m sure the devil pointed out, God wants to take care of his children, he wouldn’t want Jesus to starve, would he? Food is a basic necessity! One loaf, that’s all. What could it hurt? asked the devil. And when Jesus refused, the devil offered all the kingdoms of the earth: after all, the Father sent his Son to be King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And human beings are so screwed up, they need a good ruler. You should be it, the devil whispers. God’s plan is too long-term, too complex, too painful. Let’s cut to the chase, the devil says, and if you worship me I’ll help you accomplish everything you want and more. Again, Jesus said no. Then the devil took him to the top of the temple, and said, Okay, Jesus, you’re such hot stuff. You really believe that God will protect you and provide for you even though you’ve just spent forty days wandering around, starving. Prove that God is with you! If you really believe that, if you’re really right, jump off the tower and God will catch you. Then everybody will know you’re something special—wouldn’t that really help your ministry get off on the right foot? Why not do things the easy way? Why bother with all that hard part? Why not cut corners?
We hear these stories and we sit back in our pews, secure because we know the ending. Of course Jesus will resist temptation, and in the process bring in a kingdom greater than any the Devil could possibly imagine! Of course the ancient Hebrew people will prosper in the Promised Land, and God will take care of them! It’s so simple to look at these people, these situations, with the benefit of hindsight. We don’t often put ourselves in their shoes. Yes, we know that God will take care of them, because we know the ending. But if I were standing in the wilderness, having gone through long hardships (whether for forty days or forty years), it would be really hard to trust God to provide for me. If I’d been led through places I didn’t want to be, and had to experience problems like that, it would be really hard to trust God to provide for me. It would be hard to trust God, period.
And we know that experience. Every one of us has had hard times in our lives. Every one of us has had times when we couldn’t understand why God allowed things to happen as they did. We’ve all had times we had to go without things we thought we needed. We’ve all had times when it felt like we were alone, struggling through a wilderness, trying desperately to survive. We’ve all had times of temptation. And because of those wilderness experiences, it’s hard to trust God to take care of us.
That’s the struggle of faith. That’s the hard part about being a Christian. It’s all well and good to say we have faith, that we trust God, but sometimes it’s really hard to put that into action. Particularly when it means giving up our own control over our fate.
I think that’s the reason God asked the Hebrew people for the first fruits. Not the leftovers. Not the extra. Not the stuff you didn’t need anyway. No, God asks for the first, the best, so that we would have to put our money where our mouth is. God asks for the first so that we will remember that everything we have and everything we will ever have is a gift from God. God asks for the first so that we will trust God, really trust him, with our actions as well as our words. Making that leap of faith, putting our trust into actions in addition to words, that changes us. It makes our faith more real to us, more concrete.
There are many ways to learn to trust God more. Giving generously is one. I pray that we may all grow in faith and trust this Lenten season.