Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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.

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

Amen.

Advertisements

Choose Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 16, 2014

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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.

Deuteronomy is one of those books of the Bible that most people will never read.  It takes place just before the Hebrew people enter the Promised Land.  God had used Moses to lead them out of slavery in Egypt, and they had been nomads in the wilderness for forty years while they learned to be God’s people and live as God wanted them to.  They had learned to trust God and follow God even in the harshest conditions.  It hadn’t been an easy time; they kept backsliding, grumbling, and rebelling against God.  Now they were finally ready, and had been led to the area we call Israel today, the land God had promised to give them.  They were standing across the Jordan River from the land, they could see their future home.  But before they crossed, Moses had a few things to say.  Well, actually, Moses had a lot to say.  And the book of Deuteronomy tells the story of his speech.  Moses knew he wasn’t going to live much longer—he died before they crossed over the river.  And he wanted to help them remember the things they had learned in their years of wandering.  So he gave them the Law—chapter after chapter of legal minutia, everything they needed to know to establish a just and lawful society.

Our first reading comes from his summary, as he’s wrapping up his speech.  In this reading, he reminds people why the laws are there.  The law isn’t given so that people will trip up; it isn’t given so that lawyers can have a job; it isn’t given as a way for the powerful to oppress the powerless by wielding unjust rules.  The laws are given so that the people can live good, honest, and open lives.  We all have many choices in our lives, things we can decide to do or not do.  Some of them seem to be hard, but yet worth it in the long run.  Other choices are easy and seem good at the time, but lead to problems down the road.  It’s not always easy to lead a life of honesty, integrity, and love; sometimes it’s so much easier to be petty and deceitful and selfish.  But a life filled with love of God and loving your neighbor as yourself leads to, well, life.  A life filled with pettiness and selfishness, on the other hand, doesn’t.  Or, at least, it doesn’t lead to the kind of abundant and joy-filled life that God wants for us.  Choosing badly may not be a literal death; it may be a death of hope, a death of love, a death of possibility, a death of joy.  An addition to the brokenness of the world.

When we make choices about how we’re going to live, how we’re going to treat ourselves and others, that’s what’s at stake: are we going to choose the abundant life God has promised us?  Are we going to choose healing and wholeness?  Or are we going to turn away, and choose death and brokenness?  Choose life, Moses says, and reminds us that when we make those decisions every day, we don’t just make them for ourselves, but for our family and community.

Jesus is also talking about laws in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, and again it’s about choices.  What kind of life are we going to live?  Chapter 5 is the sermon on the mount.  You may recall a few weeks ago when we heard the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn.  Why?  Because they will be comforted, filled, lifted up; because in those times of grief and loss, some of the deepest connections and relationships are forged.  Whether or not the world can see it, God is with those who are last, and lost, and least.  Then, last week, the Sermon on the Mount continued with Jesus talking about being salt and light.  God has chosen us to be the light of the world, to let God’s light shine through us on the whole world, and participate in God’s work.

Then, today, Jesus’ sermon takes a more legalistic bent.  What kind of life should followers of God lead?  Jesus’ expectations are pretty high—much higher than was required by the Law of Moses.  But the expectations are high for the same reason.  Some choices lead to life; some lead to death.  Jesus wants us to choose life, not just for our sake but for the sake of the world.  Jesus wants us to live lives that let God’s light shine; Jesus wants us to help build up God’s reign on earth, where the poor are loved, where those who mourn are comforted, where the meek and lowly aren’t trampled underfoot, where mercy and peace are everywhere.  So here are some practical tips on how to live that kind of life.

The first is about reconciliation.  There is conflict in life.  There will always be disagreements, inside church and outside church.  Sometimes those conflicts are small, and sometimes they’re not.  But we human beings aren’t very good at dealing with conflict.  All too often, we’d rather nurse our resentment and anger than forgive; we’d rather sweep things under the rug than take the hard work of rebuilding the relationship.  How many of you have had an argument or problem with somebody in the community that lasted for a long time?  Think about that conflict: did it affect other things in your life?  Did it take a toll on other people?  Did the resentment creep into other things you did?  That’s no way to live.  Jesus calls it a kind of murder: not of lives, but of relationships.  It destroys possibility; it breaks down the whole community.  So, Jesus says, if you have a problem with someone or someone has a problem with you, you should handle it immediately—don’t sweep it under the rug, don’t bury it and seethe, go and be reconciled.  Even if you’re in the middle of worship, take the time to work through the problem and rebuild the relationship.  By the way, we actually allow time for this in worship.  Have you ever wondered why we stop in the middle of service to pass the peace?  It’s not just to catch up with people and say hello.  It’s a time intentionally set apart so that if you have a conflict with someone, you can take the first step of healing the breach: sharing peace with them.

The second area of behavior Jesus talks about has to do with more intimate relationships: marriage and sex.  Jesus focuses on adultery: actions which break those relationships.  And, specifically, he focuses on things men do that break up relationships.  Why?  Because men had the power in society.  A man could blame a woman for his own misbehavior.  A man caught in adultery got a slap on the wrist, but a woman caught in adultery could be killed.  A man could beat or kill his wife with few if any consequences.  A woman had very few circumstances in which she could get a divorce, even if she were being abused; a man could get a divorce for virtually anything.  A meal he didn’t like could be grounds for divorce: and while a man who got divorced didn’t face many problems in society, a woman who was divorced had very few options.  She could live with her father or brothers as a servant; she could marry again (if she could find someone willing to marry her); she could become a prostitute.  There weren’t many other choices.

So I don’t find it surprising at all that Jesus told men not to divorce their wives lightly or for trivial causes.  When you get a divorce, that’s a death of possibility.  It kills the relationship, and often it kills more relationships than just the couple’s: parents, children, siblings, friends, all are caught in the conflict; all are affected.  It can be devastating.  And in Jesus’ day, you added to it a very real possibility that the woman’s life would be ruined even if she had done nothing wrong.  Divorce for trivial reasons was the opposite of everything Jesus was trying to teach.  It was the opposite of the love and mercy and peace that Jesus was sent to bring.  For that reason, I don’t believe that Jesus would apply this teaching on divorce to cases of abuse: abuse, also, is the opposite of love and mercy and peace.  Marriage, like all relationships, should be good and positive and life-affirming.  Jesus wants us to make choices that lead to life, and that includes choices about marriage.

The third thing Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel reading is oaths.  Not cursing, but swearing.  For example, when a witness is sworn in court, and they put their hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  And at first when I was reading this passage I didn’t get the connection.  Then I realized: why do we make people swear oaths?  Because we don’t trust them to do the right thing on their own.  We don’t trust that witnesses in a court will tell the truth without an oath and penalties if they don’t.  We don’t trust that people who hold government positions will do their best if they don’t have to stand up and give an oath—and maybe we’re right not to trust.  Certainly, some people try to lie and cheat.  But Jesus’ point is that we as Christians shouldn’t need to take oaths—we should tell the truth even without them.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether we’ve sworn an oath or not.  We should act with honesty and integrity whether or not there are consequences.  We should make the choices that lead to trust, and integrity, and the kind of life worth living.

There are a lot of laws in the Bible, and sometimes it’s easy to get bogged down in them.  Some people study the letter of the law, and forget the spirit; some people use the law as a club to beat other people over the head with.  But that’s not why God gave the law to Moses to give to the Hebrews, and it’s not why Jesus talked about the law, either.  God gave us guidelines for behavior to help us make good choices, choices that lead to life and love and wholeness and healing.

Moses said: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.”

Amen.

A Matter of Life and Death

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), September 8, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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.

Today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy takes place after the Exodus.  The Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt, have been freed by God’s power and grace.  They followed God into the wilderness, but because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness.  God used those forty years to teach them to rely on him—God gave them everything they needed, even though they didn’t get everything they wanted.  God gave them the Commandments, instructions on how to live their lives.  And most of all, God built a relationship with them that God hoped would last forever.  When they were ready, God led them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, what we call Israel and Palestine today.  But before they entered the land, while they were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to cross into the land God had promised to them, Moses stood up to give a speech.

It’s a long speech; it takes up most of Deuteronomy.  In it, Moses summarized all the commandments and rules that God had given them, all the ways they were supposed to live.  God had promised to be their God, and in return they were to live as God commanded.  To use Christian terminology, they were to be disciples: everything they said and did was to be guided by their relationship with God.  That would bring them the life God had promised them.  Living any other way would bring them misery and death.  Our reading today comes from the conclusion of the speech: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

It sounds so simple when Moses says it.  There’s a good way, a way of life, and a bad way, a way of death.  It should be a no-brainer.  And yet, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people go astray regularly, so that God must come and bring them back to him and to his ways.  They had all manner of reasons to do so, some good and some bad.  Greed and corruption were common motivations, people trying to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors.  In some cases, through intermarriage with people who were not loyal to God, mixed loyalties were created that drew people away from God.  In some cases, people convinced themselves that God wanted what they did, instead of listening to God’s Word.  In some cases, people decided that they were rich and prosperous enough that they didn’t need God any more.  In still other cases, people just forgot about God, going through the motions and giving lip service to following God instead of genuine devotion.  These motivations should all be very familiar to us; you see them everywhere today, too.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus also talks about discipleship, too, and about making choices.  Only, when Jesus talks, discipleship sounds more like the way of death than the way of life.  To be a disciple, you must leave behind your family and friends and all your posessions.  In fact, Jesus’ words are harsher than that.  Jesus says to hate family and friends for his sake.  Now, in Hebrew, “to hate” can mean the emotion we would think of, but it can also mean “to separate” or “turn away from,” and given that Jesus’ spent so much time telling us to love one another, I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.  But even so, that’s pretty strong language.  For Jesus, discipleship is not easy, and it means you have to make choices.  You have to be willing to put Christ first, above all the things that this world says are important, above everything else that you love.  And worse, you have to be willing to carry a cross—to be humiliated, to be persecuted, to be punished.  It sure sounds different from Moses’ exhortation to choose life.  It sounds like discipleship is choosing death.

But that depends on what kind of life you mean, and what kind of death.  In this world, death is everywhere.  Sin and brokenness are everywhere.  All the bad things people do to one another, all the natural disasters, all the illnesses and the injuries that we are afflicted with, all are symptoms of the brokenness of the world.  No one is spared.  Some people have more than their fair share; others are blessed with good luck and many good things in this life.  But even the luckiest person in the world is going to have trials.  Even the most self-reliant person in the world is going to have times when they simply can’t do it on their own, when they come to the end of their rope.  A life of independence from God—a life where you make your own priorities and follow your own goals—may be wonderful for a while.  It may bring you everything you think you want.  But it can’t last.  In this broken world, no good thing lasts forever.  And so, when things go wrong and you find yourself flat on your back, you learn that what looked like the easy path, the path that you thought would lead you to the kind of life you wanted to live, actually led to death.  It may have looked like the path you wanted, but in the end you find yourself alone and hopeless.

Jesus’ path will lead to death too, of course; today’s Gospel story comes from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified.  When Jesus starts talking about bearing crosses, it’s because in a very short time he’s going to be carrying one, himself, out to Golgotha beyond the Jerusalem city limits, where he’s going to be crucified and die a painful, lingering death.  The path of discipleship leads us to take up our crosses and follow Christ, into the valley of the shadow of death, for we are tied through our baptisms to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Because you see, there’s a difference between the death that Jesus offers and the death the world offers.  The death the world offers is the end, and it comes dressed up in all kinds of things to hide what it is.  The death the world offers comes dressed up in all the things we want—popularity, riches, power, love, anything to hide what it really is.  The death the world offers is empty; nothing can come out of it.  But Jesus’ death comes naked and bare, and it is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the resurrection.  Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ death brings with it the only kind of life worth living, the only kind of life that lasts: a life with God, who will be with us, sustaining us and guiding us no matter what, and who will never abandon us even in the darkest times this world can throw at us.  God’s life teaches us how to live the kind of life we’ll have in God’s kingdom, where there is no sin and no brokenness.  God’s life is the truest and best life, the life that leads us to be our truest and best selves, full of love for God and for one another.

But to get to that kind of life, there’s a catch.  You have to go through death.  You have to go through Jesus’ death on the cross, and our own death with him.  You have to be willing to give up all the things that pull you away from God.  For some people, that’s money; for others, it’s the career you want to have or the place you want to live.  For still others, it’s family and friends that pull them away from God.  And that’s the choice we face, as Christians.  God has chosen us; God has died for our sake.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord we are saved; all we have to do is take the salvation that God offers us.  Are we willing to do what we have to do to follow Jesus from death into life?  Are we willing to be true disciples?  Are we willing to put our priority on the kind of life God wants us to have instead of the kind of life the world tells us we should want?

God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses.  May we choose life—God’s life—and live.

Amen.

Counting Your Chickens Before They Hatch

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.

Amen.