First Sunday of Lent
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
The Season of Lent always begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. That can get us a bit too comfortable with the story, and comfortable is the opposite of what the temptation in the wilderness is all about, and it’s the opposite of what Lent is all about.
So let’s start somewhere else. Let’s start with the Old Testament tradition about offering the first fruits to God. I was reading the other day about a guy and his dog who were stranded out in the woods in his car. The car got stuck in the middle of a snowstorm. He tried to walk out of the woods, but the snow was too deep for the dog, and the guy would not leave his dog behind. They went back to the car and hunkered down. Overnight it snowed again to the point that he couldn’t even open the car doors. All he had was a few packets of taco sauce to eat.
He knew by now that people would realize he was missing. He was a builder and he had missed work. He trusted that people would be out looking for him, but how could he not worry sitting in a car buried in the snow? In such a situation, imagine how precious a package of even taco sauce becomes. When there is nothing much to eat, everything is delicious.
Now let’s imagine we’re subsistence farmers in ancient Israel. We grow enough to feed ourselves and nothing more. Not because we’re lazy, but because even this takes all of our efforts and skill. As winter lingers, food supplies dwindle. Spring arrives. We plant, but still must wait. We’re hungry and at the point where even taco sauce is delicious.
Finally, the first fruits mature. There’s not a lot, but there’s at least something. Now imagine taking those first fruits and giving them to God. What does God need with the first fruits? He’s not hungry. Is this just mean-spirited? Is this just a tradition of subservience? Or is something else going on here?
What about trust? Can the offering of the first fruits be a dramatic symbol of unwavering trust in God? In an age when a bad harvest wasn’t covered by farmers insurance, when too much rain, rain at the wrong time, too little rain, damaging storms, even literal swarms of locusts could lead to starvation, the offering of those first fruits to God were a powerful statement of trust.
I’ve told farmers around here that I would have ulcer on top of ulcer if I were one of them. No matter how hard you work, it can all turn to nothing because of so many factors outside of the farmer’s control. Imagine what it must have been like when a bad harvest meant that there was nothing to feed your family, not even taco sauce. In this kind of situation, the offering of the first fruits was an act of trust that God cared enough to help.
We shouldn’t take this insight for granted, this insight that God cares enough to help. Maybe you remember your days in school reading Greek mythology. The gods could be mightily selfish. Maybe a hero or a beautiful woman would catch their attention for a while, but for the most part, the gods didn’t care. The gods used to watch the battles of the Trojan War, the old myths tell us. It was their entertainment. The injuries and deaths didn’t cause them much concern at all.
Then came along these subsistence farmers of ancient Israel and they started professing belief in a God who cares enough to help. They trust in this God who knows who they are, these ordinary folk, these families scattered throughout the hills of the ancient Promised Land.
These become the people and the traditions of Jesus. This brave new idea that God cares enough to help even an ordinary, easily overlooked subsistence farmer was a foundation of Jesus’ religious upbringing. This is the seed of His spirituality. This is what was growing in Jesus’ soul throughout all those years up until the time we meet Him in the wilderness in today’s Gospel.
We hear today that Jesus is by Himself struggling to figure out His calling. Life in Nazareth was not the answer. Joining John the Baptist was not the answer. Now we read that Jesus has wandered deeper into the wilderness and that He has been alone and struggling with questions of identity and purpose for 40 intense days.
If we are willing to understand Jesus’ temptation by the devil as an analogy for Jesus’ own inward struggles, we see Jesus wrestling with the question of who He is: “Am I to become a provider so that wants disappear? That’s the temptation of the bread. Am I supposed to be powerful so that fears disappear? That’s the image of the kingdoms. Am I to perform miracles so that doubts disappear? That’s Jesus jumping from a Temple tower.
But Jesus rejects all these paths and really, these identities. We’re not told what He does accept, but right after this self-examination Jesus returns to Galilee and He explains His ministry by reading these words from Isaiah: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’” And we’re back to the surprising notion of the God who cares about everyone.
I think it’s only natural that we would wish Jesus had chosen otherwise. How amazing it would be if He could provide for all our physical needs, no more hunger or poverty. If He could be powerful enough to end wars and conflicts. If He could swoop down and perform constant miracles so there would be no more sickness or accidents. But instead, Jesus chose differently.
Instead, Jesus reveals a God who cares about everyone and then goes out and preaches this message and shows it in how He lives and even how He dies on the cross, and then importantly, essentially really, Jesus asks us to follow Him by also committing ourselves to the same message that God cares about everyone.
In a way Jesus’ temptations are also our temptations. Can we accept God without the bread, the kingdoms and the miracles and see Him instead in His call for us to work with Him and care for everyone, the forgotten, the ignored, and the ordinary, to help Him let the ones who may not believe, trust that God can set them free, and to proclaim with wholehearted enthusiasm: “Whoever you are, you are welcome here.”
We had a visitor in church last Sunday who saw this message on our sign outside and she smiled throughout the Service. Now she’s back home in Philadelphia, but she’s taking a picture of our sign to show her pastor.
Maybe our Lenten journey can start by thinking about what a blessing it is to be able to deep down trust in a God who cares about everyone, and what a blessing it is to belong to a church that puts that gospel message on her sign for everyone to see, and maybe since Jesus even went to the cross to prove it, maybe we can continue His ministry of sharing this message of God cares about everyone with all whom we meet.
For this may we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
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