Sunday, February 17, 2013

Relying on What God Gives

Texts:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13

DID YOU KNOW THAT NOTHING in the Bible requires us to keep the season of Lent?  That's because our salvation depends on Jesus Christ and not on what you or I do the seven weeks before Easter. Nevertheless, our branch of the Presbyterian Church, along with other denominations of Christ's church worldwide, have judged that Lent can be a valuable time for Christians to think about who they are before God and about what God has done for us in Christ.  That way we can enter more fully into the joy of our Lord's resurrection.  How each of us chooses to observe Lent (or not) is totally between ourselves and God.  Traditionally, this has included periods of fasting, of abstention from the good things of the table or other pleasures of life.  Even unbelievers know enough about it to joke about giving this or that up for Lent, and some of them even do it, regardless of how they feel about God.

So I was surprised when I looked up the Revised Common Lectionary passages appointed for this morning.  The Gospel Reading is what you would expect for the First Sunday in Lent, one of the accounts of Jesus' fasting and temptation in the wilderness.  But the Old Testament passage is from Deuteronomy 26, and it's not about fasting at all, it's all about the good things of the earth and feasting  and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord!

Is there any connection?  I think there is.  In both these  readings the Holy Spirit reveals some wonderful things to us about the trustworthy provision of God, and can and must rely on Him totally, no matter what our situation might be.

But that can be difficult, managing to trust in God and what He provides for us.  Some of us are inclined to feel we don't need him when things are going well.  We say to ourselves, "My job is secure, I work hard and earn good money, my family and I have everything we want and we deserve it.  God, I'll call you when I need you, but not right now."  Others of us distrust the Lord when things are going badly.  We're sick, we're broke, the kids' toes are poking through their shoes, we hardly know where our next meal is coming from.  At such times, even Christians are tempted to ask, "Hey, God, if You're so great, why haven't you given me everything I need to live?"  Or we might say, "Yes, God, I know You're the great Provider, but it's my fault I'm in this mess.  I should have been smarter and more capable.  I can't ask You to help me until I've dug myself out of this hole myself."

But no matter which of these temptations you're pulled towards, our readings this morning are God's Word to you, calling you to depend on Him and what He gives, whether you feast or fast, whether you seem to have everything or feel you have nothing.

In Deuteronomy, Moses is addressing the people of Israel on the east bank of the Jordan shortly before they're to cross over and take possession of the Promised Land.  During forty years wandering in the desert they've had to depend on the Lord for pretty much everything. They've lived primarily on manna and quail sent straight from the hand of God.  They didn't even have to clothe themselves-- God made sure the garments they wore out of Egypt would not wear out and could be handed down to the next generation.  It was all God's provision all the time.  But Moses by the Holy Spirit looks forward to the time when the Israelites will have driven out the Canaanites and settled down on farms and grown crops of their own.  He sees the potential for danger.  What a temptation it will be for those Hebrews to say in the future, "All right, Lord, thanks for giving us everything we needed in the wilderness.  But see what I have produced for myself by the sweat of my brow!  Look what I've accomplished for myself!  Look how strong and capable I am!  Thanks, Lord, I'll call you if I need anything.  Bye!"

We can identify with that.  It's nice to have friends and family help us over a tough spot, but it feels so good to be past it and stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to any man.  But, Moses says, the children of Israel aren't to take that attitude.  They are to understand and acknowledge that, in the desert or in the Promised Land, they are totally dependent on what God gives.

To drive this lesson home, they are to observe particular ceremony which will involve doing and confessing certain things. They-- that is, the head of each household-- are to take some of the first of their harvest, put it in a basket, and take it to the high priest at the place where the Tabernacle is pitched, the place He has chosen as a dwelling for His name.  To the priest, as God's own representative, they are to say, "I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us."  Lesson No. 1: The land is a gift of God.

        After the priest has taken the basket and set it down before the altar of the Lord, the man was to confess before God his helplessness and the helplessness of his ancestors, and how he did not deserve that God should favor him.  "My father [that is, Jacob, called Israel] was a wandering Aramean."  Or as the NKJV puts it, "a Syrian about to perish."  This is lesson No. 2.  Abraham was pasturing his flocks in Chaldea (Iraq) when God first called him, but the family headquarters were in Syria at Haran.  And before Jacob and his sons followed Joseph down to Egypt, they were about to perish, because of the famine in Canaan.  All this time they were sheepherding nomads, without an inch of ground to call their own.  Who were they, that they should be self-sufficient and proud?

       And the head of household is to recount all the saving acts that God performed for them in Egypt, things no man could do, let alone the Hebrews, who were slaves.  And now (verse 9), the Israelite is humbly to acknowledge that God "brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey."  God gave it!  They didn't earn it!  It was all God's gift!  And in token of this fact, the man is to say, "And now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me."  Not, "I've brought these crops to pay You back," or "to show now what I can do for You, Lord."  No, even in the Promised Land the fruits of the soil are God's good gift.  All the Israelites are and everything they have are from His hand.

That's something for them to be glad about!  Verse 11 speaks of rejoicing, which is more than just having a thankful attitude, just like our Thanksgiving Day involves more than just thinking grateful thoughts.  For the ancient Hebrews, and really, for all human beings,  communal thankfulness meant eating and drinking and feasting.  The fact that the Levites and aliens are mentioned points this up.  They had no land to bring firstfruits from.  All this bounty was to be shared in a glorious feast in the presence of the Lord, because all of it represented the good things the Lord their God had given to each man and his household.

Here in Deuteronomy the faithful response to God's provision was feasting.  But with our Lord in the wilderness, trusting obedience meant continuing to fast.

In everything Jesus does, He acts as the New Israel.  He was and is the faithful Son of God the sinful children of Jacob had failed to be.  He kept His Father's covenant perfectly for Israel's sake, and for the sake of all whom God would choose to belong to His redeemed people-- including you and me.  So it's appropriate that Jesus should fast for forty days in the wilderness, for He is recapitulating Israel's wilderness journey, but without the quails and manna.  Luke tells us that at the end of that period he was hungry.  Starved or famished might translate it even more sharply.

And now Jesus faces a temptation for Jesus that's actually very similar to the one confronting the new Israelite farmer in Canaan 1,400 years before. Wasn't He entitled to reach out and take what He wanted and claim it for His own?  Forty days He'd withstood the temptations of the devil, and won every time!  Surely the trial was over now, and Jesus could enjoy all the privileges that came with being the Son of God in human flesh, including eating whatever He wanted.  He'd earned it, hadn't He?

And that's just what the devil tempted Him to do.  Satan renewed his onslaught.  Jesus was hungry, wasn't He?  "All right, Jesus, use Your power as the Son of God and transform a stone into bread."  And, "Hey, Jesus, Your mission in life is to bring forth a kingdom for Yourself, right?  Bow down to me, Satan, and I'll give You all the kingdoms of the world, with no trouble to You whatsoever."  And, "Well, Jesus, You want people to know God is with you.  Throw yourself down from the Temple and make God send His angels to save You.  He will, won't He?  And then everyone will follow You.  Isn't that what you want, Jesus, isn't it, if You're really the Son of God?"

After a forty days' ordeal, why not?  Why not prove one's power to oneself and all the world?  Trust in yourself and do it!

But Jesus didn't give in to it.  He was going to rely wholly on what God gave.  And so He confesses the truth about His Father and His relationship to Him.  Pervert creation and turn stones into bread?  Jesus responds, "It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone.'" That's Deuteronomy 8:3, and it goes on to say, "but on every word that comes from the mouth of God."  The Word of God is our ultimate food, the only thing in existence we truly cannot do without.  Worship the devil to gain the kingdoms of this world?  No, Jesus answers, "It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'" Having God as our king is worth this world and all its splendor.  Force God to act in our behalf to gain glory for ourselves?  No, says Jesus.  "It says: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" We trust in God and what He chooses to give us; we don't demand outrageous miracles so as to make us proud of having the Lord of the universe at our beck and call.

This perhaps is hardest of all, because it forces us to have God and His gracious will as our greatest desire.  Relying on God for what He gives is one thing when we secretly hope He'll grant us the most glittering desires of our hearts.  But what if He says No?  What if He says, "You must fast a little longer, My child, whether you choose to or not"?  What if God says, "A cross is in your future, and without it you do not come to Me"?

The cross was in Jesus' future, and that hour of total deprivation was God the Father's way to give us everything we really need.  The reward and provision for God's Old Covenant saints was the land of Canaan and all it could produce.  Our reward and provision, our Promised Land, is Jesus Christ the Son of God, crucified for our sins and risen for our life.  He is our home and shelter; He is the firstfruits we offer to God; He is our provision and our Bread of life.  He is what God has given to us, and without Him all feasting is dust and all fasting is in vain.

This Lent, if you fast, fast to see beyond the gifts of this earth to the Gift from heaven.  Discover how weak you are and how dependent on Him for life and salvation.  If you feast, see and taste and know the Lord your Provider in every good thing you enjoy, and long for the day when you will enjoy Him face to face.

Until that day, let us gratefully receive what He has given us at His Table.  For this is the Table of the Lord, spread for you.  A bite of bread, a sip of wine: What is there here that can compare with the splendor of the kingdoms of this world?  But here at the Lord's Supper our God has promised to confirm to you all the bounty of the universe, everything you truly need, all found in His Son Jesus Christ.  Here eat His body and drink His blood as your spiritual food, and trust that in them God has given you victory over your sin, Satan, and death itself.  The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is trustworthy and His promises are sure.  Participate in this fast; partake of this feast, and rely on Him the Father gives.  Amen.

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