Rev. Scott Barton

March 6, 2022

Lent 1, Year C

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

 

The Lord be with you.

 

(And also with you.)

 

Oh, boy! Some of you know that response! I’ve never had the nerve to do this; but I fantasize going to Starbucks, and telling the barista who takes my order that my name is, “The Lord be with you,” so that when my name is then called out, I watch how many people respond as you just did!

 

There are words and experiences we remember that tell us we’re not alone. Maybe something in you connects you with a long-lost past, such as, “The Lord be with you; And also with you,” maybe from when you sat as a child in the pew with your parents, or you heard your grandmother humming a hymn tune. Something clicks, and you remember that you are more than what happens today, or what happened just yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. When I rock my 8-month-old grandson to sleep, I sometimes softly sing hymns, “Morning Has Broken,” or all five verses of “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I like singing them, but maybe someday, long after I’m gone, he’ll hear those tunes, and somehow, in some ineffable way, he’ll sense how, long ago, someone held him in loving arms.

 

We desperately need these kinds of experiences, these memories. Sarah described why last week, saying how the news cycle just keeps hitting us with one blasted new thing after another, wearing us out because we’re at the mercy of everything floating around out there. But, do you know? We’re not the first people who needed to be grounded in something deeper and longer-lasting than the present moment, in order that we can deal with what’s floating around. Take, for example, the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is all about remembering, remembering, remembering.  In its earliest form, it inspired the writing down of the history of early Israel in seven books affectionately known to divinity school students as JoJuSaKi (Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, with Ruth thrown in). [to Sarah: Did they teach you JoJuSaKi at Harvard? They did at my own Colgate Rochester, where Marion Van Arsdale’s father had been the president.] The goal of that collection of Deuteronomy and JoJuSaKi was for the people to remember God’s great deeds of redemption in the past in order to be refreshed by them in an uncertain time.

 

I think ideally, it’s why we have certain holidays. A couple of weeks ago, even though ads and other media called it Presidents Day—whatever that means, with or without an apostrophe before or after the “s” (take a careful look at the list of what all the states of the union call that day. Every state can call it what they want)—in Massachusetts, the federal holiday called George Washington’s Birthday, is still called, “George Washington’s Birthday.” At least officially in Massachusetts, we want to remember. We might even tell about his not lying about chopping down that cherry tree. We want to remember that man who reluctantly became the first president under a new Constitution. Not saying he was perfect. The man owned slaves. But he’s part of something big in this nation’s common past that’s good. Likewise, the author of the book of Deuteronomy wrote, “Recite [the traditions of Israel] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise” [6:7]. And then, “fix them as an emblem on your forehead,” which is why Orthodox Jews still wear those words on phylacteries hung on the front of their heads. Deuteronomy knows that when a people forgets its past, it loses who it is. And so Deuteronomy and its history contain three important passages that many scholars believe to have been statements of faith, that were originally spoken by the community at public worship.

 

You heard one of them a minute ago. The setting is a harvest festival.  It’s a time for celebrating the earth’s fruitfulness as a gift from God. This festival happened late in the spring, seven weeks after Passover, and became known as Sha·vu·oth. There is a paper cut piece of art that celebrates it on display now over at Forbes library, along with a lot of other paper cut art. Shavuot was known in the New Testament as Pentecost. I see three interesting sections to this text.

 

First, the worshiper is told to remember to come to the festival bringing as a gift a basket containing a portion of the actual harvest.  Isn’t that interesting!  They even had offerings way back then!  And you’re using baskets, here! How cool is that? Of course, it doesn’t say that God needed it. What it says is that the worshiper needs to give it, as a reminder that everything has come from God in the first place.  And this is really why we still give in church, right? Pastors and stewardship committees say this kind of thing at stewardship time, but we could think it every week.  It’s not even because the church needs it. I know, there are bills to pay. But the theology of giving is that we make our offering, whether at church, or at home when we send a check or make a transfer, because we need to give it.  We need to give as a reminder that everything comes to us as a gift. Life isn’t ours to begin with and it won’t be ours to end with. You can’t take it with you. The offering each Sunday in church is a bold countercultural statement of faith. We have a right to nothing! That’s the amazing, counter-intuitive, irrational message we proclaim when we dare to walk in these doors. But—we do have the love of the maker of heaven and earth. And we get the idea of demonstrating that from Deuteronomy.

 

Second, it says that the worshiper should remember who you were. And this is how: “You shall make this response before the LORD your God,” it says. And then, there’s a recital of Israel’s history, beginning with the earliest ancestors – “a wandering Aramean” – and then the time in Egypt; and the growth of the people there; and slavery there; and crying to the LORD, who heard, there; and the amazing and terrifying rescue by God from there; and then the leading to here, it says, to the settlement of the land that was promised. And throughout this very brief history, the emphasis is on the gift from God who heard the cries of the people and saved them when they couldn’t save themselves. When things were dangerous and scary and alien, God brought them home to safety.  [Some of this para. from Cousar, et.al., Texts for Preaching: Year C, pp. 190-191.]

 

Deuteronomy says, tell your story not to glorify yourselves, which happens too frequently and loudly, these days, but rather, in order to remember what has been done for you.

 

Why Go to Church?

 

Our forebears knew how great their need

To say their thanks with such a creed

As this, reflecting whence they came.

They gave their ancestors a name:

Not smarter or more powerful

Than those who’d sheared them for their wool;

Not self-reliant, needing none,

When by themselves they’d been outdone;

Not conq’ring heroes who were pure,

When strangers made them insecure;

Not brave, or strong, or hardy stock,

But “wandering!”—like some lost flock

Where someone had to show the way!

That someone was the LORD, portrayed

By how they thanked; and still it’s true,

And still why we should sit in pews.

 

I love what you all said together last week when thirteen people—thirteen!—became members of this congregation: It’s an affirmation of what you and your forebears have believed and is part of your history, along also with Jonathan Edwards up there and a lot of other things: We covenant with God and with one another in mutual love and trust, to worship God together, to study and respond to God‘s still speaking word, to witness in all the world to God’s reconciling love, to strive for love, justice and peace. We rely on the Holy Spirit to lead and empower us. We acknowledge God’s covenant with us made known to us in Jesus Christ. We recognize our continuing need for God‘s grace and our dependence upon each other in the fulfillment of this covenant.

 

That’s who you—and those who came before you in this place—are. That’s something to remember!

 

And then there’s the third part to this text from Deuteronomy.  It’s understated, only one sentence, but unmistakable. I, the worshiper, after bringing the offering which tells me that everything I have is a sheer gift from God, and after telling the history which is a reminder to me that I’m a part of a long line of people, I am then directed to expand the circle. The worshiper is to invite the Levites – they’re the ones who by law don’t have any property and couldn’t bring a covered dish – and the aliens – they’re the ones who don’t have any rights, who came into the country, maybe “illegally,” if you will, with no green card, or who were there to begin with but aren’t part of Israel – the worshiper is to invite them for a big party. “You shall celebrate” “together” “with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given you and your [family]” the text says. It’s as if it says, have a party out on the front steps of the church and invite the whole town! That’s what makes them – that’s what makes us – a light to the nations. Jesus actually said something like that, too. When you have a party, he said, don’t just invite your friends, but call in the poor and the lame and the outcasts. He was talking about the kingdom of God. “People will come from east and west and north and south and sit at table in the kingdom of God” is one way we introduce the Lord’s Supper. Or as Paul said, in Christ there are no divisions.  I know this isn’t easy to believe or to live out. But we have to keep trying, to keep expanding our horizons. Israel was unique among surrounding nations in how it called on itself to try. Even in the texts about eradicating enemies, it’s clear that the tradition is uncomfortable with that dark side of human nature, a dark side that we see so painfully so often in the news. It’s why we, the church, are also called on to try.

 

It’s a great text, these eleven verses from Deuteronomy; and the gospel, the good news in it, is at the heart of Luke’s version of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  In this text often told on the first Sunday in Lent, there are all kinds of connections with the scriptures that Jesus knew. For example, in Deuteronomy [9:9, 18], Moses was on the mountain for forty days, not eating or drinking, before God gave him those tablets. Jesus eats nothing during his forty days, and then he presents his way of life as a living tablet for us all.  Elsewhere in Deuteronomy [8:2] Israel was in the desert forty years after their own passage through the waters, the sea. It was a kind of testing – which, although they generally failed, they went through, before God brought them into the promised land. Jesus is tempted, or tested by the devil after his own passing through the waters of baptism, and before he begins to lead his church in the promised kingdom of God.

 

Guess which book Jesus uses to respond to his temptations that we heard today.

 

Yes! Deuteronomy. He knew it.

 

Food is first.  He’s hungry.  He’s a human being here, like you and me. He needs some bread. And he remembers that food is a gift from God. And so he is like those Israelites who are told to come to worship prepared to give an offering, giving up the idea that everything they have comes from themselves. Will Jesus give up the idea that everything he needs comes from what he can do for himself? And he answers, “One does not live by bread alone,” quoting Deuteronomy [8:3].

 

The kingdoms of the world is second.  Will Jesus serve demonic power by saying he will use its values and methods?  Everybody knows—like Putin— that you can get what you want by hook or by crook. Will Jesus?  Or will he say something counter-cultural, something irrational, some statement of faith that unites him with the people who serve God, something like, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor”?  “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him,” Jesus quotes Deuteronomy again [6:13], reaching back into the common memory of his people.

 

The temple is third.  This is where Luke’s good news of Jesus will end, in Jerusalem. This is where we get the saying, “Even the devil quotes scripture.” The devil says lines from Psalm 91:  The angels will “bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The test is, will Jesus try to use his connection to God for special privilege. We’ve talked a lot about white privilege these days. Will Jesus use his then Jew privilege, something to take for granted? No, Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy again [6:16]; we don’t test God. Privilege itself is a test of character.

 

Who’s That Knocking at My Door?

 

“He departed from him until an opportune time.”

What a strange line.

We assume Luke meant the Garden of Gethsemane;

But we only have the story’s bare bones, after all.

What if the devil chose other times that we just don’t know about?

“Opportunity knocks,” we say;

And maybe the devil does, too.

As maybe he did for Jesus.

But, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” John writes later.

So when I hear it, I say, “Who’s that knocking at my door?

“Is it the devil—or the Lord?”

Maybe Luke knew it’s never an easy question,

Even for Jesus.

Certainly not for me.

Probably, I daresay, not for you.

Lenten Christians recognize this—

Thus, we have our seasonal temptations;

But not whether or not to eat that piece of chocolate,

Rather, whether or not to think we know it all.

So we go to the door.

And the only way to know if it’s Jesus

Is if the choices offered aren’t easy.

So he keeps reminding us,

Year after year (if we read between the lines), that

“Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

 

The word Lent comes from the same word for lengthen. It’s always wonderful when the days begin to  lengthen again, isn’t it? So if, with our all-consuming world, your memories seem short, may Lent be a time to lengthen certain memories:

—memory that every good gift comes from God;

—memory that we are bound now to, and not cut off from, those who believed that God had acted, and will still act;

—memory that whatever privilege we have is meant to widen the circle.

 

And all this is because—can you believe it?— God has called us to live out the kingdom of God.  As Sarah put it so wonderfully last week when your thirteen joined this community, “God has a vision, a plan, a dream for how to heal this world and make it whole, revealed to us in the life and teaching of Jesus. . . . [And] we have a choice. We can choose to be part of restoring the world with love and justice. . . . [For] this is where the work of healing, restoration and repairbegins.” Never forget that. It’s really an astonishing thing to claim. The world needs such healing, restoration and repair, now. God knows, the world needs you, now.