The First Sunday in Lent - 17 February 2013

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Saint Luke 4:1-13


Background:  The First Readings in Lent
When looking at all the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures assigned for the Sunday’s in Lent, we begin to see a pattern that might enable both devotion and preaching during Lent.  The center is Egypt, a place both of slavery and salvation.  The journey into Egypt for food, and the journey from Egypt for freedom is the journey that these readings describe.  On the First Sunday in Lent, that journey is described in detail as the requirements for the Offering of the First Fruits is described by the Elohist, which verses become a part of the Passover Haggadah.  The Second Sunday focuses on Abraham, the “wandering Aramean” who cuts one of several covenants with the God who will deliver his family from Egypt.  The Third Sunday sees Moses confronted by the God of the Burning Bush, who sets the direction of a new journey, and in the Fourth Sunday, Israel indeed eats a new meal provisioned in the Canaanite land.  Finally in the readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Isaiah describes a new highway in the wilderness – a messianic journey that will redefine the journey of all the people of God.  So this Lent, what shall our journey be?

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God:

 "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Once, when traveling to Israel on El Al, once it was clear that we were approaching land, the plane suddenly erupted with the chanted phrase, “Ha’Aretz!” (The Land!)  Such devotion to the land, especially the land of promise is what was evident in the emotions of the passengers on that flight and in the reading from Deuteronomy.  In the reading we have a description of the responsibilities that surrounded the celebration of the Offering of the First Fruits.  That it was a “borrowed” ceremony from the Canaanite barley harvest is not the point.  For Israel it was a celebration of the Land that was both given and promised.  That is made clearer in the following paragraph, “A wandering Aramean…” What is described here is a communal history – a valuable description of what Israel was and what it was to become.  The journey is taken out of history, and put into the lives of the people who are destined to walk it.

Breaking open Joel:

1.     Do you know your family’s history and journey?
2.     How is it similar to Israel’s history and how is it different?
3.     How important is this land to you?

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 Qui habitat

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, *
abides under the shadow of the Almighty.

He shall say to the LORD,
"You are my refuge and my stronghold, *
my God in whom I put my trust."

Because you have made the LORD your refuge, *
and the Most High your habitation,

There shall no evil happen to you, *
neither shall any plague come near your dwelling.

For he shall give his angels charge over you, *
to keep you in all your ways.

They shall bear you in their hands, *
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

You shall tread upon the lion and adder; *
you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet.

Because he is bound to me in love,
therefore will I deliver him; *
I will protect him, because he knows my Name.

He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; *
I am with him in trouble;
I will rescue him and bring him to honor.

With long life will I satisfy him, *
and show him my salvation.

In his comments on Psalm 91, Robert Alter quotes Yair Hoffman’s description of the psalm as an “amulet psalm”.  If this season is indeed the beginning of a new journey within life, then an amulet is what is needed - a sign of God’s protective power sheltering the pilgrim.  Two names for God are invoked in the initial verse: El Shaddai (God of the Mountains?) and Elyon (Most High).  There are several speakers in the Psalm: the poet, those who trust in the Lord, and God.  Verse two is a comment by the psalmist who announces his trust in God.

The remaining verses of the psalm describe the protections that the Most High offers to those who trust in God.  Although written during a period in which nomadic ways had been long abandoned, verse 10 makes a reference to “your tent”, an anachronism that is blunted by the translation as “your dwelling”.  The psalmist describes the difficulty of a journey in the Levant – the unpaved roads (“lest your foot be bruised by a stone”) and other dangers (“young lion,” and “serpent).  The final three verses have God as the speaker who announces the protections that are to be offered.

Breaking open Psalm 91
1.       As you travel through life, what do you keep with you to remind you of God?
2.       How difficult is your life journey?
3.       How does God intervene?

Romans 10:8b-13

"The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart"

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

In this section, Paul continues his argument about God’s plan for salvation and how it is in synchrony with God’s promises to Israel (see the reading from Deuteronomy).  Indeed, the opening quotation is from Deuteronomy 30:14.  That however is not the only quote here.  It is followed by the early creed of the church in Palestine: Kyrios Iesous (Jesus is Lord!).  That we should have faith is one thing, but that faith must be “on (our) lips”, and those words are “Jesus is Lord.”  Here it begins for Paul that plan of salvation.  These distinctions, however, are not to be seen as dividing humankind, and Paul follows with his famous phrase about Jew and Greek.  The importance, however, is the human ability to “call the name,” and to “speak the name” so that others might know and be saved along with all those who speak the name.

Breaking open Romans:

1.               What words do you use to publicly describe your faith?
2.               Are they different from the words in your heart and mind?
3.               What do you say when you talk about Jesus?

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him,

"It is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,'


'On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke has a program here.  Earlier in his genealogy of Jesus and in the scene at his baptism, Jesus is pictured as the One that God has chosen, the Son of God, and the messiah.  However, in the Temptation, we see a human Jesus – and the author of the Hebrews (4:15) describes it best:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.

Placed in the wilderness, Jesus now relives the wanderings and temptations of Israel.  This is not an easy place within which to live life.  Remember the descriptions of the stone, lion, and serpent in Psalm 91.  Here all is made difficult so that the testing might be complete.  How is this possible for Jesus?  Luke gives us an early clue – Jesus is “full of the Spirit”, and is “led by the Spirit.”  I am always in amazement with this thought of the driving Spirit who is described by Nikos Kazantzakis as a “dark angel” who pursues the uncertain Jesus in his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ.  The tests that Satan makes evident drive Jesus to think about and discover what his messiahship will be like, and what his messianic kingdom will be like.  Will it be easy, or will the testing be difficult?

Luke has his temptation sequence end in Jerusalem (Matthew ends in on the high mountain), where the final “show down” will actually occur.  In doing this, Luke ties the temptation to the entire ministry of Jesus, and does not see it as an initial victory, but rather as a moment in time, to be followed by a more decisive moment in time.  Nor does it seem that these were only three occurrences of testing, “When the devil had finished every test.”  Jesus’ ministry will not be free of other tests and other obstacles.  This is something to think about on our own journey.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Is there such a thing as temptation?
  2. What tempts you most?
  3. How do you fight temptation?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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