Today is the first Sunday of the forty days of Lent. It is to be a time of reflection, maybe giving up something of seeming importance, and to focus on the ministry of Jesus and the upcoming death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. I think today’s readings help us to make that start in several ways. Note: All of the following “information” provided about today’s readings comes from that universal source of worldly knowledge—Wikipedia!!
Our first reading today is from the book of Deuteronomy (which comes from the Greek, Deuteronomion, "second law"; and the Hebrew: Devarim, "[spoken] words"), and it is the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish Torah/Pentateuch. It follows Leviticus, which many think has most of the laws; Deuteronomy has some of the more interesting laws.
Deuteronomy consists of three sermons or speeches believed to have been delivered to the Israelites by Moses on the plains of Moab, shortly before they enter the Promised Land Canaan. The first sermon reminded them of the forty years in the wilderness which led to this moment, and ended with an exhortation to observe the law (or teachings); the second reminded the Israelites of the need for exclusive allegiance to one God and observance of the laws he had given them, on which their possession of the land depended; and the third offered them comfort that even should Israel prove unfaithful and so lose the land, with repentance all could be restored.
Chapters 12–26, the Deuteronomic code, has laws governing Israel's worship (chapters 12–16a), the appointment and regulation of community and religious leaders (16b–18), social regulation (19–25), and confession of identity and loyalty (26). So, our reading today is the last part of this code of laws. This Deuteronomic Code is the oldest part of the book and the core around which the rest developed. Many of the individual laws are older than the collection itself. The laws include (listed here in no particular order):
· The worship of God must remain pure, uninfluenced by neighboring cultures and their idolatrous religious practices.
· Yahwistic religious festivals.
· Bans against divination, sorcery, witchcraft, spellcasting, or communicating with the dead.
· Ban forbidding blemished animals from becoming sacrifices at the Temple.
· A ban on religious prostitution.
· Establishing the offices of Judge, King, Temple Priest, and Prophet.
· Calling of a Tithe for the Levites and charity for the poor.
· A regular Jubilee Year during which all debts are cancelled.
· Dietary principles.
· Purity laws which prohibit the mixing of fabrics, of crops, and of beasts of burden under the same yoke.
· Regulations for ritual cleanliness and general hygiene.
· A ban on the destruction of fruit trees, the mothers of newly-born birds, and beasts of burden which have fallen over or are lost.
· Rules which regulate marriage and allow divorce.
· Dealing with rape.
· Exemptions from military service for the newly betrothed, newly married, owners of new houses, planters of new vineyards, and anyone afraid of fighting.
· Prohibition against people who are of illegitimate birth, and even their descendants to the tenth generation, from entering the house of the lord.
· Regulations for slavery, servitude, vows, debt, usury, and permissible objects for securing loans.
· Regulations on the taking of wives from among beautiful female captives.
The part of these laws we read today concerns the principle—indeed, responsibility--to view all that is possessed (whatever we have) as an inheritance from God, and to give back from the first, not the leftovers, to the ongoing work of God. The verse just after our reading even describes what is to happen with this tithe—“When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied.” This tithe traditionally means money, but also should include time, and skills or talents. Today, and each Sunday, we follow this reading. We go to a dwelling place for the Lord and declare as one people, led by the priest, the remembrance of our Christian history--the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--and our desire to follow that which Jesus has shown us to do. We together collect money (and symbolically our time and talents) from that which has been given to us by God, and then bring it along with the bread and wine to the altar for an offering. The communion itself is the celebration of all of the bounty which we have received. St. Mark’s gives together more than 20% of all we give to the church to outreach needs (locally and for the larger world needs). (I’m not including our Diocesan assessment in this 20%, by the way!)
Psalm 91 read today is known as the Psalm of Protection, and when you read it, it’s pretty clear why it has that name. As a religious song, this Psalm is commonly invoked in times of hardship. In Judaism, it is recited during several of their ceremonies, is to be recited before bed, and is read seven times during a burial ceremony. In Christian worship it is often sung or recited during Compline.
Psalm 91 is also known as the Soldier's Psalm--soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines often carry a wallet-sized copy with them when deployed. And, Baltimore Ravens linebacker and the inspiration for Jules in the movie Pulp Fiction, Ray Lewis exposed his black with gold lettering "Psalms 91" undershirt following his final home game on January 6, 2013 and the Ravens' Super Bowl win on February 3, 2013.
Next—our reading from Romans. The main purpose of the epistle to the Romans is given by Paul in Romans 1.1, where he said that he was set apart by God for the purpose of preaching the Gospel. He wished to give to the Roman readers a gift of encouragement and assurance in all that God had freely given them. Paul was motivated by the fact that he planned to travel to Rome from Jerusalem and to spend some time there before moving on to Spain; he hoped the Roman church would support his mission to Spain. And, since Paul had never been to Rome, he outlined his gospel so that his teaching will not be confused with that of "false teachers".
The Romans Road refers to a set of 6 scriptures mostly from Romans that Christian evangelists use to present a clear and simple case for personal salvation for each person. They are: Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23, Romans 5:8, Romans 10:9-10, Romans 10:13, and Revelation 3:20. Two of those verses are from our reading today.
Interesting how this Romans reading today clearly defines our faith: “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.’” Just after our reading, in verse 15, it also gives us the inspiration to be ones who share our faith with others, by saying, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
And, our Gospel reading from Luke today details Jesus’ three temptations. I read this and I was amused by Satan, as he tried to get Jesus to show his humanity by accepting the tests he had provided—first to give in to his human hunger by using his Godly power to make bread to eat from stones, then to tempt Jesus with human worldly power by claiming he owned the world and that Jesus could have it only by worshiping Satan, and last by trying to get Jesus to test his humanness by jumping down from the top of the temple and calling on angels to catch him. Jesus just brushed him aside by quoting scripture every time, and said to move on—no one to tempt here.
If only it were so easy for us! But we are not Jesus, or God. We ARE tempted daily with things that can take us away from our God, and to do things not in the way that Jesus asks us to—to help others and to use what we have been given for Godly efforts.
Our faith in God, these words of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit we receive in Baptism, however, can be used to help us in our times of temptation and troubles.
To summarize, we read today to begin Lent about:
· Stewardship of everything we have been given by God and the principle of our return of these gifts being first in the faithful focus of our lives.
· God as our protector during the hardships in our lives.
· Our generous God wanting all to believe in Him with our hearts and our voices, and to be joyous in sharing this faith in God with others.
· And, we are tempted but have the power of God, the words of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit to keep our faith focused as we go about our lives.
This is a lot for one Sunday of readings—pray that we learn well as we proceed through Lent toward that time that truly defines our faith—the resurrection of Christ.