In Sojourners, Jason Byassee wrote about Lent and today’s readings: “Lent is a gift. It is a hard scrub brush for when we’re covered with grime that won’t come off in an ordinary bath. Lent is popularly associated with “giving up” things. This giving up is easy to lampoon. When I gave up meat once, a friend said, “If you want to go on a diet, don’t pretend you’re doing it for Jesus.” Lent is a remarkably ineffective season for weight loss. Every Sunday is a celebration of resurrection, so Sundays aren’t technically days of Lent. … But it does remind us that resurrection crowns every week and so every fast. Lent is our minor participation in Jesus’ 40-day fast, which is itself a participation in Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the wilderness. … In Lent we say “no” to just a few of our desires. … But these little “nos” are really geared to help us to say “yes” to Jesus more.”
So here we are celebrating Valentine’s Day on the first Sunday of Lent so Jason says, “Go ahead and nosh on the chocolate. Not that Jesus will indulge with you today. He’s famished.”
So, in our stories today, those 40 years and 40 days have finished and because Moses loved those murmuring people, he was concerned that the Israelites would forget how they had arrived—finally!--at the Promised Land, and Moses wouldn’t be there to remind them. He looks out over the land and longs to go there but he knows he can’t. So, he exhorts the people to remember to gather the first fruits of their labor in the fields and take it to the appointed priest as an offering to God. And all the people in the land, no matter their status, would celebrate the harvest together. The Levites would be fed even though they didn’t own fields and so would the strangers among them. It was a reminder that “all things come from you, O Lord and of your own have we given you.”
The Mount of Temptation stands opposite the mount where Moses stood and observed the Promised Land. The view is much the same: a valley that really doesn’t look all that fertile. Both mounts appear prominently when one is in that valley looking up. I imagine Jesus standing on that promontory and thinking about Moses and his instructions to the 12 Tribes. The reminder that all they had: their freedom, their food, their goods, their families, and now, a place to live all came from God. The reminder they should never allow themselves to forget. Satan picked the wrong place to tempt Jesus.
And Satan tried to tell Jesus that God doesn’t need to be in the equation. That Jesus doesn’t need God. That Jesus can be God. That Jesus is a self-made man. But, Jesus didn’t have to prove himself to Satan and he knew that the tempter was lying. Food could be obtained without performing magic tricks. Offering bread to a famished man--a human being who was also the bread of life--well, tempting Jesus to make bread out of stone like wine out of water. Satan wasn’t going to provide the bread. Jesus knew Satan did not have dominion over all the nations. Jesus was at the creation as the Word of God, so there was no need to be given this dominion. Again, Satan was offering something he couldn’t provide. And if Jesus was the victim in the Good Samaritan story--I think he probably was--he already knew he could be harmed. That was a near-death experience for him. He knew his human body could fail him at any time. The idea that he could jump from the pinnacle of the temple and survive was foolish. The idea he could survive an execution was insane. Satan wanted to destroy Jesus before his ministry began but Jesus recognized that all he had came from God and he wouldn’t listen, he wouldn’t disclaim God and all God had provided for him. Jesus said, “No.”
So what we can glean from these stories of Moses and the Israelites and Jesus and Satan is that WE must remember where our blessings come from and share what we have with God by sharing with others. Sharing with strangers and those who work to feed our spirits. Jason Byassee suggests we think about the ways we are tempted by food, power and schemes to cheat death. “While many in the world starve, in the Western and Northern hemispheres we die from the diseases of excess. We have more power than any people ever and less wisdom about how to use it. And our health-care industry is very good at cheating death--good enough that we trust it to do what only God can do: Save us. Jesus’ response to unending food, power, and safety is, simply, “no.””
We must remember that none of us have what we have entirely from our own endeavors. There is no such thing as a self-made person. If we believe our wealth or status or health or homes are entirely the result of our own labor, our own cleverness, and our own resources; then we can say, “It is mine!” and we don’t have to share.
I was playing a Blood Sweat and Tears album while I wrote this sermon and I noted the song: “God Bless the Child” which speaks to wealth and poverty. As the story of the song unfolds, a person loses all he has and there is a line, “Rich relations may give you a crust of bread and such--you can help yourself but don’t take too much.” The song ends with, “God bless the child who can stand up and say, ‘I got my own’.” It makes me think of a large bowl of bananas I heard about. Put out so people could help themselves. But, don’t take too much. A person got in trouble for eating “too many” of them. Only a crust of bread. Only what I am willing to give. But Moses said, give God the first fruits because all of it belongs to God--even the bowl of bananas. It’s nice to be able to say, “I got my own.” “Every child’s got to have his own.” And, because God cares about the bowl of bananas and the crust of bread and the child who doesn’t have his own, we must care about these things, too.
All this acts as a counterpoint to the world we live in. Advertising that tells us constantly that we need new, better, improved and stylish items rather than the things we already have. People who tell us we should be afraid of the strangers among us--immigrants, people of other faiths and people of no faith tradition. The idea that we should worship the wealthy and trust them to care for the rest of us because they will create jobs. People who believe folks who are vulnerable like children, the poor, women, LGBTQ, people of color and the elderly have no real value and should be treated in any way we choose. I know all I have is from God so I must share what I have. I know that my human body is frail and that life is a blessing.
Jason suggests we might join Jesus in saying No, I won’t acquire my livelihood immorally. No, I won’t grab for power in order to dominate and subjugate others. No, I won’t try to use religion to avoid such basic human realities as aging and death. And I won’t say any of those “nos” alone. I’ll do so in a church where we try, creatively, charmingly even, to be as faithful as we can. Now, let’s celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Let’s eat some chocolate!